Opening up the conservation space with Maria
“It really breaks my heart to think of Pakistan’s wildlife disappearing without people even realizing, so a lot of that feeds into my pursuit of wildlife conservation and wanting to break down barriers, especially for Pakistani women getting involved.”
Maria Hashmi, 21 years old, has a huge passion for all things zoology, especially reptiles. This fascination with protecting the natural world has led to her rebellion against expectations of her as a Pakistani woman to pursue a profession in wildlife conservation. Maria questions why women shouldn’t be involved in this field when Pakistan has so much wildlife in need of protection.
Pakistan is a country of 221 million people where 33.8 % live beneath the poverty line and while it is home to exceptional biodiversity, from Snow Leopard to Pangolin to Black Bear, many species are declining at alarming rates.
Motivated to turn this story around, since finishing school, Maria has built her network with the international community of wildlifers and now works online with Conservation Optimism, Pridelands Films and Reserva all on a voluntary basis as well as with her father on her family’s wildlife reserve.
Maria shares her experience as a woman pursuing zoology in this biodiversity blindspot to save Pakistan’s precious natural capital.
Thanks to her father’s passion for wildlife conservation and hunting, Maria has been surrounded by wildlife for as long as she can remember. And although her high school peers didn’t share her passion for wildlife, Maria learnt to embrace it and feel confident to learn more about this subject that fascinated her. After all, Maria says “there was no other way!”
When Maria was 14, she reached out to famous herpetologist, Austin Stevens, with an email explaining her passion for wildlife that her parents and peers couldn’t understand or support. And to her surprise, and delight, he replied, assuring her that with time they would eventually get it.
“And I remember that was pivotal for me – he recognized me and from that moment I knew this [wildlife] was it, I couldn’t do anything else!”
But as she got older, it became more difficult in some ways because people looked at Maria as a sensible adult and wondered why she hadn’t grown out of this wildlife phase yet!? With limited opportunities to study zoology at university in Pakistan, and even fewer opportunities for women in Pakistan to conduct field work, Maria had to work really hard to build her career resourcefully from what she could do to conserve nature and share that message.
As COVID-19 shut down and prevented any possibility of studying abroad, Maria set up a blog on Instagram, @rebelzoologist, to share her experiences with wildlife. Despite her doubts and fears around putting herself out there, the response was overwhelmingly positive:
“It just worked out. I feel like I made so many international friends the exposure to the international wildlife community supported me in a way that I hadn’t experienced at home in Pakistan, especially because of our culture”
“People were like “you’re a woman, you’re not going out into the field”. And I was like, “why not?””
Maria explains this is where the name “rebelzoologist” came from.
“My rebelllion with a cause comes from there. The rebel part alludes to the kinds of things I had to deal with culturally in Pakistan as a woman… And that’s something I want to work on, I want to solve that for other women, younger women who want to get into this field but don’t feel like they can. I want to show them it’s okay.”
“Because as long as you’re within the bounds of safety, there’s nothing wrong with it – you can do it, it’s just not easy! I often joke with my friends that I’ve chosen the hardest profession in all of Pakistan!”
Since starting her blog, so many people have reached out to Maria asking can we do it as a girl? I wanna do this but is it safe for girls? Will we be able to get jobs?
From her experience, it is not easy but it’s possible and Maria is living, breathing proof that persistence in this space (against all odds) certainly pays off. Since finishing school, Maria has built her network with the international community of wildlifers and now works online with Conservation Optimism as well as with her father on her family’s wildlife reserve.
From her experience, it is not easy but it’s possible and Maria is living, breathing proof that persistence in this space (against all odds) certainly pays off. Since finishing school, Maria has built her network with the international community of wildlifers and now works online with Conservation Optimism, Pridelands Films and Reserva all on a voluntary basis as well as with her father on her family’s wildlife reserve.
As a hub manager for Conservation Optimism, Maria coordinates events and ensures there is communication between regional hubs and the main hub in the UK. She also has roles as a member of the Reserva Youth Council and a social media manager with Pridelands Films. In a country with limited opportunities for ecologists on the ground, Maria has found ways around this to follow her passion in the online space. At her family reserve however, Maria has the chance to get her boots on the ground as a Conservation Manager. This role involves studying and managing animal populations, consulting on new introductions, and so much more.
Wildlife conservation in Pakistan
In Maria’s experience, people think of a profession in wildlife conservation as cute and cuddly but they couldn’t be further from the truth. The field work can be extremely hot and physically demanding, and the idea of wildlife conservation in Pakistan is far from accepted across the country. Maria explains:
“Being a third world country, many people in Pakistan don’t have food to eat, and it’s challenging (and tactless!) to tell them, “Hey, I know you’re starving, but you have to save this animal.””
