Coming to us from a tiny town in East Gippsland, Victoria this evening we are speaking with field ecologist and PhD candidate, Jenna Ridley as she gets ready to head out on spotlight surveys for the threatened Greater Glider. She shares her journey in wildlife conservation so far and provides her top tips on how YOU can do the same!
Greater Gliders are fluffy, lightweight, gremlin-like “furbys” that live in old-growth forests which are a vanishing habitat type throughout south-eastern Australia. Greater gliders are listed as vulnerable, and have suffered significant range contractions and declines. One of the main reasons why Greater Gliders are tied to old-growth forests is because they have higher densities of suitable hollows available for shelter and nesting than younger forested areas. It usually takes at least 50 years, for many eucalypts 100 years, for hollows to form in trees so this resource can be hard to come by, especially in a landscape impacted by deforestation and habitat fragmentation.
Following the 2019/2020 black summer bushfires, a large proportion of this already scarce old-growth forest habitat was burnt and even today, some areas remain charred without regrowth. Jenna is working across 2 bushfire-affected areas: East Gippsland where surveys have shown that Greater Gliders are missing from areas they were once abundant, and Tallaganda National Park which seems to have maintained a healthy population of gliders post-fire.
Jenna is monitoring leaf nutritional quality, soil quality and other abiotic factors at each area to try and understand this difference. She is also setting up what will become a long-term monitoring program by deploying nest boxes at half her sites in each area (20 of 40 sites in both East Gippsland and Tallaganda) to determine whether or not this intervention can assist Greater Glider persistence while their habitat slowly recovers.
One year into the project, Jenna is loving it: working on a mammal-focused project with such an important ecosystem conservation and management context is so exciting. She says,
“Greater Gliders are just so cute and so weird. When I spotlight for them, they just stare back at me and “wag” their tail! We also see so many other mammals when spotlighting in the forests at night.”
After all, the fate of the Greater Glider is so closely entwined with healthy old-growth forest habitats so protecting the forests is important for protecting the Greater Glider.
Jenna was the little girl who loved animals and always thought she’d be a vet. In year 10, she was introduced to the idea of becoming a park ranger when she did her work experience at Yanchep National Park in Western Australia, sorting out seeds, picking up rubbish and just loved it. At age 17, Jenna jumped straight into university and studied conservation biology and zoology at the University of Western Australia.
“As I was a bit younger, I was nervous and didn’t ask questions of lecturers or engage with older students. I’d definitely recommend being brave and trying this as it’s such a valuable opportunity”
Throughout university, Jenna volunteered on citizen science projects, at native animal rescue and with PhD students. When she finished, she found herself with no job and a desire to get out of Perth, so she started sending some emails.
The result? Very quickly, she was offered an Honours project in the central desert working with the threatened but understudied Great Desert Skink (Liopholis kintorei, Tjakura), affectionately known as the lobsters of the desert. These large red social skinks (slightly smaller than bluetongue lizards) live in communal multi-tunneled burrows in family groups with unique external latrines. Jenna’s project aimed to fill knowledge gaps and better understand the impacts of fire history, vegetation and soil type on great desert skink activity and burrow selection.
So, at age 20 she had moved her life from the beachy suburbs of Perth city to the hot, dusty town of Alice Springs. In the soaring temperatures of summer, Jenna searched for Great Desert Skink burrows along transects at the famous Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Although at times it was an isolating experience and challenging to solve problems alone, she had an amazing experience and learnt so much from it.
Life and work often get in the way but Jenna published her Great Desert Skink work 3 years later.
Once her Honors was completed, Jenna found herself without a job and moved back to Western Australia where she took on a seasonal role with the fire crew for Department of Parks and Wildlife for 8 months. When she wasn’t fighting fires or putting in prescribed burns, Jenna did ecology work, trapping and translocating animals and surveying flora.
The trouble with seasonal work or short-term contracts is that it’s boom-bust by nature and there can be a lot of uncertainty attached.
