Podcast: Adam Barlow | WildTeam UK

In this episode of the Conservation Careers Podcast, Nick Askew speaks to Adam Barlow, Executive Director WildTeam UK. WildTeam UK help conservationists to achieve more through expert training in project design and management. In this episode Adam shares his exciting career so far helping to conserve tigers, working with local communities, and now supporting conservationists to be even better. During the podcast Adam also shares some really practical and innovative advice for how you can get your first paying dream job as a conservationist!

NOTE: If you want help if you job hunt or career switch, then check out our special joint training course here.

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Audio Transcript

NICK: Joining me this week is Adam Barlow who’s the Executive Director of WildTeam UK. Conservation Careers and WildTeam, we are doing lots together nowadays to help people in their job hunt and train people up to get clear about their career and to get good project management skills training so I thought it would be really fun to get Adam on to hear a bit more about his career so far, what it’s like to be Executive Director of WildTeam, what WildTeam are here to do and how they can help you and then we’ll also talk a little bit about careers advice towards the end too. So welcome Adam, how are you doing?

ADAM: I’m well thanks, I feel like I’m on an episode of Desert Island Discs.

NICK: Yeah what is your favourite song and what would you like to take with you to the island?

ADAM: Ah that’s a good question, well my favourite song at the moment is “Werewolf of London” by Simon Zibu. I’m not going to sing it for you. But it’s got a wildlife connection, it’s got, you know, an animal wandering around London looking for a Chinese. I think that’s relevant. I think every conservationist could connect to that.

NICK: Typical Friday night!

ADAM: Yeah.

NICK: Well thanks for taking the time to chat. It’s great to have you on. As I say, we’re kind of working together more closely nowadays but I’d really kind of like to hear, and I’m sure the listeners would like to hear too, a little bit about your career story so far. As much as I know you’ve been working in wildlife for around what, 16-17 years, something like that?

ADAM: Yup, yup. I suppose I started off involuntarily in a way, I finished off a degree in biochemistry and I didn’t want to work in the lab, who wants to work in a lab, so I just wanted to travel the world really. But I got brought, by a friend, I got dragged on to a sea turtle conservation project that I didn’t want to go on and just had a bit of an experience.

When I was sitting behind a sea turtle watching it lay its eggs I thought, this is what I want to do, didn’t know what it was exactly so I went to the library, got a lot of books out, inevitably read about very big charismatic animals. One week I was going to do something with elephants, the next week snow leopards. And then quite a few books of course turned me towards tigers and so I thought, ok I’m going to do something with tigers. That’s about as detailed a thought as I had at the time.

NICK: What sort of age were you then? This is, sort of, early twenties? Something like that?

ADAM: This would be early twenties, yeah, about 22 I guess, yeah. And so I thought, ok let’s do something with this. Read some more books, wrote to some people that had written the books, they all said no apart from one person, he said no over email. So I emailed him a lot, he said no a lot. So I turned up where he was working in Nepal, rang him up and he realised he couldn’t get rid of me that easily so we had a chat, he put me on a little project and it all kind of started from there. From there I did a bit of work in a safari lodge, did a bit of research, then did an MS PhD, started a project in Bangladesh and then started up things in the UK.

NICK: So just rewinding briefly then, back to Nepal, you’d had all these noes and one yes – well no, let’s get this right, he didn’t say yes, he just merely emailed you back and you then persisted with him and you just took a flight out there on the off-chance that you could actually spend a bit of time and connect with a project that he was running, is that right?

ADAM: Yes, yeah, exactly. I didn’t know he was going to be there or anything so yeah, I just went there and rang him up. I said, look I’m in Kathmandu, can I just have, you know, a twenty minute chat with you? And I seem to remember he sighed rather heavily and before saying yes (laughter) and then we had a chat and yeah, he didn’t say yes then after that conversation but he did say he knew someone who was looking for an assistant who was doing some research, so I kind of piggybacked on to that bit of work and got a good recommendation on the back of that, and then I did get some work with that first contact.

