Working together to fight species extinction | An interview with Asian Species Action Partnership

There are many threatened species in the world, but Southeast Asia’s Critically Endangered species are particularly vulnerable to extinction. With limited conservation attention on these species in the region, the IUCN SSC Asian Species Action Partnership (ASAP) was formed to end species extinctions of birds, amphibians, mammals, freshwater fish, and reptiles.

ASAP is a partnership convened by the IUCN Species Survival Commission, hosted by Mandai Nature in Singapore. Nerissa Chao, the director of ASAP, speaks about her career and the incredible work that she, along with her colleagues and partners, does in the fight against species extinction.

ASAP species that need urgent help include the Critically Endangered Bleeding Toad (Leptophryne cruentata). Credit: Arief Tajalli.

There’s power in numbers

“ASAP’s aim is to catalyse and accelerate species conservation through amplifying funding and knowledge, investing in people and strengthening local organisations. We foster a dynamic partnership with more than 225 ASAP Partners across the globe, two-thirds of which are from the Southeast Asia region.”

ASAP provides grants and valuable training programmes to their Partners. Training programmes include:

  • ASAP Women in Conservation Leadership Programme
  • Essentials of NGO Management

The training ASAP provides is something unique and not often seen in the industry, where opportunities and education gaps have been identified in the conservation industry. Nerissa advocates for greater diversity in leadership, and more for women to be in management roles in conservation.

Conservation scientists and practitioners have argued that the profession will more effectively protect biodiversity if it includes different genders, races, ethnicities, and cultures.

Women in Conservation Leadership Program wellbeing session at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Credit: Elizabeth Zhang.

For the love of nature 

Nerissa’s love for wildlife from an early age led her to study Psychology and Zoology at the University of Bristol and a Masters of Conservation Biology at Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology in the UK. From there, she began her career in Botswana as a research assistant, before working in Gabon, Rwanda and Kenya for international and local NGOs.

In 2016 Nerissa became the director for ASAP, and has since led the partnership through lots of exciting changes, which includes the amazing grants and training programmes available today.

“I’m really passionate about the importance of protecting and conserving biodiversity and the role that ASAP plays in such a critical region. Our behaviour can have a big impact on the world around us, and we are seeing the impacts from climate change and biodiversity loss every day. Preventing biodiversity loss is more important than ever, and it’s that urgency that drives me.” 

As the team and organisation has grown under Nerissa’s management, she now works on big picture thinking, developing the longer-term strategy for key areas of ASAP’s conservation work.

“Today, I focus on the overall development and growth of ASAP, fundraising and developing strategic partnerships. Having spent the initial period of my career working on field conservation programmes, it’s very rewarding developing mechanisms to be able to better support the great work that ASAP Partners are doing.”

Maintaining biodiversity is vital to ecosystem health. Van Long Nature Reserve, Vietnam. Credit: Nerissa Chao.

Rewards and challenges working in conservation

How does Nerissa perceive her experience working in the conservation industry, and how has her job tasks changed over time?

“I really enjoy getting to work on diverse programmes and working at a strategic level identifying and developing new ideas. We recently launched two new funding initiatives for our Partners, bringing the total number of grant opportunities for ASAP Partners up to four. In 2023 we launched a brand new training initiative called Essentials of NGO management.”

“We have been working on the design of the second phase of the ASAP Women in Conservation Leadership Programme and look forward to welcoming the second cohort of women to go through the programme in 2024. Alongside overseeing this work, I am always thinking about our next priorities, working on securing funding and developing strategic alliances.”

Working for and managing a conservation organisation involves a complex set of skills. ASAP’s training programmes, such as the Essentials of NGO Management, equip conservationists to deliver high impact projects while also strengthening the resilience and sustainability of their organisation.

ASAP has identified a gap such as levelling up passionate individuals skills in the conservation  industry, that really makes this organisation stand out.

“We want to identify the current gaps and needs faced by ASAP Partners and see where we, as an organisation, can fill the gaps that exist and add value to the current conservation landscape in this region.”

Irna, a participant of the ASAP Women in Conservation Leadership Programme, and her team are helping to transport a Malayan Giant Turtle (Orlitia borneensis) for a project ASAP supports at WRC Jogja. WRC Jogja in Indonesia is a not-for-profit rescue and rehabilitation center for animals who used to be in the illegal wildlife trade. Credit: Jogja Hilman.

Conservation work also comes with its challenges, which can vary from job to job. In Nerissa’s case, working in a management role has some limitations.

“I miss having the opportunity of spending more time in nature and on the ground conservation efforts. My work can be very desk based, and I miss seeing the impact of my efforts on the ground. However, I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to visit our Partners from time to time and see the incredible work that they are doing and the projects that ASAP supports.”

Another challenge that comes with working in the conservation industry is wellbeing. Our wellbeing in our daily lives is often not talked about enough, especially working in conservation. When we care so much, sometimes this can take a toll.

People who work in the conservation industry may experience compassion fatigue and burnout (Unitec Research Symposium, International Bird Rescue). Eco anxiety can also be quite common to all of us. When the University of Bath surveyed 5,000 people, 19% of students and 25% of staff said when it came to climate change, they were extremely worried. 

“The work can be emotionally draining and challenging. As an industry, we haven’t done a good enough job at recognising this and supporting conservation practitioners. A greater emphasis on the importance of individual wellbeing is essential if we are to avoid burnout and ensure people stay working in conservation. This is one of the reasons we have put a strong focus on wellbeing as part of the ASAP Women in Conservation Leadership Programme.”

