Podcast: Suzanne Smith | Amazon River Dolphin Conservation Foundation
When you think about the Amazon basin and the vast area of dense jungle and vegetation, do you think about seeing dolphins? Me neither.
Today we’re talking to Suzanne Smith, the Executive Director and Founder of the Amazon River Dolphin Conservation Foundation. This is a charity set up in 2014 to conserve the species through research, education and collaboration efforts.
Suzanne has worked with marine mammals for over 30 years and in this podcast we explore her career journey to establishing the charity. We also discuss her passion for this remarkable and unique species, and her work with local communities in the Brazilian Amazon basin to study and conserve the dolphin.
Now when many fires in the Amazon are still currently burning, long forgotten by international press and media, it’s a timely reminder about how diverse and important this area of the planet is for our wildlife. Enjoy.
You can listen and subscribe to the Conservation Careers Podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Stitcher using the following links, or search for ‘conservation careers’ and you’ll find us!
Discuss Amazon River Dolphin Conservation Foundation Podcast
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SUZANNE: My name is Suzanne Smith and I am the Executive Director of the Amazon River Dolphin Conservation Foundation which I founded in 2014.
NICK: Tell me about your background with river dolphins then. What led you to start your own non-profit, you know? How or why did you fall in love with the species?
SUZANNE: So I have been working with marine mammals for, oh my goodness, over 30 years. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend most of that time with dolphins but I have worked with other marine species as well. And my first trip to Brazil was about 20 years ago with another conservation project and I saw these river dolphins. And I saw some very interesting activities that were going on, and if you’ve never seen them, or even if you’ve just seen pictures of them, you see immediately how unique the species is. And they just look so primitive and they’re very different from their ocean counterparts. So they just fascinated me right from the beginning. And I was lucky enough to revisit Brazil six years ago and saw how much the activities have changed and it just drew me in even more and I have just stayed on that path and it’s just really focused on what is happening down there with the species.
NICK: So what do they look like and how would you sort of characterise river dolphins? What’s unique about them?
SUZANNE: Oh my goodness, well just looking at them, if you think of the typical bottlenose dolphin that most everybody knows, the dolphin that we all know, everybody knows that face. But the river dolphins have their rostrum, you know that beak, right in the front of their face, it is extremely long. It’s extremely long and it helps them navigate through the flooded forest and it’s just really neat. And that leads into something else that’s really interesting about the river dolphin and they can actually turn their heads almost 180 degrees, unlike the other dolphin species. That’s very interesting. And their pectoral fins are huge, they’re like these big, huge boat oars, that really help them paddle through the water. So they’ve got some very interesting features that you can see, just from the get-go looking at them.
NICK: That’s great. I’ve seen little snippets, you know, on the television, on YouTube, they have some really interesting behaviours where they go into flooded forests to hunt, is that right? They’re not just in the Amazon as a river, obviously the Amazon floods over a huge base, and then you’ll find them almost, I guess, inland, what would be land at certain times of the year, they’re in there hunting.
SUZANNE: Yes that’s absolutely correct. So a lot of people don’t realise just how drastically the Amazon river can either rise or fall, and it can be about 40’ difference. So when the river comes up and it’s high water season, the dolphins can go right into the forest. It’s really interesting…
NICK: (laughter) It’s bizarre.
SUZANNE: It’s really bizarre, you know, the first time I saw it I was sitting in this little canoe in the middle of the forest and sure enough, this dolphin just went swimming by, and it’s just the strangest thing but it’s really neat.
NICK: That’s beautiful. And what are their behaviours like? You’ve mentioned some of their morphology and where they’re found, what are they sort of like? Are they individuals? Do they have certain characteristics?
SUZANNE: They certainly do. And as a species they’re really curious. And they actually come into these riverside communities a little bit more than we might see in other species, interact with people. And they are really playful, you know, we talk about them swimming in the flooded forest. I have seen them jump up out of the water to take leaves off of branches and they will just play with these leaves and these seed pods for hours on end. So they’re just a really playful species too.
NICK: That’s great. And actually, you know, if anyone goes to your website, and we’ll pop a link in the description – ardcf.org, I think there’s a picture of a dolphin playing with what looks like a seed painted over defects right at the top of your homepage so I think people will know exactly what that looks like if they go have a visit, right?
