OW Spotlight Olivia Walter

Apsley '91

Executive Director at Wildlife Vets International

Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

We moved up from London to West Yorkshire and the Pennines 15 years ago, with an 18-month-old daughter. Our son was born 18 months after that. Ever since childhood holidays in Scotland and being at Edinburgh University, I had always wanted to live in Britain’s wild landscapes. Here, above Hebden Bridge, we live on the edge of the moors. I love that I can run (sort of) from my front door into a relatively wild landscape full of birds whose numbers are dwindling elsewhere, woodlands with one of the biggest ranges of moss species found in the UK, ancient pack horse trails, bogs and challenging weather. When it is dry enough, we have been known to gallop wildly, Heathcliffe-like, over the Bronte moors. We have the best of both worlds too, living between Leeds and Manchester and all the culture they have to offer. However, as a born and bred Londoner, I miss the big smoke and am lucky enough to come down frequently for meetings and to visit family.

How did you come to work in your current role at Wildlife Vets International?

Whilst in London, I had various jobs at the Zoological Society of London’s London Zoo, building on the field experience I gained as a student. My initial job as a keeper was particularly popular with friends who wanted to impress other halves with a visit behind the scenes. I developed skills in managing small animal populations in order to protect genetic diversity and enabling the flow of knowledge among those working in the conservation of threatened species, both in captivity and the wild. As ‘wild’ spaces become ever smaller and further away from each other, the distinction between skills relevant to working with animals in captivity and those in the wild has become more and more blurred.

It is in this human-wildlife interface that Wildlife Vets International (WVI), the charity of which I am currently Executive Director, sits. When my partner and I moved to Hebden Bridge for his work, I was lucky enough to cover maternity leave for the locally based International Zoo Veterinary Group (IZVG) and part of the job was to do the administration for WVI. I stayed on and increasingly spent all my time growing WVI and, in 2020, we ceased to be supported by IZVG and became an entirely independent organisation. We are a niche charity, providing wildlife medicine expertise, knowledge and support for vets and biologists working in areas of rich biodiversity. We work with and between larger government and conservation organisations, as often wildlife health is the forgotten piece of the conservation puzzle.

What has been your career highlight so far?

In the springtime, I was lucky enough to spend three weeks in India and Nepal, visiting projects, conservation organisations and vets that we support. Like many people, COVID had stopped any travelling and I had become stuck in a rut, disconnected to the impact WVI has. It was bliss to be back at the conservation frontline, learning about the many nuances in anaesthetising a wild animal you can barely catch sight of, whilst sitting under a banyan tree in the grounds of a Maharaja’s hunting palace in the middle of Sariska Tiger Reserve. In the evenings we sat round a fire putting the conservation world to rights, listening to alarm calls from hanuman langurs or chittal deer that had spotted a tiger or a leopard just over the wall from where we were sitting. In the morning, we downloaded the camera trap data to reveal just how close they had come.

I had only been to the mountains of Nepal 30 years previously as a baby, so I really enjoyed exploring the national parks in Nepal’s Terai (the lowlands bordering India). I hadn’t appreciated that tourists are only allowed in one small part of the parks and frustratingly didn’t manage to pull enough strings to get into the more remote parts reserved for scientists and vital anti-poaching patrols. Having seen the equivalent of an emergency c-section on an elephant (a vestibulotomy) and been to a meeting on the conservation of vultures, it was time for a holiday. However, work followed me as I discovered that the successful birth of the elephant calf from an incision below the elephant’s tail – a very rare and challenging surgical procedure – had made the papers and I happened to have been in the picture they used. Suddenly I was a minor celebrity! My mother and I were invited to the local branch of the national conservation organisation, the National Trust for Nature Conservation, for lunch and then for an unexpected birthday (mine) supper. I spent evenings in the lovely Tiger Tops resort, passionately talking to other guests about tiger conservation and planning future collaborations to help Nepal’s decimated vulture population thrive in the wild once again.

I feel very lucky to have been able to appreciate some incredible ecosystems (always the professional), meet passionate people from all walks of life, and talk with experts from the many different disciplines needed to conserve our planet, while all the time experiencing cultures that have been deeply influenced by nature. We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis that is one of the major factors driving climate change. Sadly, I can finally say ‘I told you so’. What keeps me going is that we know what we are doing wrong, and we know how to put it right. The hope is with the dedicated people across the world who are already achieving so much.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I will either be still in charge of WVI and we will be seen as THE experts in wildlife medicine or I will be managing ESG or grant funding to ensure that biodiversity is underpinning climate change mitigation and development projects.

What are your top tips for students trying to get involved in your line of work?

Never say no to an opportunity. It might appear that it is not connected to what you think you want to do, but there are always things you will learn, and you will be building a valuable network of contacts.

Go on holiday/travel to areas you are interested in and go and say hello to the local conservation organisation or wildlife rescue centre. Listen to what they have to say about what they are doing and what skills they are using. You will find out just how many different skills are needed to run a conservation organisation and see how everyone is an important part of the team, from the conservation geneticist to the policy maker to the accountant.

If you are interested in wildlife medicine, please don’t start your emails with ‘I have always wanted to be a tiger vet’. So does everyone else and there isn’t such a thing. You will get further if you are interested in new anesthetics for large hoofstock, or rana viruses in amphibians, or canine distemper virus in black-footed ferrets.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Never say no to an opportunity.

Do you have a fond memory from your time at Wellington that you would like to share or perhaps a particular teacher that really stood out? 

I have always felt very privileged to have been to such an architecturally beautiful school with so much history. Many generations of my extended family had gone to Wellington, but I was the first girl and wondered whether any of the marks in the quad walls had been made by a relative. Despite being an atheist, I enjoyed sitting in the chapel and the sound of the whole school – mainly boys at that time – singing. There were one or two teachers who remembered my uncle better than my father, and I thought it was fortunate that I wasn’t taught by them. My name would have been marked before I turned up at the first lesson! I have had a lifelong love of Maths thanks to Mr C. Potter but the Art school was where I was most at home.

Thanks to Olivia Walter (Ap 91) for this spotlight piece.