What does it mean to be a conservationist? An interview with elephant conservationist Danielle Carnahan

As a young aspiring conservationist, I have so many questions about what it is like to work in the fascinating field of wildlife conservation. Is it hard to earn a full-time income? What about work/life balance? And what does it actually mean to be a conservationist?

During my interview with Danielle Carnahan, a US-based elephant conservationist passionate about ethical wildlife tourism and a huge advocate for the welfare of elephants and wild animals, I got to ask all of these questions.

Aside from working on different research projects across Asia, Danielle is the creator and author behind the “The Call to Conserve” blog, which was a big inspiration for me to start my own blog.

In this article, I’ll share the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from this interview and tell you all about Danielle’s journey as a conservationist.

A woman sitting in front of a big lake in which two elephants are bathing

Danielle Carnahan with two bathing elephants.

A passion for communication and education

Danielle is very passionate about educating others about the wildlife tourism industry in Asia, especially when it comes to practices involving elephants. Her blog, The Call to Conserve, is the perfect place to learn all about the work she has done so far in Thailand and Nepal. One of the things I was very curious about was the reason why Danielle started her blog back in 2019.

When she started her master’s degree in conservation medicine at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts, she came across many topics and ideas related to conservation she had never heard about. It was very likely that the general public also wouldn’t be familiar with the things she learned during her graduate studies. So, starting a blog was her way of communicating what she learned at university and sharing her knowledge with the rest of the world.

For her master’s research project, Danielle went for three months to Thailand. This experience made her fall in love with elephants and she started to care deeply for their welfare.

Now, some years later, her passion for elephants is still there. Danielle is planning to start her own conservation projects related to elephant welfare and ethical tourism in Asia. She would love to work together with indigenous communities to help implement alternative ways for captive wildlife owners to earn an income. Bringing more focus to ethical activities rather than the many exploitative models that exist today.

A woman cleaning the foot of an elephant

Being a conservationist in a COVID-19 world

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Danielle had to rethink her entire career path. The skills she acquired through her blog were essential during this part of her life.

The pandemic has ruined plans and made it difficult to travel for so many people across the globe. Danielle experienced the very same problem: no travelling or getting to Nepal to continue her research on Asian elephants. But, Danielle didn’t give up.

As a young graduate, she believed that the only way to work in conservation was by getting the conventional 9 to 5 job and working for an already existing wildlife conservation company. She applied for tons of jobs abroad, most related to elephant conservation. But, when borders closed and she was forced to stay in the US, it was time to rethink her career. 

Freelance work appealed to her as a wonderful way to earn an income at that time. Danielle switched her focus to creating freelance work opportunities for herself as a blogger, social media content creator and designing websites for others. She basically became self-employed and saved as much money as she could. When the borders would eventually reopen, she could continue with her real passion, namely: working with elephants in Asia and creating change in the wildlife tourism industry.

Today, Danielle is still doing freelance work and uses this as a means to earn a side income and support her initiatives and research in Nepal. The flexibility of the freelance work allows her to travel back and forth between Nepal and the US. This part-time work is essential for Danielle to finance the projects she is working on in Asia, because “if you want to start your own conservation projects, there’s no one there to pay you a salary“.

A smiling woman in field clothes sitting on the branch of a tree

A future full of opportunity

For Danielle, giving up isn’t an option. She has many ambitions for the near future and is even planning to start a nonprofit organisation. Even though the majority of the freelance jobs she does aren’t related to conservation, these opportunities are teaching her valuable skills. As someone who is self-employed, you quickly learn skills like time management, doing administrative work, leading fundraising campaigns, and becoming a better communicator. All these skills will be of critical importance in her journey of starting NGOs and fundraising for her projects.

She also reflected on the time she spend working with elephant sanctuaries in the past. All of these experiences taught her a number of things she can now use in the process of creating her own “brand” and projects across Asia.

The main thing we can all learn from this is that every experience in your life can be valuable, even when you think you are “stuck” or not on the path you had envisioned for yourself. See each opportunity you get, even the ones that maybe don’t feel as exciting, as a learning opportunity. Who knows what skills you might need in the future?

A smiling woman sitting high up in a tree

Balancing life and conservation

Pursuing a career path like Danielle requires a lot of strength. She had to be very strong-willed and keep going even during the times when it seemed like the world was working against her.

I was wondering what her thoughts are on her work/life balance. Is it possible to balance her personal life with the intensive combination of freelance work and trying to continue her research in elephant conservation? Her answer: “Absolutely! If you have the willpower, everything is possible“.

Danielle experienced a lot of setbacks and like many conservationists, she often came across unfunded opportunities. This makes it sometimes seem like conservation is only accessible to people who can afford to work for free.

Danielle’s advice on this was to “not take no for an answer and try to not get discouraged. If the job you are envisioning doesn’t exist, you can create it. It is possible to build your own path in conservation. You don’t need a certain degree or PhD to succeed. The field of conservation biology is broad and needs a wide range of skills. So, bring your own set of skills to the table and create your own paid (maybe even non-conservation-related) opportunities, if they don’t come knocking at the door. As long as you have the passion, you can do it. In the end, it will all come together.

On being a conservationist 

To me, the final bit of my interview with Danielle was the most memorable. I have often thought about what it means to be a conservationist. Daniele’s uncommon career combination and inspiring story helped me figure this out.

According to Danielle: “everyone can be a conservationist”. She also spent a lot of her time thinking about how she could be taken seriously in this industry, especially when stuck at home during the pandemic. This was accompanied by the internal pressure she felt to have what others would see as a “real job”.

She realised that you don’t need to work for a conservation organisation full-time to call yourself a conservationist. “Even if your main income doesn’t come from the conservation industry, you can still make an impact in conserving species and protecting wildlife. If you make money with another skill, that allows you to live your dream and make the impact you want to have in this world; no one should take you less [seriously] or make you feel less of a conservationist.

Author Profile | Fedra Herman

Originally from Belgium, Fedra Herman is currently studying a Master of Conservation Biology at The University of Queensland in Brisbane. She is the creator of The Wandering Biologist blog where she inspires others to live a more sustainable life and shares her adventures as an aspiring wildlife conservationist.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Communicator, Scientist, Animal Welfare, Ecotourism