The practicalities of a life in tropical conservation: the benefits and the costs of living the drea
Updated: Apr 5
Many people dream of travel, of doing a job they adore and reaching the end of the day knowing they did something amazing. Working in Turtle conservation in Malaysia, was this dream career for me. I am much happier away from the 9-5, in an open office over looking the Ocean. This is the dream, as I am sure many people would agree! When sitting at our Visitors Hut, in the heart of a five star resort in Malaysia, many people come over and giggle… “well this is hardly work is it” whilst they sip from their mojito.
The glamorous side of the beach office and the less
than glamorous working end of our office.
And yes, I agree, whilst sitting at our beautiful office on the beach, with our Turtle Nests in the sand, I have cracked it. I sit here and talk to guests who pop in during the day, or conduct nest checks and education talks with guests, and think I am very, very lucky. Each and every time a nest contains hatchlings I feel all warm and gooey inside. When children gasp and coo over the hatchlings and listen intently to their biology, and I hope that this impromptu lesson has a real impact with that child.
When we visit the night market once a week to buy dinner, and I taste the delicacies, lemongrass chicken grilled over an old oil drum, coconut rice steamed in bamboo. Stocking up on a copious amount of fresh mango, papaya and pineapple… luxuries! A quick lunchtime dip in the warm calm waters near our staff accommodation. A regular morning walk to watch sunrise over Tenggol. Each and every time these things happen in my day, I think to myself… I adore my job. And its these times that I agree with my friends, my family, the public and those following my Instagram that I am living the life- and this isn't really “work” as most people see it…
However, life is not all plain sailing whilst working in conservation in the tropics. Homesickness gets everyone at some point. It might not be the yearning desperate sadness to be at home in your own bed. Sometimes its a homesickness for the simple things. To have a proper conversation with your friends and family, to pop out and talk about something not relating to work. Its incredibly difficult to have long, in-depth conservation with those you miss when you are on limited internet access, and have a 16 busy day with an 8 hour time difference. You miss the developments, the new engagement celebrations, the pregnancies and babies. Although you dread the normal life, those at home with steady jobs and lives move on. Whilst young and selfish this is fine, its expected that some of us disappear traveling to find ourselves. But at some point, your family and friends start to question how long you’ll be gone and the guilt begins.
Working in conservation is also physically tiring. You often have long days… Sometimes we may get a call for a Turtle landing at 2am, and we get out of bed and come down to dig a pit and bury eggs. Then get back into bed sandy and soggy as you are just too tired to shower. Then it may be up at 6.30am again to relocate another nest. Then we have full, busy days at our hut, conducting nest checks, talking to guests, organising, planning, administrative tasks, completing our hatchery research. Depending on the development of a nest, we might then have a hatchling release which runs from 9pm to up to 11.30pm, if guests wants to stay and chat. We rarely have days off, and we all work everyday. Even in a very precious and rare day off, the likelihood is that you will be working. Nature is unpredictable, and in every day off I have ever taken in my involvement in LTTW, a Turtle has always landed in the evening. You can never get into bed whilst on site and know fully that you will sleep all night. And in between these days, we have to live. We have to wash our clothes, we have to eat, we wish we could work out, we have to maintain our personal, and working relationships.
Nest Check talks for guests, are a great opportunity to get the public excited about hatchlings, but also tough when you haven't slept due to Turtles nesting all night.
Eventually, your life becomes two pieces, a personal life with your friends family, home comforts and your foreign life- passion, career and intellectual stimulation.
However, and its a big HOWEVER. Working in conservation is incredible and in every way its the dream come true. As for the before mentioned amazing parts of the job, there are a thousand other reasons that working in conservation is the best thing in the world, quite literally. Whilst others have to go to a crowded, smelly gym, you’re outside working out during your natural routine. Win. You get to help a species that you adore. Win. You learn 100 new things about nature and life everyday. Win. You meet like minded, passionate and enthusiastic people and most of the time work alongside them. Win. You’ll most likely work in the outdoors, with all the amazing benefits this is likely to bring- i.e. swimming. WIN. You do something to feel good about- and follow your passions. Win. You spend a lot of time abroad- it’s basically travelling with a purpose. Win. You’ll learn to overcome not just biologically related problems but life problems. Win. Your day will never ever be the same, and one minute you will be doing manual labour then photo shoots, social media updates, grant proposals, accounting, scientific research, species identification, lectures... Win. The rewards of conservation are priceless (…which is key, when wages are so low!)
Conservation can be gruelling, a few months in you’ll be exhausted, probably scarred/ bitten and you’ll just want to chill with your non-conservation friends but finding a balance is possible, as I am told by many later career conservationists. You won’t find a job more mentally rewarding, more stimulating, more exciting and enthralling.
If I had any advice for early career conservationists just graduating, I’d say dive in head first with all of your energy. Just be ready, and remember to try and see the positives- when you’re called at 4.30am for a wildlife emergency, don't think oh f*ck- see it as a good opportunity to star gaze, and always remember to laugh when somebody who had double the amount of continuous sleep than you drinking a mojito reminds you that you’re not really working…