So you want to be a conservationist? The realities to consider before diving in

by: Dhivya Nair, Sandra Teoh & Ng Jol Ern

What comes to mind when you hear someone say they are a conservationist? Is it the Animal Planet presenters who introduce us to different animals and their environments, that you think of first? Is a conservationist someone who takes part in beach or environmental clean ups every now and then? Does being a scientist make you a conservationist?

When it comes to jobs relating to wildlife and the environment, conservation always seems to be the “it” thing to do. Conservation Careers, an online platform targeted towards helping people get into the field of conservation, names marine conservation to be the most ‘in demand’ job type to be listed on their site, making it a difficult field to get into.

But what exactly does a conservationist do? How is one different from other professionals in the field of environmental work? Here at MareCet, we do research AND conservation (yes, that’s right, both are possible!). While we are marine biologists, we are also marine conservationists. Meaning we study and work to protect and conserve marine animals and the environments they inhabit.

Our team members consist of conservationists with a range of experiences and years of working in this line, and in this piece, we’ve gathered some of their thoughts, opinions, and inputs to give you an idea of what exactly it is marine conservationists do, why we do it, and how you could too (if you harbour ambitions to do so).

First, meet Ng Jol Ern, our Outreach and Education Coordinator. Jol Ern graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Honours) degree, where she majored in Environmental Biology. She first joined MareCet in 2012, starting off as a volunteer for the Langkawi Dolphin Research Project and eventually landed herself with a full-time employment position at MareCet in 2013. Since then, she has been actively involved in the research and outreach work that MareCet conducts. Jol Ern leads MareCet’s Sea, Science and Schools marine education programme, and has conducted the programme in 21 schools since 2017. She also leads the Whales-On-Wheels programme as well as other larger-scaled public outreach events such as the World Ocean Day exhibitions. She has had the opportunity to participate in various events that helped build her experience and conservation capacity, and these included attending the International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas in Greece, the Conservation Leadership Programme in China, as well as the Asia Marine Educators Association Conference in Taiwan, to name a few. She has also participated in training workshops and marine mammal-related projects spanning multiple countries including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand.

Next, meet Sandra Teoh, the Project Leader for the Langkawi Research Dolphin project. Sandra graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree from Universiti Malaysia Sabah. She joined MareCet in 2016, starting her journey as a volunteer for the Matang Dolphin Research Project, which eventually spurred her to pursue a doctoral degree in the social ecology of dolphins. Since 2016, she has had the chance to attend international training and networking workshops and conferences, including the Conservation Management and Leadership Training workshop in Canada, Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Generation Oceans Regional Exchange Workshop in Indonesia, the ‘Our Ocean, Our Future’ Leadership Summit in the USA, and the World Marine Mammal Conference in Spain. Sandra is also a Conservation Leadership Programme alumna (having clinched a highly competitive Future Conservationist Award in 2016) and National Geographic Explorer. With MareCet, Sandra conducts training for local community members, demonstrating correct stranding response for marine mammals, all while raising awareness for marine mammals and their habitats here in Malaysia. She also actively contributes inputs to local shoreline management plans, such as the Perlis State Integrated Shoreline Management Plan and the Management Plan for the Coastal Development of Padang Mat Sirat-Ayer Hangat in Langkawi.

Finally, meet Dhivya Nair, Coordinator for the IKI (International Klimate Initiative) Seagrass Ecosystems Services Project. Dhivya graduated from the University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in Marine Biology. She joined MareCet in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a fresh graduate. She considers herself a newbie to this field of work and almost every working day has been an ocean of discovery for her.

Why get into marine conservation?

So, if you’re thinking about getting into conservation, it’s important to first establish WHY. Most of the time, people have the wrong perception about this field of work. Conservation isn’t just about ‘saving the -insert animal of choice-’. From the outside looking in, conservation can seem like a thrilling and easy job. Why wouldn’t it seem so? It looks as though conservationists mostly just do fieldwork, work with wildlife and travel all around the world. That sure beats any normal 9–5 desk job, right?

