What’s involved in being a conservation director for Fauna and Flora International?

Paul Hotham has over 25 years of conservation experience including work in the UK National Parks and voluntary sector and international conservation NGOs. His MSc thesis was undertaken in the Amboseli and Kilimanjaro National Parks on transboundary cooperation between protected areas. Paul has extensive experience in species conservation, protected area management and conservation capacity building. In addition to directing the Eurasia Programme, Paul is also the project manager for FFI’s Iberian lynx programme and provides technical support to projects operating in Georgia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Romania and other countries.

Fauna & Flora International’s work spans across the globe, with over 140 projects in over 40 countries, mostly in the developing world. They stand up for biodiversity and aim to show just how relevant it is to all of those who share the planet.

WHY DO YOU WORK IN CONSERVATION?

I think it’s just so fundamental to be concerned about conserving species, habitats and ecosystems. It’s not only about conserving biodiversity it’s also protecting our (humans’) survival mechanism. Even though I feel this type of work is undervalued, we’re serving a critical function in conserving the natural environment for both biodiversity and people.

Inspiration came from two areas for me. I’m in my late forties, so I am part of the generation that was raised on Born Free, Gerald Durrell and David Attenborough. They were coming at me through the TV screen and books when I was young and this planted an interest in nature early on.

For the first ten years of my working life I was a coal miner up in Yorkshire (northern England). Most miners’ had outdoor hobbies such as fishing, birding and walking. I liked to hike and that got me out and about in the English countryside and fuelled my interest in nature.

A part-time peak national park ranger got me into conservation. I was hiking, we met and spoke, I asked him what he was doing, he told me I could be trained to be a volunteer ranger and I thought I want a piece of that.

WHAT’S INVOLVED IN BEING REGIONAL DIRECTOR OF THE EURASIA PROGRAMME FOR FAUNA & FLORA INTERNATIONAL?

I do a number of things in my role. Firstly, I set the direction for FFI’s Eurasia Programme.  I spend time identifying our strategic priorities; which species, habitats and issues we need to work on and why and the approaches we need to take to best conserve the species and habitat / address the issues. I also manage and work as part of the Eurasia team, helping each team member develop and deliver projects focused on the priority species and habitats we have identified to work on.  So my primary role is to direct a team based both in Cambridge and in some of the countries where we work, to deliver a portfolio of conservation projects focused on threatened species and habitats in the region we call Eurasia.

As small team we’re constantly trying to make sure that we make the best use of the skills and resources we have available, we’re constantly learning and innovating around conservation approaches, focusing on those habitats and species in the region, which most need our critical support.

A lot of my work has a strong social dimension; I / we do a lot of work to engage local communities. Not just delivering activities to educate or raise their awareness but also supporting local people to develop alternative livelihoods and to engage actively in the work we do, so that they can benefit from nature conservation and as a result be more sympathetic to it.

I also sit on FFI’s management team. This means attending regular meetings to discuss organizational level risks, checking if we are on course to deliver our business plan and if not, working with the team to change or adapt our conservation approaches to maintain a direction that will ensure we deliver effective conservation. We also use these meetings to discuss and explore emerging issues that we might need to address more robustly in the future, such as illegal wildlife trade.  At the moment we are developing a new business plan, which will lay out the direction of our work for the next 5 years. The plan will elaborate how we will deliver conservation  in our target regions to best tackle the key threats to biodiversity.

I enjoy this side of the work, as you see very quickly how ideas can be articulated, debated, refined and turned into action.  In the days when I was a ranger, although I loved being out in the field and meeting people, I had the sense that maybe I could be making decisions that have a greater positive impact on nature. That motivated me to work to progress to a position in which I could be involved in decision-making that had a more direct impact on the conservation of species and habitats. In my role as Director of a Conservation Programme, I have that opportunity and now see how some of my decisions impact on conservation every day.

But my work isn’t just strategy and management, it’s also about technical delivery and support. I get lost of opportunity to go to the field. I was in Kyrgyzstan three weeks ago and Transylvania in Romania last week. I’ll be in Spain next week. . I have also travelled to Portugal, Georgia and Cape Verde recently too.

A lot of travel is representing FFI and meeting and supporting our partners. I spend a lot of time in the field helping local groups to develop their institutional and conservation strategies and capacity, for example building their skills and experience in conservation delivery and fundraising. I also have the opportunity to provide technical support directly to National Park teams and local NGOs, in such things as writing species action and park management plans.  It’s great to be able to support a small conservation NGO in Central Asia, for example, to identify the stresses and issues they have and then help them to resolve these and move forward to deliver good quality conservation. All in all, I’ve got a great job!

WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF THE JOB?

Travel springs to mind but I have to admit to both loving and hating it. I love it because I get to see some beautiful and remote areas such as the Zorkul Reserve on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan for example, simply stunning. I also get to meet lots of interesting people and have made some good friends in far-away places.  But the flip side is that sometimes the travel can be too much. It is often a struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance and it is almost impossible to find the regular time needed to have a hobby or take an evening course for example.

Another great part of the job has to be motivating, influencing and mentoring others to do conservation. From new entrants into the conservation field asking for advice, to working with a new local partner  in a country such as Romania or Tajikistan to overcome obstacles to get conservation started.  To be able to spend time with partners and local park teams, to help them explore their aims, to discuss risks and obstacles, ask difficult questions, help them organize themselves, create a vision and make a plan; being a part of this type of engagement can be highly motivating.  A few years down the line, with continued support and investment, you see these same people delivering great projects to protect wildlife and it gives a fabulous sense of achievement.

