Work a little animal magic

New degree courses are offering hands-on experience of wildlife conservation, says Caitlin Davies
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The Independent Online

Are you worried about habitat destruction and endangered animals? Would you be interested in building the ideal environment for zoo animals? Then new degrees in wildlife conservation could be exactly what you need. And you could even find yourself spending seven weeks chugging up the Amazon.

Are you worried about habitat destruction and endangered animals? Would you be interested in building the ideal environment for zoo animals? Then new degrees in wildlife conservation could be exactly what you need. And you could even find yourself spending seven weeks chugging up the Amazon.

Today there are only 10 degree courses in wildlife conservation in the UK, offered by just six universities, but in the coming years this is bound to increase. "Students want to do something that really interests them, especially those who have jobs and have decided to go back to university," says Dr Louise Cussen, the course leader for a new foundation degree at Nottingham Trent University, and the BSc that's now in its third year. "They have grown up and seen habitat destruction and they want to help put the planet to rights," .

Both courses are located at the Brackenhurst campus, a 200-hectare estate with its own laboratories, dairy farm, and animal care unit. "We're in the middle of the countryside," says Dr Cussen. "And students have a say in the management at Brackenhurst, such as whether or not to put in a new pond. It's very hands on." Course modules include a study of rural issues, such as the recent ban on fox-hunting, and students learn to be sympathetic to all viewpoints.

The foundation degree has a strong practical element. Students learn how to lay hedges and build otter dens, as well as how to handle different species. The course lasts two years full-time and three years with an industrial placement. Graduates can look forward to careers as project leaders for voluntary groups, as rangers or wardens, or in wildlife rescue centres or zoos. Those who complete the three-year BSc may take jobs in environmental consultancy, or within statutory agencies as species officers.

Plymouth University offers a BSc in wildlife conservation and boasts strong links with Paignton Zoo Environmental Park. It has just launched a Masters in zoo conservation, run jointly with the zoo. The one-year programme, the only one of its kind in Britain, covers ecology and animal nutrition and one of its aims is to train future curators and zoo directors.

Until recently zookeepers have been regarded as simply farm hands who muck out exotic animals, explains Dr John Eddison, programme leader. But there is a growing need for professionalisation, and these days a zookeeper may well be a graduate.

"What we didn't want was lots of lectures and little practice," says Dr Eddison. So one day students could be studying the theory of animal welfare and the next day they are off to the zoo to inspect flamingos and camels.

Kent University also has a new wildlife conservation degree beginning next year, as part of which students spend seven weeks on a research vessel in the Peruvian Amazon. The trip has long been part of the university's biodiversity conservation course, and admissions officer Dr Jim Groombridge describes it as a life-changing experience. One graduate is now working as a research assistant studying orang-utans in Borneo. "It's rare that a student leaves a conservation course and become an accountant," says Dr Groombridge.

While degrees in wildlife conservation are few, the related field of animal science is more established, with 171 courses on offer. Plymouth University has a BSc in animal science which uses a commercially farmed 200-hectare estate, as well as a new postgraduate programme in animal nutrition.

Nottingham Trent's foundation degree in animal studies gives students 300 hours work experience in an animal industry - whether safari parks in Africa or high-street pet shops. Its BSc in animal science enables students to opt for a language to enhance their career opportunities.

BSc course leader Dr Chris Royale says that the animal science courses are driven by industry needs - such as zoos and animal welfare organisations - and student interest, often stimulated by television shows such as Animal Hospital.

While applicants should have a biology background, enthusiasm and commitment are equally important. "Animal work is not necessarily nine to five," he says. "Animals need feeding when it's cold and wet too."

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