Working with Wildlife – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

“If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched. And humans want to save things that they love.”

Steve Irwin

Most kids are fascinated and thrilled by seeing animals, hearing stories about animals, watching movies and documentaries about animals, and so on. The wonders of the natural world speak to most of us deeply, as fellow creatures on this little blue life raft in space! But if, as an adult, you’ve maintained an abiding interest in wildlife and the environment, then perhaps a job in conservation is for you. And if you want to pursue it as a career, then you also might want to consider volunteering for a wildlife or conservation programme that needs your help, to experience what it takes to work in the field.

The thought of working with rare or vulnerable animals in exotic environments is a dream job for many, or perhaps you have a love for nature without wanting to dedicate your life to it around the clock for the rest of your life. Either way, volunteering with wildlife can offer you an experience of a lifetime without full-time commitment. Let’s have a look at some of the factors to consider about working in wildlife conservation.


You can make a difference

Far too many species worldwide are threatened by the huge impact of humanity on the natural world. This is mainly due to industrialisation, farming and hunting practices, leading to loss of habitat and unstable ecological systems. We are becoming more aware, thanks to modern scientific research, that the eradication of even the most “insignificant” species can be catastrophic to an ecology on a profound and irreparable scale. If you choose a career in conservation,you will be helping to protect ecosystems and endangered species.


The work is varied

If you get involved in wildlife conservation, no day will be exactly like the next or the one before. Whether you work for an organisation like the WWF that operates on a global scale, or if you get involved on a smaller local scale (such as monitoring rhino populations on a wildlife reserve in South Africa), you will be exposed to constant change and novelty. You might be able to help a game ranger track a pride of lions, help care for orphaned young animals, or assist with veterinary duties for sick and injured animals. Perhaps you might even tackle all of these tasks on the same day!


The rewards are great

Having a positive impact on our planet’s resources, even on a small scale, can be very psychologically rewarding. Even if you are the type of person whose career path tends more towards accounting spreadsheets or sales reports, you can’t help but gain a sense of meaning and accomplishment if, as a volunteer, you have spent time repairing a tiny part of the damage done to a vulnerable part of nature.

These are just a couple of the positive points of working with wildlife. Bear in mind – there are negatives as well!


You might be putting wildlife at risk

Even if they have the best intentions in the world, many volunteers are putting animals and the ecosystem at risk by supporting projects that don’t prioritise the best interests of the animals. This may not be malicious – when funding is limited, decisions may have to be made about what can reasonably be done. However, if the object of the organisation is purely to turn a profit by using wild animals for public entertainment, volunteers should give that project a wide berth. Make sure that the project you select is either accredited or moving towards accreditation by international standards such as the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, or at least has been positively reviewed by trustworthy local organisations and experienced volunteers. There are standards in place which consider both the physical and emotional health of wildlife in temporary or permanent captivity.

Avoid “dodgy” wildlife projects by looking out for these danger signs.

  • Small or dirty cages
  • Animals released into the wild without due care of their health
  • Animals released without consideration of the current environment they’re being released into (e.g. near a human settlement)
  • Animals being unnecessarily and/or excessively handled by humans
  • Animals allowed to breed in captivity, especially lions as they are being bred for canned hunting purposes
  • Animals removed from their natural social groupings (unless they are ill or injured)
  • Healthy young animals being removed from healthy mothers, like you will see at the so-called lion breeding projects.


You can forget about daily excitement and glamour

Yes, there will be thrills in wildlife conservation, and much to see. There will also be long days of exhausting physical labour in a hot climate, or boring data capturing (depending on the project). Not everyone is cut out for digging out lots of tough alien plants, or checking 30km of fencing in a day, or cutting up carcases for the feeding of captive predators. Most of the effort that goes into conservation revolves around mundane, dirty, sweaty maintenance tasks; and you need to be passionate about the cause rather than have an idealised Hollywood movie in mind. Don’t expect to be on safari 7 days a week!


You can forget about making lots of money

Most wildlife and environmental organisations worldwide are government-funded or rely on charity. In developing countries such as South Africa, much of the government’s funds are necessarily channelled into human welfare and infrastructure, and there just isn’t that much left over for conservation efforts. Both public and private organisations are therefore often heavily reliant on donations and the assistance of volunteers. If you decide to take up a career in an environmental field, don’t expect a high salary, and do expect to spend a lot of your time trying to organise funding and learning to work with limited resources.

As the saying goes, nature is red in tooth and claw. Existence in the wild is harsh and unforgiving, far removed from human ethical concerns or modern standards of physical comfort. Humankind is just another animal out in the bush – not a very tough one, either! If you think you have what it takes to involve yourself with nature on its own terms, then by all means look into wildlife conservation and environmentalism as rewarding career paths. Have a look at some of our ethical and well-run wildlife projects for an experience you’ll never forget or regret!


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