"Oh Beautiful for smoggy skies, insecticided grain, For strip-mined mountain's majesty above the asphalt plain. America, America, man sheds his waste on thee, And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea." —George Carlin
Maybe your idea of conservationists is Birkenstock-wearing, granola-munching hippies with picket signs in front the Capitol building blasting slogans linking global warming to the extinction of the Macedonian Dodo Bird.
(Whether or not that's an accurate depiction is not terribly germane here, as the Macedonian Dodo Bird is a figment of someone's imagination. It was actually the Mauritian Dodo bird that's extinct.)
So extinct they're made out of plastic.
The truth about conservationists is more complex and a heck of a lot more interesting, too. This is a passionate group of folks who take their work very seriously and who spend their lives working to ensure that the earth on which we and our fellow animals live is clean, secure, and as safe as possible. Yes, it's a noble cause and one that isn't all that easy to achieve.
"Conserve" is an action verb; it means to keep, maintain, nurse, safeguard, preserve. People who get into this line of work are not content to sit at a desk all day cultivating Office Chair Butt and looking longingly out the window. When you get into conservation, you'll be outside, in labs, and not just getting in touch with nature…but letting nature touch you back.
The term "conservationist" refers to a whole host of careers, not just one. If you're interested in getting into this field, there are many routes you can take:
Fish and wildlife conservationist. Many zoologists and wildlife biologists decide to specialize in conservation where they can study and hopefully make a difference in wildlife research and management.
While assisting with the preservation of wildlife species inching closer to extinction, the wildlife conservationist goes several steps further to look at the causes and prevention of such a dismal march. This type of work may involve collecting and analyzing biological and physical data to establish environmental impacts on the animals. This could include water and land issues, disease and even animal-human contact. (Animal conservationist Dian Fossey was very much against people coming on tours to Rwanda to visit with the mountain gorillas; many of them brought their human diseases which the animals did not have the capabilities to resist.)
A wildlife conservationist may also write newspaper and magazine articles as well as scientific papers for journals. He may spread the word about his particular area of wildlife conservation by giving presentations to kids, clubs, or special interest groups. There is also the route of wildlife conservation officer, also called a wildlife enforcement office. This sort of career involves the prevention of poaching, enforcing hunting, fishing, and forestry laws, deterring illegal dumping in forests and even some boating laws.
You're just going to have to find some other place to take that dump.
Soil and water conservationist. Soil and water conservationists often work in tandem since soil and water go together like, well, peas and carrots, white on rice, schoolchildren and lice…. As these types of conservationists, you'll be managing the quality of forests, public spaces, national parks, and other national and even private lands. You'll be working in the field collecting samples and observing and then taking your data back to offices or labs.
You may write papers and articles that recommend how to prevent soil erosion, improve irrigation techniques, and offer solutions and ideas about surface and groundwater quality, helping ranchers and farmers determine what kinds of animals and how many of them can graze safely and properly and during what seasons. Soil and water conservationists may work for government agencies as well as private landowners.
Conservation genetics. Folks involved in genetic conservation work to preserve biodiversity with "genetic methods." Essentially, scientists who come with expertise in the areas such as evolutionary biology, ecology, molecular biology and genetics know that biodiversity is one of the only ways that a species can survive. And this, of course, is related to genetics: The conservationists study the genetic relationships of the animals and other living organisms they're studying, most of which are endangered or even on the brink of extinction.
When a species is endangered, general conservationists study them and their habitat and try to make a recommendation to ensure their survival. When you merge this sort of research with genetics, scientists can get a better idea if populations are decreasing due to genetic issues as well as environmental ones.
Environmental health science. This is a type of conservation that looks at the physical, chemical, biological, and ecological environments that we live in and the effects they have on our health.
As you can tell, the various subsets of conservation actually mesh together: You can't study genetics without biology and you can't make environmental health recommendations about humans or animals without considering the health of the forests, the land, the water, etc.
Conservationism is an exciting field with a lot of potential; it is not, however, simply a job people fall into. It takes a certain sort of person to be successful at this career—an outdoor person, one passionate about the physical world, and…one who can walk a lot.