The summer of 2019-2020 will long be remembered in Australia as a dark and desperate time. Mere months before the world was engulfed by a global pandemic, much of our country was aflame. By the end of January 2020, more than 5 million hectares of land had been burned in New South Wales alone, including almost 40 per cent of the state’s National Parklands. Less than three months later, the newly-established National Bushfire Recovery Agency announced that Australia’s catastrophic bushfire season had killed 33 people including nine firefighters, ravaged more than 12 million hectares of land, destroyed more than 3000 homes and devastated native flora and fauna populations nationwide.
And yet, out of darkness, came tales bursting with light: stories of survival, of mateship, of heroism – many of them involving the selfless actions of volunteers. Some saved lives, some saved property. One extraordinary story highlighted the success of a small team of remote area firefighting specialists who were deployed to save a stand of critically endangered Wollemi pines from the gigantic Gospers Mountain fire in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. A much larger number of people, however, banded together across the Australia to save animals of all kinds. Livestock, domestic pets, and native fauna populations were all directly impacted by the bushfires, and an army of volunteers mobilised to save as many animals as they could.
Nicole Rojas Marin was one such volunteer, directly involved in the evacuation of Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park in Calga, north of Sydney, in November 2019. All the animals at the popular wildlife sanctuary, including a substantial number of Eastern Grey Kangaroos, had to be relocated to different safe locations as bushfires closed in. “Seeing and being part of a team that had an evacuation plan and strategy to protect all their animals was very inspiring,” Rojas Marin said.
In March 2020, shortly after one of the worst bushfire seasons on record drew to a close, Rojas Marin began working with the Australian branch of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), where she oversees wildlife rescues and responses and is also part of a team implementing disaster preparedness projects. “As IFAW’s Animal Rescue Program Officer I liaise with carers, vets and wildlife rescue groups across Australia to identify their needs and coordinate rescue, rehabilitation and recovery projects,” she said. “A big part of my job is to work with these groups and governments in disaster response, and my veterinary nursing skills mean I can also be deployed when needed to assist groups and carers on the ground”.
Although she currently works in a veterinary nurse capacity in her role as Animal Rescue Program Officer, Rojas Marin also has a bachelor’s degree in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Environmental and Applied Sciences in Bogotá, which she was awarded in 2016. “I was born in Sydney and raised in Colombia, where I was lucky enough to grow up in a very tight-knit and loving family,” she said. “My parents are both animal lovers and I grew up in a household where pets and all animals were always respected.” Describing herself as the second oldest of five human siblings and three four-legged ones, Rojas Marin loved animals from an early age. “With time, I learned that some of my favourite animals and other amazing species were being threatened by multiple factors,” she explained, “and I decided becoming a vet would put me on the path where I could to something about that, and I could be part of the solution.”
After Rojas Marin graduated from vet school, where she was the recipient of the University’s Academic Scholarship Award several times during the course of her studies, she returned to Australia. “I knew I wanted to come back to Australia and continue to work with the country’s unique, amazing and threatened wildlife,” she said, “and I wanted to work with projects seeking to protect these animals and their habitats”. Rojas Marin enjoyed her first direct experience of working with native Australian animals in 2013, when she volunteered for a month at a mixed practice veterinary hospital in Palmerston in the Northern Territory. “I had the opportunity to observe, assist and learn from incredible vets working with Australian wildlife,” she recalled. “It was the first time I held and bottle fed a wallaby joey!”
Her experiences in the Northern Territory motivated Rojas Marin to start volunteering at a rehabilitation centre when she returned to Colombia in 2014. There she encountered many animals rescued from trafficking, including jaguars and other big cats, boa constrictors, and monkeys. She also worked closely with brown-throated three-toed sloths (Bradypus variegatus) and vulnerable species such as spectacled bears (Tremarctos ornatus). Her passion for wildlife conservation was truly ignited: “Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and wildlife trafficking is a huge problem,” Rojas Marin explained. “I’ve always loved animals and been committed to protecting them, but when I worked with threatened species in Colombia and learned several species in Australia were also endangered, it became clear to me that I wanted to dedicate my career to environmental conservation and wildlife protection”.
Returning again to Australia in 2015, Rojas Marin embarked on a seven-month internship at Australia Walkabout Wildlife – the same wildlife sanctuary she was to assist in evacuating less than five years later. Under the mentorship of Dr Robin Crisman, she was involved in the veterinary care and rehabilitation of native wildlife, and also took on a role as a project manager undertaking species research into the Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis). Crisman also referred her to the team at Taronga Zoo, which resulted in Rojas Marin undertaking a short internship at the Taronga Wildlife Hospital as a veterinary assistant.
