Working to save Gunung Palung Orangutans

Victoria Gehrke’s career has taken her half way across the world as Programme Director at the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project deep in the forests of Indonesian Borneo.

However, travelling for the job is not something uncommon for Victoria. Previously she worked on lemur conservation research in Madagascar, coral reef restoration in Honduras, and as a conservation biologist and wildlife rehabilitator in Costa Rica. 

With over a decade of experience, Victoria provides a unique insight into wildlife conservation field work. This interview gives a glimpse into her clear passion for wildlife conservation but, more importantly, conveys the real life issues for those on the front line. 

Why do you work in conservation?

My first and very simple answer is, I love wildlife and ecology. 

Growing up in Sweden, I had really good access to nature, with lots of intact wilderness. It is part of our daily life and culture. The more I learnt about ecology, I realised how interconnected everything is, from the smallest symbiotic relationship to the massive global biosphere. 

I have been fortunate to work with some absolutely incredible wildlife and being able to witness them free in pristine reefs, grand savannah, or primary rainforest made it clear to me that I need to do everything I can to protect it. I don’t know if it is because I love wild animals or if it feels like I have some intrinsic moral responsibility (probably a little bit of both), but deep wild places of the world are shrinking and I need to make sure I am doing what I can to safeguard what’s left. 

What are your main activities in your current role?

My current role as programme director focuses on management and implementation of our in-situ conservation programme in West Borneo Indonesia. Our programme uses a multi-faceted community-based approach to conservation where we have five main projects. I oversee the conservation programmes: Environmental Education, Wildlife Crime Investigation, Sustainable Livelihoods and Customary Forests.

I coordinate with the project managers of each programme and the teams that are in the field. Generally, I write a lot of grant proposals and correspond with staff members to make sure conservation objectives are met. I work to develop and implement strategic plans and evaluate programme success. 

Data is continuously collected on all of these programmes to measure indicators of success and to quantifiably (where possible) evaluate the effectiveness of our progress in reaching our long-term goals of wildlife protection and habitat conservation.

This isn’t always as straightforward as it might seem. For projects such as environmental education, behaviour change is notoriously difficult to measure and results are often only seen in the long term. However, we can measure the number of students attending presentations at the schools, how many presentations we give, how many schools we work with, and we also do pre and post- knowledge reviews to evaluate the education program.

Customary Forests is one of my favourite programmes; it is a national social forestry scheme somewhat based on the concept idea of the REDD programme (Reduction of Emissions through Deforestation and Forest Degradation). We work to give land rights back to Indigenous people and provide a financial incentive (agroforestry) to protect biologically important forest. This gives oversight to the government, but the rights and responsibility back to the locals who will work to protect their forests for their sakes as well as the wildlife. A holistic and economically viable approach, and I believe is the way forward for conservation.

We work closely with the communities to provide legal support for these land rights, biodiversity surveys, guidance in land management. Most importantly capacity building so that individuals and communities will be able to run their own small (sustainable) businesses within agroforestry or selling Non-timber Forest Products (organic honey, coconut oil, forest coffee, handicrafts bags, mats and bracelets from sustainably harvested pandanus plant, and lots more). 

What is the best part of your job?

The best part for me always is the wildlife. I have seen wild orangutans in one of the arguably oldest primary rainforests in the world, Gunung Palung National Park – one of the few last wild strongholds in the world. I am very lucky to have had opportunities through my work to travel to vulnerable, remote places in the world. Witnessing the amazing endangered wildlife in these pristine rainforest, cloud forest mountains, and coral reefs. I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world, it is the best thing! 

The second-best thing is that I get to share and learn in-depth information about specific conservation strategy from different organisations, as well as different projects successes and failures. I have realised from the places I have worked how much regions and even governments can depend on NGOs (non-governmental organisations) for resources, guidance and science due to lack of funding, manpower or resources of their own. The amount I have been able to learn through on-the-job-experience is incredibly valuable to me.

What is the worst part of your job?

I am very clear about the worst part of the job, because myself and my colleagues work on the front line of conservation and are often in places of severe poverty or political unrest. We do witness first hand the destruction of nature and the callousness toward animal life and even human life at times.

