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Written by: Zandri Benade

“60% of you will drop out after the first year, and almost all of you will be without a job after graduation,” announced the lecturer. How can that be true in a country with so much biodiversity? I thought to myself as I sat through my induction at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in George, South Africa.

After four splendid years of studying conservation, I received my BTech degree cum laude in nature conservation. I was now ready to make a difference and plough my way into this difficult industry, but I was in for a big surprise.

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Volunteers maintain fences ©Jarrett Joubert
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Volunteers collect data ©Jarrett Joubert

After my studies came to an end, I started to do research on how to become a more desirable candidate within my industry. Volunteering to gain field experience came out top in most of the articles that I read, and this came as no surprise. I started researching wildlife volunteering in South Africa, which led me to my discovery that conservation experiences and wildlife research has become an industry for rich (by my standards) foreigners, and not young local scientists like me.

I visited various websites claiming to help you to “start your career in conservation” by joining their various volunteer programmes, of which the itineraries were absolutely fabulous for a young graduate like me! The only problem, aside from having to leach money off my parents for yet another year of unpaid work, was that these programmes were expecting me to also pay ridiculous amounts of money for lavish accommodation and unnecessary sightseeing. Starting anywhere from ZAR90,000 for 24 weeks, I soon came to realise that I was simply not wealthy enough to take part in these fantastic programmes. Just to put that into perspective ZAR90,000 equates to roughly the same as four years of conservation class fees.

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Volunteers work to clear alien vegetation ©Jarrett Joubert
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Volunteers help with fire fighting ©Jarrett Joubert

One can argue that these programmes are designed with tourists in mind and that they would be cheaper had they been set up for locals. But this is exactly where it becomes quite problematic. Many game reserves benefit from volunteer programmes, as the enterprises that run these programmes often provide their beneficial conservation services for free or at a small price. They thus acquire all the necessary funding to run their programmes from the volunteers themselves. So essentially it is a win-win situation for both organisations – but with dire consequences for young graduates in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

In my opinion, the lack of affordable volunteering opportunities for locals could lead to a loss of local knowledge and could complicate career growth amongst educated youth in our country, as foreign volunteers gain valuable experience that they take back to their home country with them.

My future in conservation remains uncertain but I refuse to give up, and I hope that the value of local educated youth will be realised and that we will be given the opportunity to once again become the movers and shakers in the preservation of our own natural heritage.

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A Kalahari sunset ©Douglas Rattray
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