By Dianna Terry. Dianna is a marine biology PhD candidate working for an ocean conservancy organization.
Kneeling in roadside sand to identify a lion’s pugmark, interpreting a humpback’s tail-slap for a ship full of camera-wielding whale-watchers, collecting a blood sample from an ailing goose in a marshland refuge—a career in the wildlife-tourism industry is often rife with adventure. For anyone who loves animals and wild ecosystems, it can be a deeply fulfilling dream job.
Wildlife tourism, though, covers a broad spectrum of specific careers. You could become a safari guide for a travel company, which might be the job that most automatically comes to mind. But you might also be a field researcher, studying populations of wild animals in national parks and other protected lands that attract wildlife-watchers in droves. Maybe you’ll don a doctor’s coat to ensure a population of endangered animals is secure against devastating disease—including those potentially transmitted by humans in ecotourism situations. Perhaps you’ll tackle another aspect of the field by regulating industry practices with an eye toward sustainability through a group such as the International Ecotourism Society.
Zoological parks also often fall under the umbrella, and not only because the animals on display serve as educational ambassadors for their wild brethren: Many leading zoos are also heavily involved in conservation work. The Milwaukee County Zoo, for example, has long tended one of North America’s biggest colonies of captive bonobos, and works to secure wild populations of these rare great apes in equatorial Africa, according to BonoboConservation.com.
Pursuing an academic track in biological sciences gives you a comprehensive, technical understanding of how animals are put together and how they function in relation to their environment. Mastering these fundamentals of physiology and ecology is crucial to many aspects of conservation work.
To some, wildlife biology or zoology might appear “softer” academic routes than physics or chemistry: A trotting wolf, after all, seems easier to understand than the invisible latticework of an organic compound or the complicated equations accounting for the behavior of the universe. But biologists familiarize themselves with many levels of ecological organization and process, from an animal’s physiological requirements to its larger-scale interactions with other species, the seasonal and long-term patterns of its movements in the context of different habitats, and its response and susceptibility to climatic fluctuations.
Beyond a wildlife-biology or ecology program, a degree or certificate in veterinary studies can also usher you into ecotourism work by giving you the tools to diagnose and treat diseases affecting wild or captive animals. For example, the Veterinary Technician Program through PennFoster.edu exposes you to everything from basic tenets of biology and medical mathematics to intensive courses on animal anatomy and nutrition. When assessing potential veterinary curriculums, keep an eye out for accreditation by institutions such as the American Veterinary Medical Association.
An undergraduate degree or certification in wildlife ecology, conservation biology, or some related field may be sufficient to land professional work in wildlife tourism—particularly when combined with plenty of practical experience. However, further education is often mandatory for high-level research and managerial positions, as NationalZoo.si.edu explains.
Interning and Volunteering
As with any line of study, volunteering or interning can be enormously beneficial. Beyond making you more attractive to a hiring committee, it provides a better sense of exactly what kind of position and what area of focus most interests you. Jobs working with charismatic megafauna like elephants and tigers can be highly competitive; volunteering as a data-cruncher or field assistant gives you a taste of the drama while also improving your resume.
Inquire with zoos, wildlife refuges, veterinary clinics, national parks, ecotourism companies, and other organizations to find out about volunteer and internship opportunities. If you’re lucky and committed, you might even land yourself a direct job opportunity out of the deal.
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