My top 5 gap year travels and experiences in wildlife biology and thoughts on career paths

In the first part of this post you can read about my early career decisions and my process along the way. If you want to jump directly to: “My top 5 adventurous travel suggestions for your gap year or career break for potential wildlife biologists and wildlife technicians.” – Skip to the section below if you want to read my guide!

Woman sitting down overlooking the view from atop a Mayan temple in Belize

Here I am enjoying life in Belize and my gap time between finishing my Masters degree and my first job.

Wherever you are in your career, studies and life in general, it is always appropriate to take a sabbatical for a week, a month or even a year out of your calendar to take a step back and ponder your life decisions, try new career paths or take a break from your busy 9-5 job.

My thoughts about university and the process of choosing my career path and advice to fellow early-career biologists

Most of my time growing up and going to school I dreamed of becoming a vet in order to work closely with animals. As a child I also loved going to the local zoo with my parents to see the Asian elephants, the lions from the African savanna, brown bears, giraffes and I of course enjoyed the petting zoo with all the goats, furry rabbits, dairy cows and ponies.

To become a vet you must have high grades, and since I did not succeed to perfection during my high school years I started to doubt that I would ever be a vet, and focused more on the biology class. Because being a biologist also meant working with wildlife and nature doing mostly theoretical work.

Or so I thought! There are many ways to be a biologist, there are so many niches within the field and I was only during my studies at uni beginning to unravel the different career paths and almost endless possibilities.

But after years of studying at the University of Copenhagen, we were primed to become scientists and PhD students, and I was slowly losing my way and orientation. I had no idea of where I would end up!

Academia was exciting and thrilling to be apart of, but it was also restricted in so many ways. After applying for two dream PhD projects and being rejected for both, I was beginning to doubt if anyone would hire me at all despite good grades and a decent CV at hand. It has always taken graduated biologists with a masters degree at least a year (easily!!) to find their first entry-level job in Denmark due to a highly competitive field. Many biologists give up and find other sectors to work within, and I was desperately searching for just ANY biologist job that I could take on.

Before I knew it I was beginning to plan my escape.

I needed a break from the job searching and follow my heart’s desire; ringing birds in the tropics!

Armed with a most generous grant from the local BirdLife NGO I indulged myself into the feathers of brightly colored and highly exotic tropical birds in Belizean rainforests. While being highly aware that this experience would not get me any closer to landing any biologist job back home in Denmark.

Royal flycatcher in photographers grip

Is it allowed to be this beautiful?

The royal flycatcher showed in my photo is a peculiar bird that you must experience. If you follow the link here you can see why!

Contribute to science and long-term monitoring of breeding birds and migratory birds.

Returning to cold and gray November in Denmark was not the easiest part, and it would take me another five months to land my first entry-level position within consultancy services.

Taking that break

I have had one major gap year or sabbatical after finishing high school where I first worked for six months, and then I went to South Africa for two months to study and monitor wildlife in a private game reserve! This experience changed me forever, but also made me sure that I wanted to pursue a career in biology.

I did not have an exact idea of what kind of biologist I wanted to be, but I knew I was passionate about wildlife and in particular large mammals. During my stay in South Africa I also picked up an interest in birds, which already started brewing during middle-school.

Whether you are unsure about your majors, where you want to work, what type of animals you want to work with and how (animal husbandry, veterinary, conservation biology, wildlife technician, macroecologist etc.) you can try it all during your career break or gap year.

This is what makes them so great!

Figuring out your majors during uni

It is normal during your studies at the university to shuffle around different classes to find out your field of work. Not everyone is a passionate ornithologist (the study of birds), ichthyologist (the branch of zoology devoted to the study of fish) or marine mammal expert to begin with. Most biologists have several fields that they excel in, and some only work within one small field.

For instance; I took classes in marine mammal physiology, population genetics, ornithology, geographical information systems (GIS), animal morphology, conservation biology, community ecology and animal behavior all at the University of Copenhagen.

