, Rosana Soares
© Rosana Soares

A serendipitous stumble: My journey to becoming a wildlife conservation biologist





My journey to becoming a wildlife conservation biologist did not follow a long-planned career path – it was really something I stumbled into.

By: Rosana Soares

But that “stumble” is what led me to the Amazon, and to where I am today.

Ever since I was young I have been fascinated by all things animal. And while I always imagined I’d have a career dedicated to helping animals, I thought my only career option was to become a veterinarian, which for me was not a right fit with its emphasis on medical interventions.

So I put my love for animals aside and somehow ended up taking chemistry, until sitting in my first chemistry lab surrounded by a mysterious array of test tubes and beakers, I realized I had no chemistry with the subject. But life started to make sense again the day I walked into my first ecology class. The professor renewed my enthusiasm for saving wildlife through his genuine passion for saving the world. He opened my eyes to all of the impacts humans have on wildlife and the extinction crises we’re facing today. But most importantly, I discovered that there is a thing called conservation and that I could have a career completely dedicated to saving wildlife. From this point on I’ve been on a quest to puzzle out my place in the world of conservation.

My quest brought me straight into the heart of Brazil -- the Amazon -- where I spent my days bottle feeding baby manatees and monitoring their growth. This internship in Manaus, Brasil with AMPA - friends of the manatees association was my first hands-on conservation experience where I was directly working with a species that is at risk of extinction. My office was literally in the middle of a forest where I would frequently cross paths with sloths, capybaras and the occasional unwanted visitors under my desk: gigantic spiders and cockroaches. Little did I know that my Amazon adventure would not end here.

Shortly after returning to Canada to contemplate my next steps, I once again found myself back in the Amazon but this time as a research assistant/translator for Dr. Vanessa Mintzer on her research project that assessed the conflicts and interactions between local fishermen and pink river dolphins in the Mamirauá sustainable development reserve in Tefe Brasil. We worked directly with Projeto Boto (a not-for profit research program) and conducted interviews within the rural communities surrounding the reserve. This experience really made me feel like I was a biologist: I lived in a floating house in the middle of the Amazon River, I slept in a hammock to the sounds of caimans surrounding our house and traveled to communities on a small boat across rivers in the Amazon basin. The breathtaking landscape that surrounded us and the pink river dolphins swimming peacefully around our boat were enough to remind me every day why I had chosen this path.

Both of my Amazon experiences gave me a taste of the type of work, dedication and, most importantly, passion it takes to make it as a conservation biologist. It became clear that for me to have an impact in wildlife conservation I had to return to school and pursue my masters in biology, which I did at the University of Ottawa – and best of all I was back with the professor who inspired me and helped launch my conservation journey, Jeremy Kerr.

Completing my masters put a big piece in place for solving my personal conservation puzzle. It helped me develop the research and analytical skills required for an aspiring conservation biologist, and my perspective on the world changed. I started to look at landscapes through the eyes of wildlife, focusing on all of the barriers and challenges that they must overcome to persist in this world. Then, the next piece of the puzzle fell in place: I landed my first job in conservation in Canada as a WCS Canada conservation intern.

My position as a conservation intern exposed me to the behind-the-scenes of a conservation NGO and I soon realized that more than just science was involved in the day-to-day operations and management of a conservation organization. It takes a team of scientists, GIS analysts, fundraising and communication specialists, and even (or especially) finance and office managers to help conserve Canada’s wildlife and wild places.

In my year at WCS Canada, I have had the opportunity to work with many scientists on a variety of research projects -- each one different than the last. This allowed me to develop and improve a variety of skills.

The first project I got involved in was working with our President, Dr. Justina Ray, on a process for identifying Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) for Canada. This project immediately captured my interest because of its potential for use in large-scale conservation planning and the impact it can have in safeguarding the future of wildlife. Another interesting (and impactful) project I worked on with Justina involved collecting data on populations, distribution, bounties and other relevant conservation info for a whole suite of North American carnivores. The data will be used for a publication on carnivore recovery across North America.

WCS Canada scientists Dr. Bill Halliday and Dr. Cori Lausen introduced me to the world of wildlife acoustics – Bill in the Arctic with the sounds of marine mammals and Cori on the west coast listening for bats. With Bill, I spent my days listening to the sounds of wildlife such as ringed seals, bearded seals, beluga whales and bowhead whales. I helped Cori with the organization of two bat acoustics workshops that introduced other scientists and conservationists to data collection techniques, acoustic hardware, and analysis. You can learn a lot by listening.

One thing that has resonated with me throughout my journey is how communication and public engagement is a critically important tool for helping advance wildlife conservation. At WCS Canada, I played a central role in their communication team by helping develop communication strategies, social media messages and communication material such as E-newsletters and posters. Learning how to not talk like a scientist was invaluable for me as a scientist.

But by far the most rewarding part from this internship was knowing that I was part of a passionate team that shared my love for wildlife and the desire to protect the places they call home. WCS Canada is the perfect example of the type of team work, passion and dedication it takes to translate science into conservation successes that will protect wildlife and wild places in Canada.

Where my conservation journey will end is still a mystery but I’m one step further along the path thanks to my time spent at WCS Canada. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that although there isn’t one right way to become a conservation biologist and that every journey is unique, what unites us all is passion. What drives me and what will always drive me through the ups and downs, is my passion for wildlife, and the desire to make a difference. But a little chemistry (especially with your conservation teammates) doesn’t hurt.

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