“I felt like the loneliest conservationist in the world”: how one woman started an online community to help conservationists cope

By Angela Heathcote 6 May 2020
Reading Time: 4 Minutes Print this page
Conservationists often face feelings of isolation, job insecurity, ecological anxiety and PTSD, but few spoke up about it. Until now.

FOR CONSERVATIONIST Jessie Panazzolo, Sumatran orangutans were the focus of grand curiosity and a life’s passion. 

“I spent my whole life doing the right degrees, completing honours, scoring the right work experience and volunteer opportunities, all in the hope of safeguarding orangutans,” Jessie says.

But after years of working with top conservationists in North Sumatra, Jessie realised she could never make what she describes as a “sustainable impact”. 

“I’m not Sumatran and I’m in this space as a white woman with no capacity to make the behavioural changes that orangutans need for their futures.” She chose to start over.

Jessie came back to Australia with the determination to create meaningful changes in the conservation space, armed with big ideas and the desire to have a lasting impact. But it wasn’t long until she came face-to-face with some of the harsh realities of conservation work.

“I tried my hand at a lot of different organisations in Australia and experienced a lot of bullying. I had to keep switching from one place to another.” Eventually she moved to Melbourne, where she lives today. Unfortunately, it didn’t get better.

“I started at an organisation working eight hours a day, seven days a week like everybody else for six months. I was doing skilled volunteering, so it wasn’t just data entry but writing reports.”

When Jessie went to apply for a full-time role at the organisation, she was knocked back. “They said I didn’t have enough experience, even though I was in the office all the time and they knew my work.

“I came home one day and my friends had staged an intervention. They said the organisation was never going to hire me as long as I was working for free. I felt like the loneliest conservationist in the world. I was defeated, lying on the couch thinking my life in conservation was over.”

Starting The Lonely Conservationists

From her pit of despair and loneliness, Jessie says she made “one last call to the world”, asking whether anyone felt the same as she did, by starting a blog called The Lonely Conservationists. It took off. 

The Lonely Conservationists, created in January 2019, tapped into the feelings of isolation, job insecurity, ecological anxiety, PTSD and many other mental health issues conservationists were experiencing, but were reluctant to speak about. 

In 2020, the community has grown into the thousands. The website consists of hundreds of posts, detailing the experiences of conservationists across the world, along with support resources and advice on how to tell your story. 

Common problems

Like Jessie, many people in The Lonely Conservationists community struggle to find meaningful, paid work and supportive mentors. This has an influence on their mental health.

“The most common factor I found among us was how people were being impacted by their mentors and the people around them. If you experience bullying from someone who’s supposed to be a mentor, you never forget it.”

Many are also struggling to navigate a culture that Jessie says, “believes there’s no point in paying people if it’s so easy to get them to work for free.”

According to Jessie, the “Achilles heel” of conservationists is their passion. 

“Conservationists don’t get into conservation because they want to be rich. We know from the beginning that we want to do it because it’s deep inside of us. There’s no other option, we just need to follow this passion and fight for what we believe in.

“A lot of organisations know that there are all these conservationists who will happily work for free because they want experience. There’s this stigma in conservation that says you have to have years and years of it before you get a job, so all these places just market themselves as ‘vital experience’.”

Conservationists on the frontline of some of the world’s biggest conservation challenges can be seen using the site to vent.

“I have friends who are lawyers and therapists who feel the weight of eco-anxiety. If everyone is feeling it, conservationists are feeling it tenfold. 

“It’s our study species that are getting burnt in the fires, it’s us that have to witness coral bleaching. We see all the impacts firsthand.”

Jessie explains that many of the conservationists in the community shrug off these feelings of sadness believing them to be a one-off, “but lots of conservationists have PTSD from what they’ve experienced, which is why there needs to be a shift to embrace mental health in conservation”.

Speaking up

The competition for jobs means that conservationists are reluctant to voice the mental health issues they’re facing. 

Jessies says most feel the pressure never to talk about imperfections and to always put one’s best foot forward, but by speaking up, she hopes that the stories will continue rolling in. 

“I tried for a decade. I couldn’t do anything more in terms of experience to make me more marketable, so I think telling my story and setting the precedent that it was okay, nothing’s going to happen to me for being honest, was important.

“So many people have begun their stories by saying ‘I wasn’t going to tell mine’. There’s been a domino effect. I think that’s why The Lonely Conservationists has hit such a nerve with people.”

Before COVID-19, Jessie had begun organising what she calls ‘Conservationists anonymous’ meetings, where people come together to talk about whatever it is they may be facing in their life as a conservationist. 

The meetings have since shifted to Zoom and are now focused on how to cope with the immense job losses caused by the pandemic. 

In isolation

Over 60 per cent of the conservationists in the online community have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Jessie. But isolation predates the pandemic, particularly for those working in the field and in regional areas.

“Our whole community is based on feeling isolated and now everyone knows what we’re on about. 

“We understand what it’s like working in isolated communities, having no interactions with other people. With the coronavirus and the fires, The Lonely Conservationists is a place we can all come together and talk. 

“A lot of us usually feel bad for not having a job and being isolated, but now that the whole world is sitting at home it kind of gives us relief that it’s not our fault. 

“It gives a chance to rest and recuperate and to just take care of ourselves, which is a silver lining of the virus.”

The Lonely Conservationists was assisted by the Wild Idea Incubator, an environmentally focused business incubator founded by Odonata and supported by Australian Geographic, the NAB Foundation and the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program. Wild Idea is currently looking for new submissions for 2020. Do you have a great idea to help our environment? Visit their website here.