The joys of unsafe travel
The joys of unsafe travel

Sanjayan’s recent Cool Green Science post on what you need to know to get a job in conservation lists some core skills for budding conservationists: basic ecology, economics & sociology, natural history, story telling and GIS skills, knowing your languages and how to manage people, being web smart, and having some knowledge of statistics and community engagement.

Looking back at my own conservation career as a field scientist in Indonesia, I have a few more which you should add to your skill set if you want to work in the more exotic and challenging parts of the planet. If you are an aspiring conservation professional with a wish to make a difference far away from home, please heed my advice:

Come Here With a Die-Hard Attitude. Conservation is not for the faint-hearted. In nearly two decades of conservation, my successes as measured in areas or animals saved are few and far between, my failures are many. Be ready to get over these set backs, keep fighting, and just don’t take “no” for an answer.

Know What Motivates You. You will often wonder what brought you here in the first place. Your love for nature. The lure of the exotic. The people. This work will often be about hard choices; your decision to save an orangutan may mean loss of income for a local farmer. Be ready for the moral questions.

Boundless Patience. Whether you spend years waiting for a legal decision, weeks chasing letters through a bureaucratic maze, days before finally meeting that crucial government official, or hours before the electricity comes back on, patience is a great virtue.

A Critical Mind. There is so much spin in this world. It is always nice to make things sound better than they really are. Sometimes that’s ok. But if mistakes are made, we need to learn from them. And it will take your analytical thinking and courage to stand up to others to make sure we keep separating truths from half-truths and lies.

Be Physically Prepared. If you have problems with rooms filled with the smoke of clove cigarettes, cars without seat belts (or even seats for that matter), tooth-rotting sweet tea or red Fanta, can’t stand rice and dried fish for days on end, feel uncomfortable in hot and humid conditions, or think about going home after your first bout of malaria…you might want to consider working in another field.

Be Cool and Smart. Yes, we do this because we care, but sometimes you will have to put on a wide smile for your meanest adversary and shake his hand. But only do that if you have the better game plan, or know where that hand shake can lead you to.

And Don’t Take Life or Yourself Too Seriously. Even if you find yourself trapped on a night bus lurching along a pot-holed road to the provincial capital some 400 miles away from where you have to give an important presentation the next morning, and you can’t get any sleep because Kenny G’s Greatest Hits are being played on repeat at full volume, chill out, lean back in your seat, light that clove cigarette, and enjoy the moment.

If, after reading this, you feel that you have what it takes to become a tropical conservationist, send me your CV and I will see what I can do. We need characters like you.

(Image: Erik Meijaard/TNC.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. This does a great job of describing the realities of working in far off and exotic places like Indonesia. It’s definitely not all fun and games. Great post!

  2. Hi there,

    I read your amazing post above dated April 1st and it made even more excited about a job in conservation. Can I send you my CV?! I have a business management degree and I am currently studying for a Biodiversity and Conservation diploma. I speak English, Portuguese and Spanish, and have I worked in conservation of sea turtles in both Costa Rica and Thailand.

  3. This does a great job of describing the realities of working. reeally thanks.

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