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Steph Robertson- Travelling and volunteering abroad!

Today we have the wonderful Steph Robertson talking to us about her time travelling abroad, volunteering for conservation!

Short bio about yourself and your experience in conservation so far:

Hi, my name is Steph, I’m 25 years old and in 2018 I graduated from university with a First Class Honours degree in Zoology. My whole life I have grown up surrounded by nature, exploring the outdoors at any opportunity - especially with no shoes on!

Exploring Eglinton Valley, New Zealand tracking long-tailed bats (2019)

I am a keen amateur wildlife photographer in my spare time and have recently taken up pyrography as a hobby. I am currently out of work as I have recently returned from New Zealand, where I spent the last year travelling and working. Unfortunately, due to the current climate and field of work, most of my job applications have been suspended.

My experience of conservation began all the way back to 2013 where, at the age of 19 I was fresh out of school and enjoying my gap year, I took a giant leap and flew 6,000 miles to South Africa. I had the incredible opportunity to work at a safari lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve, shadowing guides and learning as much as I could about the native flora and fauna. During university, I volunteered my time at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) where I assisted in collating and analysing data on agave species for Red List consideration. I have also been fortunate to participate in conservation efforts in New Zealand. I worked alongside the Department of Conservation, contributing towards two long-term population studies of the native long-tailed bat.

Here I am back in 2014 holding a 3-metre African Rock Python that we were relocating from the local village back into the game reserve.

What made you decide to volunteer abroad?

I have always loved travelling. Living in the UK, we are fortunate to have easy access to Europe for exploring. A number of my childhood years were spent enjoying summer at my Aunt’s house in Brittany, France. When I was 10 years old, my family went on a big trip overseas to North America. Every new destination would open up a treasure trove of experiences and cultures, and I couldn’t get enough of it! Not only was I immersed in a new environment, but the doorway to a myriad of exotic wildlife would suddenly explode as soon as I felt my feet touch unexplored soil. After finishing school, I told myself I would try to visit a new place every year. So far, I’ve managed to succeed. In my mind, the only way to truly understand wildlife conservation efforts is to get involved, which is what I try and do overseas.

What conservation projects did you get involved in abroad?

My main contributions to conservation projects abroad were during my time at the Department of Conservation. Here, I was actively participating in data collection for a long-term population study. Using mark-recapture methods, we collated information on local long-tailed bat populations for analysis of population trends. I was predominantly based on the North Island, where a 5-year study was in its second year. I was involved for the whole duration of this project for 2019, which really helped me refine the new set of scientific skills I had learned. I was also briefly based in the South Island, where the study had been ongoing for 25 years! This placement was 3 months after the initial one, so it aided in solidifying my knowledge of the species, procedures and the ongoing conservation efforts.

A rather sleepy-eyed Steph holding a bag of long-tailed bats in one hand and a small male in the other (2019).

Please highlight a conservation issue you are particularly interested in:

I am particularly interested in issues surrounding species that are on the brink; this also ties in with another issue that I am constantly following, the illegal wildlife trade. Unfortunately, a rapidly expanding and all-consuming human population that is exploiting the Earth’s natural resources at an unsustainable rate. Our actions in habitat destruction and exploitation of wildlife has increased current extinction rate 1000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. Over 9600 tree species are at risk of extinction, along with almost 8000 globally threatened species of amphibian, fish, reptile, bird and mammal. Species that are only just being discovered, such as the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, are being declared critically endangered almost as soon as it was allocated a scientific name.

It is terrifying to think of the life forms that are silently going extinct; ones we haven’t discovered, which we may never discover. We must protect this biodiversity. Ecosystem services, which we humans rely on (pollination, climate regulation, clean water, etc.) are governed by the health and stability of natural ecosystems like rainforests and grasslands. As species, or even populations of a species, go extinct we face the risk of collapsing entire ecosystems and the services they provide.

A huge factor leading to extinction of species is through the illegal wildlife trade. This is a lucrative international organised crime, making over £15 billion annually. Take elephants, more than 60% of Africa’s elephant population was poached within the last 12 years. As elephant numbers disappear, the ecosystems these keystone herbivorous species inhabit suffers. African elephants remove trees, trample grasses, improve soil condition and create watering holes. As these numbers diminish, the ecosystem loses its gardener. Elephant droppings are a fertiliser, improving soil condition by replacing nutrients into depleted soils; in the forests, elephants aid in seed dispersal, creating high plant diversity.

What can people do you help with this issue?

I think educating ourselves on the current threats to global wildlife is something we should all do. Learn more about the threatened species. If you have bought anything from coffee to bedding, you are contributing to wildlife trade. Most trade is legal and regulated, but some products may have come from the illegal wildlife trade. Educate your friends and family on these issues and spread awareness.

If buying from a vendor, ask where the item came from, what it is made of. Do not buy products made from or formulated with wildlife body parts (like ivory, fur or shells). If you aren’t sure, don’t buy it. You don’t want to be accidentally fuelling ANY illegal wildlife trade! When purchasing items such as wooden furniture, check they are being sustainably forested. Products with a Forest Stewardship Council seal ensures that all trees cut down are replaced and the rights of indigenous people in the area are respected, local workers are given a salary – which can prevent them from turning to poaching for a living.

Supporting businesses that directly give back to conservation efforts is a huge way to help, or donating to those organisations that are on the front line, fighting 24/7 for the protection of globally threatened species.

Please explain about WWOOFing?