Realising her South American veterinary qualification was not recognised in Australia, Rojas Marin opted to undertake a Diploma in Management and Leadership in 2016-2017 to complement her existing skillset. She developed her abilities by volunteering for WWF Australia and the 2017 Earth Hour campaign, gaining a greater understanding of project organisation, data analysis and knowledge management. “Down the line, these roles opened multiple professional opportunities for me at various non-government organisations within the wildlife protection industry,” Rojas Marin said. She also completed a Certificate IV in Veterinary Nursing in 2018 to allow her to use her veterinary knowledge and practical skills in the field. “Being a vet nurse still allows me to be involved and help when I’m needed,” she said. “Also, from early on I knew I wanted to focus on project management, so even though I would love for my degree to be recognised here, there are so many other roles I can take on and I have been able to work in the industry on some amazing projects”.
Rojas Marin’s latest role with IFAW is, in many ways, her dream job – particularly since she enjoys working with animals but also appreciates the opportunity to engage with people to promote the causes she is passionate about. “I love the chance to be out in the field, working directly with and treating animals, but I also know how important the projects and initiatives that seek to ensure these animals thrive into the future are,” she said. “I enjoy working with people and experts to learn about and advocate for the best ways to protect animals. Being part of the IFAW team has allowed me to be part of an equation that seeks not only to solve core wildlife conservation issues, but also to help those in this sector do the groundwork.”
Most recently, Rojas Marin has been assisting groups who have experienced an influx of animals requiring care after the March 2021 floods in New South Wales. “This has involved donating incubators, food, tanks and enclosures and other items for temporary relief to groups such as Australian Seabird Rescue and Hunter Wildlife Rescue,” she said. Rojas Marin counts working with marine turtles alongside Australian Seabird Rescue as one of the projects closest to her heart. “When you live in Australia it is impossible not to fall in love with the ocean,” she said. “This ecosystem and its animals are fascinating, but I also love working with marine turtles because the majority of the animals they rescue, rehabilitate and release are endangered or critically endangered species, and supporting initiatives like this is a big part of why I do what I do”.
Ever keen to update her skills, from January to April 2021 Rojas Marin has been receiving veterinary training in wildlife treatment and care from the Taronga Conservation Society, which is linked to the NSW Koala Strategy. The NSW Koala Strategy aims to improve koala health and safety and build knowledge to improve koala conservation. “This is another matter very close to my heart and to my work at IFAW,” Rojas Marin commented. “Koala populations were already on a knife-edge before the bushfires, but the blazes had a catastrophic impact on them, especially in NSW.” A report commissioned as part of the Strategy found that more than six thousand koalas perished in the bushfires in NSW alone, representing nearly 15% of the total population state wide. “Each individual koala we can rescue, rehabilitate and release is essential to the survival of an entire population and the species itself, she said. “The NSW Koala Strategy is integral to giving vets and vet nurses the skills needed to treat koalas that come into their care”.
With the cataclysmic bushfire season of 2019-2020 only a recent memory, Rojas Marin is especially invested in working with IFAW’s international disaster response team, which helps prepare wildlife carers and groups for emergencies and natural disasters. “At the moment, we are working on a disaster toolkit which is a global resource offering sets of online courses with guidelines and tools for wildlife carers and other groups that allows them to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters,” she explained. Designed with input from local stakeholders, the toolkit is able to be tailored to fit specific sites, species and cultural specificities, and can be scaled to suit the resources and needs of each particular group and the magnitude and type of disaster they are responding to. “The objective is to help ensure wildlife groups and carers can prepare for events that occur outside the range of their normal operations and which many adversely affect their organisation’s ability to respond,” she added.
Not surprisingly, Rojas Marin is also keen to encourage veterinarians and veterinary nurses to embrace both education and volunteering within the wildlife conservation sector. “I believe it is so important for vets and vet nurses to be regularly up-skilling and getting on the ground experience,” she said. “Any experience we can get volunteering or working out in the field with wildlife is vital to building our skills in dealing with all types of animals in different situations. Wildlife treatment is such an evolving field that everything we can learn could potentially save an animal’s life or positively affect the prognosis or outcome of an animal in our care”.
Rojas Marin practices what she preaches and, in addition to her work with IFAW, is planning to pursue a post-graduate Masters program in Wildlife Conservation in the near future. She also hopes at some point to return to Colombia and lead a project to help jaguars or spectacled bears. In the meantime, however, Nicole Rojas Marin remains committed to wildlife conservation here in the country of her birth and beyond, lighting the way to improved disaster responses and better future prospects for native fauna in Australia and around the world.