15. Marlina Moreno and Shannon Noelle Rivera: Why conservation and collaboration go hand in hand

Marlina Moreno

In this episode, two dynamic women working in the conservation sector – Marlina Moreno and Shannon Noelle Rivera, talk to Sue Stockdale about the importance of collaboration and some of the projects they are currently involved in.

Marlina Moreno is a former NFL cheerleader and professional dancer turned conservation biologist, filmmaker, and digital content creator. Her work has taken her to some of the planet’s wildest places — from the Peruvian Amazon to Uganda’s highest peak — and has been featured by media outlets such as Nat Geo Wild, Forbes, CBS, and more. Today, she is the founder of Project:Conservation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting people and projects on the frontlines of conservation through visual storytelling and digital campaigns, the creator of the popular wildlife-inspired travel blog, MarGoneWild.com, and most recently the host of a new podcast series, The Gone Wild Show. Find her on Instagram @marlinamoreno



Shannon Noelle Rivera

Shannon Noelle Rivera is a conservation scientist, environmental consultant, and international wildlife host largely focused on the importance of intersections within conservation practice, including identifying gender-sensitive strategies within conservation, and addressing animal welfare in conservation practice. Shannon has worked throughout Southeast Asia, the Amazon region, Oceania, and North America on wildlife trafficking issues, wildlife rehabilitation, reforestation, and various other conservation initiatives. Based in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, Shannon works with the state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife; Kaulunani Urban and Community Forestry Program and Smart Trees Pacific building urban forestry capacity throughout the state and Pacific region.  Shannon has a Master of Science in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law from the University of Winchester.  More info on Shannon Noelle Rivera.    or on Instagram @shannonnoelle


Marlina Moreno and Shannon Noelle Rivera transcription

Sue : [00:00:00] Welcome to access to inspiration. Today I’m speaking to Marlina Moreno and Shannon Rivera, and they both have a keen interest in conservation. Welcome to both of you.

Shannon : [00:00:21] Thank you.

Sue : [00:00:22] Now. Shannon to you first, if I can just get a little background to your experience. I understand you’ve worked in Asia, the Amazon region, Oceana and North America, particularly on wildlife trafficking issues, wildlife rehabilitation and conservation, and you’ve got a particular focus on illegal wildlife trade.

Shannon : [00:00:42] Yeah, that’s true.

Sue : [00:00:44] And Marlina you also come from a really interesting background, a former NFL cheerleader.

Marlina: [00:00:49] Yes, ma’am.

Sue : [00:00:50] Professional dancer, turns conservation biologist and film maker.

Marlina: [00:00:54] That would be correct.

Sue : [00:00:55] So it sounds like your angle is coming from the storytelling aspect of conservation. [00:01:00] And Shannon’s aspect is about the evidence based science behind it.

Marlina: [00:01:04] Yeah, I think that’s a clear way to put it.

Shannon : [00:01:05] Ying and yang.

Marlina: [00:01:07] There you go. We, that’s why it work so well together. We bring different things to the table.

Sue : [00:01:11] So how do you two know one another?

Shannon : [00:01:13] Just a whole bunch of different worlds that came together in this really similar interests. We were both dancers. I’m based in San Diego. And we met each other through mutual friends and mutual jobs, and we worked together in that field. But then eventually our lives really evolved to more engage in conservation. And again, we saw a lot of overlaps. And just from that similar background and knowing each other in the dance industry, we really started thinking like, I think we could probably work together in conservation as well.

And it kind of just fit in some of the work that I was doing. In Sumatra. I invited Marlina along and it was the start of the story. We ended up traveling really well together and had a lot of similar ideas and grew some of our projects together.

Sue : [00:01:54] Marlina your background’s quite intriguing in terms of your parents, what they did and how you grew up and learned about the outdoors. [00:02:00] Tell us more about that.

Marlina: [00:02:00] So I’m again, grew up in San Diego. My dad was a professional falconer. My mother, she’s a bus driver, but she also was an avid horseback rider, so I was always, you know, active outdoors, grew up fishing, camping. So I think I was really lucky to just be running around barefoot outside around animals my whole life.