SUZANNE: (laughter) yeah.
NICK: So tell me a little bit more about why you chose to set up a charity. Why did you feel a charity was needed? What’s the plight of the river dolphin?
SUZANNE: So one of the biggest issues that really got my attention several years ago when I went down is the illegal hunting. Sure, we hear about habitat degradation, habitat destruction that’s happening all over the globe and certainly those things are also happening in the Amazon. But what a lot of people don’t know is that there is illegal hunting of the river dolphins and what makes it even worse is they are using them as bait to catch catfish. There’s a species of catfish called piracachinga and there is some demand from neighbouring countries that want this fish. So they use the Amazon river dolphins as bait. They go and illegally hunt and kill these animals and they put them in bait boxes to catch the catfish and then they send the catfish out and it’s normally sent out underneath a different name. So I was learning that in some areas it is believed that thousands of river dolphins are being killed, just for this one particular issue, you know, and this doesn’t even go into all of the other challenges that they face. So that one really caught my attention and I found extremely alarming.
NICK: Why are they targeting dolphins as bait? You know, is it just because it’s a large species you get a lot of meat on an individual, if I can put it that crudely? Or are they…
SUZANNE: A lot of meat and a lot of fat in that… oils, so they believe that the catfish is more attracted to the river dolphin meat than anything else.
NICK: Because of the smell and the oil and they can kind of chuck in… I understand.
SUZANNE: Exactly, exactly.
NICK: So how is the population doing of river dolphins and how has it changed over time? You mentioned there maybe even thousands have been killed. How many individuals are there around nowadays?
SUZANNE: It’s very hard to take count because it is such a huge, as you can imagine, as we all know how big the Amazon river is without even really knowing the specifics, you just know that the Amazon river is huge. And up until last year, the Amazon river dolphin was considered data deficient. They really didn’t have the numbers and they knew that they were being, you know, illegally hunted. Until November, just November of last year, the IUCN – which is of course the International Union for Conservation of Nature – declared that the Amazon river dolphin was an endangered species. They did put a moratorium on this illegal hunting but there are so many other factors going on, you know, just to enforce these laws in such a huge area is such a great undertaking, so we know that it’s still happening but we don’t have an idea to what extent. And that moratorium is actually supposed to be revisited at the end of this year.
NICK: So you set up the charity before the official listing as endangered, you were kind of slightly ahead of realising there were threats there.
SUZANNE: Correct. Absolutely.
NICK: Things need to be addressed, you know. And now, in a sense, I don’t want to put words in your mouth but it feels like the global community have woken up to this fact, right?
SUZANNE: I hope so, I hope so because, you know, like I said, the illegal hunting is certainly of major concern but then you do take into account the habitat degradation, habitat destruction, the mining, the agriculture, the pollution, I mean the list for the Amazon river dolphin, it just goes on and on and they certainly need a lot of help.
NICK: Yeah, and they must be, I guess, just almost symbolic of the threats that face that whole region and all the species that are found within it.
SUZANNE: Absolutely, and you know, I like to make the unfortunate comparison for anyone who knows about the baiji over in Asia which is another river dolphin that was declared functionally extinct in 2008. That species was facing a lot of the same issues, never mind this illegal hunting. So there’s a lot of factors that are stacked up against the Amazon river dolphin.
NICK: Sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you, Suzanne.
SUZANNE: Indeed, indeed. But we’ve got great people on our board, we’ve got great people down in Brazil in the Amazon that know about it and are learning about it and want to preserve and conserve the species as well.
NICK: So you set up this charity five years ago, something like that?
NICK: Tell me about, you know, day one, charity has just started, you know. How do you go about setting up a conservation project from scratch to tackle such, you know, huge issues? What have you been doing?
SUZANNE: I certainly did a lot of research on how to start your own charity. As animal folks are not necessarily business-minded or how to run a non-profit so I had to do a lot of that research myself, and certainly asked some great people out there on how I could get that started, and all the legalities. So I did that and through there that has also allowed us to apply for more grants. Part of that was certainly setting up the 501C3 so that we can take donations and they’re tax deductible, which really helps out donors and things like that. So there were a lot of steps involved but we’ve made great strides, and there have been a lot of supportive organisations and a lot of supportive people out there that have given money towards the project.
