Interview with Dr Colman O’Criodain, Wildlife Trade Specialist, WWF
Dr Colman O’Criodain is the wildlife trade specialist at WWF. He trained as a botanist and spent much of his university days look at fens in Ireland. After a bout with the Irish civil service and the European Commission, he now represents WWF at CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species – the international agreement between governments that aims to regulate the international trade in wild animals and plants and ensures that it does not threaten their survival) meetings covering often thorny and emotional issues on wildlife trade. Conservation Careers Blogger Karen Sim Clerc speaks to him to find out more.
“One of the “problems” (of the conservation sector) is that it’s even ‘cooler’ when you are actually there than how it looks from the outside!”
Why did you choose Botany in university?
At the university where I studied, the botany set-up was focused more on natural history aspects than the Zoology set up did, which interested me more.
Then I got a job in the Irish civil service. I worked on issues connected to conditions of employment. As a result, I acquired a certain knowledge of the law and how laws are drafted, how they are applied, and how they are interpreted. Then I came to work at the National Parks and Wildlife Service. When Ireland started getting more involved in CITES issues, I found it a very interesting interplay between conservation science and conservation law. Then I took a secondment to the European Commission where I coordinated the common scientific response to the EU law and coordinated its negotiating position in various meetings at CITES. Afterwards, I joined WWF as the wildlife trade specialist.
Did you know then what you were going to do, or did you do what interested you?
No. I really drifted. I think what has really pulled my career together is the combined interest in law and science, which I acquired only later on.
What advice would you give a fresh graduate who wanted to work in conservation?
I think that internships and volunteer work are good ideas. But choose them carefully. Take one that not only interests you but also one that you would like to work in. It is important also to take whatever contract or temporary work you can get. Most people I know in conservation have arrived in permanent jobs after a long period of doing consultancy work. Some of them in the end chose to remain independent. That’s the other thing: don’t necessarily look for a ‘job’. If you are someone who likes the independence and particularly if you have the self-discipline to structure your day, then that might be a good option for you. You will in the end acquire experience by the clients you get.
What about people who would like to do a mid-career switch?
I would say it’s a question of being prepared to take temporary jobs, jobs in reputable organisations associated with conservation – governmental or NGO or even consultancy work. For a prospective employer, they will see that you have been employed with a reputable organization and take that as a seal of approval and be more comfortable about interviewing you, trusting you. And that’s not something that they can necessarily glean from your CV.
The other thing is to make yourself available for consultancy work. It might not be full time or well paid to start off with. But you might be able to get that step on the ladder. If you approach someone with references and a good CV it does count for something, and they might remember you.
How do you think that sector has changed? Has it become ‘cooler’ to be in conservation?
I would disagree. It was seen in the 90s as ‘cool’. At that time, I saw a lot of people take on jobs that were not well paid simply to work in conservation. If you do that, set yourself a limit to pull out and do something else, especially if your financial commitment grows. But I think it has always been seen as a ‘cool’ sector to work in. One of the “problems” is that it’s even ‘cooler’ when you are actually there than how it looks from the outside!
What is the part of your job that you like best?
I suppose going to meetings where there are difficult issues to tackle and taking them on successfully, which involves a certain amount of negotiation and articulation of the arguments. It might occur that the particular arguments that are used might not be the best ones, but in the end, there is a sense of winning.
If I could single out one example it would be an experts workshop in Mexico 5 years ago on how to determine sustainable levels of harvest for CITES species. A huge amount of valuable material was entered and there was a lot of stimulating discussion. I took the approach of going around all of the various working groups and picking up information. When the organisers were wondering how they could collate and synthesise all the information that had been gathered, I volunteered to do it overnight and they were very happy with what I had done. When things like that work, something that is crazy and that shouldn’t work but it does, it’s very satisfying and exciting.
And what parts of the job don’t you like?
I think the most frustrating thing particularly when you go to CITES meetings especially when you invest a lot of effort and a lot of emotion and energy, is when nearly everything fails! The last Conference of the Parties I went to was a huge success, but the 2 previous ones were train wrecks! It’s very frustrating and depressing to come back from a meeting when you go with high expectations and you’ve achieved nothing at the end of it.
Would you say you need to be emotionally distant sometimes?
Yes, you do need to separate the emotions from the arguments. Rhinos are a good example because at the moment there is a growing a momentum to legalise the trade in rhino horn. I don’t agree with it and I don’t think it’s going to happen. But I do accept that a lot of the people who advocate for this have the best interests of rhinos at heart and the arguments are strong enough to at least merit careful consideration or at least a courteous response. Negative knee-jerk reactions simply polarize the debate. So yes you do need a measured approach.
What are the key lessons you have learnt through the years in your career?
I think that anyone who works in conservation, even if they are primarily scientists, should acquaint themselves with the basic principles of law and how it works. Be prepared to be surprised. Be prepared to move around and not to expect that your career will evolve the way you expect it to!
What is your favourite book?
One I would recommend is Gerald Durrell’s book “My Family and Other Animals”. It’s really funny and entertaining. You will learn a fair bit of natural history as well but I promise you will be laughing!
Tom Waits, Adele… quite a broad range, but my favourite is classical music.
Thank you Colman! Keep up the great work at CITES meetings!
About the author
This post was produced by Conservation Careers Blogger Karen Sim Clerc. Karen is passionate about nature and nature conservation. She has worked in the defence and government sectors in her native Singapore, as well as at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, before deciding to pursue a career in the environment. She has volunteered and worked for the WWF in tiger conservation, and has spent the last 2 years in the sustainability sector. Her main interests are in wildlife trade, global warming and its impacts, and sustainable agriculture and consumption.