Well, conservation isn’t always the glamour and glitz you see on documentaries. It isn’t quite for everyone and if you aren’t truly passionate, chances are you won’t last as long in the field. So, why get into conservation? Really think about the cause you’re choosing to work for. Anyone can say they want to save the animals, but there really is more to it than that.

Something that’s common with many of our team members’ answers is that we really didn’t always think about going into conservation as a field of work. Perhaps that’s because this field isn’t a common one here in Malaysia to begin with. When we’re watching documentaries on the topic of the ocean, it’s usually lab researchers, divers, and university professors who are quoted as professionals. More often than not, these other professions don’t directly dwell into conservation much, but more on this later!

JOL ERN — “When I first started, I didn’t immediately think about conservation. All I knew was that I wished I could do more to conserve the habitats of marine mammals since I love wildlife so much. I started off as a survey volunteer with MareCet and during my time volunteering, I got to see firsthand what exactly marine conservation work here in Malaysia would entail. I think that experience made me surer of what I wanted to pursue as a career. Naively, I thought working in conservation meant I would only have to work with animals, but I have since learnt that that really isn’t the case, especially now that I do a lot of outreach, which mainly consists of liaising and interacting with people.”

SANDRA — “I don’t think I necessarily chose conservation as much as it chose me. My first exposure to marine mammals was on a ferry ride to Penang during my childhood, when I happened to see dolphins in the water. The experience stuck with me and my passion further developed as my father often went fishing, and would tell me stories about his ventures out to sea. I think those fond memories stayed with me and helped develop my passion and love towards marine mammals. My first proper exposure to working directly with dolphins happened in my third year of university when I got to help care for a stranded dolphin. It was my first time working with a live animal, and I remember how upset I felt when the dolphin died. That incident made me feel a deeper connection and empathy for these marine animals and I remember feeling a more urgent need to work to protect and conserve them.”

DHIVYA — “I think my main career goal was always to be a marine biologist, but something I didn’t always understand is that, depending on your scope of work, marine biology and conservation isn’t always mutually exclusive. I always thought I had to be one or the other and didn’t think there was a lot of overlap. When I was a student, I had the opportunity to volunteer with different organizations, labs and at different events. In my first year as a degree student, I volunteered with an NGO that gave me firsthand experience into what went on behind-the-scenes when one worked with an NGO. My time there consisted of me speaking to members of the public for outreach, data mining, working on merchandise and sales, and seeing how the team would lobby for policy changes. None of this was what I ever thought ‘doing conservation’ meant, and it was also my first exposure towards just how important politics and policy is when it comes to conservation. I think this cemented my understanding of conservation work and why, to me, it seems to be the most impactful field for changes when it comes to marine science.”

Outreach is an important part of conservation! Talking to people and advocating for your cause are all part of spreading the word on marine conservation. Pictured here is Dhivya, manning a booth for Reef Check Australia during her time as an undergraduate student
Outreach involves talking to people, which is something Jol Ern never thought she had to do much of as a conservationist! But here she is, interviewing local fishers in Perlis about cetacean sightings and gauging their perceptions of conservation

What’s a normal day of work for a marine conservationist?

Defining what a conservationist is in a sentence is difficult. The basic idea is that a conservationist is someone who works to protect plants, animals and the environments that they inhabit. Hence more specifically, a marine conservationist is someone who works to conserve marine habitats and marine life. However, that description is just one in a broader sense. But conservation is so much more than that.

If you asked any of us here at MareCet, giving people a clear idea of what we do on a day-to-day basis is difficult because it really is so varied! There isn’t much of a normal day at work and that’s because conservationists wear many hats, especially when the organization is small and often on a shoestring budget. Most of us learn new skills on the job and while that might sound intimidating, it is often the most rewarding part about being a conservationist as it furthers yourself as a skilled individual.