NICK: And then on the ground how have you as a charity sought to kind of tackle some of these issues? What’s been your strategy, you know? Has it been a data collection exercise? Has it been a community engagement, you know? What are you doing to kind of move things forwards?
SUZANNE: It’s kind of all of those things. With so much happening, it was really kind of hard to pick one without doing another. So we look at a lot of different things, you know. Our mission statement right off the bat is to conserve the Amazon river dolphin and its environment through research, education and collaboration. We can’t do any of this if the folks down in the Amazon don’t believe in it, right? There’s no sense in us going down and beating the drums. So there’s really been kind of this fostering these relationships just with the riverside communities down there. And while doing that we started looking into other things, like what is the most important thing that we needed to know? And looking at the IUCN and knowing that the Amazon river dolphin was listed as data deficient, that was kind of one of the first tings that we looked at in terms of field work. What do we need to know? We were like, well shoot, how about starting to look at some numbers. And compiling that information. So we’re doing that. There are a lot of animals that we see regularly. So we also started some photo identification catalogues. So those are kind of the two big things that we really tackle when we’re out on the river. And then all along the way we are talking to different riverside communities and really fostering those relationships and helping them out and that’s really been beautiful as well. It’s a really well-rounded project.
NICK: Yeah, so I was reading also on your website, you know, that you say that the fate of dolphins have been intertwined with people for millennia. What are you finding when you kind of go and talk to a new community for the first time, you start engaging with them about Amazon river dolphins? Obviously we hear some of the threats, you know, which are human-centric, but you know, are they also of importance to local people? Are you welcomed?
SUZANNE: I am very welcomed, and it’s been wonderful. These folks down there, they absolutely mean the world to me and it has been just as much a part of the project as the Amazon river dolphins themselves. And the stories that we’re starting to get, I started recording stories that people wanted to tell me about the river dolphins. They kind of know me as the dolphin girl and they all know when I’m out on the river. Sometimes I don’t even know how they know. And they will show up in the canoe out of nowhere to come say hello.
NICK: The dolphins too (laughter).
SUZANNE: Yeah the dolphins too, absolutely. So I started recording these stories a couple of years ago. And they kind of run the gamut, so one of the neatest things I think is there’s this legend. So in the Amazon they call the river dolphin botos, it’s B-O-T-O. And they believe from a long time ago that the river dolphins are shapeshifters. So the legend goes that, you know, in these riverside communities when they’re having their fiestas at night and they’re listening to their music and they’re drinking Cachaça and having a party, this very handsome man will come into the village and he is wearing a white hat. And they believe that this man wears the white hat to cover his blowhole. So he’s very handsome and he’s very charming and he seduces the ladies. And then the next morning the mysterious man has disappeared but nine months later there may be a new baby in the village. So there’s really kind of this neat legend of the boto and I’ve met elders in some of the riverside communities that get very nervous when I am in the water. They get very nervous if their young granddaughter is swimming in the river, they go, oh, no, no, no, no, no, you need to… you need to come out of the water, the botos will get you and they say they will take you to this underwater enchanted world. So there are some really different stories about the river dolphins (laughter).
NICK: That sounds amazing, yeah. And you mentioned there as well, you get in the water. Now have you actually jumped in with them? What sort of experience do you have there?
SUZANNE: I do, so there are some areas where, as you can imagine, people go down to the riverside, they’re either fishing, they’re washing clothes, that’s where they bathe. And you can see these river dolphins not too far off in the distance. They’re right there. And then there are a few areas where the river dolphins will actually come in like right up to some of these folks in the riverside communities. So it’s been pretty neat to see how they interact not only with people who go down right to the edge. But I’ve also seen them around when some of these folks are also out in their canoes fishing. So there’s kind of this relationship where the fishermen might be dropping their nets to catch fish and the dolphins are nearby either corralling them into nets or finding an opportunistic moment where they can snag dinner for themselves.
NICK: Yeah, they’re a clever species aren’t they. And you hear about other species around the world doing that too, but that’s real sort of symbiosis.
SUZANNE: Yes, exactly.
