Home Career Guidance Day in the Life of Environmental Practitioner

Day in the Life of Environmental Practitioner

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It’s similar to a Game Ranger – but not quite the same. We met up with Luca Afonso, a freelance Environmental Assessment Practitioner. More into the flora than the fauna, he also delves deep into the bushes and makes it his life’s work to protect the environment that he lives in. While you may not even think twice about that strange-looking plant growing in your backyard, Luca actually ensures its survival and does thorough research to make sure each and every flora species is handled with the utmost TLC.

What does your typical day look like?

Time of DayActivityComments
5:30Get up and head to workIt’s good to get a nice and early start as a junior. It will impress your bosses and give you ample time to prepare your day
6:30Hit that Cape Town trafficIf you end up working in Cape Town, you are likely to be faced with the notorious Cape Town city centre traffic
7:00Reply to emails and prepare your dayStarting this early will allow you to tie up any loose ends from the previous day and alow you to prepare youtr day
9:00Meet with the bossThis meeting (although it may not be every day) gives you the chance to touch sides with your line manager who would normally manage your work load. Communication in this regard is key.
9:30Start working dayThis is where the bulk of your work takes place, whether it be research, meeting with clients or contacting
11:00Site meeting/ inspectionA site meeting does not come along every day, but it is a good opportunity to get out and do some fieldwork, whether it is a site assessment, meeting with clients or just a site inspection. only 3-5 hours are spent in the field as a junior.
14:00LunchUpon returning from site, it is good to take a half an hour to clear your mind and prepare for the afternoon push.
14:30Continue with researchOnce you have had a little break, use this time to finish up the rest of what you had planned for the day. Try not to leave phone calls for this part of thye day as most people are tired and lack the energy to communicate properly at this point.
16:00Tie up the loose endsThis is your last chance to finish small menial tasks that tend to take up time, but are not necessarily key to the work that you are currently doing
16:30Home timeTime to brave the Cape Town traffic once more

How long have you been working in this position?

I’ve been contracted by the NCC for 4 months now. It’s part-time work, so if a contract comes up they’ll let me know and I’ll let them know if I’m available or not.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Probably the fact that I can go out and spend a day outside of the office. I don’t have to be indoors all the time, do typing or research. This one job we had in De Aar was awesome. It was a week and we basically spent every day outside, just digging up plants and translocating them. It’s a lot of hiking and physical work but it’s good because it’s outdoors.

What do you enjoy least?

Probably the writing of reports. I spend about 60-70% of my time doing that. As an assistant consultant you’re expected to do this most of the time. You do the initial research and write-up, then there’s a quality control and quality assurance that follows. Some projects are really cool but some are really boring and it can get tiresome. 

What qualification do you have?

I have a BSc in Conservation Ecology. It’s an ecology degree but you could study geology or environmental studies to do the job that I do. I studied at Stellenbosch University.

You mentioned that you’re doing your Masters. Where are you doing it and in what?

I’m doing my masters in Botany – specifically terrestrial invasion biology (alien plants). I’m doing it through Stellenbosch University.

What type of personality would suit this job?

Someone who

  • works hard. You can only work on a project for certain amounts of time and then it goes in for review. It’s then time for the next one and must be ready for it. You need to work hard and be a good planner.
  • is organised. You’re expected to juggle multiple projects often. You’re the one having to coordinate the process.
  • is outgoing. You need to deal with clients a lot, networking and entertaining them out on the field.
  • is confident. When you’re out on-site with your clients you need to know what you’re talking about and show them that you can do what they hired you for.
  • is able to speak in public. Part of the process is that it’s mandatory to take public participation, which involves community meetings. You have to speak to 100-500 people at a time.

How did you get the freelance work?

My sister went and did a photoshoot at Rhodes Memorial and apparently she needed an ECA, which is an environmental control agent. The company who was doing it was ECC. And she asked if they have any positions available and they said that they take on part-time consultants. So I applied. It was a case of knowing someone and meeting them at the right place and time.

Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing a career and degree like this?

Know your legislation. When you go for interviews, they want to know that you know it. If you’ve had some experience, you must be able to talk about your projects and know exactly what was going on. Know your SEMAs (specific environmental acts – your waste acts, water acts and air quality acts).

How to become a Game Ranger

What’s the difference between what you do and game ranging?

Game ranging is quite specific. If you want to be a Game Ranger you need a FGASA qualification. Which is a practical and theory test. But if you work hard enough, you can do it in 2 months. You need to get a Level 1 to start out. When I qualified I wanted to work as a game ranger and I thought I wouldn’t need that. When I went to start my practical they told me that I did need a FGASA qualification. My degree didn’t help at all with that. If you want to be a game ranger, FGASA is the way to go. Its the Field Guide Association of SA.

Are Game Rangers more focused on animals than plants?

Yes, FGASA can be quite site-specific. So depending on where you’re doing your FGASA you must know the ecology and the biodiversity of the area. ADDO in Port Elizabeth would be completely different from Kruger National Park, for instance.

Do you need to redo your test if you move from Kruger to ADDO?

No, not necessarily. You just need to relearn the area. Once you start going to your level 2 and 3, you start covering a wider range of ecosystems and eventually you can use your FGASA as an international thing. You could go tour in the Antarctic or up in Africa or even Brazil. Essentially, you could travel and work

What were the hours like while you were working at the WSP?

The hours were quite short at the WSP but obviously they vary. It all depends on the projects, some would require more hours and working over time. Because I took the bus, I would often work from home at night.

With your degree, what other fields could you branch into? 

You could do ecology-specific, like botany. Most people start as juniors in government because they pay well and they provide valuable experience. The people in government are usually the best in their field. They have to review everyone else’s work. You could work in the Department of Environmental Affairs  which is at national level or you could work for the City of Cape Town. So anywhere, it’s quite general.

What was one of your best moments while out in the bushes? Your favourite memory? 

Knowing that while doing the plant search and rescue, that I’m doing something valuable and saving a species that is quite scarce. It’s most rewarding when you put in that much work and you know that you’re actually making a difference because you’re doing something that is proactive and practical.

Is there a risk involved in working out in the field?

Definitely, it depends on where your site is. For example, we had to do an assessment in Khayalitsha. That was just for a sewerage upgrade to a residential area and there were a lot of shacks there. You need to be willing to go to those types of sites. Sometimes the company policy says that you can’t go alone unless you have a security detail on you.

What is the starting out salary?

You’re probably looking at R140 000 – R160 000 a year for private companies. Before deductions, it’s between R13 000 and R15 000 a month. Once you assume more responsibility you get higher salaries. But as a junior in government you could earn R20 000 as a junior Professional Assistant Officers.

Any quirky advice for scholars wanting to pursue this career?

When you go for interviews  be sure of what you know. If you go for an interview, thank everyone for interviewing you and when you get back home or to your office just send them an email highlighting what makes you specifically good for the job and thanking them again. It means that you’re proactive and that you’ve taken the time to think about what makes you best for that position. I’ve gotten good responses for that.

EduConnect 2cents

Studying the science of plants may not be everyone’s cup of tea – luckily there are people, much like Luca, who find it interesting. Plants are fundamental to life on Earth and looking after them is of great importance. If this field interests you, then go for it. You’ll see amazing things and make a great difference for the environment and feel greatly rewarded and fulfilled. Sounds like a winner right there.

Here’s a quick video to show you how cool plants can be:


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