Conservation doesn’t just involve science, and it doesn’t only involve working with wildlife. It also encompasses communication, policy, marketing and strategy, project management, fundraising and more! Think of conservation as the ‘middleman’, bridging the gap between science and various other stakeholders. Here at MareCet, we take the research that we do on marine mammals here in Malaysia, and try to convey our findings in many different ways. This may include infographics, talks, and even this blog! We also try to convey our findings to policy makers and government officials, working together with them to further protect our marine mammals and their habitats.

JOL ERN — “I think there are always a lot of misconceptions about what we do. There really never is a normal day. But our days don’t involve swimming with dolphins or lounging around on a beach, as nice as that sounds. It really differs from day-to-day. Being the Outreach Coordinator, I work on a lot of the educational materials and planning of outreach programmes that MareCet conducts, and it is because of this that I have learned and mastered Photoshop, which was never something I thought I would use! I also handle merchandise production and sales, so I now know what it’s like to be a seller on an online platform! Although outreach is part of my main responsibility, I am also heavily involved in the field research and conservation projects that we conduct. Recently, I also operate and pilot the drone that we take out on our surveys, and we’ve been able to capture some amazing footage of our local cetaceans. This is a quick glance into some of the things I do here at MareCet, but you can really tell we wear all sorts of hats to make up for our small team.”

SANDRA — “Being in the conservation field is different from what I envisioned. I thought I would be on a boat all day, with the ocean as my office! But that really isn’t the reality of things as now, especially with the pandemic, I am constantly on a laptop. I am either analysing my data and matching our photographed dolphins’ dorsal fins to individuals or writing grants, which is something I did a lot of in the beginning as well. As project leader of the Langkawi Dolphin Research project, my working scope also includes contacting and liaising with people. I would say 80% of my work is me sitting in front of a laptop and the other 20% includes outreach work and fieldwork. Getting into conservation, to my surprise, also meant I had to learn things I never thought I would have to. For instance, in the earlier days of MareCet’s operations, we didn’t have enough of a budget to produce merchandise on a larger scale. This meant having to make our own products from scratch, by hand. I didn’t think I would learn how to sew when doing conservation, but I picked it up as we were making felt keychains. I remember gathering at a colleague’s house and staying up all night to make these products. That’s definitely a fun memory for me and I also picked up a new skill!”

DHIVYA — “During my first year with MareCet, I spent most of my time working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic! Never did I think I would have a full-time job in the field I love but would have to do most of it from my dining room table. Even then, the work was challenging and fun. I was constantly learning new things and had a hand at doing such a variety of tasks. Sometimes I felt like a graphic designer, working on infographics and educational material. On other days, I felt like an event coordinator, working on a virtual event and looking at social media analytics. A researcher while I read papers, an accountant while I tallied spreadsheets, a writer when I worked on our blog. You get the gist! Thankfully now with the easing of restrictions, I also get to come into the office to interact with my fellow colleagues and of course head out into the field, which has been the most exciting part!”

Open ocean view? More like an open laptop view! Sandra is doing photo identification of individual Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. It is an important part of the research work she does for her Ph.D., as well as the research that MareCet does
Merchandise production is crucial to the fundraising that MareCet does, to allow us to continue doing the important conservation work we want to do. Our Executive Director and Co-Founder, Dr. Louisa, is pictured here with the batik artisan, as they plan and develop ideas for a new product
Not a marine mammal, but at least it’s a mammal? Jol Ern is taking pictures of a cow, as part of a photo identification training workshop in Hong Kong

What’s often the best part about the job? Any highlights that stand out in this line of work?

I’m sure you can tell by now that conservation, as complex as it may sound with all of its layers, has its rewarding moments too. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many aspiring conservationists or those who have stayed in the field for years! Yes, it can be a demanding job, but it is one that reaps its rewards in the long run. Especially for a wildlife enthusiast, nothing beats working to protect the very thing you love and adore. For most of us, the key highlights always include the animals, but it is also in the unexpected things, like seeing places most people don’t get to, or meeting different people that share a similar passion; making the job all the more worthwhile.