NICK: Beautiful. So it would be really interesting to hear a little bit more about your story too. You know, we’ve heard about where you are now, what you’re doing and why you set things up but what was your career and life before river dolphins came along, if I can put it that way?
SUZANNE: (laughter) So I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States and I was very fortunate that my father always had a boat and he was an avid diver so I spent a lot of time out on the ocean and I certainly had a love for the ocean and all of the creatures in the ocean from a very young age from my father. And then as I got older I wanted my life to somehow be intertwined with them in my profession. So I started at a very young age volunteering at the New England Aquarium, which is a major public aquarium in Boston, and I learned a lot about a lot of different animals in the aquarium. Even though I always knew my focus would be on marine mammals but I was very fortunate as a teenager to meet some wonderful mentors who taught me not only about different fish species but I was fortunate enough to help in their rescue and rehabilitation programme, you know, they would help rescue harbour seals and grey seals and an occasional Atlantic white-sided dolphin and there were some harbour porpoises in there. So I really learned a lot and just continued to work with marine mammal species all over the country. Up until six years ago when I revisited Brazil and just, the river dolphins just took my breath away again and I just knew that they needed help and I had the expertise for marine mammals to be able to help but really wanted it to be a coordinated collaboration, not just me storming in saying, oh well I know about dolphins and I know about marine mammals and you should really do this and you should really do that. And that’s a lot of where that relationship comes in with the riverside communities down there, and it’s been wonderful.
NICK: Yeah, I can sort of hear how your kind of history has kind of woven in to get you to where you are, and it’s really fascinating to hear that you had mentors as well in the early days, who kind of helped to kind of cement your passion to, I assume, give you some specific knowledges and experiences which kind of led you along. What kind of jobs have you had or places have you worked? And what did you study?
SUZANNE: So while I was working, I started volunteering at the New England Aquarium actually when I was in high school. And then I went to a college just up the road, just 20 minutes north of Boston, a place called Salem State, it’s called Salem State University now. Back in the old days it was smaller so it was Salem State College. And I originally started off as a marine biology major, that was the subject that I was accepted into. But as a couple of years went by and I was studying organic chemistry and physics 1 and physics 2 and all of those things, while that was important it was really more the behaviour of the animals that struck me. So I ended up changing my major and I became a psychology major. So my degree is in psychology with a biology, you know, sort of minor. And so I continued to work at New England Aquarium through college as well, in the different departments so I could learn a little bit about all different ocean species. And then I continued to work at other large aquariums that are accredited by AZA or the Alliance, and I’ve been able to further my knowledge on those species.
NICK: And it’s interesting that you’ve got a major in psychology. Do you think that’s kind of helped you in your career at all, or in your interactions with people? You know, people so often say, you get into wildlife conservation because you’re passionate about animals but then you quickly realise it’s all about working with people. Someone with a background and training in psychology might have an advantage there.
SUZANNE: Absolutely. And you know, a lot of people don’t realise that when you study psychology, if you were taking specific courses you might study theory of learning, for example, and then you start getting into Skinner and all the work that he did on behaviour with lab rats, and you talk about Pavlov, right? Everybody knows the story about the ringing bell, when the bell rings, the dog salivates. So all of that animal behaviour? That’s all psychology. And that was something that I didn’t realise either, I was actually quite miserable studying organic and inorganic chemistry and I went to my professor who was a comparative vertebrate anatomy professor, and I said, what am I going to do? My whole life I’ve wanted to work with marine mammals, but not in this capacity. And he said to me, have you ever thought of studying psychology? And it was like a light bulb. And it was amazing. So it cut a lot of red tape and switched on over and it became far more useful in what I wanted to study about marine mammals than some of the other courses that I was taking in marine biology.
NICK: That’s really interesting isn’t it. Maybe we need more psychologists in the movement.
NICK: So what next then? We’ve heard about your story, you know, what you’ve been doing now. I hear you’re going back down to the Amazon again quite soon? What’s that mission all about?
