From the Horse’s Mouth: An Interview with a Wildlife Conservationist Maverick



There is often a mismatch between what students think it is going to be like and the reality [of the job]. So, take the time to take that personal inventory, get to know your strengths and weaknesses, and discover where you strive or thrive.
Dr. Hayley Adams, Conservationist, Author, Professor, and Founder of the Silent Heroes Foundation

Hesron Nzumumu’s family has been farming in the Taita-Teveta community of Kenya for generations, but about a decade ago, the community leader and farmer was facing a problem that almost forced him to give up on his source of income.

Elephants in Kenya are free to roam the landscape, unconfined to any special areas, making farmers’ crops vulnerable to migrating elephants, which feed on produce and sometimes damage buildings when they stumble upon a farmstead. A single crop-raiding event by an elephant family could wipe out an entire year’s worth of income for families like Nzumumu’s, which is why some farmers were resorting to shooting at elephants as they approached to defend their livelihoods.

Elephant hunting was banned in Kenya 1973 in response to their rapidly decreasing population, which dwindled from five million a century ago to less than 50,000—mostly due to poachers hunting them for their ivory tusks. Since then, killing an elephant could result in a fine of 20 million shillings (around $200,000) or even a life sentence.

Researchers from UK-registered charity Save the Elephants who were investigating wildlife crime activity in East Africa started a dialogue with the regional farmers. They learned of the problem they were facing and sought to find a solution instead of clapping down on the distressed farmers.

Through on-the-ground research, they learned a key piece of information that would save both the lives of the elephants and farmers’ crops: elephants are afraid of bees. They found that the sound of swarming bees caused more than 90 percent of elephants to vocally warn the herd with a deep grumble and flee from the source of the sound.

Dr. Lucy King used this insight to implement beehive perimeters around farms in order to nonviolently ward off elephants, which is effective in about eight out of ten incidents. Farmers no longer have to constantly surveil the fields, and as an added bonus, are also able to incorporate jarring and selling honey into their businesses, which can boost their income by about 30 to 50 percent.

This is a shining example of how conflicts between humans and wildlife can be solved with prevention instead of retribution. The model has now expanded to many different countries in Africa and was found to be effective on Asian elephants, as well.

Dr. Hayley Adams, founder of the Silent Heroes Foundation, is working to expand the model at farms in Tanzania.

“Once there has been an elephant poached, there are certain things we can do forensically to trace the perpetrator, but preventing it from happening—that’s more important,” she said.

Dr. Adams has centered her career around this philosophy, which is referred to as One Health: “The concept that humans, animals and the environment are all interdependent. It’s getting to the root of the issues, not just tackling the things on the surface,” she said. “But in order to do that, we need to make an effort to understand the drivers.”

Meet the Expert: Author, Professor, and Charity Founder Dr. Hayley Adams

Dr. Hayley Adams has more than 20 years of experience in wildlife veterinary medicine and conservation. After completing her bachelor’s degree in zoology and anthropology, she went on to receive her doctorate degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Tennessee college of veterinary medicine in 2001, and later gained her PhD in wildlife epidemiology and virology from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

Since then, she has founded a charitable organization, the Silent Heroes Foundation, authored Conscious Conservation: Less Doing, More Being, and released dozens of episodes of her podcast “Conservation Without Borders,” where she interviews her peers in the conservation community. Today, she is also a professor of wildlife forensic sciences at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine and an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

The life stories and projects of leaders like King and Adams have inspired people around the world to find their own way to get involved in the wildlife conservation effort, but unlike more traditional professions, there is no clear-cut path to success. So, we asked Dr. Adams to tell us more about her career and how students who share her passion can model their own role in the movement.

The Twists and Turns of a Conservationist’s Career

Dr. Adams started making trips to Africa during her undergraduate years, which solidified her dream to combine fieldwork with a veterinary degree—a path which was uncharted at the time.

“Looking at wildlife as a whole, it was a very new field, so I really did have to find my own way,” she said, but before she was able to bring this vision to fruition, she embraced work as a veterinarian, completing a clinical internship in small animal emergency hospital and working briefly at a private practice.

“I certainly was on a path getting experience working under the direction of wildlife vets and thought that’s the path that I was going to take,” Dr. Adams shared. While this specific role didn’t turn out to be her end-all be-all vocation, the experience gave her insight into what kind of lifestyle would both help her achieve her goals and suit her personal preferences.

“Something I noticed in the vets I worked with in the field, like wildlife vets in Africa, [is that] they are under immense pressure … It all sort of rests on their shoulders, and that terrified me. I liked being more inquisitive and behind the scenes,” Adams said.

“It was really when I was able to admit to myself, ‘I don’t want to be that person and I’m much better at playing a different role,’ that I was able to take off and find my niche.”

Gaining this insight helped Adams decide to reorient her trajectory, which lead her down the path of research and the pursuit of her PhD in wildlife epidemiology and virology, in which time she narrowed her focus on the molecular epidemiology and diagnosis of lentiviruses of free-ranging lions in southern Africa.

Further down the line, she founded Silent Heroes, an organization that aims to address the lack of sustainable supplies for conservation efforts and veterinary aid in Africa, and wove in numerous other endeavors, like becoming a compassion fatigue therapist, designing and teaching classes at universities, writing, and starting a family.