People sometimes ask, “Why do you care more about the wildlife than about humans?” In situations like this I need explain about the work being carried out and the projects in place that are specifically designed to help the local populations as well as wildlife. Local change for wildlife conservation goes hand-in-hand with sustainable community development. They are the ones living and working there making the difference, not scientists or politicians miles away. More often than not people make the connection of a holistic approach and then understand what you are trying to do but that isn’t always the case. 

If you look at the conflict facing rangers in Virunga, it is horrifying, and happens a lot more than the media reports. During my time in Indonesia two people were arrested and one was killed for investigating palm oil. It is tough mentally when there is a potential threat to your or your colleagues safety.

When I tell people I have been living in Indonesia for the past year, everyone imagines Bali and beautiful beaches, but they couldn’t be more wrong. The reality of conservation is that most of the places that require help are typically areas of economic hardship, political injustice and limited funding. This can be challenging, especially for long term projects meaning it’s not just a ‘’quick fix.” The point being that you must keep your wits about you, expect cultural and physical challenges wherever you go and to stay focused on your goal even in the face of hardship. 

What are your career highlights?

This is a difficult question because nothing I do is just down to my efforts; there are a lot of people working together on a project. When a grant proposal I wrote for a project is accepted it is always a massive highlight because you know that money is essential to be able to keep the project running or expanding. 

I have many small highlights; one of which was seeing the Blue-Eyed Black Lemurs in the wild in Madagascar as part of my research there. Although I wasn’t involved in the general production other than consulting, the lemurs I researched are being featured in the new BBC nature documentary series  ‘Primates’.  That was very exciting for me because I love these beautiful animals and so many people will now get to see them in the wild where they belong! 

What lessons have you learnt?

Don’t be afraid to be tenacious. Do everything in your power to keep motivated, stay passionate and be ambitious about what you want to do both personally and in your career.

It can be easy to lose motivation as conservation isn’t just a career; it’s a lifestyle as we are often immersed in the environment or project we’re in. If you start to feel overworked take a break or a step back to see what it is you’re doing and refocus. Talk with your boss and colleagues, or people from other organisations/institutes.

People in this industry are all working towards a common goal and I have found are generally willing to help meet this, be that a grant proposal, a piece of data analysis, or even a lesson learnt from failures/successes. Conservation is a community. 

What key steps in your conservation career have you taken?

I could say networking, education or volunteering interchangeably first- whichever lets you experience the job you want to have and meet some people who can inspire you. 

Volunteering is a good first, short term, step. You are not committing to one permanent position providing a unique opportunity to try different roles and projects to decide what you enjoy. I’ve had volunteers working with me for specific projects who realised primates wasn’t really their thing but discovered their passion lay with birds. Having the time to figure out your key interests and talk to people who share the same passion is really important in developing your career path. 

I completed my bachelors degree in order to gain a good background in my area of interest,  followed by several years working in the field. At a point, I realised I’d saturated all my knowledge at that current level so decided to work towards my masters to learn more to reach my next step. 

Not being afraid to put myself out there, contacting different people, starting conversations about possible opportunities and being enthusiastic about what I have to offer as an employee.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow a similar path?

Always demonstrate your ambition and willingness to learn. Even if you go into an interview not having all the desired qualifications or experience, amplifying your willingness to learn new skills and commitment to working hard is a highly valued quality in the field. 

Don’t loose your own self worth; what you have done and what you have experienced is unique to you. You are the only person who has taken in and interpreted that knowledge. Spending time volunteering for two weeks or two months, take that experience and use it to take you to the next step and so on. 

Don’t let people take advantage of you, which unfortunately can be very easy in this industry. I was offered my dream job in Madagascar about four years ago. I remember thinking to myself, “finally my life is complete – I get to live on these beautiful islands working with my favourite species, carrying out vital scientific research.”

Then when they sent me the contract it was offering me $100 a month, excluding visa and flight costs. It was heart breaking because I knew this was not a realistic long term job I could sustain myself on. I was at a point in my career where I can no longer volunteer my time and work for free. With difficulty I declined the offer but the following year I completed my master’s degree and other opportunities have appeared since then. 

Just because one possible opportunity doesn’t work out, it does not mean others won’t. Don’t give up!

Want more? Visit the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project website to explore their work.

Project Manager, Senior Level, Interviews, Careers Advice