So I’ve just always really loved, you know, nature. And that’s kind of, I think probably what planted the seed for me. And you know, and then as life has it, you go off and you’re going to school and I was taking dance and then you do cheer and you kind of get caught up in that and that world. And I think. You know, once you get to, for me it was like early twenties figuring out, well, is this something I’m passionate about? Is this what I want to do forever? And sort of really thinking about what could my life be like and what am I passionate about? And then I just kind of started exploring from there and it somehow just brought me back to wanting to do stuff with wildlife, nature, being around animals and outdoors as much as possible.

Shannon : [00:02:47] Similarly, just thinking conservation has been a part of both our lives, and funnily enough. Growing up completely separate, not even meeting until our twenties I also grew up on a ranch. My dad was a professional bull rider. Really strange, but that was kind of my [00:03:00] introduction to animals but always, you know, finding what you want to do with animals and is that actually a job? Is it something that you can actually pursue that’s not just a hobby. And I think later in life we both found out, you know, we’re going to try for this, we’re going to do it.

Marlina: [00:03:11] And it’s definitely been an interesting journey. I would say it’s something where I think we’re still trying to navigate to be honest. And it definitely took a while of trying different things and seeing where you fit in, depending on what your other interests are, what your skill set is. And I think, you know, it’s interesting to see that we both have ended up on different ends of the spectrum in the world of conservation, but like she said earlier, our paths still really do overlap in a lot of ways, which has been a really beautiful.

Sue : [00:03:32] So there’s something common there particularly around the influence that your childhood had on your love of the outdoors?

Shannon : [00:03:39] Totally. I think it is for every human. As a child, you are more inclined to getting involved with the world around you. And every kid has, they’re drawn to other living things and they want to be around it.

And I think the world changes you as you grow up to either become more separated from it or not think that you’re a part of that world. And I think just my own personal nature, but [00:04:00] also my mom being able to say, you know, do what you want and if this is a part of you, keep it. I kept that child inside of me of this is what was always so important to me, other living beings that share this world with me. And I just never wanted that to die.

Marlina: [00:04:13] And I think at the end of the day, it’s something I see as such a blessing because a lot of people aren’t exposed to that and don’t even have that opportunity. And I think nowadays, especially, I see how children are being raised and how things have changed so much. Like kids are living behind computer screens and phone screens nowadays. And we are so lucky to be that last generation that still had that affinity to play outside, be in the dirt, be in nature. And so I felt really blessed to have just even been able to have had those seeds planted early on in life. Cause maybe I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.

Sue : [00:04:40] And I think there can be sometimes people who have a fixed idea of what their career will be. So it’s really heartening to hear that both of you have followed your passion and created for  yourselves the life that you want.  and Shannon particularly if I can come to you first, I know you’ve got a particular interest in the illegal wildlife trade.

Shannon : [00:04:57] Yeah.

Sue : [00:04:58] And how those animals that are [00:05:00] then rescued, how they are treated. Tell us a bit more about that?

Shannon : [00:05:03] Yeah, it’s, it is. It’s a really tricky area. We don’t hear about the illegal wildlife trade a lot, but it is. Some people have ranked a second as the most illicit illegal trade in the world and we don’t see it. It’s kind of this silent thing that’s happening around us, but really involves so much of our world. And my interest really started because I travelled since I was young. I have family that live all over the world and I’ve been able to be exposed to different cultures. You start seeing wildlife in different tourist areas and people want to be, when they travel to Thailand, when they travel to Southeast Asia and different places, you want to be the round, the wildlife that you see.

So I was starting to see that people are getting engaged with animals, but incorrect ways. And they’re being illegally trafficked. They’re being taken from the wild, exploited, and it’s driving down species. So for me, I wanted to know if these animals are ever rescued, which is already very rare, and what’s happened to them once they’re rescued.

