“Rewilding people” with Citizen Zoo | An interview with Elliot Newton

You may think of rewilding primarily as the reintroduction of large mammals to areas where they have gone extinct. For Elliot Newton and his team at Citizen Zoo, rewilding is more than just that. 

Yes, it’s about reintroducing key missing species and creating suitable habitats for them to thrive, but it’s also about rewilding people. It’s bringing back that connection to nature which seems to have been lost by so many. 

By organising outdoor activities with schools, companies and local residents, Citizen Zoo, a social enterprise which started as a group of friends with a “shared vision for a wilder future”, hopes to raise awareness of the green spaces which are right on our doorsteps. They are also involved in projects that aim to reintroduce mammals to local areas. The “InVoled” project is a great example of this: bringing back voles to the Hogsmill River in Kingston upon Thames. 

But let’s find out more about Elliot. How did he become involved with such a great initiative? Did he always know that conservation was his passion? Is this his main job? What advice might he have for budding conservationists? Read on to find out.

Why do you work in conservation? 

When I was young, I always had a passion for the natural world, but I never really saw it as a viable career path. As I entered my early twenties, I started recognising the condition of the planet and the sixth mass extinction. 

I truly believe the most important job on the planet is doing what you can to try and save it. It is something I am truly passionate about so that’s why I’m pursuing it as a career path, and so far, so good!

How did Citizen Zoo come about?

Lucas and I did the same Conservation Science master’s back in 2014. What we both believed, and still believe, in is the notion that, if you are given the right support and the right tools and motivation, anybody from any background can be a conservationist. That was our premise. How can we best try and mobilise people so they can engage in proactive conservation? 

Parallel to that we had the notion of rewilding; it’s still an emerging term and still means quite a lot of things to different people. A term that is gaining traction and political and social momentum. We thought if we could align both this community empowerment alongside a rewilding narrative you could have a really powerful impact. 

Another element to Citizen Zoo is that it is a social enterprise. We really wanted an organisation that could apply for grants following a typical old school charity model, but also investigate business acumen approaches which can have a more sustainable funding model. 

It’s still early days (founded about 4 years ago) but we already have lots of projects on the go. The process has helped us develop as conservationists as well.

What is rewilding for you?

Rewilding can mean so many things to people. To me it means two things: one is rewilding people and reconnecting them to the amazing nature that is around us. There are some scary statistics out there, for example 75% of UK children spend less time outdoors that your average prison inmate. Combating that illiteracy to nature is the first step of rewilding. 

I imagine perhaps only around 2-3% of the population in Kingston have a real awareness of the sort of environment that we have here, from peregrine falcons nesting on roofs, we’ve got critically endangered European eels in our rivers, we’ve got seven bat species and lots of butterfly species. 

The second thing is the rewilding of our landscapes. In an urban environment that is very different to what it might look like in a countryside rural environment. To me that means trying to have as complex ecosystems as possible, which means as biodiversity rich and resilient as possible within an urban landscape. 

For example, a project we are working on at Citizen Zoo, which I am trying to introduce into the council strategy at the same time, is reintroducing water voles to the river. It means you have a more biodiverse landscape as they have an important ecological function. 

Is Citizen Zoo your full-time job?

As a full-time job, I actually work as a Biodiversity Officer for Kingston Council. It’s a really interesting job for anybody looking to make real conservation change on a local level; most councils should have this type of position.

What are the main activities in your role as Biodiversity Officer? 

One is creating a Biodiversity Action Plan for the borough. This is a strategic document that will inform how we manage our nature reserves, our parks and open spaces, roadside verges and how we engage with the planning system. Pushing nature-based solutions and a rewilding agenda within an urban context.

Communication as well. We’ve got this incredible wealth of biodiversity here, so just trying to raise the awareness towards it to engender more interest and social will which will lead to more political will. 

What are the best and worst parts of the job? 

BEST: I absolutely love nature but what I love even more is telling people about wildlife and trying to get them equally excited about it, so community engagement I think is where you can have the most impact.