Read more from Dr Vik Mohan who is leading ASAP’s wellbeing component of the leadership programme.

“One area which is challenging is getting the message out there about the impact that biodiversity loss is having. Losing species impacts the overall health of our planet, our human health and wellbeing, and part of our job is to help people make that connection.” 

Interested to know more about the importance of biodiversity and the interconnectedness of nature? An important concept is the idea of One Health, how everything on earth is connected, and the impact of our actions on human health.

The environment, animal health and human health all depend and impact upon one another. Credit: IsGlobal.

Highlights of a career in conservation 

What are Nerissa’s career highlights and is what she most proud of?

As a conservation biologist with nearly 20 years of experience managing and implementing conservation field programmes, she has a wealth of knowledge.

“I’m really proud of where ASAP is today. We’ve had a massive growth in the partnership and number of organisations joining ASAP, but also in our programmes, initiatives and the ways that we can support Partners directly. We get feedback and have discussions with our Partners to understand where the gaps are and what they need, to tailor our efforts and programmes to align with that.”

“For me, being part of the team to develop the ASAP Women in Conservation Leadership Programme, and to go through the journey with the group of women who participated, and see how the programme has helped and supported their work has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Witnessing the network and support system created within the group was very powerful.”  

“I’m also very excited about our newest training initiative, the Essentials for NGO Management. There’s limited opportunities specifically for conservation organisations to have this type of training, which focuses on the various elements of managing an NGO.”

Conservation Organisations that ASAP collaborates with or supports directly through their grant program or training initiatives.

Advice and key steps in a conservation career

Nerissa’s path she has taken in her career can be summed up into key steps:

  • Completed an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Zoology at the University of Bristol
  • Volunteered in Botswana as a research assistant with PhD students
  • Worked in Gabon for a year as a field assistant.
  • Completed a masters in Conservation Biology in the UK
  • Returned to Africa to pursue conservation work in Gabon, Rwanda and Kenya. During her time in Africa she worked on species conservation, protected area management, human-wildlife conflict, community-based conservation, and ecotourism
  • Moved to Southeast Asia to work in Vietnam where she was overseeing conservation projects in the Mekong Delta
  • Started work at ASAP in 2016

Critically Endangered White-Shouldered Ibis (Pseudibis davisoni), is one of the many species ASAP fights to protect. Credit Roland Wirth.

What skills do you need to work in conservation? Nerissa shares her advice.

“If you’re managing conservation projects, having the experience and understanding of the various challenges that communities face and the realities of working in conservation is essential.”

“However, there are so many different skill sets that we need in conservation, it’s not just about biological sciences, so you don’t need to be a scientist. For example, we need effective communicators to get our message out there and engage with different stakeholders, social scientists who can develop strategies to influence people’s behaviour to create positive change.”

“To work in conservation, I think you need to be quite flexible, adaptable, and be able to work in a team. You need to be willing to support different team members, jump in and lend a hand, and to be open to work on different things.”

When working in an industry like conservation, it’s important to remember to persevere, even when it seems like we’re not making huge amounts of progress. The little things do matter and make a difference.

All species deserve our attention and care

Does Nerissa have a favourite ASAP species? A question any wildlife lover would find hard to answer.

“There are so many incredible species, I couldn’t pick one favourite. We do focus on putting more attention on the more neglected and overlooked ASAP Species. We have a number of ASAP Species which people are more aware of such as orangutans and rhinos, but there’s a whole suite of species which most people have never heard of, or which receive very little attention. We risk losing these species if conservation action isn’t drastically geared up.”

“As an example, the largest group of ASAP Species are freshwater fish. In July 2023, we launched a new Strategic Framework for the urgent conservation action of freshwater fishes as well as a new dedicated funding programme to focus attention and increase support and conservation action for these species.”

Head to ASAP’s Strategic Framework if you’d like to learn more about freshwater fish conservation.

There is known bias in the global allocation of conservation funds. (This) highlights the need for increased conservation research and action in megadiverse developing countries hosting many threatened species, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia.

A huge thanks to Nerissa and her team for making this interview possible, and for the wonderful work ASAP is doing.

Want to learn more? Check out ASAPs Website, and see how you can help through the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

The Javan Green Magpie (Cissa thalassina) is a Critically Endangered species ASAP helps to protect. Credit Roland Wirth.

Keen to read more about conservation work in Asia? Read our interview with Bella Jack, from Lang Tengah Turtle Watch, or search our Careers Advice Blog for more interviews from conservationists working in Asia.

Want to learn more about a career in conservation? Check out our guide: Key Conservation Roles. or explore other useful Ultimate Guides to working in conservation.

Featured Image: Asian Species Action Partnership (ASAP) Team Photo (Left to Right: Cahaya Ramadhani, Li Ling Ho, Daniel Willcox, Elizabeth Zhang, Nerissa Chao, Rasidah Abdul Rahman. Not pictured: Vicki Guthrie). Credit: ASAP.


Author Profile | Rosie Dowsett

Rosie absolutely adores wildlife and is very passionate about conservation and companion animals. She has a Bachelors in Biodiversity and Conservation, with certificates and extensive experience in the Animal Care industry. She loves tea and spending time with her dog and two cats.


Interviews, Senior Level, Organisational Manager