If you will end up doing a masters degree, it does not matter too much which subject you choose for your bachelor’s thesis in my opinion. If you want to shuffle around in different fields (e.g. botany, marine mammals, tropical biology, arctic biology) this is your chance to dive into a subject and then turn 180 degrees and choose a different path during your masters. I also recommend doing an internship if at all possible, or seasonal (paid!) fieldwork along with your studies.

To sum up, I have tried different ways of gaining experience such as volunteering (sad to admit it!), doing international internships, working as a paid field assistant, and carried out animal behavior studies at the Copenhagen Zoo during a project at uni.

Hereby is my top 5 travels during my gap year and career break in chronological order 🙂

My top 5 adventurous gap year and career break activities for potential wildlife biologists and wildlife technicians

1. Wildlife Conservation and Research Expedition in South Africa with GVI

The South Africa Wildlife Conservation Expedition goes by many names. Most importantly you work on different conservation and research projects with several key species of the African savanna and bushweld such as the iconic African elephants (Loxodonta africana), the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and white rhino (Ceratotherium simum).

Global Vision International (GVI) has been sending volunteers and internships off to our adventures since 1998, and the organization appealed to me back when I first booked my trip. The integrity, their protocols and standards makes GVI a trustworthy and resourceful organization that works worldwide.

Back in 2012 when I embarked on the first and biggest wildlife expedition of my life, the project was not focused on one species as it seems to be now with the multiple different topics to choose from today, making it perhaps harder to pick just one.

Nowadays it is possible to choose either a broad focus (The South Africa Wildlife Conservation Expedition) or a particular species of interest (such as Cheetah Conservation and Research Project in South Africa).

My own experience

It has been really hard for me to put down in words, what I experienced back in 2012. It was truly a life changing experience for me and I cannot emphasize enough what an amazing opportunity this project offers not only en personal development, broadening your horizon, once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experiences, international network connections etc.

I don’t think I would have as much desire to travel the world if not for this experience!

When I came back I was so in love with the life and work in the reserve that I looked into jobs and other possibilities to return. There are different oppurtunitites to become an alumni, ambassador and there is a recruitment site for all the job openings in GVI here.

2. Animal husbandry in Thailand – working with rescued and rehabilitated wildlife

Between finishing my Bachelor’s degree and starting on my Master’s I had a three month gap where I was finally free to do whatever I wanted, and I decided to go to Thailand for five whole weeks to work hands-on with rescued Asian elephants.

As heartwarming it sounds, it was extremely giving for me as it offered me a long lost dream of mine to work within animal husbandry. The experience not only working alongside these humble giants, I also met amazing and kind people from around the world.

You can read my full experience of working with wildlife in Thailand by reading my post here.

3. Migratory Bird Observatories in Scandinavia – experience bird ringing and migration counts while in a passionate and international setting

From time to time I have filled gaps of my life with a now long passion of mine: bird ringing!! Also known as bird banding in other parts of the world.

Why bird ringing has a long history in Denmark

Did you know that bird ringing originated in Denmark?

We have the longest history of ringing birds when the Danish school teacher Hans Christian Cornelius Mortensen applied tiny metal bands onto common starlings that bred on his property.

Fast-forward app. 110 years I was introduced to ringing through a class at university, and since then I have been ringing at various locations in Denmark and beyond.

I have spent days at Gedser Bird Observatory, the Southern-most bird station in Denmark. Here I have assisted the head ringers in extracting and ringing of migratory birds while living at the station and contributing by cooking meals too, alle completely voluntary. I have not been paid for this fieldwork, but this did not matter as I could only stay for short time periods. I have also visited the bird observatories in Falsterbo (an archipelago in Sweden), Skagen fuglestation and the small field station on Christiansø (island group called Ertholmene), the easternmost place of Denmark.

Bird observatories
Common for most observatories in Denmark are that they are situated in the outskirts of the country, as this is where bird migration is known to be concentrated. Nevertheless, at least in Denmark distance does not matter much for such a small country with a relatively well developed infrastructure even to the most remote part of the country.