WWOOFing stands for World Wide Opportunities On Farms. In all my adventures, I had never come across this word; that was until I started speaking to colleagues at work about going to New Zealand. They said that they had known others who travelled the country via this method. After further investigation, I found this incredible website that links travellers from all over the world with hosts in hundreds of different countries.

The general premise, at least in New Zealand, was that in return for 4-6 hours of work a day (which mostly comprised of gardening and general farm/house/garden maintenance) you would be provided with food and accommodation. Now, at first, this seemed too good to be true, but I signed up and organised my first stay for March 2019. I was greeted by a lovely family of 5 and welcomed into their home on a lifestyle block. The main tasks involved feeding and caring for their horses and doing odd maintenance jobs. I loved it! I ended up spending time WWOOFing for 10 different host families throughout the year. It would have been more, but there was one family that I bonded with really well and frequently returned to between adventures. I am still in touch with them now! I was incredibly fortunate to spend time with such a variety of people, from beekeepers harvesting manuka honey, to a family that had 10 golden retriever puppies whilst I was there!

All 10 puppies on their second-day vet check (Left), 9 of the puppies before they headed to their new homes (Right)

I would highly recommend giving WWOOFing a go when travelling overseas. Not only is it a brilliant way to connect with locals, most of whom have a wonderful piece of land that they are working on, but you get to know individuals on a more personal level, some of them had some incredible jobs! You also get to immerse yourself in the local culture in a completely new way compared to just travelling and hostel-jumping; I was also introduced to some absolutely beautiful locations that I would never have thought to visit. It was incredibly rewarding participating in certain hosts’ projects - such as regenerating old logging forest with native flora - that would have a positive future impact to the local environment. What’s not to love? I am looking forward to WWOOFing in other countries in the future as I just think it’s such a wonderful way to travel and experience a country and its people.

Suited up to inspect the beehives (2019)

What is your greatest achievement so far?

I think I am far from achieving all that I would like to, but so far my greatest achievement has got to be when I searched for one of the agave species I had worked on during my time at the IUCN. After typing ‘agave’ into the IUCN Red List search engine, I was taken aback to discover not one, but 63 species with my name published under! That was a real ‘proud of myself’ moment; I even treated myself to a prosecco that day!

What is your favourite species?

Now this is tough question to answer. If I could, I would say all of them! Can I have two?

I have always admired wolves from a young age, but after travelling to South Africa, a different ‘wolf’ caught my eye. The painted wolf, also known as the African wild dog. I fell in love with their enthusiasm and playfulness. I remember spending an evening just watching the pack interact with each other and it was delightful. Stink aside, they are beautiful creatures. The unique marbling of their coat, which is the equivalent of a human fingerprint for identification, and those ears! These animals are extremely interesting, from having an extensive home range to their complex social structure. Did you know that studies have found wild dogs ‘sneeze’ to vote on whether to hunt? Fascinating!

One of the African wild dogs I had the privilege of watching in South Africa (2014)

I also have an incredibly soft spot for the wonderful pangolin. I would absolutely love to witness one of these creatures in their natural habitat; I was fortunate enough to see one at Singapore Zoo and I immediately cried. How can something that adorable be the most trafficked animal on the planet, making up 20% of all illegal wildlife trade? I don’t know a single person that hasn’t melted at the footage of a Cape pangolin walking on its hind legs, looking like its about to politely ask you a question.

These scaly little beauties also play an extremely important ecological role. Whilst they munch away on termites, they are actually acting as a pest control, preventing local areas from being overrun by these ‘pests’ that would otherwise cause damage to local buildings. Not only this, but pangolins actively improve soil quality, aerating the soil as they dig for food, improving nutrient quality!

A Sunda pangolin that I saw at Singapore Zoo (2019)

Both of these animals are in trouble, African wild dogs are the second most endangered carnivore species on the African continent. Human-wildlife conflict is a big problem for these guys as they require large home ranges, high densities of prey and have a knack for finding their way into livestock enclosures. Unfortunately, they are also susceptible to poachers’ snares. All this makes it difficult to manage and protect the species.

All eight species of pangolin are listed as vulnerable or higher on the IUCN Red List. In some countries, their meat is seen as a delicacy and sign of wealth, whilst their scales (which are made of keratin, like human fingernails) are used in traditional medicines. It is believed that at least 20 tonnes worth of pangolins and their parts were internationally trafficked last year!

In the future, I would love to participate in conservation or research efforts for both of these remarkable animals.

What has volunteering has done for you?

Volunteering has helped to expand on my scientific skill-set and also allow me to put into practice everything I have learned over the years. Not only am I always learning something new, but I end up making a network of connections with other like-minded individuals and learning more within the conservation community. It has also allowed me to develop communication skills and building on connections with people; if you can’t communicate ideas, you’re not going to get very far!

Advice for people wanting to volunteer abroad for conservation efforts:

Try and contact people or organisations up-front. Not only does it show that you are actively searching for opportunities, but you are independently contacting people. I have nothing against some of the incredible organisations that aid people in finding volunteering placements, but my personal preference is first-hand contact. This allows you to showcase yourself a bit more as a person and helps you stand out from the crowd. You are also more likely to be offered volunteering with accommodation, food, both, or other expenses included and likely not have to pay much, if at all! If you want to volunteer on research projects, have a look at local university PhD students and get in contact with them. They are usually looking for some form of assistance.

Essentially, from my experience, it is all about networking in the field of conservation. If you aren’t sure whether someone is looking for volunteers, email them anyway. The worst you’re going to get is a ‘no’, but you might actually stumble across something incredible and you won’t know if you don’t ask!

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