Conservation Courses and Networking

Whilst studying conservation biology at MMU it became apparent how sheltered academia can be. Unless you read every book or meet every fellow conservationist you are really only exposed to the opinions and knowledge of those few around you. Networking is an important part of environmentalism and conservation and vital to initiating and maintaining a prosperous career path, but it is not always an easy thing to accomplish, which is why the use of blogs, such as this, and twitter can come in very handy.

Cheetah Cubs at Chester Zoo

Another useful way to network is to attend biodiversity conferences; at these you can meet a vast array of people in similar fields with expertise in fascinating and unusual areas not generally taught or covered in published literature. However, MMU was able to provide us with a taster of this by incorporating external lectures into the degree course. Two modules available were taught at Chester Zoo, a world-renowned institution in conservation, with a huge collection of species, a mass of international contacts and many ongoing conservation projects. The 12 days of lectures consisted of conservation biology and management talks and exercises instigated by various individuals; some internationally acclaimed and some up and coming, as well as the staff at the zoo themselves. Topics would range from enclosure design to international projects, and work experience advice to zoo staff management. The main focus of the course was the role of zoos in conservation worldwide. Some guest speakers were particularly fascinating with their first hand accounts of international conservation, such as Dr Carl Jones and his work in Mauritius, and Dennis Torres, of the AndigenA foundation in South America.

Dr Carl Jones, Director of the Mauritian wildlife conservation programme, specialises in working with the bird species of Mauritius, such as the pink pigeon and the Mauritian kestrel, as well as some lizard and plant species. The island was exposed to huge levels of negative human impact resulting in only 5% of forest remaining and half the number of species left on the island. He has been working on the island for over 30 years and has made tremendous progress in saving species from extinction and returning the island to its historic habitat. His views and opinions, although controversial at times, were enlightening and insightful, highlighting the real feasibility and logistics of actually saving a species from extinction. He discussed the effort and work that goes into a project and how the positive outcomes can sometimes be so insignificant it is a wonder anything changes at all. He also mentioned the issue of wasting time on monitoring population numbers, while some animals have simply gone extinct during data collection. By pointing out the problems with publishing unrealistic literature in this field, he made it clear that there is still so much to be done and the task is really quite unfathomable without generous overseas funding and voluntary support. Hearing such passionate views about a topic so important to me, it made me really think about international conservation as a career and the importance of devoting your life to the cause. Having seen Dr Jones since at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, it was interesting to be updated with the news on Mauritius and talk one on one about such important topics, showing how valuable networking can be.

Sangay the male Spectacled Bear at Chester Zoo

Dennis Torres was another key speaker that left a strong impact on me. He founded AndigenA, a non-profit organisation that initially focused on protecting spectacled bears in the Andean mountain range (my dissertation project species). It now looks at a far larger array of local biodiversity as well as the protection of the habitats themselves. Based in Venezuela, Dennis talked of how a huge issue they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, are the opinions and deleterious actions of the local communities, which generally resent the wildlife or simply do not care for the well being of the surrounding ecosystem. Although AndigenA does a lot of investigation into population densities and species status’, the primary goal is to reduce human-animal conflict and improve the relationship the locals have with the wild. The main issue dealt with is the killing of spectacled bears by farmers who believe the bears kill their cattle. This species is predominantly herbivorous, only eating meat during gestation, and even so are usually scavengers, so sometimes it can be a misconception of the farmers that the bears are at fault. However AndigenA has found that by educating children in local schools, and making them proud of their natural heritage, they can help to reduce the negative views of the communities. One comment Dennis shared that really stuck with me was that he has only seen two spectacled bears in the wild, and yet has devoted over 30 years of his life to conserving them. That kind of devotion is inspiring and shows me how important it is to feel passionately about something regardless of the rewards.

Another exciting inclusion of the visits to Chester Zoo was being shown behind the scene of some of the animal enclosures, and received personalised talks from the staff on their experiences and opinions on the animals, the enclosures and the zoo itself. The main highlights were:

  • The elephant enclosure – recently changed from free contact to protected contact, with the young male that was born in the last year
  • The spectacled bear enclosure – built for them with strong design features aimed at improving bear welfare
  • The indoor bat enclosure, where conditions had been made to make the sun set and rise at opposite times of the day using artificial lighting, so that when visitors arrive the bats are in the dark and at their most active
  • Asian rhino – studbook talk on the lone male waiting for the arrival of a new female from Sandiego zoo
  • The realm of the red ape (orang-utans) – talks on them being proficient escape artists and the multitude of ways they have managed to make their way outside of their enclosures
  • The jaguar enclosure – getting up close to the cats and discussing the misfortune of an elongated sponsorship deal which no longer benefits the zoo
  • The amphibian pods – the amphibian conservation project of bio-securing endangered frogs and toad species to investigate formidable and global diseases such as Chytrid Fungus and Ranavirus (

Female Jaguar at Chester Zoo

After visiting the zoo with several other students, I thought it would be interesting to include their thoughts and opinions of the topics discussed at Chester Zoo and how they felt about the issues raised.

  • Species management (health, husbandry, enrichment etc), enclosure design, breeding

Simon Dixon, MMU student – “I had no idea the work that went into captive breeding programmes.  It was really interesting to learn about studbooks and the importance of maintaining species records worldwide.”

  • Entertainment and education facilities

Alex Watts, MMU student – “I always had a negative opinion of zoos, but having visitng Chester Zoo and hearing all the work they do abroad and in the UK it is clear they play such a key role in conservation.”

  •  Zoo Management – HR, monitoring, registrar duties, advertising and promotions

Glenn Cockburn, MMU student – “It’s a shame how much money is designated by the zoo to be used on promotions and advertisement when this could surely go into conservation programmes instead.”

  • Advice for the future – cvs, job advice

Polly Bryant, MMU student – “Despite all the knowledge I learnt I came away feeling scared and a little under-qualified with the concept of right place, right time running through my mind.  I didn’t realise getting into conservation would be so hard.”

Overall I think this was an excellent opportunity, showing me so many areas to zoos and conservation that I hadn’t before considered, and allowing me to network with key individuals. Although it showed how important it is to have experience before getting a job, it opened my eyes to many potential career paths and showed me that my passion is key to my success.


About wilsoemi

A 1st Class Biological Sciences graduate, with a Masters degree in Conservation Biology. Dedicated to nature and conservation, with over three years voluntary experience in environmental and conservation charities and NGO's. Currently working for the World Society for the Protection of Animals and volunteering for London Wildlife Trust.
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