“There is so much unemployment, especially at the start of your career! The lulls between contracts can be challenging for people like me who like to stay busy but you just have to be positive and persistent”
Once her fire contract ended, Jenna moved down to Albany on the south coast and volunteered with the Department of Parks and Wildlife there. Although she intended to go back to the fire role, she was offered a job in an environmental engagement program for kids and she jumped at the opportunity. Shortly after she began, she saw an advertisement for an 8-month position as Interpretations Officer at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary in the Kimberley and jumped at the opportunity. Living in the central Kimberley was incredible, undertaking bird-watching, canoeing and nature tours in a beautiful environment and meeting people from all walks of life kept things interesting and engaging. Plus what could be better than exploring gorges all weekend!
At the end of the seasonal contract, Jenna lined up an internship with the organization (the Australian Wildlife Conservancy) in south-eastern Australia. Again, she had time to spare and spent it volunteering on biodiversity surveys, travelling and working casual jobs in cafes. She also did a graduate certificate in Indigenous engagement.
Jenna’s internship was an amazing experience for her: she worked with threatened species in beautiful landscapes and learnt from top ecologists. Her internship also became her foot in the door as shortly after it ended, she was asked to step into a field ecologist role at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary in the central desert region of Australia.
In February 2019 she moved back to the desert and started working her dream job, monitoring flora and fauna, as well as working on an ambitious reintroduction program. She loved being back in the desert, and had incredible opportunities working on threatened species translocations. Working so closely with Mala (Rufous Hare-wallaby) for that period of time was so fulfilling. As time passed, and with the addition of the covid-19 pandemic she started to seek out a new challenge and planned to be closer to family and friends.
“It’s challenging to balance being in the bush and following your passion with spending time with the people you love when you live and work in remote places – and COVID really highlighted this for me!”
After almost 2 years, Jenna decided that although this was definitely something she’d like to come back to, it was time to build her skills and experience by enrolling in her PhD, investigating Greater Glider recovery post bushfire. Always choosing to stay busy, Jenna pairs her PhD work with casual work as a spotlight tour guide at Mulligans Flat, a fenced reserve and reintroduction project in the heart of Canberra.
Amazing advice for your journey in wildlife conservation
Thanks to her diverse experiences working in wildlife conservation across Australia, Jenna has amazing advice for anyone looking to do something similar:
Starting your journey in wildlife conservation
- Put yourself out there and take every opportunity – local bushwalks, volunteer projects – it is all great for building your experience and CV
- Enjoy the journey – it can be too easy to feel stressed or get too focused on the end result. Appreciate the moments, or the steps in your journey and follow your passion.
- People see your work ethic over your mistakes
- Try not to worry when you’re unemployed – it happens to everyone! It’s not a reflection of you, rather you just haven’t found your thing yet – so hang in there for your dream job!
Advice for PhD candidates
When starting your PhD, it can be hard to know where you stand as you’re coordinating your project but not a staff member so in a bit of a grey area. Try to feel confident, know your worth and remember your why – this will help you overcome any imposter syndrome which can creep in.
A PhD is a collaborative experience, so make the most of the people around you (your cohort will become your support network and expand your connections within the industry).
Pinch yourself moments
“If someone had told me in year 10 that I’d do all the things I’ve done – I wouldn’t believe them!”
Working in such a passion-focused industry as wildlife conservation has so many amazing “pinch yourself” moments. Jenna shares some of her most amazing experiences so far:
“Waking up on the wildlife sanctuaries I’ve worked on and realizing the bush is right there, and it is so big and so much more than me”
“Working with threatened mammals like Mala – holding such precious furry creatures in your hands – it never gets old!”
“It’s a small industry but everyone has a unique and incredible story – and I have met some of my best friends at work because we share this passion”
Jenna would like to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and pays her respect to the elders past, present and emerging. She would like to specifically acknowledge the lands in which she has worked, studied and lived and continues to work, study and live on. In particular she would also like to acknowledge and pay her respect to the Pitjantjatjara, Gija and Warlpiri people in the remote areas she has called home and the people who have taught her so much about their country, showed her compassion and patience and whom she is very thankful for.
Jenna’s PhD project has been conducted through the Australian National University. She would like to acknowledge all of the people and organisations she has collaborated with so far, particularly, the World Wildlife Fund, Greening Australia, the Australian Men’s Shed Association and the Moogji Aboriginal Council. She would also like to acknowledge the funding bodies that have supported her project financially.
Keep in touch
You can follow Jenna’s adventures on Instagram @jennaridley
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