Maria explains that in Pakistan, wildlife conservation is a multi-dimensional challenge and there are many factors to consider. And often, rural communities with higher poverty rates are those that deal directly with wildlife, leading to higher rates of human-wildlife conflict in these areas.
“When we try to protect the threatened Mugger Crocodile we are asking villagers not to persecute the wild “child-killing” machines that ambush their families along the river, and we don’t understand things the way they do when we’re not directly affected by their predation.”
Instead, incentivized conservation programs like trophy hunting where profits are returned to local communities have worked very well in northern areas of Pakistan.
So many challenges for nature conservation stem from social injustice and so, as Maria demonstrates, programs that strike the balance between benefits for local communities and nature are often the most successful.
Maria’s family have created a wildlife reserve in the southern part of Pakistan, 100 acres of forest that her father purchased and has rewilded to create a sanctuary for nature. Today, Maria and her father love spending time there and work together to keep the property in pristine condition.
“The reserve is where I get my fuel and passion – it’s what I want for Pakistan, and what I want for people around the world.”
Although Pakistan has exceptional biodiversity from Indus Dolphin to Black Bear and Snow Leopard, many species are threatened with extinction and Maria describes the country as a biodiversity blind spot.
“People say hotspot, but I say blind spot because nobody really knows the extent and diversity of wildlife we have here. A lot of Pakistan’s species are gonna disappear without people even ever discovering them, and that is my biggest motivation – it really breaks my heart because I feel like we’re not doing the wildlife justice.”
Maria believes a big part of this is that especially in cities, there are so few wild spaces left due to overpopulation so as many people in Pakistan spend their time caught up in making ends meet for their finances and families, it’s hard for them to come into contact with wildlife. And as Pakistan isn’t recognized as a destination for global wildlife tourism, the rest of the world is blind to Pakistan’s natural capital as well!
Breaking down the barriers to conservation
As Maria demonstrates, there’s a lot you can do to contribute to wildlife conservation without a degree in the field. Undergraduate degrees present an insurmountable barrier to many people across the world getting involved in this space and change the starting line for others. As Maria has found, it takes a lot of self-confidence and support to overcome the feelings of inadequacy at not having a degree and put yourself out there and own your identity as a conservationist regardless.
Like so many people entering the wildlife conservation arena, Maria has experienced gate keeping whilst trying to get her foot in the door of the industry.
“Something I face a lot from gate keepers is the idea that you can’t be a conservationist if you don’t have a degree, which is totally not fair. I mean, if you love wildlife, you’re studying wildlife, you’re working in wildlife, you’re a conservationist. It doesn’t mean anything to have a formal piece of paper stating “Congratulations, you’re a conservationist.””
“I used to struggle with this after high school. I was so upset because I couldn’t get a degree so I thought I couldn’t get a job and follow my dreams… but it’s not black and white – you can carve your own path because everyone’s journey is different.
“We all have different starting points and the finish line is different for everyone too!”
While we should work as a community to overcome this gate keeping mentality and open up the conservation space, Maria had five ideas of how people can get started in conservation wherever they are in life:
- Where possible, swap formal qualifications for years of experience on job advertisements
“This is something that lies in the hands of people in high positions in conservation organizations. Remember higher education is a privilege and many people can’t afford it!”
This could open up the conservation space for people who’d spent their lives working in the field but didn’t have formal qualifications, indigenous people with traditional knowledge of the land, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and so many other under-represented groups!
- Build your network (you can do this online as well!)
“Be brave and reach out to people, ask questions or for advice… Because once you make some solid connections, the kind of support and opportunities you get from there are unmatched.”
- There is a huge amount of pressure and uncertainty around landing a job in wildlife conservation but you have to feel confident and believe in yourself
“First of all, stop panicking about all of this – the biggest thing is to believe in yourself. Like you need to push yourself and believe you’re able to do it. Once you believe in yourself, doors just start opening for you!”
- Apply everywhere – for every opportunity – even if you’ve been rejected before.
You miss 100 % of the shots you don’t take, right!?
- Take opportunities and gain experiences wherever you can
All experience is good experience – be it online, in the field or through an institution.
Keep in touch
Want to hear more from Maria? Follow her adventures on Instagram @rebelzoologist.
Author Profile | Susie Stockwell
Susie Stockwell (she/her) is a field ecologist, science communicator and creator of the blog and podcast, #itsawildlife, a platform to support people on their journey to work their dream job in wildlife science or conservation. Based in the beautiful Kimberley region of north-western Australia, Susie is passionate about finding novel solutions for wildlife conservation and opening up the space to promote engagement and involvement for everyone interested in pursuing this career.