Finally, is seeing conservation results. I’ve been involved long enough to see changes as a result of our work. Conservation is a long-term process; it’s very difficult to get short-term results. For example, when FFI first engaged on Iberian Lynx conservation there were 150 of these cats left in the world, today there are around 350. This is not solely down to FFI’s efforts, many organizations have contributed to this conservation effort in Spain and Portugal, but we’ve contributed to this success. There are also more bears, wolves and other large carnivores in Europe, all because of persistent conservation effort by many organizations and individuals. Just to have been a small part of the effort to bring such species back from the brink is very satisfying. There is much to be worried about the state of nature and it is easy to get depressed about such things, but it is important to recognize and enjoy conservation successes when they occur.

WHAT’S THE WORST PART OF THE JOB?

As I said I love and hate travel. Travel is challenging. Flying into a distant country in my region often means arriving at 3 am in the morning, followed by anything from a 5 to 15 hour drive to the project site. Once there you are lacking sleep, eating strange food and experiencing a new environment, which leads to the inevitable upset stomach!  Although you might be visiting a beautiful place, you are there to work. Work is usually long hours as you try to squeeze as much into the trip as you can. Constant travel is exhausting. Another less fun activity is administration – managing work-loads, budgets and writing and producing reports is important and necessary but it can be both hard work and dull at times.

Other than that, I think conservation is a fantastic job, whether you’re a ranger, field biologist or a regional director. Almost without exception, most people I meet in this field are highly motivated and passionate about their work.

WHAT KEY STEPS IN YOUR CONSERVATION CAREER YOU HAVE TAKEN?

I’ve been motivated, maintained a focus and had the help and support of key people at times when I needed it.

As I explained at the start I met a ranger and he told me about a volunteer training programme in the Peak District National Park.  However, the first person I asked about the programme at the ranger centre said I needed A-Levels, which I didn’t have.  I persisted, returned a few weeks later and spoke with another person, who said they were looking for people just like me with life experience. They signed me up, and within six months I was a part-time paid member of staff working in the peak national park as a ranger at weekends, whilst I was working down the mine during the week.  I was also wardening for the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust during the evenings.

All this activity enabled me to mix with people in different conservation roles, most of whom had been to university. This motivated me to emulate them and to go to college.  But just before I started my studies a full-time ranger job came up, which I thought I had a really good chance of getting.  My chief ranger at the time sat me down, confirmed that I was in with a good chance of getting the job and asked what I planned to do. I told him about the college place, and that I thought it important to get a formal education in conservation, so I wouldn’t be applying for the post. He said that was exactly what he wanted to hear and that maintaining a long-term vision and building a solid education was a critical foundation for a future career . This was vital advice just at the right time from someone in the profession that I trusted and respected. My family, friends and mining colleagues were also highly supportive and encouraging. Together they provided the motivation I need to leave coal mining, to go to agricultural college and then onto university.

After university I got a brilliant job working for the North York Moors National Park as an agri-environmental advisor. Working with a  great team, walking extensively on the Moors and in the valleys, talking to farmers, writing farm management plans and helping them to access government grants for wildlife management was a dream job.

But again I hit a point where I felt that I could be making better decisions about conservation and decided to strengthen my qualifications (and opportunities to climb the ladder) by taking a higher degree.  It was a difficult decision to leave this post, but again a mentor provided the right advice about what opportunities the future might hold.  I completed my MSc thesis in Africa and that opened up the world of international conservation to me.  From that point on I looked for opportunities to work in the international conservation field and here I am today.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE WISHING TO FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS?

I was 27 when I started my college education in Wales. On the first day the course leader said he didn’t know why we were there as there weren’t any jobs in conservation. I won’t say what I thought of that statement; I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to go, but many of my younger classmates were struck dumb and wondering what they had done to sign up for a conservation course!  The course leader was just trying to rattle our cages and make sure we were aware of how difficult it could be to get into the conservation field. Although it remains as competitive today, there are opportunities in conservation, and once you’re inside it is possible to move into other positions and organizations.  It’s generally considered to be not particularly well paid when compared to other graduate sectors, so if you choose to compare your conservation job with a fellow graduate who maybe now works in industry, you’re going to feel undervalued. But salaries are competitive in the sector and the rewards speak for themselves. Conservation is something that you buy into with your heart and soul.

My advice to get into and then progress in conservation is to have a good idea of where you want to go / to have a vision – each job you take over the years should take you in the direction of achieving your vision. It might be that a new job does not immediately enable you to progress up the career ladder and could involve a move sideways; for example you might choose to shift into a similar job to the one you’re already doing, but this shifting sideways might allow you to gain important experience inside a new organization or a new technical area.  Keep your eye on your long tern plan and when the opportunity arises, choose a post that brings you back on to your chosen career path and closer to achieving your vision.  Also listen to the people around you, seek their advice on career development and learn from their experiences. Don’t think you have to know it all and don’t be afraid to ask for support from others, especially those who have more experience or better skills than yourself in an area that you want to develop into. You can learn much from those around you.

In my experience, you start to feel really successful when you find that organization that shares your values. It’s really important for me that I share FFI values. My job isn’t about money, status or power. I am in my mid-career and I find it highly motivating and satisfying to work and commit to FFI because they have an organizational culture, a way of working and values that I share.

Conservation Jobs & Careers Advice, How to...?

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