How volunteering can start a career in conservation


How volunteering can start a career in conservation

To get a job, you need experience. But does volunteering really help you get a career or is it just a bit of fun before ‘real life’ begins?

Our new digital content creator, Eilidh Munro, has just joined the Crees team at the Manu Learning Centre (MLC) – our research and education hub in the Amazon rainforest. Out of the current staff members, she’s the 7th to return to the jungle after a volunteering or internship programme with Crees.

Here, she talks to field staff members, Emma and Juriko, about how they turned a volunteering experience into a career in conservation, and what it’s like returning to the jungle – as home.

Getting hands on in the Peruvian Amazon | Image © Eilidh Munro
Getting hands on in the Peruvian Amazon | Image © Eilidh Munro

Conservation can be a tricky industry to break into and many people look towards volunteering programmes to break the cycle of needing experience to get more experience.

But does conservation volunteering really help you get a job in the industry? Or is it just a few weeks of your life that you put down to experience and decent Instagram material?

Well for 7 out of 9 field staff currently at the MLC, volunteering has kick-started a career in conservation, and a life spent – for a time – based in the remote Peruvian Amazon.

Does experience matter?

For some Crees staff members, volunteering with Crees was less about starting a career and more about changing it. Field staff member Emma was working as a freelance makeup artist when she arrived at the MLC in 2014 as a volunteer.

“Before I came to the MLC I had no previous knowledge of any ecology – let alone tropical ecology. I knew nothing about sustainability, conservation, deforestation – none of it. I was shocked at my own lack of knowledge, but equally fascinated about everything; from the little things you see every day to the way of life at camp.”

“Volunteering taught me that I can withstand tough days, being tired and working hard in a remote environment. It showed me not only what I want to do, but what I should be doing – I’ve never felt so driven and motivated to learn and progress.”

Our programmes manager, Carlos Arévalo, recently commented that a passion for conservation is the most powerful attribute you can have for a career in this sector, and this has certainly proved true in Emma’s case. Her passion for the work done at Crees has taken her from a volunteer to intern, and now to field staff.

Field staff member, Emma May, identifying a butterfly on survey in the MLC | Image © Eilidh Munro
Field staff member, Emma May, identifying a butterfly on survey in the MLC | Image © Eilidh Munro

Manu as a learning centre

Juriko originally joined the team via Crees’ pasantía programme – a three month internship that’s free for Peruvian nationals – and focuses on giving training in field work skills, tropical ecology surveys and knowledge of border social, environmental and economic issues. She had already completed a biology degree but feels that the training at the MLC was pivotal in her understanding of conservation.

“The work here is all about giving more information about regenerating rainforests and the research element of biodiversity, so your learning always has a focus on conservation.”

“At university they teach you about animals and processes, but you don’t necessarily feel the need to act. When you’re working in an affected area and are handling animals you feel part of it; that you have a responsibility.”

“I remember the first time I was taking a frog back to the jungle after studying it. I was walking with this small animal and I felt compromised. Yes, there are many other frogs in the jungle but it was my responsibility to make sure this one was safe and could go back to its life. Now I always make sure the volunteer who finds a specimen is responsible for returning it.”

Amphibian surveys are one of the many tropical ecology skills that volunteers learn | Image  © Eilidh Munro
Amphibian surveys are one of the many tropical ecology skills that volunteers learn | Image © Eilidh Munro

Both Emma and Juriko agreed that being based in an affected area and working with people who are both knowledgeable and passionate about what they are doing has been invaluable training.

“It’s like trying to learn a language and being immersed with the speakers of that language,” Emma said. “You learn so much quicker because you are constantly surrounded by people who are talking about it and keeping it present. You see things, do things first hand and immediately learn field techniques. So you understand why people do them, how they do them and if they can be improved.”

Jungle living

So what is it like returning to the jungle after time spent at home?

There was one recurring theme here: the smell. But not the type you might expect (although you do need to become quite ‘at one’ with both yourself and the others around you when you’re working in the field 6 days a week).

Rather, it’s a more particular ‘jungle smell’.

“It hits you around the time you reach the cloud forest”, says Emma, “it’s like humidity, but more particular. As soon as I got there the smells and the sounds were immediately so familiar. I just thought, ‘yes, I’m back!’”

Juriko agreed.

“When I smell the humidity I know it’s my jungle home, and then I remember everything.”

Early mornings surveying birds near the clay lick of the MLC | Image  © Eilidh Munro
Early mornings surveying birds near the clay lick of the MLC | Image © Eilidh Munro

As well as her excitement, Emma also spoke about her reservations about returning as an intern after volunteering.

“I normally don’t like returning to places I’ve been and loved – I’d rather keep the memory of a place intact. So when I decided to come back to the MLC I was nervous. Would I love the work or was I being blinded by the experience I had last time? But I think Crees attracts a certain type of person: people who love being outdoors, adventures and learning.”

Despite her concerns, Emma’s initial 6 month has turned into a continuous 15 months of living at our base in the Manu Biosphere Reserve. I was curious to know how – or if – the experiences have differed.

“I expected the internship to feel like a continuation of volunteering, and likewise with becoming field staff. But I’ve been surprised at every level. You’re constantly getting to do more, see more and be part of more. Now and again I get a ‘pinch me’ moment when I realise this is my job.”

For Juriko, the emotions of being in the jungle have never changed.

“When I first came to the jungle, I felt like a guest in someone else’s house. I still do. When I see a monkey or another animal I say thanks, because I am in their house; it’s not my house. But in terms of the experience, every day in the jungle is different. You do the same routes but it’s never the same.”

In fact, it can sometimes take longer to adjust to ‘normality’ than to jungle life. Juriko remembers lying in bed in Cusco, feeling weird sleeping without a mosquito net, then hearing something:

“Maybe it’s a monkey! No no wait, there are no monkeys here…”

A titi monkey looking over the forest | Image © Bethan John
A titi monkey looking over the forest | Image © Bethan John

Do you think someone should return to a place they have volunteered in the past, or should they look for a different experience?

Emma’s advice is to think past the programme.

“Are you doing it to repeat the fun, or as a step in the direction you think you might want to go in? If it’s the latter, then don’t think twice – just do it. Every day is different and you’ll meet and work with incredible people.”

For Juriko, it’s all about listening to that niggling feeling.

“It’s hard work and living in a remote location isn’t for everyone. But if there is even a small part of you thinking about it, or if there is something there that you need to explore, then do it. Go on the adventure!”

A huge thanks to Emma and Juriko for sharing their experiences about life at the MLC. For me, one of the best things about returning to Crees is the privilege of working and chatting with people who are so passionate about their work in conservation. If you’re interested in joining the team then check out our volunteering and internship programmes.

eilidh-munro-digital-content-creator-manu-rainforest-crees-foundation