Melina Budden (pronouns: she/her), a botanist, zoologist and conservationist who has studied two undergraduate degrees, a Master’s degree, and currently enrolled in a PhD focused around the impacts of fire and climate change on Greater Gliders. Her career has spanned work across a variety of sectors within the environmental space – working for government, the private industry, and now academia with her PhD. Following the 2019 bush fires, Melina and other passionate wildlife lovers also founded a wildlife rescue group called the Blue Mountains Wombats which continues today. Inspired by a deep connection with nature since childhood, Melina shares her story navigating the career pathway for a wildlife biologist – her experiences, the struggles and her advice for overcoming these challenges and staying true to your values and your why!
“I grew up in the bush. I think my town had about six people and we didn’t have any neighbours, so my friends were the animals.”
From the age of two, Melina was running around the bush by herself… and today as an ecologist and PhD candidate studying Greater Gliders, she still is!
Melina’s love for nature was cultivated in the bush, where she grew up surrounded by the beauty of threatened species. Her early experiences fuelled her passion for studying and protecting wildlife. Melina vividly recalls being fortunate to have threatened species around her, shaping her lifelong dedication to conservation and work with threatened species.
Following school, Melina headed to Mexico and spent six months volunteering with Earthwatch Institute in the rainforest tracking Ocelots. She then worked with international NGOs in Ecuador, Ireland, Mexico and Canada before returning to Australia to take a role in consulting. Melina shares:
“Once I hit the conservation space in Australia, that’s where things became difficult. My first real job where I got a real wage was a consultancy role in Sydney. I was surrounded by amazing ecologists, but we just flogged – juggling 10-15 projects and working 80-hour weeks, week after week!”
“It wasn’t a great experience, but in hindsight, I realized that this situation formed the foundations for my knowledge and skills. So, without this job I may not have gain the extensive field skills I developed”.
Melina’s next role was similar… and the next. She was treated less than nicely and aggressively at a few jobs, was even referred to appalling negative names and pushed to work crazy hours. Understandably, Melina left consulting and landed her first role in government, focused on independent environmental investigation. She explains:
“It was meant to be an independent environmental investigation unit, but the first words that were ever stated to me by my supervisor were …we prosecute private, but we do not prosecute government!”
From here, Melina moved to the department of conservation for many years thinking she had found her dream job as a Biodiversity Invesitagor and Senior Threatened Species Officer but again found her morals and values for nature conservation were not mirrored and her voice was not heard. From there, Melina tried to find work with non-profits and without success, enrolled in her PhD.
Melina’s career journey led her through various challenges, from demanding consultancy roles to frustrating experiences in government positions. The difficulties she faced in the conservation space in Australia were stark. Despite these hardships, Melina acknowledges the valuable lessons learned, the skills she gained in these roles and the resilient network of ecologists she encountered during her tenure.
BLUE MOUNTAIN WOMBATS
The devastating 2019 bushfires marked a turning point for Melina and other people working in the conservation realm. Witnessing the catastrophic impact on wildlife, a group of like-minded individuals (ecologists, vets, vet nurses, wildlife carers, arborists and more) from the conservation field, banded together to work as ‘wildlife paramedics’ to undertake search and rescue for burnt, starving and injured wildlife. This networking of people from conservation across the world connected people in new ways and gave them a platform to make true change when our government was not willing to take this on. From this experience the Blue Mountains Wildlife Volunteer group was created to continue with wildlife rescue and as the period since fire increased, the focused changed to emergency supplementary wildlife feeding and the recording and prevention of outbreaks of novel diseases in wildlife populations. Eventually this transcended into the Blue Mountains Wombats Conservation Group when a large colony of wombats were found trapped in a valley, starving to death, and dying of secondary diseased caused by mange in the Wolgan Valley. Driven by a sense of hopelessness and a perception that the government was not doing enough over the past 4 years in relation to each extreme environmental event, the Blue Mountains Wombats Conservation Group and the previous versions of the group took proactive steps to rescue and rehabilitate, treat in the wild for infections, parasites and disease and most of all to try to educate the community and prevent the loss of important species.
