James Borrell is a biodiversity scientist and science communicator researching how people and nature can adapt to environmental change.

Swapping Lloyds Bank for the Peruvian Amazon (how to get into conservation with no previous experience)

A couple of weeks ago I bumped into Mark (manning the CREES stall) at the Explore weekend in London. He reminded me of a conversation we’d had by email a couple of years ago. I was really impressed by his story, and as I get so many emails from folks aspiring to do exactly what he has, I asked him to share his experience here. Over to Mark!

My name is Mark Thomas; I have just returned back to England after working for two and half years with the CREES Foundation, located in Manu National Park. Before that I worked 8 years for Lloyds Bank. I ventured from working at home to the Amazon, and with no formal training.

I was 30 when I left, stepping on to a path of which I had no idea where it was leading. Leaving behind the comforts of office life, and a good wage, walking away from the 9-5 routine. I never did an undergrad, just left school and went straight into various jobs until I found Lloyds, and so finding that next step into conservation I thought was going to be a problem as I had no previous training. When searching for an internship online it was like a minefield, so many to choose from. Everyone I emailed sent me a sales pitch back, they all seemed like glorified travel agents, all too perfect.

So I went in search of some advice. I didn’t know anyone in conservation, but I found this blog offering lots of other advice, so I fired off a hopeful email: “Help please, I want to do an internship in Peru, but have no idea where to start”. His reply, “CREES”.

It was nice because its advice from someone in the field, a biologist, he wasn’t selling, and stood to gain nothing. If you ever want to do the same, check blogs on the website of the organisation, or other blogs of people who have worked in the area you want to go. Fire off an email, or find them on Facebook and send them a message.

So I ventured onto CREES website and found they offer an internship, which gives experience in tropical survey techniques, volunteer management, and a whole host of other conservation related skills.

They didn’t require experience, just enthusiasm, and the want to learn and do well. I hit the jackpot. So I signed up and embraced this new journey in my life.

The internship was intense, the amount you learn is incredible, and the people you meet, whether they are staff, volunteers, or other interns, they are all there for the same reason – a love of conservation, and nature. I could write forever about the internship, but feel free to email me if you want any help.

After my internship I became full time staff; I became a published author (a short note), and being accepted onto a Masters course in Conservation Biology. Normally getting onto a Masters requires you to have an undergrad, and a few of the bigger Universities didn’t accept me because of that. So it was a struggle, but I wrote my application using the two and half years experience working in the Amazon as an undergrad. I also had really helpful managers who had completed their PhDs and gave me a ton of advice, and they were brutally honest about my application, which would have been better used as compost had they not helped.

All along my journey people have helped me and they continue to do so. I am grateful for their help and without it I wouldn’t have got this far. Use their advice, even if you don’t like it, they have been there and know what it’s like.

My advice to anyone who wants to change job but are worried about taking the first step: If you work for a big organisation, normally you can take a sabbatical, go and check out the place you may want to do an internship, maybe do volunteering first for a shorter time. If you can’t do that check blogs, websites, maybe find a Facebook page for the organisation and look for a name on there who’s been before, and get in contact.

I did that before I left and someone kindly gave me all bits of advice about other things to take, what life is like in camp, things not on the website. Proved to be very useful, as I was now prepared for the cockroaches!

After my Masters I hope to go on to further education, or back out to Peru on other expeditions to understand more about the wildlife and problems that persist.

Hopefully, my story gives a bit of hope to those that want to change career paths into something different without any background in the chosen field they want to enter. There are always opportunities to gain experience everywhere, but you have to take that first step, and work very hard.

If anyone else has a story to share that might, then drop me a message.