Social Justice In Conservation

Two weeks ago at around 14:30 on Tuesday afternoon my Outlook account sounded with an alert telling me that I had just received a new email, this time from

Exciting new intern position at ZSL with the IUCN Pangolin Specialist group”.

My current situation means that I spend most of my days looking for entry level graduate conservation jobs in and around Cambridge – which to me includes London.

I opened the link to read about the position and it was then that I began to feel a renewed sense of frustration at yet another unreasonable job offer.

We are offering an exciting opportunity for a volunteer to assist the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group with co-ordinating the implementation of the global pangolin conservation action plan ‘Scaling up pangolin conservation”.

My feelings toward this particular job post reminded me of an interesting article I read by George Monbiot of the Guardian. He wrote about how young graduates are lured into the corporate sector by enticing salaries and job packages, leaving the future prospects of conservation diminished. Talent he argued, is being bought by those who can pay for it.

Candidate requirements –

  • Seeking volunteer intern
  • Must preferably hold graduate degree
  • Must work 3 days/week in central London – preferably more
  • Must work for 6 months

Is it really suitable to advertise this as an unpaid job offer? Perhaps I am incredibly naïve, but how could anyone be expected to be able to do this without parental support, a large trust-fund or loads of savings? They are asking someone to work full-time, for free, in central London, one of the most expensive cities on the planet.

I spent the better part of my teens before my undergraduate degree volunteering for environmental positions, positions that I was told would benefit my CV and give me much valued experience in my field of interest. In 2010 I began my undergraduate degree in Zoology to much the same advice – must volunteer, must get experience, must gain skills and knowledge outside of your degree. So I did, I spent my spare time working at a hotel during the week and volunteering at Edinburgh Zoo during the weekends as Public Engagement Officer for 3 years. Then in 2014 I started my graduate degree at Imperial College studying Conservation Science, again being told how little money is available within conservation, and how important and valuable volunteering experiences are for myself as an individual. I continued to volunteer part time for a small NGO I helped establish and did work for the RSPB when time allowed for it.

This is all fine and fair, years of working for free would surely help land me a good job when I was properly educated. It would appear however that even now after having gone through a good education, I am still expected to work for free before I am offered a real job with a potential employer, and in most cases, it seems that this is the route most young graduates must take at the start of their careers.

There was a time when…”, as Pamela Abbot, director of Programs at WCMC put it during a recent workshop I attended on encouraging Woman in Conservation Leadership – “…such jobs were offered as paid roles to young aspiring graduates, given to those people in junior positions who were well educated and filled with ambition and ideas on how to save species from extinction. Those days are long gone” (paraphrased). Gone she said, or allowed to go I wondered?

Some NGOs do decide to pay their interns; WWF, WCMC and Save the Rhino to name three different examples. So is this really a question about a lack of funding, or more about the individual management choices made by those running the show? Some would consider these types of opportunities to amount to nothing more than exploitation, masked by the promise of “experience”. It is insulting to the integrity of aspiring young practitioners in the field that they are implied to be the ones gaining from these positions, while the organisation offering the internship is doing it for the sake of providing them experience.

The shame of course is that good candidates will inevitably apply and work hard to do an excellent job, candidates who are desperate to progress in their careers. In the end the circumstances of such positions will mean that only those who can afford to pay for these types of jobs will apply, denying the opportunity to those who don’t come from rich families, who may be more qualified for the position than others, to get a foot on the ladder.

I suppose I can continue to wallow in self-pity or instead attempt to succeed in spite of these conditions. However, what will the consequences of this continued approach be for the future of conservation itself?

Only time will tell.