SUZANNE: I am. So I’m going down in a few days, I try to at least one time a year… I’m doing about two trips where I take people down essentially for an eco-tour type trip. And I take about 20 people and it could be students and professors, it could be animal care professionals, it could be just a travel enthusiast, or someone who just likes animals but might not necessarily be in that profession. I’ve had attorneys, I’ve had teachers from elementary schools. So I’m going to be taking them down and we stay on a boat for ten days and I essentially show them around the Amazon and I also take them to these specific areas where we are doing our conservation studies on the Amazon river dolphins and just give people a chance to learn about the Amazon. There’s so much that people can learn, and of course, as you know, unless you’re really there, you know, we have these great programmes on Discovery and Animal Planet, but when you’re really there and immersed in the Amazon river, or you’re in one of these riverside communities and learning about the culture, that’s when the love and respect really comes in and it really hits home. And I want to be able to teach people about that and have them see it and experience it first-hand. So then they have the passion to either just help or to continue to go down there on their own.
NICK: Sounds amazing. Gosh, it sounds lovely. What do you hope to see? What would be some of the highlights you’d hope to kind of showcase people?
SUZANNE: Of course, you know, we love the Amazon river dolphin but it’s not just about them on these trips. We see all different other types of species as well. Gosh, we see so many sloths, we see blue and gold macaws, we go fishing for piranha. Piranha is very good eating so we have some piranha dinners which is very nice.
NICK: (laughter) Not in the same place you swim, hopefully yeah?
SUZANNE: (laughter) No. And then spending a lot of time in the communities like I’ve mentioned, learning about their way of life. Some communities have a really strong background in fishing, so we might learn about that. They make farinha from manioc so we’re learning a lot about that. And we… there’s one village where we go where we love to play soccer. Or rather yet, they love to play soccer against us. I am pretty embarrassing but it’s just so much fun, just to learn that way of life. And as you know, there have been some fires that have been getting the headlines, and I don’t really know exactly what is happening where, so it’ll be really nice to get back down there and get a sense of what’s really happening, the stories that are coming out are a little distorted and contradictory. So I’m anxious to get down there and see what’s happening.
NICK: Yeah, and it really hit the news oh, a few weeks back now, didn’t it, that the lungs of the earth are burning down in the Amazon basin. But just before the chat we were just saying it’s gone quiet, but you know, the fires are still going on down there. So you must be really deeply concerned and wanting to go and experience, you know, what your study sites are like and how…
SUZANNE: Yes, I am indeed. So hopefully that will give us an opportunity to come back around on the other side and I can give you and your listeners some more stories about what’s happening down there.
NICK: Yeah, I think we’d love to hear that too, absolutely. Just going back to the groups that you’ve had on board, do you get people who are looking to, not just experience nature, but actually to work in wildlife conservation? Maybe some of the students and the professors, thing like that? And if you do, what advice do you give them from a careers perspective, you know? Someone comes to you and said, Suzanne I’d love to do what you’re doing, I’d love to follow in your footsteps. What are the kind of key bits of advice you’d offer them?
SUZANNE: One of our board members is Dr Tim Miller-Morgan who runs the Aquatic Animal Health Programme at Oregon State University. So it is not uncommon for us to have students on our trips, and we’re going to be working with another university, I have another professor coming down on this next trip who is wanting to set up a curriculum for her students as well. So we have onboard presentations and discussions about conservation and biology and physiology that students certainly learn so much from by just being a part of it and listening to these lectures on board. And then it’s kind of just a matter of what is their niche? What are they most interested in because of course, certainly with me, it’s the Amazon river dolphin but I’ve been taught very well to kind of have this well-rounded respect for the entire ecosystem, so I know it takes all of them. But there are some people that like to focus even more. Maybe it’s the ornamental fish industry. Maybe it is the floss. Maybe we have an agriculturist in the making, someone who wants to study birds. We see all of that. So it’s kind of a matter of them figuring out what interests them and hopefully either through me or someone like that Dr Tim who can then help kind of give them a roadmap on how they can proceed from there.
NICK: And what sort of things might be on the roadmap? Have you got suggestions? I guess it depends upon the niche as you say of where they want to go, what their target job is, but are there certain things that most people should consider?