Here I am in front of the lighthouse in Falsterbo, the southern-most bird observatory in Sweden – only 1 hour away from Copenhagen!

Length of stay – pros and cons

Look around in your local region; are there some splendid bird observatories that you could pay a visit for any length of stay? Most bird observatories offer different kinds of stays. In Denmark but also Sweden, long-term technicians receive a small fund for their work, while if you stay for a shorter time you may have to become a volunteer. Long-term stays are ideal if you travel far. Short term stays at bird observatories or research stations are possible if you travel more local. Most places are quite flexible; when working in the field you have to adjust to shifting plans due to e.g. weather or cancelled flights!

4. Animal husbandry in Guatemala – working with rescued and rehabilitated wildlife – what is it like to volunteer in Guatemala?

If you are interested in animal husbandry, and would like to contribute to critical rehabilitation projects working with endangered and sought after exotic pets, a stay at ARCAS in Guatemala may be what you are looking for.

What animals will I be working with?

ARCAS Peten is home to a big variety of wildlife. The Guatemalan rainforest is home to great biodiversity; monkeys, parrots, macaws, kinkajous, anteaters, reptiles, and the merrier – and unfortunately a lot of species are highly endangered! They are sought after exotic pets, making them vulnerable to illegal wildlife trade.

ARCAS work closely with the authorities, who confiscate a high number of animals every day at border crossings, airports etc.

Who is it for?

Anyone who is interested in working closely with local wildlife.

You must be fit for hard labor with long days in the tropical heat.

If you love engaging with other like-minded people from around the world.

You will be living in dormitories with bunk beds and shared bathrooms and showers.

If you are looking for an opportunity also to practice your Spanish speaking skills, ARCAS is a great place for this! Here, speaking or at least entry level Spanish is key to communicate with locals working at the centre.

As I had never been taught any Spanish in school, as I chose French instead, I had some difficulties. If you practice before your trip using for example Duolingo you may learn quite a bit during your stay at the ARCAS center in Peten Guatemala!

How long should I stay at ARCAS?

Any kind of stay is possible here – you can visit just even for a day! I recommend staying for at least a week, maybe two, to be able to work with different animals, getting to know the place and the people working at the centre.

Please understand that this place is both hosting rescued wildlife, but also animals in acute rehabilitation or in need of urgent veterinary help. ARCAS is a place is for animals that have been traumatized, removed from the wild, recovered from near-death, and some animals require specialist care. You may not be able to work with any animal species you desire, but you should make your interests heard by the lest.

What can I expect from my stay?

To read more about my time at ARCAS, please read my post here about my hands-on experience with the local wildlife held at ARCAS.

5. Bird ringing and breeding bird censuses in Belize – learning wildlife technician skills

As already mentioned above (unless you cheated and skipped to this part!) I visited Belize and Guatemala after finishing my Master’s degree in Ecology at the University of Copenhagen. Here, I spent 6 weeks as an intern at Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education and Society (T.R.E.E.S.).

I only learned of the place due to the help of Instagram, where I was following a skilled wildlife photographer and YouTuber, who was posting these amazing bird photos. After a correspondence, I looked into all the costs and other opportunities in the area, and with the adventure in my heart I applied for the internship at T.R.E.E.S. and just went for it.

I titled my post about my stay at the research station in Belize “A bird banders biggest dream: Banding tropical birds in the Belizean rainforest” (bird banding it is called in the US instead of bird ringing!), and it pretty much speaks for itself (I mean, look at the pictures below and in my post!!)

You made it to the bottom of this post – I hope you enjoyed reading it, feel free to comment, share or like it here or elsewhere. I hope I can inspire more people to follow their dreams and make valuable time for themselves, for personal growth and experiences for a lifetime.

Rie // Traveling Female Ornithologist

This blog post does not contain any affiliate links.

© All photos are my own unless stated and may not be used without permission.

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