And the truth is we don’t really know. [00:06:00] There’s not a lot of effort being put into it and they’re actually ending up back in the trade again and being exploited in different ways. I was in the Amazon and there was a baby monkey that had shrapnel in his side because his mother had been shot down because someone wanted a baby monkey to hold. It was just a reality check for me that someone needs to do something about this, and I wanted to expose it a little bit more. But it is definitely something that people don’t want exposed. So it’s a tricky field to work in.

Sue : [00:06:25] And how do you navigate your way through that when you’ve got to be a bit of a detective to work out what happens in those situations?

Shannon : [00:06:32] Yeah, it’s interesting and I think taking a look at yourself in this world and saying, how best am I able to be in having an impact?

Because going into communities and cultures that you’re not a part of, you can’t come in and say, I’m going to change everything, but really understanding what your impact could be and how you can maneuver those realms in those industries in a way that’s safe, but also where you can impact it and do something good.

So for me, it’s definitely been trial and error. I mean, I bought a one way ticket to the [00:07:00] Amazon and wanted to change the world and realize that that’s probably not going to happen. And where I felt like I found the most power was in education. And I went back to school and I got several degrees and looked at how research can really create the knowledge that we need, and maybe that will help implement some of the management that’s happening on the ground with local people.

Sue : [00:07:19] So you’ve got the evidence base, you’ve got the science behind what’s going on.

Shannon : [00:07:23] Yeah.

Sue : [00:07:23] And then Marlina, you tell the story in a slightly different way. So the same values, the same important interest in conservation. For example, one of the things I saw on your website was helping profiling the story of some young men in Mozambique where they were teaching people to swim. Tell us about that as an example of how you make an impact.

Marlina: [00:07:41] Sure. So like we said earlier, I’ve fallen more on the storytelling round, finding media as essentially a conservation tool to be able to share stories. So for example, you know people who are on the front lines of conservation around the world. A lot of times and instances, some of the people doing the most amazing work, you’re never going to hear their voices. You’re never going to hear their side of the [00:08:00] story. And it’s kind of this crazy love hate with technology and media these days is on one aspect of it.

And media and technology takes us away from nature, and it kind of creates the separation from actually experience, sort of the tactile experience. We were lucky enough to grow up with. Whereas it’s also such a powerful tool to reconnect us to it. So I really want to focus on the positive that technology, things like social media and being able to engage with people all over the world and share stories all over the world for people who don’t have necessarily the voices to do that.

So that’s really important for me in terms of fueling my passion. And going and going back to the Mozambique example. So I was traveling throughout Mozambique with my husband. We were on a seven country, seven month road trip throughout Africa, looking for really cool conservation stories on the front lines, and we stumbled across this group of young men who were teaching swimming lessons as well as about marine life, courses, I guess in local schools. And just getting the young students really excited about the wildlife. One thing that’s really crazy about Mozambique, I think it’s 80% of the community live near the water and survive on it for their livelihoods. [00:09:00] Yet. The majority of local Mozambicans do not know how to swim. So it creates this fear of the water, which, how can you love something and want to protect something that you’re afraid of and you fear.

And so they’re going in just teaching swimming lessons to the local children. Got a local community lodge to lend the pool. So we just wanted to kind of go and feature their stories and tell that in one, I mean. The thing that’s really great about storytelling is it can bring in funding for a lot of these projects.

So they’ve since been able to expand and we made a cool little fun promo video about what they’re doing and then just kind of help get their word out there, which helps people be able to support what they’re doing on the front lines, which, if no one helped tell their story, how do we know and how can we be supportive of that? So I think that’s really the power of storytelling. for me in the arena of conservation.

Sue : [00:09:40] So you’re both detectives in slightly different ways. You’re following the story, you’ve got a hunch for something that needs to be evidenced or told.

Marlina: [00:09:49] Yeah. I think that’s a great way to put it.

