I couldn’t be more excited to introduce you all to field ecologist and science communication superstar Nathan Beerkens. Nathan has already crammed so much into his career, working from the desert to the ocean and everywhere in between. He shares his journey through the wildlife conservation industry as well as some great advice for getting your foot in the door…
Shortly after we caught up with Nathan, we started working on turning #itsawildlife into a podcast. So once that is up and running, I hope he will come back for round 2!
From early on, Nathan had always had an interest in wildlife and loved spending time outdoors, camping in the bush and reading the bird field guide in the car. It wasn’t until year 10 work experience that he started thinking about how to translate this interest into a profession. An email to the science program leader with the then Department of Parks and Wildlife was his ticket to Lorna Glen, a fenced reserve where native hoppy things like Rufous Hare-wallaby and Boodie had been introduced. Nathan loved working with the Boodies, fluffy bowling balls who know nothing but love, naivety and peanut butter, and at the end of his time, he asked his supervisor Keith,
“What do I need to do your job?”
Keith thought about it and replied: “Do a degree, volunteer around and you make a career of it”
And so that’s what he did.
Nathan studied conservation ecology at university and found diverse field experiences as a volunteer: at a wildlife park, on Christmas Island and with a not-for-profit organisation, Australian Wildlife Conservancy.
Nathan followed up with an Honours project, working to investigate the impacts of climate change on a fish, the Black Bream in Perth’s estuaries by implanting trackers to understand where wild fish went, how fast they travelled and how deep they swam. Simultaneously he ran some mad scientist laboratory studies to understand the impacts of changing temperature, oxygen and salinity conditions.
“Honors is ridiculously hard but I learnt about independence and crying over statistics”
Would he recommend it? Absolutely!
Originally, Nathan planned to get back to publishing his bream experiments but life got in the way – and before he knew it, Nathan was on his way to start an internship with Arid Recovery, a research centre on a large fenced reserve in outback South Australia.
Arid Recovery is a hub where a great team of people have come together with ambitious ideas to improve conservation and undertake cutting-edge research, and Nathan loved it. Back with his friends the Boodies as well as bandicoot, bilby and greater stick-nest rat, Nathan gained experience working with this suite of threatened mammals that call Arid Recovery home.
Following his 3-month internship, Nathan stepped into the role of field ecologist and community coordinator. He was not only responsible for assisting in field work and the everyday tasks that keep the reserve running, but also running tours, social media platforms and public outreach to promote the amazing work being achieved at Arid Recovery.
During his time at Arid Recovery, Nathan was involved in reintroducing another threatened mammal, the spotty, predatory Western Quoll. But why stop there? With so many threatened species that need help with conservation action and research to prevent their extinction, Arid Recovery have big plans to expand their research and translocation efforts to include other understudied and under-protected arid species like the Kowari.
An animal you might never have heard of. Nathan explains:
“Kowaris are small marsupial carnivores about the size of your hand with a tail like a paintbrush. They smell like a mop, move like a gazelle and live in burrows in sand mounds on the gibber plains of channel country where they are the “lions” or top predators, happy to nom just about anything”.
The Kowari is a threatened species, largely due to the impacts of trampling and grazing by introduced cattle and predation by feral cats and foxes. While he was at Arid Recovery, Nathan became involved in Kowari surveys, and contributed to writing the recovery plan and translocation proposal for their move to safety within the feral-proof fence of Arid Recovery. He was also involved in creating Team Kowari, a not-for-profit collaborative project which aimed to raise awareness and secure funding to research and protect the Kowari.
Although Nathan didn’t consider leaving Arid Recovery, a call from a friend he studied at university with changed that.
“Hey Nathan, would you like to fly around Western Australia doing wildlife surveys, a bit like fifo but without the regularity?”
When life gives you opportunities, you take them right!?
NOT-FOR-PROFIT VS FOR-PROFIT?
As someone who has spent time working for both, Nathan has found both sectors have pros and cons as he explains:
“Ecologists who are contracted to mining, gas or even government projects are often labelled as selling their soul, green taping projects or box ticking – but it doesn’t have to be like that!
“Of course, I love working in the not-for-profit sector and it isn’t hard to sell this feel-good work”
“However, industrial and development projects are happening regardless and working with industry to improve the sustainability of practices is important in the long-term, especially in the planning and recovery stages of a projects life. Working in collaboration with industry can also help to get good, funded conservation projects off the ground, and contribute to research and science in more remote areas.
“Working as a consultant, you will be paid your worth, you will have a wider range of field opportunities and your work-life balance is more respected so it’s worth considering this sector when you’re up and coming in the conservation industry”.
Diversity (or lack thereof) in ecology starts early
One of the big challenges that is finally being discussed in the wildlife conservation space is the lack of diversity in the industry, largely because of the entrenched voluntary and mobile expectations early on in the beginning.
Nathan shares his thoughts:
“Conservation is a human effort (a constructed human idea of protecting and studying the natural world that requires human resources), only as good as the people who are in it
“Ecologists are qualified, trained human resources who perform this work (like any other job) but because some projects need volunteers, the industry is rife with people who love volunteering. While I see the value of volunteers in some situations, conservation would be a better, more inclusive place if people were paid their worth for their work. The reality is that if you can’t accept the conditions of unpaid work with no job security early on, it’ll be hard to get your foot in the door.
“The conservation space is inflexible, exclusive and “all or nothing” from the get go.
“What this means is that only a small group of often privileged people without commitments who are able to accept these conditions have the opportunity to work in wildlife conservation. This narrows the ideas base, restricts diversity in the field and selects for a specific type of person.
This is definitely something that needs attention to change within the industry.
Nathan does mention there are organisations like Arid Recovery and Australian Wildlife Conservancy that pay a stipend during internships and provide free accommodation and bills throughout so there are some options available to people.
Nathan’s advice for people starting out in ecology: conservation is a human endeavour and well get it right more often than not with collaboration and communication and in this way, your network of friends and colleagues are your biggest assets.
One of the best things about working in wildlife conservation is the places you go, the wildlife experiences you have and the people you meet and work with.
“One of my favourite field moments was camping out on the Gibber plains of arid South Australia, sleeping in a sleeping bag listening to dingos howl (one of them stole my belt!) and waking up to find Kowari in our traps – surreal!
One of the biggest challenges of working in wildlife conservation is being away a lot and missing your friends and family. However, it certainly helps you appreciate the time you spend with them more.
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