NICK: Wow, so persistence really paid off in that instance?

ADAM: In this case it could have either been a career or a small jail term and a restraining order.

NICK: So what was the focus of your PhD then, we kind of skimmed across that quite quickly but what was it you were looking at and what did you learn?

ADAM: Well, just before I did my PhD, my MS was on camera trapping tigers in Nepal and then Nepal kind of went to hell with the civil war, I couldn’t really do the work I wanted to do there so my PhD started, again my advisor was going over to Bangladesh and I kind of went along for the ride. He was trying to collar tigers there to learn about how they lived and working with a guy called  Bart Schleyer, who captured a lot of tigers in Russia, he was an expert at it. And they’d been out there for a couple of seasons trying to catch tigers, no one had collared a tiger there before. And so we kind of started from there, really. The first point of work on my PhD was to collar tigers and follow them around, and then I looked into population monitoring and human wildlife conflict.

NICK: So how do you catch a tiger?

ADAM: In different places, it takes different techniques. In the Sundarbans we used… they use cages now more on the Indian side, but I worked in the Bangladesh side so we used snares, which were designed in Thailand for catching tigers there.

These snares, there’s different snares basically but you put some snares around a place where you think a tiger might come, there might be a bait there, tiger comes, gets caught in the snare and that gives you the chance to get close enough to dart it so it goes to sleep, effectively. And then you stick the collar on before it wakes up, and then you run away very far.

NICK: And you were successful at doing this?

ADAM: Yeah, we caught a couple of tigers. It took a long time, it took about four months to catch our first tiger, just every day going out, checking snares and baits and everything. Yeah, we caught our first tiger, we were coming back one night from setting the snares and we came around the corner to check the last set and there was a tiger in it, quite angry, went back, got the equipment, came back, it’s pitch black, we had these head torches and you have to get very close to dart a tiger, because you have to have a projectile that is fired with enough power to put the needle in, but you don’t want it to damage the animal.

So these are very low charges, you’re 20’ away I guess and the tiger can move around quite a bit even though it’s got the snare attached to it, and it jumped at me when I first went up, but the snare held it. Put it to sleep and then spent the whole of the next day taking care of it, because it was a smaller tiger than we expected and we gave it more of a dose than we’d normally do for that size of tiger. So it didn’t give any long-lasting effects to the tiger, it just meant it took a long time for it to wake up. It was a good 24 hours nursing it and keeping people back and letting it recover till it wandered back into the forest.

NICK: Gosh, a nervous 24 hours but it went off, the tag worked?

ADAM: Yeah it all worked and we got the first satellite data from a collared tiger in the Sundarbans ever. We learnt a lot about how it used an archetypal forest, we were very surprised to find out it had a very small home range, something we weren’t expecting. That’s a great bit of information because it means if a tiger has a small territory, you can basically fit more tigers into a given landscape. So that was really exciting. We saw how it crossed quite large rivers, you could see where it clustered around when it made its kills, so it was fascinating.

NICK: So in terms of the community aspect of your research, you mentioned earlier that obviously you’ve studied the tigers and their ecology but we’ve talked previously about the importance of community based conservation and how a lot of people will come into wildlife and conservation because of their interest in animals, and actually it becomes much more of a human issue before too long. Is that something you experienced too whilst doing your research?

ADAM: Yes, definitely. I thought conservation was basically, you did some amazing science, you wrote a paper and then the government were so amazed by what you said that they immediately dropped everything and did exactly what some little 22-year-old had suggested to them in some obscure journal and I was kind of surprised, it took me a few years to find out that that sphere of change didn’t work, you know, the government wasn’t waiting for me to tell them what to do. So the kind of, give them more information and someone will do something with it, is very unlikely to make any difference, I found out in those circumstances.