Shannon : [00:09:51] Yeah. You always have a question. What is happening here? You know, and that you can tell the story, but you need the information. Is this happening? What are the numbers? What are we looking at? [00:10:00] I’m in. A lot of times scientists can’t tell their story. They’re horrible. You don’t want to listen to them. They’ll put you to sleep. But they have the information. So I really appreciate the storytelling aspect because this information should not just stay up in the ivory tower. We really needed people to know about it cause there’s some serious issues happening.

Marlina: [00:10:15] And I think the thing that’s really beautiful is I don’t think that you can’t have one without the other. You really do need both aspects of it. You need the people on the front lines doing the hard work like Shannon, like the gentleman I’m telling you about in Mozambique, ocean guardians. And then you also need people willing to help share what they’re finding because you can’t do it all. And I think that’s the really beautiful thing about our dynamic Shannon’s and mine, is that we’ve found a way to take two different aspects of conservation that are equally important in their own right, I believe, but find a way to make them work together because I think you can’t really have one without the other, I guess maybe, I suppose you could, but are they going to be as impactful if you don’t rely on one another?

And I think in conservation we’re seeing it a bit more, but it’s a very competitive industry and it’s a shocking that people, more people aren’t collaborating across different fields of conservation, you have so many different fields, and I don’t see a lot of [00:11:00] collaborations. So I think something that we both are really excited about working together and trying to produce projects together is being able to cross pollinate what each other are doing. And I think that’s something that more people could do in this field, for sure.

Shannon : [00:11:11] Yeah. And supporting each other. I  think that’s what Marlina was saying there’s a lot of competition, and it is true, this is a really hard field to get in and people have called it a rich person’s profession because you have to do so much volunteer work and you’re not being paid for a lot of the work that you’re doing and you’re fighting for a very small pie of funding.

I think there is a statistic, less than 3% of all charitable funding in the US goes towards animal rights, conservation, environmental groups, less than 3% for all of those issues. That’s a very small amount for the work that we need to get done. And for all of the people working in it, we’re all trying to vie for that same thing, but I think the collaboration and support is what is going to be able to raise those numbers and get this news out there.

Sue : [00:11:50] So despite that potential challenge of limited resources, how do each of you measure success?

Shannon : [00:11:57] Really important question. I think getting into [00:12:00] any field you need to feel productive. And, for me, I think conservation in general, when you look at this big issue and you see these big headlines of million species are threatened of being extinct in the next hundred years, and all of these really diabolical things that we hear, you want to put it away and say too big of an issue.

I don’t want to deal with it. When I was younger, something I really had to come to terms with, is this going to make or break me? Can I do this or am I going to go home? Just upset and depressed every time. But I think looking at that whole picture isn’t something that for me isn’t beneficial, but really zooming in and being able to look at it as more of a mosaic, that there are certain little tiny success stories in this whole picture and really focusing on the tiny wins that it’s a huge uphill battle. A lot of these are not going to be successful, but finding the success in every project that you do, there’s always going to be something you’ve learned. Whether you think it’s a research failure or whether you think it’s something that you didn’t do right, that’s still a learning lesson and being able to be an optimist and I think that is my biggest strength. And you [00:13:00] have to be, as a conservationist, you absolutely have to be a diehard optimist.

Sue : [00:13:03] Just to pick up on your current job, I know you’re working in Hawaii, in urban forestry. Tell us a bit about how you measure the success of that activity.

Shannon : [00:13:11] Funnily enough, so I’m definitely animal focused I always have been, but working in Hawaii has really opened my eyes to looking at the bigger picture, not just focusing on the big charismatic animals, but what those animals are relying on and that’s their environment. And whether that be in forestry and working with  different plant species or at the small invertebrates and all that stuff, it’s been really eye opening to me focusing on larger stuff. Marlina was talking about people are in the urban environment now. You’re not connected to nature as much, and I love being able to work with the people in Hawaii to make them more aware of the plants and animals in their environment, even if that’s in the city that they never leave. So the success has really been from raising awareness with the public.

Sue : [00:13:49] Fantastic. And Marlina now, what does success mean to you?