SUZANNE: When I think of fieldwork I see a lot of graduate students. So certainly going to college, not only for your undergrad but then maybe considering going on to grad school as well, so you can focus and do those specific research projects that might be of interest to you. And then being able to contribute that way to the population and to the scientific literature that may be on a specific species. That is certainly a good way and then, you know, maybe it’s not the Amazon, maybe it’s, you know, it’s a species found some place else in the country, and I would recommend getting there. Do what you can to get there. You know, I understand travel is tough in terms of finances but you do what you can to make it happen, and especially when you’re young, I’m sure you have a lot of students who are listening and you just make it happen. You get there and you worry about that stuff later (laughter). Which is what I do sometimes because, you know, for any of us, tomorrow is not guaranteed, right? And I hear so many people, maybe a little bit older than college students, but I hear a lot of people say, oh some day I’ll do that, some day I’ll do that. And I’ve had people telling me that for five years that still haven’t had an opportunity to go down to the Amazon and I just feel like life passes you by so grab the bull by the horns, so to speak and get to it.
NICK: Make it happen, absolutely, yeah. If there are people listening thinking, you know, I’ve got this certain passion, I think I’d like to start a charity up to conserve whatever it might be, would you recommend starting your own charity as a good route? What would the kind of pros and cons of doing it be?
SUZANNE: Well, not necessarily. For the Amazon river dolphin specifically, there wasn’t anything. I certainly looked at that in terms of how can I get involved, how can I help? And I was not finding any organisations at all. So that’s what kind of led to it. So certainly whatever you’re interests are, I would first do some searches and see if there’s an organisation that’s already doing that, because there’s no sense in having two organisations if you’re working towards the same goal, right? Better to work as a team.
NICK: Yeah, that makes total sense. Absolutely. And in your mission statement you talk about collaboration which is all about, you know, building partnerships with others, not working in isolation and that’s what conservation’s all about as well, so yeah, that kind of feeds in really nicely to that. Now you touched on there as well like, you know, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed but I want to kind of look forward so I hope it is guaranteed for both of us (laughter). Let’s look forward ten years from now if we can. So you’re about six years old as an organisation right now? Oh no, you turn six next year, sorry yeah.
SUZANNE: Correct, yes.
NICK: That’s right, five.
SUZANNE: Just turned five over the summer.
NICK: Right, ok. Happy birthday! Where do you hope to be ten years from now? Are you hopeful for the future? You know, do you think that the challenges can be tackled, things can be turned around or where do you see things looking forwards?
SUZANNE: I am certainly hopeful. I think not only just in my position but I think as a person on this earth, and I think we all have to be hopeful, right? That’s what we can all have, it’s certainly some place to start. I believe that people are becoming more aware of the damage that we are doing, that we are causing to this planet. It’s the one and only planet we have and we need to take care of it and we’ve been doing a lousy job of it. So I think that is coming more to light and I think we are starting to see more movements on how we can improve our lifestyles and preserving this amazing planet that we have, whether it’s in the oceans or in the rivers or the mountains. We need to start taking care of it. So I am hopeful but it is definitely an upward climb and we all have to come together to make it happen.
NICK: Absolutely, yeah. And it’s been a real pleasure having you on the podcast today and listening to your story, getting to know you a little bit as well Suzanne, thank you so much for finding the time.
SUZANNE: You are so welcome Nick, thank you so much for the opportunity. It’s been great to talk to you.
NICK: Likewise. I wish you all the best for the future, good luck with the upcoming trip and hopefully there’ll be many more to follow. If people wanted to find out a little bit more about Amazon River Dolphin Conservation Foundation and your work, if they wanted to support you or to hop in and be part of one of your trips, where should we point them?
SUZANNE: I think the best place to start is right on our website which is www.ardcf.org. We also have a Facebook page which is pretty active, I try to stay on top of that one so that one has a lot of immediate announcements and a lot of updates kind of on the spot. So either one of those places is a great place to start and learn more about it.
NICK: That’s fab. And it would be nice to circle back and hear about how your upcoming trip goes, so we look forward to hearing that as well.
SUZANNE: Wonderful, I’ll be looking forward to telling you all about it.
NICK: (laughter) Ok, well until then you take care, and we’ll be in touch again soon.
SUZANNE: Sounds good, thanks Nick.
NICK: All the best, bye now. Thank you.
SUZANNE: Bye bye.
NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that everyone, if you did then please do hit that ‘subscribe’ button to get notified when new episodes are live and also give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you enjoy the interviews we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free e-book, which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please tweet them to @ConserveCareers, we’d love to hear from you. Ok, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out.