So what really changed it for me and my perspective on how conservation works was when we were in the jungle on our boat, we had to get everywhere on a boat, it’s a massive mangrove forest with all these rivers criss-crossing it, and we were doing a tiger survey and we just stopped off at a forest guard post and a little boat, wooden boat, turned up at the jetty, just a paddle powered boat, there was one man paddling, and there was one man dead covered in a cloth, and there was one man just lying in this canoe with big injuries, particularly to his legs, and it turns out they were victims of a tiger attack. So if we’d left them to their own devices, they would have spent a good more than a day waiting for the tides to change, paddling up using just man-power to get 40km back to any help. So we decided just to put everyone on our boat, which wasn’t very fast but it was a lot faster than them, it had motor on it, and on the way we gave them some first aid treatment and it turns out that the guy that was injured had got injured trying to save his friend, who had got killed.

And we phoned ahead to his village to say that we were bringing up these guys, these fishermen, and by the time we got there, where we were dropping these guys off to get medical help, there was just thousands of people lining the river bank, just a whole village basically had come out to get their guys back, basically, but also this is the first time that they said that anyone had helped them in this way. People had been killed by tigers for hundreds of years there and no one had given them this kind of support, at least for this kind of village, so I really saw the power of working with people and it really brought it home to me that if we’re going to do anything with tigers here, it was really about how the local communities were interacting with tigers. And it was to help tigers directly through working with the communities themselves rather than through lofty policies and research that didn’t really make a difference to them.

NICK: Right, gosh. Sounds like a life and career changing incident in your life. Did your experience with tigers and your PhD and everything that followed from that, did that then lead directly to where you are now with WildTeam and establishing WildTeam, or were there other steps along the way?

ADAM: There was more steps. I suppose the PhD, as I think lots of them do, I kind of started drifting from research into conservation action, in a kind of organic, not well planned way. You end up loving something, an animal and a place, and you want to do something for it so you start doing things for it, whether you have money or an idea of what to do, so we started working on the conflict side of things but there was quite a few steps between that and creating WildTeam. One was the influx of skills from my now wife, Christina and she really changed how we did conservation.

NICK: What did she do?

ADAM: Well she basically got us organised. She got us to have a better plan and she gave us skills in how to implement that plan. It really made us step back and re-evaluate how we were going about things and to be really tough on ourselves about, are things working or not, are things making a difference or not. Because we were putting in a huge amount of effort but we weren’t making any difference.

NICK: What was her background, then? Where was she bringing her skills from that was helping you in your change of direction?

ADAM: She came straight from the corporate sector and she was a high power project manager working in a multi-national, sorting out banks or what have you. And she changed her skills from helping a corporate raise more funds to helping a small conservation organisation have more impact, measured in increased tigers or reducing of threats like poaching. So it was that kind of hard-nosed, organised set of skills that we didn’t have, totally transformed us but also we met the head of WildTeam Bangladesh, Anwar Islam he was running a charity called the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh.

And we were trying to get the Bangladesh, we were still in the kind of last throes of change, with the policy mindset that I’d started up, we were trying to make a Bangladesh tiger action plan and we were sitting in meetings and not getting a lot of joy from the other participants and Anwar was there, and he really took us under his wing.

He was so wonderful and generous with his support and he really changed things for us and we thought, we want to work with this guy. So we kind of joined forces, really, and developed WildTeam Bangladesh from there and built it up from a few volunteers and no money to a good 80 staff and a massive multi-national grant that led to tiger numbers increasing. And that happened over a relatively short space of time, over about 6 years.

NICK: Wow, gosh. So now you’re based in the UK, what happened?

ADAM: A number of things, really. We felt confident that we’d helped built a team with Anwar that could now do the conservation, basically, in Bangladesh, it didn’t really need us. They were doing great conservation. And we thought, well what can we do next? How can we take all the lessons learnt from Bangladesh and do conservation in other places as well? Because you only live once, you want to save the most wildlife you can. So that’s one of the thoughts. The other thought was, we had put in so much of ourselves personally into that work that I think probably we were close to breaking point, mentally and emotionally and things. I don’t think we could have carried on in that same way, so we thought we’d better step back and get ourselves some kind of work/life balance and so we decided to make a base in the UK and start things from there.

