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Capturing wildlife through the lens of conservation with Tess Poyner

Tess Poyner (pronouns: she/her) grew up on the south coast of New South Wales and had not long finished school when she and her partner took a gap year travelling around Australia to experience and photograph the many unique and beautiful critters that call this country home. Tess shares her award-winning wildlife photography on her Instagram page @tess_poyner. Today we speak all about starting out in wildlife conservation with the passionate and talented Tess!

Capturing wildlife through the lens of conservation with Tess Poyner | #itsawildlife

TESS’S JOURNEY

Tess has always been surrounded by wildlife and got interested in the Australian flora and fauna from a very young age.

“I was always curious and wanted to learn about animals, especially those that got bad rap like snakes so I started taking photos of them just to share how I could get close and I’m still alive!”

Tess’s Dad is also interested in photography and so from a young age, she’s always had a compact camera and taken photos when walking around in the bush. As Tess grew older, so did her interest in photography – and with that, came upgraded camera gear!

Throughout high school, Tess worked with wildlife at a veterinary clinic for 5 years. She says –

Initially I thought that’s what I wanted to do but as the years past, I realized how emotionally and physically draining so I started thinking about other options… It was always in the back of my mind that I could do vet work or wildlife rescue, but I wanted to pursue ecology as well”

From a young age, Tess also saw the importance of volunteering to experience different species and build her skills and networks within wildlife circles. She has already been very proactive, jumping onto university survey work, Earth Watch projects and other programs and has also spent a year travelling around Australia to experience the amazing diversity of wildlife that call this country home.

These experiences helped Tess to work out a bit more of what she did and didn’t want to pursue – and she has recently started her Bachelor of Science, majoring in psychology and marine biology at James Cook University, Townsville.

For someone so young, Tess has certainly crammed a huge amount of experience and knowledge into a short space of time! It’s hard not to be impressed by this talented and passionate wildlifer!

THE POWER OF PICTURES

As a wildlife photographer fascinated by snakes, Tess has seen how powerful pictures can be in changing hearts and minds. Growing up, Tess found that many people believe “the only good snake is a dead one” without ever having had an interaction with a snake, let alone a bad one! She said –

I found that by sharing my images, people could get interested like “wow, I didn’t know that they looked like that or were that color up close” and then were more inclined to read or even care about them”

And caring is the ultimate goal. Tess says –

“I think it’s really important to help people to care about wildlife in Australia because without them caring, they won’t want to save it from threats like land clearing, cat predation and stuff like that.”

Wildlife photography is incredibly important for communicating natural sciences and Tess shares close-up, often intimate moments with her scaly, furry or feathered subjects. When asked whether she ever felt fearful getting so close to venomous snakes, Tess said no, rather

“Probably the biggest things I have to deal with when photographing wildlife is not the subjects themselves, but rather mosquitos and leeches… I feel terrible because I want someone to love these guys, but it’s just not me!”

Story time. Once, Tess was doing survey work, flipping rocks to try and find endangered Broad-headed Snakes. Tess shares –

“One of the guys on the trip was flipping rocks on top of a cliff when he lost his balance and fell off… so, it was a pretty crazy experience and although he recovered, it was ironic that the cliff was more dangerous than the venomous snake we were searching for”

OVERCOMING A FEAR OR SNAKES

People jump in their car every day without a thought in their mind, but if there was a snake in their path, most people would be pretty scared. According to Australian statistics between 2010 and 2019, 29 people died of snake bites compared to 12,315 on the road!

So, how do you overcome an instinctual aversion to snakes?

While Tess has never really experienced that entrenched fear of snakes, she suggests that the more time you spend appreciating snakes using safe viewing and handling practices, slowly the fear will subside.

“I’ve always been really interested in snakes growing up and I’m always looking for them! We have friends who have always been scared of snakes, but when we are out herping and find a snake, they can touch it and feel it and better understand the animal”

“While I wouldn’t encourage people to start picking up any old snake they encounter without knowing the species or how to do it safely, spending time with experienced snake handlers is a good way to learn”

After all, snakes are pretty calm. They’re more scared of us than we are them.

PHOTOGRAPHY COMPETITIONS

Thanks to her talents and passion for wildlife photography, Tess is already taking the steps towards a successful career in wildlife ecology and conservation. She has been developing her skills with both wildlife and photography for many years now and has won several competitions. But how did she find the courage to get started? Tess explains –

“I was very lucky growing up where I did and my parents always encouraged me – my mum is always finding opportunities for me to apply for and competitions for me to enter”

“Competitions like ANZANG I’ve entered for the last five years or so – and by going to the galleries and award nights I’ve met some amazing people – both photographers and scientists who motivate me further”

TRANSITIONING FROM STUDYING TO WORK

Tess intends to finish her degree in 2024 but she’s already started thinking about translating her studies into a paid position –  

“I think it’s one thing to have a degree in natural sciences but also having the practical experience under your belt is really, really helpful – and trying as many things as you can shows initiative and can help you narrow down what you want to do.”

“For me, although I know I want to do something in ecology or marine but I’m not exactly sure on a specific job… there are so many different pathways and by the time I finished my degree in 2024, there’ll be new and different job opportunities to what are being advertised now.”

So, in the meantime, while she finishes her undergraduate degree, Tess is trying as many different experiences as she can to build her skills, knowledge and network within the ecology space. After all, she says –

“You never know what will come in use or who you’ll meet that helps you out”

ADVICE FROM TESS

Despite her age, Tess has a wealth of experience with both photography and wildlife. We are lucky enough to hear some of her top advice for people starting out in both these spaces:

Photography

“With photography, you can start anywhere at any time with any type of camera gear. There are photos of me at age three with a little compact camera… and the first photographic competition I entered, I was runner up with an image I captured using a simple Powershot camera, so nothing fancy.”

“Having good camera gear does help, but you don’t need it. I would encourage people to be curious about their subjects [wildlife] – start with your phone camera in your local area and go from there!”

Ecology

“Explore what sort of things you like and don’t like when volunteer opportunities come up – but also remember you can always change your mind. For example, I took a gap year and really loved it – I would really encourage everyone to take a gap year to explore and find what you love doing”

KEEP IN TOUCH

If you’d like to hear more from Tess, tune into the podcast.  You can follow Tess’s adventures and wildlife photography on her Instagram @tess_poyner and YouTube channel.

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