How do you find your holy grail in conservation? Advice from re-wilding and carnivore conservationist Dr David Mills
Originally from Michigan, USA, David Mills has had a long relationship with Africa and mammalian carnivores since the 2000s. He started his conservation career in 2002, volunteering and working with cheetahs, leopards, and human wildlife conflict. Years later, for his PhD, David studied African golden cats in Uganda, a species which no one had studied, since they are ‘spectacularly elusive’ as David puts it.
Once he officially added “Dr” to his name in 2018, Dr David Mills managed the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Carnivore Conservation Program, which works to protect wild dogs and lions and reintroduces cheetahs and wild dogs to rewilded landscapes across Southern Africa. In 2022, he accepted the role of Arabian Leopard Initiative Coordinator with Panthera, the world’s leading organization protecting wild cats around the world.
In his current role, David coordinates Panthera’s role in the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Arabian Leopard Initiative, which aims to reintroduce Arabian Leopards, a critically endangered species, to selected protected areas of Saudi Arabia by 2030.
He says re-wilding is a big challenge for conservationists. It takes experts from a variety of fields of expertise to recover a whole ecosystem: from experts in nutrient and water cycles to plant and animal communities, environmental law and policy, and most important, social science and psychology to strengthen the communities so the reintroduction can be successful over time.
It is a long process with many role players. The reintroduction of leopards and other carnivores is the “cherry on top of the cake”.
The Conservation Careers community was delighted to talk with Dr David about how he entered the conservation world, the value of hands-on experience and academic skills, the importance of networking and human relationships behind conservation projects and funding advice.
A global challenge: how to get talented people into conservation?
From Dr Mills’ experiences, the skills he gathered from his first volunteer experiences and his well-built community of carnivore conservationists lead him to his first paid position as a conservationist in the field. What is more, years later, those same experiences opened the door to funding for his PhD research.
When looking for a job in conservation, he agrees there are two main activities you need to focus on. The first is building and maintaining connections between scientists or professionals in your interested field. Networking, getting to know others, and keeping in touch with their future plans and needs is a great way to get your foot in the door in conservation.
Dr Mills comments on the importance of networking:
“Every contact you make can come back around, even if it’s many years down the line. When you are talking about getting experience, it’s about building your network.”
The second activity would be valuing your skills. Don’t be afraid to market the skills you gathered from your experience and offer your service to organizations. Most of them need help with different skills, for instance: writing reports, editing, processing data, among others. These are activities that can be done remotely and for a few hours a day.
Dr Mills suggests being aware of who is advertising through Conservation Careers, and also keep in contact with your network, since people can start sending you opportunities.
“Most of the time professionals in conservation are overworked. If you were sending a message to someone, I would recommend it to be targeted. Like: Hi, I see you’re doing “x”, you may need “y” skill, which I can do for an affordable price.
It’s like any job you apply to: 90% are going to say no, thank you…but you never know, it just takes one to get you into the industry.”
The journey of gathering skills and experience: into the wilderness or the campus?
When thinking about learning skills to apply in conservation, a crucial question always comes around: Is hands-on experience or formal education more important?
David suggests it all depends on the areas of conservation you are most interested in. If you are looking for a career in academics, the formal education background matters. He suggests obtaining a Master’s Degree is an enriching opportunity to understand how to collect data and monitor the impact of conservation initiatives.
Field and hands-on experience is always valuable as you understand how real-world conservation works. It is important to put into practice the academic knowledge you obtained in your undergraduate or graduate programme while developing and growing interpersonal relationships. He states conservation always includes humans; hence, it responds differently from one place to another.
How to connect local people with conservation goals?
Dr Mills strongly believes understanding people’s values and fears are critical when working with communities and conservation issues. Even though we all have different cultures, experiences or traumas that influence how we connect with nature, there is a common factor between all of us: we are all seeking safety. Every re-wilding or conservation project needs to provide a sense of fulfilment or safety in the community in order to move forward.
“If a conservation message or project is judging a community, it is threatening their identity. And that’s the problem. When conservation comes up against threatening someone’s identity, conservation loses.”
He also suggests that when talking to the public about saving different animal species, sharing facts about it does not necessarily change someone’s perspective. An emotional connection is needed.
There are different ways to work on that connection: one is sharing different perspectives of a species through imagery and photography. Also, another important thing about communication is being real and having an achievable goal in mind.
“You’re not going to stop everybody from killing or being afraid of a species. But if you change some people’s minds, that’s success. Because then they will communicate to others”.
Does money make conservation go round?
For conservation projects, it’s not just strong community support that makes it sustainable over time, funding plays a crucial role too. So, what are the trends for funding in nature?
For Dr David Mills, it depends on the region you are focusing your work on and the global agenda. For instance, the new goal of the United Nations is to protect 30% of land and ocean by 2030. That is why he thinks the most “popular” funding trends would be re-wilding projects, climate change, protection, and biodiversity recovery.
When it comes to entering the conservation industry, sometimes money can be a barrier for those not able to buy equipment or start a volunteer project. For instance, a good pair of binoculars for bird-watching, or a volunteer trip to Africa.
There are small grants available that can help. For example, Idea Wild’s grants are a great way to obtain basic equipment to get someone started in conservation. So, if you are working in conservation, or want to develop a conservation project in your community, no matter how big or small it is, these tools can be very useful.
“When applying for grants, it’s easy to get carried away and think that it must be something that’s going to change the world. But, if you are just starting out, you can connect with somebody in your local community, plan together a simple project relevant for the conservation of the area and start from there.”
Connecting the dots to hear the carnivores “roar” in the wild again.
From Dr David Mills professional career, working for conservation and re-introduction of leopards, golden cats, cheetahs, and other wild cats has been a long, challenging process that typically involved restoring connection between a community and its biodiversity.
It has also been a personal journey of hard work, experience, connections, and the ability to share his knowledge to communities in a respectful way. But most important, his inner connection with Africa and these animals were the final piece of the puzzle.
“In conservation you have (1) things that people will fund, (2) things that you’re interested in, and (3) things that will have an impact. If you find a project or position that’s having an impact, and people will fund, but you’re not super passionate about it, you’ll lose motivation. The holy grail for you is finding something in the middle of those three.”
Learn more about Panthera and their projects at: panthera.org.
Author Profile | Giuliana Vomero
Giuliana is a Marine Biologist born and raised in Uruguay, South America. She is passionate about bridging ocean and marine science with society. She has gathered experience in coordinating environmental outreach projects, events, and networking building. In her free time she loves to write and share the wonders of the ocean and stories behind the work of passionate conservationists worldwide.