NICK: Right. So now you’re Executive Director of WildTeam UK?

ADAM: Yup.

NICK: For people who don’t know WildTeam UK, how would you best describe it to them?

ADAM: Well, we’re a non profit charity. We see ourselves as supporting conservationists, really, and helping conservationists do more, have more impact, raise more funds and on a personal, individual level but also on an organisational level. We do that by basically giving them new skills that will help them change what they do. Conservationists already have brilliant skills, in general they know so much about the wildlife they’re trying to save and they have great personal connections with people in the landscapes they work with. They know so much technical knowledge, so all we do is make that technical knowledge work harder and achieve more by giving them skills in how to design and run great projects, basically.

NICK: So very much like your wife Christine did with you guys when you were in Bangladesh, you’re now doing that on a larger scale based out of the UK.

ADAM: Exactly, yeah. We kind of package those types of skills up and give them out to whoever wants them or feels they would benefit from them.

NICK: Right, ok. And core to that is project management, that’s right. I mean the world is made up of projects and those projects need managing successfully, they need clear targets and steps and responsibilities and those sorts of things. I’m right in thinking you guys now run training courses for conservationists specifically around project management, that’s helping people either be more professional, to deliver more impact, or to become more employable, I guess, if you’re looking to get a job these are really useful skills to have?

ADAM: That’s right, yeah. This is our… there’s a few different skillsets but project management was the fundamental skillset that changed how we did things and so, it’s not rocket science skills, and once you have them they seem so obvious – well of course we should do projects like this – but until you have these skills and if you’re not applying them then you can also feel a lot of pain as a conservationist and have not as much impact as you’d like. And that was also me, I didn’t value project management skills when I was a researcher, I put them in a bucket called ‘admin’ or ‘headache’ or ‘things that I don’t want to do, I just want to go and do tiger stuff’.

Until now; now I’m a zealot because now I can see how these skills, very simple, can make a huge difference so what I’m trying to say, which is my ultimate motivation. We train organisations or individuals in project management skills and these can be simple things like how to break a project down into phases from start to finish. I used to think a project just went on forever. You’ve got tigers so you’ve got work to do. But projects are all about just breaking things down into check-points. What do you want to achieve in a given time-frame, how do we achieve that.

Without those simple steps you just have an endless amount of work without any feedback about if you’re having any effect or not. So project management can help you proactively deal with problems, you call them risks and issues in project management speak, before they occur and you’d end up doing a lot of planning for a project before you’ve even started to make sure it has a good chance of success. And then you’d have built in a lot of feedback so that when you’re doing the project, if things aren’t working, then you’ve basically got two choices – you’ve got to close the project, there’s no point keeping on doing something that’s not working, or you adapt what you’re doing to make it works.

And those are things that I was never doing before. It’s something that can transform how someone runs their conservation work. And you mentioned about helping people get jobs, and I think here, I learnt this from you when I heard about how many jobs were asking for project management skills.

NICK: It’s quite a significant proportion, it’s a very sought-after skill in the job sector when you look at entry-level jobs, and indeed mid-level jobs in conservation. You really want good team management, good communications but project management, I think almost every job will at some level involve project management and employers are looking for that, yeah.

ADAM: And that amazed me because we did a survey a few years ago, a global survey, about skills in project management and everyone in that survey was running projects but I think less than 5% of people had any recognised qualification in it. And it’s a recognised skillset. But imagine that, we’re not, as a sector, doing well enough and it’s a simple step to skill those skills. And also just for getting a job in conservation, having project management skills really will make you stand out from a crowd of people that look probably similar to you. Everyone’s got an MS, everyone’s got loads of volunteer experience but how to differentiate from anyone? Project management skills would be a big one for me, especially as an employer, that’s something I certainly look at.

