by Dr Kayleigh Fawcett Williams, Wildlifetek's Founder.
It’s no secret that there are huge issues for many humans who have chosen to follow a wildlife career path, though our work is incredibly valuable. Almost every day I read about how members of the wildlife community are exploited trying to do the work they are so passionate about. But just because this is the way it is right now, does not mean it has to continue on this way.
Change is needed at multiple levels. Whilst there is no doubt that systemic change is needed, change can also come from us as individuals, catalysing a ripple effect through the world of our profession. As an individual, there are things you can do to be valued and appropriately remunerated as a wildlife professional.
I’m not talking about being paid what you’re worth, because let's face it, that’s not possible. Your worth as a human being cannot be attributed to any financial benchmark or professional accolade. I’m talking about being valued as a professional and being appropriately remunerated for the important work that you do. As professionals, we have invested a great deal of time, money and effort to be able to do this work. It is only fair that we should be fairly compensated.
So what can you do as an individual?
Firstly, one of the biggest things you can do is to arm yourself with knowledge and skills that are truly valuable to employers. As Steve Martin once said: "Be so good they can't ignore you". This isn’t about going on fancy trips or experiences. This is about gaining real expertise that enables you to do the job well, particularly by focusing on the skills that are highly sought after.
For me, I did this by arming myself with some very specific technical expertise. I haven’t spent money on exotic pay-to-work experiences (though I have been paid to work in some pretty epic locations around the world). I haven’t spent years of my life volunteering (though I have been able to provide both my technical expertise and financial support to my chosen wildlife charities by choice). What I have done is to make myself a valuable professional to employers (and more recently my clients) so that I can do wildlife work that is valuable and be fairly remunerated for my time and expertise.
The second thing is to value yourself, your time and your expertise. It is particularly important to have a healthy regard for your time and money, because if you don’t, it is unlikely that anyone else will. When you come from a place of valuing what you bring to the table, you are in a much stronger position than you would be otherwise.
Thirdly, don’t settle for being undervalued. This means saying “no” (and I know that’s not always easy) to opportunities where you are not appropriately compensated and/or respected for your work. So many humans take whatever they can get in terms of wildlife work and any are exploited in the process. If you are prepared to allow others to take advantage of you, you’re not going to be well respected or valued in this or any other field.
This is not just an issue for early career wildlife professionals either. Seventeen years into my career, I still have to watch out for this one and to hold my ground with those who want my expertise but do not hold any real respect or value for me or my work. I am repeatedly asked to provide my time and expertise for free by individuals and organisations. In the latter case, both large and small organisations often try to persuade me to work for free for ‘exposure’ or as a ‘loss leader’.
Martyrdom for the cause is often cited as the reason for toleration of poor remuneration and exploitation. But the sad truth is that this perpetuates problems not just for you, but for many others too. If we collectively continue to allow this culture of exploitation by passive acceptance, we ourselves are exacerbating the problem.
Damaging the lives and careers of wildlife professionals is not productive for humans or wildlife: it does not help the cause.
In fact, tolerating this practice excludes so many people from the world of wildlife work. It is killing diversity in our sector and promoting a monoculture where only privileged people can work with wildlife because only they can afford to.
What’s the cost?
Let’s think about what happens when wildlife professionals are not valued. It only takes a read of some of the woeful stories of wildlife workers and conservationists to see that there are huge issues with being undervalued or simply not valued at all. These are tied both to insufficient remuneration, low self-esteem and mental health issues that arise from years of working hard for something you are passionate about with little to no reward.
In truth, most of the best and most needed people burn out or leave the field of wildlife work entirely because the financial and mental health implications of how they are valued are simply not sustainable long term.
I hope you won’t be one of them.
Now is the time for change. Are you going to be part of the problem or the solution?
Ready to arm yourself with the knowledge and skills you need? Join us for Wildlifetek’s Summer School Program to supercharge your wildlife career this season.