Throughout her career, Dr. Adams hasn’t been afraid to change gears as new goals come into focus and encourages students to adopt the same philosophy.

Niches Within Wildlife Conservation

The term wildlife conservationist can refer to many niches within the wildlife protection effort. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, conservation scientists and wildlife conservationists made an average salary of about $65,000 in May 2018, but wages vary by type of employer. For example, conservation scientists working for the federal government made about $79,000 per year, while those working for state governments earned about $54,000.

Some routes include wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, working at non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), or becoming a wildlife veterinarian or forensic scientist, to name a few. All of them allow a person to make a positive impact, but their education requirements and lifestyles vary, as Dr. Adams experienced herself.

“There is often a mismatch between what students think it is going to be like and the reality [of the job]. So, take the time to take that personal inventory, get to know your strengths and weaknesses, and discover where you strive or thrive,” Dr. Adams said.

For example, the NGO path is well-suited for a schedule-oriented people that appreciate the stability of a nine-to-five job in an office setting, while wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is ideal for the individual that wants to get their hands dirty on the frontline.

Activists like Dr. Adams and other conservationist leaders that came before her didn’t have a career roadmap to follow when they sought to make a difference in wildlife conservation; they had to etch out their own paths. But now, learning institutions are offering more specialized practicum for individuals that want to join the effort.

Wildlife Forensic Science Enters Academia

Wildlife forensic science, which Dr. Adams teaches at the University of Florida, is small but growing focus in the world of higher education.

“Having training programs like [those] we offer at UF is certainly helping place more trained and qualified pros on the frontline,” Adams said.

“From a big picture, [the role of a forensic scientist] is a triad of fieldwork, lab work, and education. A lot of students have an idealized version of always working in the field, but it’s important to stress from an early point that it’s very rare to spend all your time in the field because you have to think about getting funding, publishing results and making the public aware of what you’re doing.”

This field applies the same methodology used to investigate crimes against people to investigate crimes against protected and endangered animals, such as exotic pet trade, poaching, and other illegal hunting activities.

To give an example, a wildlife forensic scientist may investigate a piece of leather on a purse or watch band to find out if it was made from a protected animal, like an elephant, or if it comes from a non-protected animal, like a cow. In the former case, they would seek to identify the source and attempt to stop the producer from hunting and/or selling products made from the animal. But a wildlife forensic scientist’s duties also include research, advocacy and even testifying in court.

UF offers several options within wildlife forensic sciences and conservation: a master’s program and a nine-credit certificate. The master’s degree program includes courses in veterinary science, conservation medicine, human-wildlife conflict, wildlife and environmental toxicology, and “working dogs in conservation forensics,” which delves into how canines can play a role in detecting items in illegal wildlife trade and tracking down poachers.

The program prepares students for careers as wildlife conservation officers, game and fish officers, crime scene analysts, law enforcement officials.

“We can put people out there to tackle aspects we see like placing them in prevention and protection or deterrents intervention, the legal aspects and prosecution, education and awareness, and even just understanding the drivers behind the challenges—that’s more of a preventative approach,” Adams said.

For those that want to up their wildlife conservation knowledge but aren’t ready to commit to a full length program, the university also offers courses for non-degree seekers, like officers or rangers that want to get additional training.

Advice for Prospective Students in Wildlife Conservation

To students who are trying to find their path within the One Help movement, Dr. Adams says to consider the different aspects of the various options before locking into a specific niche. As with any career, each track within conservation has its drawbacks, which might not be apparent to you until you have firsthand experience.

“I have seen countless people get into a career because they are determined and sort of put blinders on, but once they get into that career, they’re miserable,” Adams said. “[It happens] often with veterinarians, but even with vet techs, and other people in conservation. If they’d taken the time to get to know themselves a little better and be honest about their limitations or their desires, they might have found a better fit.”

She advises those that are early on in their careers to be open to all opportunities, even if they may not be directly aligned with your current vision.

“I do find that sometimes students can get that one-track mind and say ‘This is what I want to do,’ and get tunnel vision. I tend to discourage that. I like students to have open minds and look at opportunities as stepping stones,” she said. “Once you try something, you at least know for sure you want to close that door.”

As there are some downsides with veterinary work, there are also challenging aspects to the adventurous route of research and fieldwork. As individuals get older and consider starting their own families, this role may become less practical because fieldwork often takes place in remote areas that are difficult to access. So, it’s necessary to think deeply about where your present priorities lie, but Dr. Adams emphasizes that you don’t have to commit to one path forever.

“You don’t have to get into one job and one path and think this is it. You can pivot, you can recreate yourself and change course at any time,” Adams said. “[We have] students in their 20s, 30s, and 50s. It’s never too late to change course. No career is perfect.”

There is still plenty that needs to be accomplished in the worldwide wildlife conservation effort, wherever you are—from mending the devastation caused by the fires in Australia to helping create more sustainable infrastructure in your own community. Visit the WWF’s website to read about the tremendous scope of conservationist efforts taking place across the globe.

If you want to find out more about the work Dr. Adamis is doing, check out her website, where you can find the link to her book Conscious Conservation: Less Doing, More Being and free episodes of her podcast “Conservation Without Borders.”

Nina Chamlou (Writer)

Nina Chamlou is an avid writer and multi-media content creator from Portland, OR. She writes about aviation, travel, business, technology, and education. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, studying the locale from behind her MacBook.