NICK: If you were to wind the clock back to when you were 22 and starting your career after university and you had your project management skills that you currently do have, you know how to implement them, what different approach might you have taken to your job hunt?

ADAM: Well, I think I would have looked at it a bit more… I mean I was personally quite proactive but I think if it was in the sector now where it seems like there’s lots of jobs available and it would seem like the best option is to wait and see what job comes up and apply for it, put in your best application and sit back and wait. But now I really feel like you’ve only got one life and one career to lead and I think everyone in conservation has some kind of passion for what they want to do and how they want to work.

And I’d really advise, with the project management kind of approach, I’d really advise a more proactive focus on how to get a job and I would actually look at where I wanted to work with what animal, who’s working in that area, and I would see if I could design a bit of work and then approach the leaders of an organisation I might want to work in and say, look I’ve got this plan that I think will benefit this animal, rhinos or elephants and help the organisation, is it ok if I write a proposal with this plan and within that, I’d be in the budget.

And I think that would be a low risk ask and maybe a quick entrepreneurial way of getting a career started, rather than waiting for a job that might be ok but it might not be your dream job. Why not start with your dream job?

NICK: You’d seek to find an employer doing work that you’re really interested in. You would then work with them, is that right, to develop a project? You’d be the lead, you’d do the hard slog in terms of developing what the project would look like but you’d essentially want their name on it and if this comes through then essentially you’d be part of their team delivering a new piece of work that you helped to create and craft for them? It’s quite a novel approach, it feels like a win-win, if the money comes in then you get a job, you deliver according to your passion and also the organisation gets someone fundraising for them, essentially for free if you’re doing it as a volunteer at the beginning. And will deliver some good work hopefully through the project you deliver together.

ADAM: Yeah, I think so. So it’s just a case of, like you say, understanding the challenges or the vision of that organisation, tailoring whatever you’re doing to meet their needs, and then building the relationship with the decision-maker, slowly and carefully. And I think that could work. I think it could work better for smaller and medium sized organisations than larger ones but there’s lots of small-medium ones that want to do more, they need more funds, they need more skills, well a potential conservationist has the skills and they can use their project management skills to design a great project that could be funded.

NICK: Yeah. And actually from an employability perspective then proven fund-raising success is a really employable thing to have on your CV or resume, ‘I developed this project, it was funded and we delivered it according to this’, and hopefully it was successful as well. It’s a novel approach.

ADAM: Yeah, I mean I thought about it for other conservationists but it makes me, talking about it now, it makes me think well, maybe that’s a way, maybe I should call and say, you know, come up with some idea about what you want to do and if you want to raise money under our umbrella then let’s have a chat or something. Maybe we should be part of that as well.

NICK: Well, do you want to start that here and now?!

ADAM: Sure, yeah. I’m open to that. Anyone can look online and see what we’re trying to do, and it’s all about capacity building, it could be capacity building anywhere in the world.

NICK: Break that down for me, what does capacity building mean? Because it’s one of these terms that’s bandied around, every time I hear it I think I know it, do I know it? I don’t know.

ADAM: Yeah I use it a bit loosely, we’re really talking about skills development basically. We’re empowering conservationists to have more impact, so giving skills. It could be project management, it could be strategy development, it could be something in wildlife crime reporting, but that’s the area that we focus on and that’s where we think we can have the most impact with the smallest amount of input. So yeah, I’m open to that. Someone contacting me and thinking, I’ve got an idea of a plan, can we have a chat about it? Sure, why not.

NICK: Fabulous.

ADAM: Apart from you, I know you already.

NICK: I’m not eligible, ok. Fair enough, that’s great. Have you got any other advice for people in the job market right now? Lots of young people looking to get their first job or even people mid-career looking to switch into wildlife conservation, it’s their passion. You’ve talked about quite an innovative approach to the job hunt using project management strategies but what other stuff should people be thinking about if they’re trying to secure their first paid employment?