JOL ERN —I think it’s a given that being out in the field and seeing the animals in their natural habitat is the best part of the job. I get to observe interesting or unusual behaviour, and encounter these animals exactly where they belong; in the wild! I remember the first time we encountered a super-pod of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in Langkawi with up to 100–150 individuals, and I had never seen anything like that before. It was impossible to get an exact count of how many animals there were because there were just so many of them. I’ve seen Bryde’s whales bubble net feeding, and even a herd of dugongs from up in the air as we flew over in a Cessna plane during an aerial survey. These are just a small handful of instances but each one just as special as the other. Another great part about the job is that I get to travel to places that I may otherwise not get the opportunity to go to! For example, in 2019, I got the chance to travel to Greece to attend a conference on marine protected areas, and that was my first time travelling out of Asia.”

SANDRA — “If I were to think about being a conservationist as a whole, I would say one of the perks would include just how dynamic and fluid the job style is. No one day is the same, and I don’t have a normal daily routine. I think that lifestyle is suited to me. Of course, seeing the animals is the best part. No matter how many times I see them, the sightings are always just as breathtaking. I think that when you’re doing something you love, the harder parts are a little easier to tackle. The obstacles and challenges feel like they are something you can conquer; bearable because you’re doing what you are passionate about. I know if I were to think about highlights, some may expect awards or other professional accomplishments to be the answer, but as I reflect on my career, it’s more so a series of small things. I think about a younger me who received rejection after rejection with my grant applications, and I can’t believe how far she has come now. I think my highlight would be seeing how much I have grown, whether it be with skills and being a better leader, to all the meaningful relationships with people I have established over the years. Outreach work has made me more comfortable in my interactions with people, and it’s always so touching to hear that people have been moved by something I have shared with them. One experience that stands out the most to me would be my trip to San Francisco for the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo. There, I got to meet and learn about other conservationists from around the world and the inspiring work that they do. I learnt so much on that trip and it motivated me to see so many conservationists gathered in one place, all to share and connect for the shared cause of conservation. It was truly and eye-opening and inspiring trip.”

DHIVYA — “I’ve only been with MareCet for a little over a year now but I’ve already had some incredible experiences myself. I think one of my favourite parts about my job is that whenever we travel to our project sites, I always feel like I am rediscovering my own country and seeing it in a light I haven’t previously. We go to these places that I otherwise would never travel to, and I get to see the other parts of my country that I don’t think normal tourists, whether local or not, are privy to. Every trip consists of me also trying new local cuisine or learning something about the culture or history of the state we’re in. While I am a MARINE scientist, my love for terrestrial wildlife is all the same, and since starting my job I’ve seen some incredible wildlife. One of my favourite encounters would be when we were up on Gunung Raya in Langkawi and I got to see a pair of Wreathed hornbills. It was majestic. I’ve also now seen my first Bryde’s whales and got to encounter a super exciting sighting of a super-pod of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins!”

Jol Ern, along with MareCet’s Co-Founders, Dr. Louisa and Fairul, at the 5th International Conference On Marine Mammal Protected Areas in Greece
Sandra standing by her poster on the social structure of the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in Perak, at the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona

If there are highs, there must be lows too?

Well of course! No job is a constant high. Everything has an ebb and a flow (pun intended), and with any job, challenges are bound to be aplenty. It is no different in conservation.

Conservationists can often run into a long list of problems. This may include but is not limited to: people thinking our work isn’t scientific or even many undermining our quality of work since we’re from an NGO. Often, these problems we run into stem from a misunderstanding or misconception of what a conservationist is and what we do.

While some might wonder what problems animals might offer (that’s a story for another time), it’s usually people that may bring about the challenges. Many often think that by working in conservation, you never have to deal with people. Quite the contrary! But alas, it is people who are at the very heart of conservation. Whether it’s the conservationists or the communities and other stakeholders we’re working with, people are the constant.