Marlina: [00:13:52] And well to piggyback  off from Shannon over here, I do believe in this idea of sort of bite size success and taking it small ones [00:14:00] as they come. And I think that in this field, something that you really can only focus on.

For me, I know that it can be as simple as that small as someone reaching out and being like, I saw that film you made, or I heard about that project, I want to support it. How do I donate? I mean, that to me is huge and it can be as important as grand as being able to empower somebody and almost highlight and uplift these people doing amazing stuff because we all need a little pat on the back once in awhile.

It can be hard to be out there day in and day out doing what a lot of these frontline conservationists are doing and never kind of getting the gratitude, the recognition that they deserve. I think for me, being able to go in to somebody who maybe feels like nobody cares about what they’re doing and say, no, I care, like that means something to me and I want to help show your story.

And I’m a really big believer also in focusing on indigenous local communities. On her voices. I love stories of women in conservation. That’s why I was so keen on meeting you and I was so excited to meet, you know, a woman explorer. Any anyone and any story that we don’t typically hear. I think Shannon, I might both agree that in conservation it tends to be a very [00:15:00] male dominated industry, and I really love being able to tell stories that maybe aren’t the ones that we always tend to see on national television or, or typical traditional media. That’s where I’m at.

Shannon : [00:15:10] But it’s great. I mean, I think, you know, a young girl in Mozambique might see one of Marlina’s stories and say, I see someone that looks like me. I see myself in this field and I can do it. And I think that’s really important to be able to lift people up into this and say, you know, this field is for you, because majority of the people are getting back to indigenous communities, they care for over 80% of our natural resources and they’re doing a better job than we are. So we have a lot to learn from these people and being able to include them in the conversation. And part of that is making sure they see themselves in this picture.

Marlina: [00:15:40] One of the main questions we get asked, probably at least I know for me, that I could ask most consistently is how do I get involved? How can I help? Like I don’t know where to start. And I think it’s start anywhere, almost any skill set that you have could probably be useful. And I think that’s, it can be overwhelming, but I think as long as you’re willing to give it a go, there is a space for you in this arena. And I [00:16:00] think that that’s a really important message to convey, especially to the next generation, because we need more conservationists.

Shannon : [00:16:04] We need more people that are good with technology it’s not just a scientist role. You don’t just have to be a scientist there. We need everybody in this industry, and it might mean working a little bit harder because you might be paving a path of not a lot of people I’ve done, but guaranteed every skill set is needed in this and people are looking for it.

Sue : [00:16:23] If you were being responsible as a wildlife tourist. What would be the sort of things that we should be paying attention to?

Shannon : [00:16:28] Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t think a lot of tours realize that even if you don’t want to be or don’t think you are or wouldn’t call yourself a wildlife tourist, you are participating in wildlife tourism. Everywhere you go is impacting the wildlife around you.

And I think the first thing is really to be aware. So when I talk to people and they say, well, I’m going here, I’m going there, what should I do? Research. And we’re so lucky because  every answer we ever need is in our pocket. Get out your phone and just search the areas that you’re going into and see, you know, maybe you’re going to Thailand and you want to see the elephants, or you’re going to another place [00:17:00] and you want to, you see a lot of people with tigers, or you want to swim with the dolphins or something like that. And researching how that is impacting not only the species, but the environment and local communities around you. And it’s really eye opening to me see that a lot of those practices you probably don’t want to participate in. And a lot of times, even if it says sanctuary or ecotourism, those are really buzzwords right now that you might not be promoting the stuff that you want to promote.

So again, researching what you’re doing, thinking before you’re buying anything, cause you can vote with your wallet is a huge thing. And the local communities are going to give you what we’re demanding. If we’re demanding, we want to swim with the dolphins and we want to ride all the elephants, they’ll do that.

We’ve already seen because tourists are more aware in some areas. We’re already seeing those industries changing. We’re already seeing people going in and saying, well, we don’t want this to be harmed, so how do we do it in a more sustainable way? And the industry changes within a year.