ADAM: I’d never thought of it in terms of securing a career when I was that age. I just thought I just wanted to hang out with a particular animal in a particular place and just have adventures, that’s what I wanted. I would have done anything for that. But what I didn’t really realise at that point, and maybe it would have been helpful if I’d have got there quicker, would be to think that you are securing your whole future, potentially, you are asking someone to basically, if they’re going to employ you for five years, you’re asking them to basically give you £100,000 or whatever the equivalent salary scale would be for that period of time.

It’s a really big ask and so there’s no, you can’t prepare enough for that ask basically. So you’ve got to really understand that the value of their making that decision and starting your career and put in more effort than you think you should need to to get your foot in the door. Just sitting around spending a couple of hours writing a letter and maybe reformatting your CV, that’s not good enough.

That’s not going to get you in the door for most jobs so you need to do more work, get to know the organisation, get to know what they’re after on a personal level, expand your network. I think the more people you know within the sector, the more likely that they’re going to look out for you and either when you apply, they’re going to say this person’s good, you should have look at this person, or they might see something coming up that would be an opportunity that you could jump on. So build your network. Don’t sit at home staring at your laptop and the job list, although that’s a very good starting point. You have to do more than that to get a career I think.

NICK: And I’m always surprised just how small a world conservation is. You think there’s an infinite number of people out there doing wildlife conservation, well actually there isn’t and more often than not you’ll meet someone like you and I, we’ll have people in common that we know. So actually networking, although it’s a bit of a buzz word and people recommend it, it’s a really useful thing. Get yourself out there, meet people, get in front of people and form those connections. As a kind of finishing thought, really, we hear in the news really negative stories about conservation and species that are going extinct rapidly and we seem to be losing a lot of battles and possibly even the war at the moment, in terms of turning things around for threatened wildlife around the globe.

Are you optimistic about the future? Do you think that we… are we wasting our time as conservationists or are we all going in the right direction and we just need to do more of what we’re currently doing?

ADAM: I’m optimistic that we as a society can change things around. I think there needs to be a shift in how we view conservation. I think at the moment it’s still seen as owned by what would be termed conservation organisation of whatever scale. You can’t do conservation unless you’re attached to one of those, apart from doing the odd bit of voluntary work or changing how you live. And I think the big change that needs to come is that people from whatever background feel confident and are able to do conservation themselves on a more exciting level.

That a person who has trained all their life as an accountant or a banker could get a few skills, without having to go back to university, and think, ok well I can start something here, and start up their own bit of work, either on a very small scale in their local communities or on a national scale or even international. And to get away from the thought that to be a conservationist you have to get an MS, a PhD and get your foot in the door at one of these big organisations, because the current sector doesn’t have enough capacity to make the difference we need in the time we need it to turn things around. I don’t think that means we can’t, as a society, turn things around but the sector, as it stands, is struggling. We have some brilliant success stories but a lot of things are going bad. But we can change that, we just got to get more people involved quickly.

NICK: Yeah. So maybe that can be the focus of these research projects that you’d like to hear about. How do we turn non-conservationists into conservationists, into people that feel they can make a difference in the world?

ADAM: Yeah, that sounds good.

NICK: Yeah, great. I’d love to hear those ideas as well. Adam Barlow, thank you so much for your time today, we really appreciate it. It’s been a really interesting chat. You’ve had a fascinating career so far, you’ve got plenty of career ahead of you so I’ll be really interested to see where that goes as well. And as I say, we do work closely together, WildTeam and Conservation Careers, so we’re going to do more workshops together here in the UK and who knows where else so if you want to hear more about that, you can check out Conservation Careers or how can people find out more about WildTeam?

ADAM: WildTeam.org.uk

NICK: Fabulous. All the best Adam, thanks again for your time.

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