For Melina, the 2019/20 bushfires were the turning point:
“It’s like everything changed at that moment. There was a line in the sand where prior to that moment, ecologists were always warning about all these things are in the future. We kept trying to tell people, we’ve got to change now, because if we don’t, these things are going to happen…”
“Then all of a sudden, it was happening!”
Melina remembers wondering, what are we going to do now?
“I remember feeling this huge sense of hopelessness, that the world was just dying. So, at the time, myself, a few other ecologists and vets, we got together and just decided, screw this, we’re going to do something because we felt like government was doing nothing in the conservation wildlife space.”
“And so we did”
The group’s initial focus was on rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife affected by the fires. Melina describes their efforts, including interpreting burn mapping, identifying habitats, and collaborating with conservation dogs and drones. The formation of the Blue Mountains Wombats Wildlife Conservation Group became essential, addressing the critical issue of mange affecting wombats in the Wolgan Valley.
Starting with around 10 people, the Blue Mountains Wombats group has now grown to 42 volunteers. The group’s success lies in its diverse volunteers, each bringing unique skills and perspectives. From interpreting burn maps to administering emergency feeding guidelines, the group has become a respected force in wildlife conservation.
Melina highlights the positive impact the group has had on both individual animals and the broader conservation agenda. The group’s efforts have garnered recognition, leading to meetings with the Minister for Environment in New South Wales. Funding is now available to address the issue of mange affecting wombats, reflecting the group’s growing influence.
TIPS FOR NAVIGATING A CAREER WITH WILDLIFE
Reflecting on her experiences, Melina offers valuable advice. She emphasizes the importance of not compromising on morals and ethics when choosing employers. For those feeling isolated in the conservation field, she encourages perseverance and finding a supportive community. Melina advocates for self-care, listening to your mind and body, and finding balance to sustain a fulfilling career in conservation. She says –
“To take care of yourself, one thing I’d say straight up is don’t compromise on your morals and your ethics. If you don’t fit the first (or second or third!) company that you work with, it’s not you – find somewhere else. They’re not the right fit and you’ve got to find your family, the company that appreciates you for you.”
“It is a hard road, unfortunately, but you will eventually find the space where you fit (and I still hang on to this hope)! So, don’t give up!”
Melina says it doesn’t matter your age, your previous careers or your journey – everyone is valuable to wildlife conservation and should feel empowered to get involved and make a difference. It can be an unstable career path and advocates for finding balance and taking care of yourself –
“Listen to your mind, listen to your body. You do need to find that balance. I’ve learned the hard way that you can drive yourself into the ground, but eventually you’ll come up against that brick wall if you don’t look after yourself.”
“If you do look after yourself, then you’ll keep going for a long time. You’ll be there to actually help nature for a long time.”
Melina Budden’s journey is a testament to the resilience and passion needed in the conservation space. From her childhood dreams inspired by David Attenborough to founding a wildlife rescue group after the devastating bushfires, Melina has become a beacon of hope. Her advice resonates with aspiring conservationists, urging them to persevere, prioritize self-care, and find a supportive community. In conclusion, her advice for anyone pursuing a career with wildlife is simple –
“Live your truth, speak your truth. If you don’t fit, then you need to find a different place because they’ll crush you if you don’t.
“And, you’re not alone. There are other people out there who feel exactly the same way you do. And the best way to solve this is to network together and find that solution.”
The Blue Mountains Wombats Conservation Group stands as a powerful example of collective action, proving that every individual, regardless of background, can make a meaningful impact in wildlife conservation.
I was out in the bush just running around by myself and I think one of the first things I ever really noticed was a David Attenborough documentary and the work he did with wildlife. I remember thinking one very simple thought…. that’s what I want to do. And from that moment I grew up following wildlife, watching their behaviours and taking photos.
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Melina? Tune into the podcast or follow her adventures on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. For those inspired to get involved, the Blue Mountains Wombats group welcomes volunteers within Sydney, Central West, and Blue Mountains areas. Opportunities for supporting the group through social media, donations, or starting similar initiatives in other regions are also available.
What do you think? why not let us know or follow along for the adventure!
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