Marlina: [00:17:50] Yeah. Which is great. I mean, even just TripAdvisor, I think recently took off promoting elephant rides, which is huge. And the tiger temple in Thailand which I believe is even shut down now. And so as Shannon [00:18:00] said, voting with your wallet is huge on social media as well. Like sharing those stories and asking questions and not being shy. When you go to places and once an animal is humanized, it’s never going to be put back in the wild. Like it may have a semi-wild enclosure or a sanctuary that it can go to, but once the animals humanized, it’s not going to be able to probably survive in the wild. So if they’re telling you that, Oh, this is a rescue or rehabilitating, we’re going to put it out there.

Shannon : [00:18:18] There’s a few key things that if the wildlife interaction that you’re going into, if you can touch the animals, whether in their in captivity or in the wild, that’s probably not good, almost 99% of the time. It’s not a good thing to engage with. So staying 50 feet away from anything in the wild. Cleaning up after yourself, not leaving pollution in these areas because as what the community then has to deal with, there’s so many different things that if you just take an extra moment to think about, you’ll be a better wildlife tourist.

Sue : [00:18:45] So finally, to both of you made it’s really great impacts in your journeys. And your career to date, what’s next? What does the future hold for you?

Shannon : [00:18:53] That’s so funny. Marlina and I were just talking about this. I definitely have broad goals of what I want to impact, [00:19:00] but I think every month is different. I think broadly because my focus has been largely on the wildlife trade and there I see so many gaps in it and we’re connected to it so closely. A lot of people that I’m familiar with in the circles that I am in, I really hope that I’m able to impact that industry and making more people are aware of what’s happening.

Sue : [00:19:19] Fantastic. Thank you. Marlina, how about you? What’s your future hold for you?

Marlina: [00:19:23] I mean storytelling will always be my main role in conservation. So for me, going back to what I was saying earlier about really highlighting the underrepresented voices in conservation, that’s,that’s really important to me. So for 2020 I’m focusing on launching specific digital series focused on those stories. Women in conservation. Local communities and conservation who are leaders in their communities that we just don’t hear about.

And then I also am a big believer in community based conservation and creating economic opportunity in a lot of these human wildlife conflict zones and conservation hotspots around the world. That’s something that a lot of people don’t talk about is the need for including local community. How are we including them in the conversation, but also how are we creating opportunities for these individuals as [00:20:00] well?

A lot of human wildlife conflict, things like poaching. A lot of that is socioeconomic, and those are a lot of the stories and things that we don’t hear. So yes. Shedding light on that through a storytelling perspective, but also creating tangible projects that can create sustainable economic opportunities that are alternative to the ones that in a lot of communities there is just not a lot of options. And so for me, that’s something that I’m working on, on launching in the next year as well, and a very specific project to create opportunity in these communities.

Sue : [00:20:26] There sounds like there’s going to be some fantastic collaborations in the future and it’s been a great pleasure to speak to both of you. Finally, if our listeners want to reach out and find out more about what you do whats the best way to do that?

Shannon : [00:20:38] I have a lot of friends and family and people following me on Instagram and its probably the best place where I’m able, just to kind of be myself and share @ShannonNoelle and I also have a website that you can learn about the publications and everything else that I’m doing. But a lot of my like day to day stuff is usually on Instagram or Twitter @_shannonrivera.

Marlina: [00:20:57] I would say for the fun good stuff. I’d go to Instagram [00:21:00] @marlinamoreno thats pretty much all social media. I do have a wildlife kind of ecotourism, travel blog and portfolio where you can see all my work and more of like the fun travel stuff. www.margonewild.com and then my nonprofit is project:conservation. That’s a projectconservation.org and from there you can find all the social media stuff on there where you can check out the films that I’ve done. So a little bit of everything.

Sue : [00:21:24] So it was fantastic to listen to Marlina and Shannon. So much energy and passion for changing the world. That’s all from us in series two. If you enjoyed this podcast, please take a moment to leave us a review on Apple podcasts or whatever platform you are listening to and tell your friends about us so that we can continue to reach more listeners. We will be back soon with more stories to give you access to inspiration.