JOL ERN — “I would say the main challenge with being a conservationist is humans. Dealing with people can be quite difficult for many reasons. I remember during my university days, I had a lecturer tell me that wildlife conservation is not about managing wildlife or the environment, it is about managing people. At the time, I didn’t quite get this. How could it be about people? Well with conservation, you are constantly dealing with different parties. Some include government officials, school students, different stakeholders in your study area, and the list goes on. I always say when it comes to conservation there are three types of people. People who understand and care, which are the easiest kind to deal with. Then there are people who don’t understand the need for conservation and just don’t care! Lastly, there are people who understand the issues and their severity, but also don’t care enough to take action. This is of course my perception from the outreach perspective, given my role. Changing people’s perceptions and mindset towards the importance of conservation and getting them to understand ocean-related issues would be the most challenging part of my job.”

SANDRA — “When you’re in a line of work like conservation, especially here in Malaysia, people are constantly undermining the importance of your work. There is some kind of a stigma or discrimination towards jobs in the environmental field, especially in Southeast Asia. We often get told to go find a “proper job” or that the work we do isn’t that important. It can often lead to making you feel undervalued or underappreciated. This, paired with how labour intensive the work can be whereby so many of us conservationists are overworked while juggling so many roles under our respective organizations, can get tiring. Personally, I would say the main challenge would be keeping yourself motivated, especially when everything and everyone feels like they are going against you. There are moments of self-doubt and sometimes, keeping yourself hopeful and passionate can get quite difficult.”

DHIVYA — “When I first started, I think my main challenge was how overwhelmed I felt at having to do or learn how to do a variety of tasks. I thought I had an idea to some extent of what conservation work would entail, and I did, but I also didn’t think about the finer details in things. For example, when we do any sort of writing, it needs to be catered to our specific audience. Who’s going to read this thing I’m writing and how can I best leave a meaningful impression? Will it be a general audience member, a fellow conservationist, a government official, a school teacher or perhaps a university student? Or who will be looking at this infographic I am putting together and how much detail should I include? Having to change the tone, writing style, and information provided depending on the article type or reader can be quite challenging. Overall, I think conservation can also be quite challenging as it’s something that requires a lot of time. It takes time before you see your efforts materialize. It takes time for a project to come into fruition, it takes time for people to get behind the importance of the issues you are advocating for. So ultimately, it’s up to you to keep your spirits up and believe that in the long run, the work and cause you are fighting for are worth it.”

Not always the glitz and the glam. Sometimes, we deal with hoards of trash from coastal clean ups and stinky cetacean carcasses that wash ashore and are in need of processing for science!

How does one get into the field? Was there a key step you think brought you to where you are today?

Any conservationist will tell you it isn’t always an easy start. The field of conservation, especially marine conservation isn’t always a clear-cut pathway or career option. It often means forging your own way and creating your own opportunities — an approach our team has often heard about from our Co-Founder, Dr Louisa, who did just that, when Fairul and her decided to establish MareCet back in 2012. But there are lots of different ways one can get their foot in the door. Most involve volunteering or interning as a way to start.

JOL ERN — “Start out by volunteering or interning with relevant organizations of your interest. I started out as a volunteer with MareCet and later went on to be a research assistant under our Co-Founder, before getting the role I currently have. Volunteering is great because you might have a perception of what conservation is, but the real working world may be very different. Volunteering gives you a good start with experience, exposure and just familiarizing yourself with the field. I think another great thing to do is make as many connections as you can with people in the field, and you can do this by talking to people who are experienced or who work in your field of interest. Attend talks, booths or events that they are speaking at or hosting, and don’t be shy to approach and ask any questions you have! Over the years, I have had lots of younger conservation enthusiasts come up to me at events. But I have also had lots of older public audience members who may not necessarily be in the field of conservation come up to have a chat with me about what they can do for conservation. As someone who has been in this for eight years, I think you need passion, perseverance, patience, the ability to adapt, and some level of insanity, if you want to work in this field.”

