The power of community: A journey in nature conservation with Maggie Muurmans
In the realm of nature conservation, few individuals possess the dedication and passion exhibited by Maggie Muurmans, a lecturer that teaches on the Master of Conservation Biology at the University of Queensland, Australia.
Aside from teaching and pursuing a PhD in community engagement, Maggie is also the co-founder of the NGO Ocean Connect based on the Gold Coast in Eastern Australia and a senior conservation officer with the Department of Environment and Science in South East Queensland.
With a career spanning multiple continents and diverse cultures, Maggie’s work as a nature conservationist has left an indelible mark on both wildlife and communities alike. In 2000, she started her journey in conservation with a position as a mammal keeper at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Later, she moved to Costa Rica to get involved with sea turtle conservation and then continued her work in Nicaragua as a research and project coordinator. In 2006, she founded Yayasan Pulau Banyak, a sea turtle monitoring and conservation program on the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia. For this work, she received the Future For Nature Award from Sir David Attenborough himself.
In this interview, Maggie provides insights into her multifaceted roles, her goals in conservation, and the transformative power of community engagement. Prepare to be inspired by the journey and accomplishments of a remarkable advocate for nature’s preservation.
What is the main focus of your work in conservation?
For all of my work, I focus on community engagement and education in nature conservation. Working with communities that struggle to balance their livelihoods in areas that are in need of protection is my biggest passion.
This could be related to poverty in developing countries, but also in densely populated areas such as the Gold Coast in Australia where high numbers of tourists and a growing population are putting a lot of pressure on ecosystems.
Building a bridge and working through co-design with communities to resolve conflicts and alleviate pressures on natural habitats or critically endangered species is my main goal in my conservation pursuits.
Why did you choose this career path?
Growing up in The Netherlands around sheep farms and horses created a strong connection with animals and the environment. Being able to saddle up my horse and ride for hours on end in the beautiful hills of South Limburg gave me the inspiration to safeguard areas of natural significance.
“Without passion, it is hard to keep up with the energy, drive and hope that is needed in conservation.” – Maggie Muurmans
Did you always want to pursue a career like this, or did your passion for nature evolve later in life?
My career has changed over time from directly working with animals on farms and in zoos to working in the field studying wild animals to now working with people to benefit conservation outcomes. Passion is a drive that keeps you going where you feel you can make the biggest difference. Without passion, it is hard to keep up with the energy, drive and hope that is needed in conservation.
What did you study at university? Which degrees or experiences have helped you to get into this career?
My degree in wildlife management sent me as an intern to join Durrell Wildlife Conservation in Jersey. I managed to land my first job there due to my internship with the organisation and my experience managing horse stables and working with horses growing up.
What is your earliest conservation-related memory?
Working at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Jersey Zoo) was an eye-opening experience. The zoo is a window shop for conservation work with species that are on the brink of extinction. The organisation focuses on the “little brown jobs”; animals that may not look as pretty or attractive but have a high conservation value and are critically endangered.
Working for Durrell provided me with a strong link to work in the field towards the protection of wildlife and gave me an understanding of the place of zoos and aquaria in the education and captive breeding of some of the world’s most vulnerable species.
Who is your biggest inspiration in the world of conservation?
Gerald Durrell was one of my earliest inspirations. His work towards the lesser-known species in need of protection and his talent to create awareness around this work was pioneering. Later in life, Professor Ingrid Burkett provided me with more inspiration on how to communicate effectively with communities in conflict. She introduced me to concepts from the field of business and social enterprise and the importance of empathy mapping and different perspectives.
What do you love the most about your job in conservation?
My love mainly revolves around creating a connection between people and the environment. Being able to explore a rocky shore environment with a young person who falls in love with the creatures that hide there in plain sight is such joy. This young person may be so inspired by what he/she finds in his backyard, that this could spark their passion to protect that very place.
Are there things you dislike or struggle with working in conservation?
I struggle most with closed mindsets and in particular if those people work in conservation. These could be researchers, conservation practitioners, environmental campaigners etc.
Conservationists who ignore the people who are living or depending on natural assets, assign blame to the use of this asset (whether it’s sustainable or not) for their livelihood and lack empathy or can’t view things from another point of view when working towards the protection of biodiversity with communities.
What is the highlight of your career so far?
Receiving the Future For Nature award from Sir David Attenborough was definitely a highlight, however, the network of all recipients of this award and how this created a family of conservationists has been a big support. Another highlight of my career is being able to teach and mentor others to continue or enhance their career in conservation.
“It’s all about your network, volunteering and going outside your comfort zone!” – Maggie Muurmans
What did you find the most difficult when starting a new conservation project in a developing country?
Each developing country has its own challenges, but bringing in equipment that was essential for the project (research equipment such as satellite tags, research equipment, waterproof notepads and books etc.) was tricky. A lot of equipment was not available in-country and had to be carried in by personal luggage as shipping was unreliable.
What is the biggest lesson in conservation (or biggest life lesson) you learned from working in so many countries and with so many cultures?
There are so many takeaways from working and living in 10 countries and 5 continents, but what I learnt most is that feeling connected to your community is important in every single place.
Whether this is achieved through volunteering for a beach clean up, leading tourists on a sea turtle patrol, a cooking class with other women in your community or a spiritual or religious gathering. Nature can be the platform for building or creating connections, which should be the precedence in conservation work.
What is your personal experience of landing a job (or finding a research position) in wildlife/marine conservation? Any tips and tricks?
It’s all about your network, volunteering and going outside your comfort zone! Don’t just make friends with people that think like you, but connect with people that think differently. This will open up more opportunities and provides a better understanding of how to tackle conservation problems effectively.
Go work or volunteer with small organisations first. They will have so many opportunities to learn and gain experience rather than going for the big organisations with big names who may have that one specific role with a few tasks.
“Nature can be the platform for building or creating connections, which should be the precedence in conservation work.” – Maggie Muurmans
What is your biggest tip for people that want to get involved with conservation?
Anyone, anywhere can get involved by volunteering; anywhere and at any time. There are so many projects all over the world…. maybe even in your own suburb. There are online volunteering opportunities and you may even feel brave enough to start your own initiative. Don’t forget about the little brown jobs: don’t always go for the charismatic, fluffy and majestic wildlife….
Finally: How can my readers support the work you do? Are there ways to get involved with your organisation?
The role of small not-for-profits, i.e. grass root organisations, cannot be underestimated. Ocean Connect is entirely run by volunteers who all have a fire in their bellies to contribute to making the world a better place. We reach over five thousand people each year via our education programs as well as our citizen science events.
We are a group that is non-political and does not conduct campaigning, creating a safe environment for people from all walks of life, backgrounds or interests to join. We have volunteers that have joined with their parents from as little as four years of age and we have regular volunteers that join us weekly who are well into their seventies.
Ocean Connect is open to volunteers, as long as you are happy to get your feet wet!
Author Profile | Fedra Herman
Fedra Herman is a Conservation Biologist who graduated from The University of Queensland in July 2023. She is passionate about nature restoration and rewilding. With her blog, The Wandering Biologist, she inspires people to protect and restore our planet’s precious ecosystems.
All photo credits in this post belong to Maggie Muurmans.