From intern to inspiration story: landing an adventure job in the Peruvian Amazon

Scottish zoologist Holly O’Donnell doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

When a university professor told O’Donnell that her bachelor’s degree was worth “toilet paper” and that she was going nowhere, she could have abandoned her career dreams. Instead, she fundraised and interned her way from Scotland to Antarctica, Paraguay and the Peruvian Amazon, where she now leads mammal research for conservation non-profit Fauna Forever.

Celebrating Carnaval in Peru. Credit: Alberto Luis Garcia Ayachi.

Celebrating Carnaval in Peru. Credit: Alberto Luis Garcia Ayachi.

“You have to be a strong character when people don’t believe in you,” says the up-and-coming conservation scientist, “but that makes me even more determined to succeed.” After surprising many who thought she couldn’t tough it in the jungle for a year, O’Donnell hopes to inspire the same courage in future conservationists.

From rural Scotland to the Peruvian Amazon

Ever since a National Geographic DVD featuring Jane Goodall arrived in the post when O’Donnell was seven, she has been captivated by wildlife. After completing a BSc with honours in zoology, she interned with conservation non-profit ‘Para La Tierra’ in Paraguay where she picked up diverse field skills and discovered an unexpected passion for mammals.

O’Donnell holding her favourite mammal, a mouse opossum, in Paraguay, as part of her first research project. Photo courtesy of Holly O’Donnell.

O’Donnell holding her favourite mammal, a mouse opossum, in Paraguay, as part of her first research project. Photo courtesy of Holly O’Donnell.

Back in the UK and searching for her next internship, O’Donnell had just accepted a temporary job when luck intervened. “I was up late one night, jet-lagged from Paraguay, and I noticed that a professor had liked Fauna Forever on Facebook. Their latest post was an advertisement for Mammal Coordinator, but the closing date had passed two weeks ago and they wanted a master’s degree. I sent off an application anyways, not expecting to hear back.”

Nine days later O’Donnell was first aid-certified and working in the Amazon.

Credit: Aidan Dolik.

Credit: Aidan Dolik.

Research for the greater good

As part of rapid assessment surveys across roughly 25 sites, O’Donnell leads Fauna Forever’s mammal research and trains volunteers and interns in line transect surveys and camera trapping.

Her days typically start with a 5:30am transect, where she and one to four volunteers walk up to eight kilometres slowly and silently, recording animal sightings, sounds, tracks and scrapes. They repeat transects in the afternoons and occasional evenings, inputting data or checking camera traps when mammals aren’t active.

O’Donnell leading interns on a transect. Credit: Gordon Dimmig.

O’Donnell leading interns on a transect. Credit: Gordon Dimmig.

Together these surveys give long-term mammal density estimates across different sites and land uses – including conservation, ecotourism and Brazil nut extraction – information which is delivered to the Peruvian government to help inform sustainable management.

Demonstrating how to work a camera trap. Credit: Douglas Sorin.

Demonstrating how to work a camera trap. Credit: Douglas Sorin.

Notes from the field

At a two-day journey from the nearest city, including a small propeller plane trip and an eight-hour boat or car expedition upriver, nothing is taken for granted in the field.

O’Donnell has learned Spanish, gone without internet; coped with heat, mud and ‘chiggers’ (mite larvae with a taste for human skin); and set up a jungle camp from scratch. “I turned up to a new field station with a few volunteers and there was nothing but rainforest – no bathrooms, no showers, no anything. That was an experience getting that place up and running!”

Students-celebrating-graduation-in-the-search-for-the-Top-Conservation-Training-Opportunities
Credit: Douglas Sorin.

Credit: Douglas Sorin.

But O’Donnell, who has been chased by wild pigs and come face-to-face with a jaguar, says that cultural differences are the greatest challenge. These include adjusting to ‘Latin time,’ witnessing bushmeat hunting and the pet trade, and struggling to be taken seriously as a female scientist in a male-oriented culture.

Patience, cultural respect and a genuine interest in how other people live are essential traits in the field, she says.

Celebrating Carnaval with Peruvians. Credit: Alberto Luis Garcia Ayachi.

Celebrating Carnaval with Peruvians. Credit: Alberto Luis Garcia Ayachi.

Gaining field experience

While volunteering in the field is often expensive, and even paid field positions are rarely sustainable – providing room, board and a modest wage – they are invaluable stepping stones for conservation careers.

“You’d be incredibly lucky to go straight from university into a job without field experience,” says O’Donnell, who plans to complete a master’s and PhD in conservation science. “Not only that, you need experience to find out what you are actually passionate about – it’s very different doing something in a classroom than in the jungle.”

Credit: Gordon Dimmig.

Credit: Gordon Dimmig.

O’Donnell advises looking for smaller organisations that won’t charge a fortune to volunteer or intern. “Once you’re in a position, optimise where you are and network as much as possible. You want to be a step ahead of everybody else – really show that you’re passionate about field work and eventually you’ll be paid.” O’Donnell could afford extending her stay with Para La Tierra by four months because she picked up basic administrative work, while others have worked in exchange for accommodation at ecotourism lodges.

O’Donnell holding a rare white-winged nightjar, helping with a radio telemetry study. Credit: Jorge Ayala.

O’Donnell holding a rare white-winged nightjar, helping with a radio telemetry study. Credit: Jorge Ayala.

Paying it forward

As road access opens up the Peruvian Amazon, its biodiverse forests and the local communities they support are under threat from oil and gas exploration, agricultural expansion and illegal gold mining, logging and hunting. But with significant land set aside in reserves and conservation concessions, a booming ecotourism industry that provides alternative livelihoods for local people, and research like Fauna Forever’s, O’Donnell sees hope for the future.

Teaching Paraguayan school children about mouse opossums. Credit: Vivi Magistra.

Teaching Paraguayan school children about mouse opossums. Credit: Vivi Magistra.

The many mentors and other young conservationists she has met on her path continue to encourage her on her journey. “I looked up to the staff at Para La Tierra – they were very influential and inspirational. Now a year later, I’m able to encourage volunteers and interns to follow conservation careers.”

Photo courtesy of Holly O’Donnell.

Photo courtesy of Holly O’Donnell.

“Sometimes an intern comes in who’s a bit scared of the rainforest or doesn’t have any experience,” she says, “but with time they grow into somebody who’s sure of themselves and capable carrying out field work. I like building peoples’ confidence up and knowing that they’re going on to university or a job.

O’Donnell with a team of interns. Credit: Holly O’Donnell.

O’Donnell with a team of interns. Credit: Holly O’Donnell.

From a small town where few people attend university, O’Donnell set up a Facebook page to inform and inspire others. “I want to get people who aren’t biologists interested in conservation,” says O’Donnell, who has been approached by schools, journalists and other conservationists to share her story. “My goal is to encourage people that this isn’t just a job they see on television, but one they can actually do.”

Learn more about Fauna Forever, Para La Tierra or check out Holly O’Donnell’s Facebook page.

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