SANDRA — “Experience is always great as it can help you figure out which niche in conservation it is that you want to work in. Things like volunteering, internships, and networking can help you figure out if this is truly the job you want. Explore different opportunities and try to figure out what you do and don’t like in the field. There are so many different skills and expertise needed for conservation, it’s a matter of finding what fits you. Unfortunately, conservation isn’t a high paying job unlike many other professions out there, despite the work being important and essential. So, you definitely won’t be working for the paycheck! While many conservationists and organizations are actively working to break this norm of low salaries in this field, one must be practical and realistic about whether this career line is something you can afford. At the end of the day, you can always make a contribution to conservation without being a professional. I think a key step that got me to where I am today is the courage I had to do something that wasn’t the norm and to take a leap of faith. If I had listened to those around me, I wouldn’t be here today. I think it’s important to remember to trust yourself and the process and if you really want something, go out there and get it! A favourite saying of mine from a TV show I love and that I often look back to is, “when you’re going to change the world, don’t ask for permission”.”

DHIVYA — “I think the hardest part is getting your foot through the door. It took me months after graduating from university before I had a breakthrough. But as I continued to apply for jobs, I tried to look at the required skills section of other job openings to see what it was they were looking for in their candidates. So, I tried to learn or pick up skills that I thought would be helpful. Conservation requires an array of skills and experience and you never know when something might come in handy. There are loads of courses online for things like GIS or even Photoshop, two softwares that I was very new to when I started. I also went profile surfing of other conservationists on LinkedIn, to look at the type of organizations they had volunteered or worked at, and I would then check out those organizations to broaden the organizations I was targeting in my job search. I think it’s important that you don’t give up, and hopefully, with a little luck, an opportunity will come your way!”

Conservation needs everyone

The reality of it is that conservation isn’t always the fun and exciting stuff you see in the media. While we hope to have shed a light towards people’s perception of conservation, we also hope more people see the value and importance of conservation work. That being said, conservation needs a variety of skills and expertise for its message to be sent across, so just about anyone can contribute to conservation! It is often a misconception that you need to have studied biology or environmental sciences to be involved in conservation. But as the field of conservation moves forward, it is more apparent now that this isn’t the case. Artists, teachers, programmers, engineers, psychologists, kids, retirees and even lawyers; can all make a difference when it comes to conservation. Even scientists have shared how their work, despite being from different fields within science, can contribute to improving conservation efforts.

On that note, we’ll leave you with some additional tips and thoughts to ponder.

  1. Network and let your interest be known!
    We all know how big social media is, and here at MareCet we’re constantly trying new ways to get the word on marine awareness out there (have you seen our new TikTok account?). We hope to reach new audiences with the content we put out on social media. Similarly, you can use social media to network and look out for opportunities, and connect with other conservationists. LinkedIn, Twitter and even Instagram are some great examples of platforms you can use for this. There is a huge community of scientists and marine conservationists online, all advocating for their own causes, and it could also help you find your own niche in conservation.
  2. It’s all about communication!
    Following on from social media and connecting, conservation is all about the CONVERSATION and how you have those conversations. This is an important thing to keep in mind, whether you’re an aspiring conservationist or someone who has been in the field for years. Conservation is all about conveying findings to a large audience base, and there are so many ways one can do this! Think blogs, podcasts, posters, infographics and YouTube videos. Find your niche and advocate away!

Lastly, there is a plethora of resources and communities online, all focused on the topic of conservation and advocacy. From webinars on a conservation job searching platform, to short online courses like this one from the National Geographic, articles with fantastic tips from fellow conservationists, and even talks like this inspiring one from our very own Co-Founder, Dr. Louisa, where she talks about all things conservation science. There is an ocean of information out there!

Here at MareCet, we are lucky and privileged enough to say we love our jobs as conservationists and are doing something that we love and are passionate about. We hope that in reading this blog, you will be inspired to take your own leap and come join us in the world of conservation!

A group of happy conservationists