WORST: Bureaucracy. Obviously working in a local authority, things do move a lot slower than when I was working full time at Citizen Zoo. Also scrolling through planning applications.

What key steps have you taken in your conservation career?

My first degree was actually Sport Science. I wanted to be one of these extreme physiologists who tries to climb mountains and take blood samples. Then I realised that I preferred conservation. 

As soon as I finished my first degree the first thing I did was trying to engage with as many people as possible who work in conservation. I was in a lucky enough position where I could go back and live at home and do as much volunteering as I could working around other jobs. I recognize this is a very privileged position to be in, and that for many this is not possible, posing a real barrier in the sector.

All the volunteering activities that I did ended up in some paid form of work. For example, I did quite a lot of volunteering in the early days with Save the Rhino, and that ended up with a paid position for some time. 

I then did a Masters in Conservation Science. Following this I became Nature Conservation Manager at the Environment Trust and for three years I ran A Focus on Nature (AFON) (voluntary),  a youth nature network of 16-30-year-old conservationists which provides mentoring opportunities and support. Then we founded Citizen Zoo.

What lessons have you learnt so far?

Even if you have an estranged degree that you think has no relevance to conservation, I’m sure there will be somewhere where you could add a nice different perspective on how conservation could be achieved and done. We do need that diverse background of people to engage with the sector.

Networking is so important, at conferences but also outside. Someone I worked with at Citizen Zoo had a background in the military and then internet gaming but then he came into Citizen Zoo for a year and it was amazing to have him involved because he had a whole different background. That happened because of networking with this guy on a nature walk!

What are you most proud of so far? 

At the end of my road is a nature reserve where I used to run around as a child. In my early twenties I’d go there, and trees would be burnt and there was a lot of antisocial behaviour. 

One of the first jobs I did was get a funding bid to restore the nature reserve. So now we have a thriving nature reserve at the end of my road; it has a wildlife pond full of dragonfly life! People come up to me and say: “Oh Elliot thank you so much for restoring this nature reserve, it made lockdown a lot easier for us”.

Last year with Citizen Zoo we had some really cool achievements too. We restored another nature reserve just for the use of disabled people that will open soon. 

We did lots of nice conferences. In January last year at Cambridge University we put on a Rewilding Conference which was the biggest rewilding conference that the UK had ever seen. We brought together the rewilding community within the UK. 

We also rented out the theatre in Kingston and put on a wildlife show and we sold out this theatre in central Kingston, with 800 local people there just to listen about local wildlife.

What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps? Perhaps set up their own organisation?

  • If you’ve got a vision and you think it’s really good, just go for it.
    I’m of the mindset that if you don’t try something that you have a clear vision for, you’ll always be kicking yourself and you’ll always regret not trying to take that step. Commitment is definitely a big part of it.
  • Do stuff that you are passionate about.
    By being passionate about it you will spread that passion and you will do your job better and you’ll be more motivated to do it and get up in the morning.
  • Do your research, talk to people, be open about what you’re doing and always be open to collaboration. Don’t start an organisation with the mindset that yours is going to be the sole organisation that is going to try and achieve something. That is never going to be the case. Conservation is such a multidisciplinary challenge that is always going to have so many stakeholders involved. Having that open mindset at the start is also very important. 
  • If you can volunteer, do volunteer. If you can volunteer and engage as much as possible, anybody would say that is a good learning experience.

What are your next steps?

I’ve been looking forward to building this Biodiversity strategy for Kingston council. I have the bold ambition that Kingston will be the best borough in London for how it does nature conservation and hopefully setting a precedent for other boroughs. 

I’d love to do an urban beaver trial too, to show how you can have beavers potentially in an urban environment which could help reduce flood risk for example.

With the Citizen Zoo side of things, we are hoping to run another rewilding conference next year. We want that to be an international rewilding conference building on the last one, we want to get all sorts of amazing people from Russia, America, South America and bring them all in one place to really build the rewilding community internationally.

For more info on rewilding, why not check out Rewilding – A careers perspective. 

If you want to get connected and receive support from a growing group of like-minded young conservationists, consider joining A Focus on Nature


Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Restoration & Rewilding