Conservation careers: Empowering young people in conservation

This article was originally published on the BirdLife International website.

Sherilyn Bos, Capacity Development Officer at BirdLife International, works with the Conservation Leadership Programme to help early-career conservationists overcome threats to nature in places where capacity and access to resources is limited. Here, she tells us more about her role at CLP, her career journey and shares her tips for breaking into the sector.

Sherilyn at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille, September 2021 © Kate Tointon

Why did you choose a career in conservation?

I originally didn’t – I went to medical school first! But then at the start of my studies I volunteered in South Africa for a month and realised that I wanted to do something with animals and nature instead. I studied biology in Paris and went on to do an Applied Wildlife Conservation Masters.

My first job was at BirdLife as an intern with the conservation team for 6 months. Then, my supervisor encouraged me to apply for a job with BirdLife Europe and Central Asia as a research assistant on the MAVA projects. I was there for a year when a new opportunity came up for my current job which was a big change moving from wetland projects to capacity development.

What does your current role involve?

I co-ordinate the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) from the BirdLife side; as CLP works in partnership between BirdLife, Fauna and Flora International, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. We support high-priority biodiversity conservation by building the leadership skills of early career conservationists who are striving to overcome major threats to nature in places where capacity and access to resources is limited. To achieve this, we identify and engage exceptional young conservationists, invest in their professional development through grants, training and mentoring, and help them to multiply their impact across the conservation sector.

Part of my role involves looking after the Team Awards work stream. Through this, we grant funding to early-career conservationists through our Future Conservationist Awards, and we also grant Follow-up and Leadership awards to past award recipients. I am on the Future Conservationist Awards side for early career conservationists where I screen the application process. Once the projects are selected, we give out the funds and the projects can start work on the ground. There are many different streams such as the alumni network, communications, and we all support other streams when needed.

Sherilyn running a workshop on conservation leadership at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September 2021 © Kate Tointon

How is CLP working to increase diversity in the conservation sector?

Our criteria require that teams must be from low- to middle-income countries and must have 50% or more of national individuals in that project. As part of our new strategy, we will be working to engage more local people, particularly ones that we may not be reaching already, for example people who won’t hear about the programme through a university or people who don’t speak or read English. We would encourage our alumni network to put forward any exceptional people from their community who could be a good fit and that could take on a project. We also want to open the programme to Indigenous and Native people from the US and Australia in the future.

Getting into conservation can be challenging, do you have any advice?

In a lot of places, people aren’t aware what conservation is or what the roles involve. Studying is a common way to start, but I would also recommend Conservation Careers, and looking at blogs and even Instagram. Following conservation organisations and people on social media who are already working in the sector is a great way to learn about it and see what the job involves. It’s difficult because there are very few jobs and very little money, but if it is your calling, I would say go for it!

What are the best and most challenging parts of your role?

The pandemic brought a lot of challenges as travelling was no longer possible, so our training and meetings all had to go online. We adapted to this but there is a lot of value in people meeting in person, for example we noticed it took much longer for people to connect online than when we were able to meet in person. In the future, we would like to keep an online component but also still plan in person events so people can really connect.

The best part is hearing from teams or alumni about how successful their project and training has been, or that they’ve been able to connect with someone across the world for their project. Seeing those connections happening and having a positive impact on people’s careers is the biggest reward.

Another positive is knowing that indirectly my work can have a big impact for conservation as the work that the teams can do on the ground is helping nature, so even though I’m not directly working with wildlife, I can still contribute and it’s brilliant to see.

We keep in touch with everyone too to see where they have ended up and seeing someone who started as an intern go on to do amazing work is incredible, it’s brilliant that a programme can do that.

Sherilyn (second from right) with the CLP management team in November 2021 © Stuart Paterson

There is a lot of negative environmental news that can be tough when working in conservation and caring about the environment, what keeps you hopeful and motivated?

In my job, if I read that someone didn’t succeed in implementing one of their activities in a project and I will be feeling so sorry for them, I will then read that someone else successfully managed theirs which balances it out. Personally, I try not to get into a loop of bad news about the environment and make sure to pay attention to the good news too. Also, seeing what the new generation is doing, and following the work of people that are making change is inspiring.

It’s also important to remember that as an individual you can’t change everything, but you can always do something to make an impact. For example, if I keep doing what I’m doing that is good for the planet, and by having a career in conservation, hopefully I have a small impact toward a better future. I want to stay hopeful for future generations that come after us – realistic but hopeful.

Click here to find out more about the Conservation Leadership Programme, and click here to read about this year’s Team Awards winners who are driving crucial actions to save a range of imperilled species and habitats around the world.