Working in Zoo Conservation

Bristol Zoological Society (BZS) uses scientific research to conduct and support conservation efforts in five continents across the globe. With high emphasis on the importance of implementing sustainable solutions to promote species and ecosystem survival. 

Dr Grainne McCabe is at the head of the amazing conservation projects carried out by BZS. This interview provides a unique insight into the key role zoos play in global conservation, the importance of research application in the field and advice for starting a career in zoo conservation. 

Why do you work in conservation?

After graduating I started out in academia working as a behavioural ecology researcher. 

During my studies for my PhD I travelled to Africa for data collection on the mangabey monkey, I came to learn the threats facing the species and how endangered they really were. The people literally living on the doorstep of the forest where these monkeys were found really didn’t know anything about the wildlife or why the forest was so beneficial to their lives, largely because they had very little opportunities to learn about the forest or the animals. 

The mountainous forest is a rain shadow area providing water for the valley, if the forest is cut down that critical water source would be lost. It was surprising to me how there was such a disconnect between this forest ecosystem and the people living in the valley below. 

On completion of my PhD I felt I wasn’t necessarily contributing in the way that I wanted to be. It was this realisation that led to my progression into applied conservation. This meant I would have the opportunity to use research as a tool to monitor conservation outcomes and also fill in the knowledge gaps where necessary. I wasn’t going to do research just for the sake of publication, which is still so common in academia, but to needed to make sure my research could be used and contribute towards the safeguarding of these species. 

The same need for better collaboration between people who study animal behaviour and those who study applied conservation is continuously emphasised in articles and other publications, but unfortunately, it’s still not the norm. 

What are your main activities in your current role?

I am the head of the Field Conservation and Science Department for Bristol Zoological Society (BZS). In a more general way, my job is to oversee and direct all of our global conservation projects. BZS currently has 14 projects in ten different countries around the world. 

I oversee a team of people who manage those projects and a few of the projects I also manage myself. As an aside to that I also direct the Society’s higher education provision, jointly running six different degrees affiliated with four HE partner institutions. The students are taught on site by my team of lecturers. Those are the two main components to my current role. 

I direct the Sanje Mangabey Project in Tanzania which is an extension of the research I carried out for my PhD and was fortunate to bring the project with me when I started at BZS. This project works in collaboration with not only BZS but also Paignton Zoo and Flamingo Land. The second project I manage is the Western Lowland Gorilla Project in Equatorial Guinea which started two years ago. For this project we are also working really closely with UWE Bristol, Drexel University from the USA and a small NGO Biodiversity Initiative

Western lowland gorilla. Credit: BZS.


What is the best part of your job? 

For me it has to be having the opportunity to travel to all the project sites. 

Over the past six years working at BZS it’s been really nice in particular to see the projects grow and establish relationships in each of the countries where we work. Now we are starting to see better connections with the local communities and governments. 

I was back in Cameroon during December last year for the Kordofan Giraffe Project and that was the first time we have been able to engage with the UK High Commission who were really positive and supportive of the project. It’s nice to be able to expand our networks in some of those counties and feel that it we are starting to make a difference on the ground for the wildlife. 

We have started a collaboration with the University of Bristol with the aerospace engineering department, they are designing drones for the project with thermal imaging cameras. We are hoping with these drones it will make it possible to do a proper survey of the park and census the giraffe population.

One of the major difficulties with this particular project is actually being able to count the wild giraffe and produce a population estimate. We initially used camera traps but unfortunately, they kept being stolen. We are hoping the drones will be more promising but there are still lots of technical issues to overcome and reasons why you can’t just send a drone up into the air and start counting animals. 

My team officially took over all the field conservation projects at BZS in 2016, when our department merged with another, which is still relatively recent, so being able to see how quickly they are getting established with them is really great. I feel very fortunate whenever I go out into the field with the team and we can make strategic decisions on the next steps for each project. 

Do you have a worse part of the job?

Conservation is difficult and its often challenging to see some of the threats faced by the wildlife and habitat. Some of the places we work are very dangerous for the rangers or even the team. There are incidences where I have seen the wildlife we are trying to protect, sold for bushmeat on the side of the road.

Witnessing high levels of poverty and the desperation of the local people is always a struggle especially not being able to offer immediate help – it can be very emotionally taxing. 

What are your career highlights so far?

The most recent one for me is finding evidence of the gorillas in Equatorial Guinea. A few months ago, I received some very excited messages from the field assistants confirming the camera traps had captured gorillas. This was really exciting.

Wild western lowland gorillas pictured in central Rio Muni, Equatorial Guinea, for the first time in more than a decade. Credit: BZS.


When we first established the project there I had spoken to some people who had worked there 15 years ago and they said “there are no gorillas left there,” but on the other hand there were local sightings from people who lived there saying “gorillas come into our farms.”

It was difficult without solid evidence to know if there was a gorilla population; chimpanzees also co-habit the environment and could have been mistaken for gorillas by the locals. Finally getting the proof that the gorillas are definitely there and some were juveniles which suggests the group is breeding which is really exciting and motivating. 

What lessons have you learnt during your career?

It’s really important to know conservation needs to be carried out on a ‘case by case’ basis. Making broad generalisations about what’s worked in one location, and then saying you can roll that out anywhere and be successful, is difficult and unrealistic. 

The one thing I have learnt is whenever you go into an area you need to understand the cultural, economic and political situation, as well as the climate and the specific biology of those animals. All these different elements will impact the successes and failures of the project.

Sometimes there is a tendency to think there is a high-level solution and that we can just apply that anywhere however, conservation isn’t usually successful like that. 

People often hide their failures in conservation but it is important to embrace these failures and share the experience. Talking more about when things don’t work and promote discussion with what other people did or did not do, so that lessons can be learnt and progress made. When failures are not shared a lot of time is ultimately wasted.

To make faster progress (especially for the time limited species) I now emphasise the importance of discussing the successes and the failures and sharing the data in research and conservation. 

What are the key steps you have taken in your career?

One of the main things I did, which I recognise isn’t always easy for everyone, is I took every opportunity. Whenever I found a way to get experience in the field, I did that; during the summers as a student either locally or internationally, I took volunteer positions abroad (but it doesn’t have to be) and then took short- and long-term jobs as a field assistant all throughout my undergrad and masters. I made sure I acquired lots of different skills and visited different countries to broaden my experience.

When I moved on to my PhD, I wanted to make sure I was in charge of managing and designing my own project because again those are skills that are really valuable and not everybody has them. 

I then went on to teach for a little while in Canada but it wasn’t fulfilling what I wanted so I took a job in Central Africa running a conservation organisation. I made those pretty big decisions because I knew it was what I wanted to do. I moved there with my family including my two-month-old baby. It’s not the path for everyone but I think what you can take from this is you can navigate your path by taking advantage of the opportunities presented to you. 

The combined experience of all those opportunities previously are what has helped me to get the job that I have now. 

I also think the networking potential available through taking these kinds of opportunities is really important. Even now in my current role e.g. getting funding for one of the projects, it’s through networks I have from the past. You never know who you are going to meet and how they could later help you to get another job, provide funding or supervise your thesis. In conservation it is often who you know and if you want people to take a chance on you, the recommendation from someone who has seen you work in the field could really aid your professional development. 

A lot of people get degrees these days; it’s going to be the other experience that sets you apart. 

What advice do you have for someone wanting to follow a similar path?

I would tell people they should be flexible and open minded. When possible, be willing to make those sacrifices and tell yourself “I’m going to go away for six months for this job in the field.”

I also think it is important for people to consider, conservation is not often about touching or even sometimes seeing the wildlife. I spent a lot of time in the field where I never saw the animal I was trying to protect and I don’t think people always know that about conservation.

It can be romanticised a little bit but actually a lot of it is about working with local communities, fundraising, communication. If people are willing to do those types of tasks, that is what gets their foot in the door and they can then go on to find another role in that organisation more tailored to their specific passion.

Lots of people get started by doing communication jobs for conservation organisations or working in a shop they might have to help fundraise. Being prepared to do those less traditional roles that you think of in conservation is really important.

It is also important to understand that being a conservationist is not the same as being an animal activist. Sometimes people think conservation is the same but unfortunately, it’s much more about making difficult decisions, such as prioritising one population of a species over another population of the same species, to ensure the survival of the species in the long term, which can be really hard, rather than saving every single individual animal.

That’s why is it so important to make sure you are certain that you can make those sorts of logical but often difficult decisions and therefore, if conservation is what you really want to do. 

What are your next steps?

I am currently trying to become more involved with the IUCN. I’m on a couple of regional expert committees for West and Central Africa and I also work very closely with the Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group. Right now, we are working on a conservation action plan for all of the mangabey, mandrill and drill species, because they are all very closely related to one another, relatively unknown, yet highly threatened. 

So, I am working on broadening my networks by being involved with other organisations and seeing how we can work more collaboratively. 

Are you interested in a career in zoo conservation and want to learn more? Check out BZS’s website and Facebook page

You can also read more zoo conservation articles on our Careers Advice Blog.


Main image credit: Bristol Zoological Society.


Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Project Manager