The journey of a high-flying lawyer who became a conservationist

Tatjana Rosen, UNEP Vanishing Treasures Technical Adviser for Kyrgyzstan and Lead of Team Bars Turkmenistan.

Like countless others, as a child, I loved nature and animals and longed to be either a veterinarian or study the behavior of wildlife. I was an introverted kid and found joy in rescuing all sorts of animals, from stray dogs to birds and bats, or spending hours watching wildlife.

However, when I was 17, the war in the former Yugoslavia — a home to me and my family — erupted, causing a period of uncertainty, loss, and grief. Although nature remained my escape and passion, my priorities changed: I wanted to become a UN peace negotiator. And therefore I thought I should become an international lawyer first.

From dreams to reality

I breezed through law school in Italy: I studied with this sense of greater purpose and exams came easy. I finished in half time with top grades and literally every top law firm in Milano wanted to hire me.  I accepted the offer from one of them. It was a great place, but I was one of the very few women and for sure the only one with a “humble” background.

I had the opportunity in the meantime to do an internship in New York, at the Office of Legal Affairs at the UN. To me, New York represented the place that – no matter your background – you would be treated equally. I sent about 100 letters to law firms, banks, companies, and a ship classification society. The American Bureau of Shipping offered me a short-term paid position that led to a position in a mid-sized Wall Street law firm.

Meanwhile I wrote to professors at New York, Yale and Columbia Universities that I admired and asked them if I could audit their classes in my free time. They all welcomed me. I then applied to Yale, Harvard, Columbia and NYU and was accepted in all, so I chose Harvard because of their negotiation programme.  Finally, in 2000, I started working for a law firm that I viewed as a stepping stone towards working in my dream job as a UN negotiator. That was, at least, until the sunny morning of September 11, 2001, when my life could have simply just ended.

The moment things changed forever

As the twin towers across from my office went crashing down, so did my life as I knew it. I developed serious post-traumatic stress disorder and only time in nature seemed to provide relief. And it was during that time that I questioned my life trajectory. The great outdoors of Yellowstone National Park and the wilderness of Montana, in the aftermath of September 11, seemed to offer me the answers: become a wildlife biologist. It was not easy as I also just had a child and I had no idea where to start. I also questioned my ability to start down this whole new path. But I did slowly.

I wrote to Chuck Schwartz, head of the USGS Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team and asked to allow me to join a project on bears in Grand Teton National Park. I did not know Chuck at all and was sure he would not even reply. But he did, and he later told me that he was struck by my honesty and resolve.  I will always be grateful to Chuck for giving me the chance to learn.

A fresh start

That first year, I worked as a volunteer and was paid 17$/day. I learned about bears and that in order to save bears, I had to still draw on the skills from my past career – such as negotiation, patience, compromise and listening – to work with people. And that is how my wildlife research and conservation life took off. I also went back to school – first at night at Columbia University for a Certificate Program in Conservation Biology so that my baby girl would not notice I would be gone; and then a Masters in Science at Yale done while managing part-time jobs and an almost daily commute from New York to New Haven (a gruelling four hours on the train). Bears led to wolves. Wolves led to snow leopards. Snow leopards led to Persian leopards. From Montana I ended in Central Asia.

Tanya and her team on a mission to go camera trapping for snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan

None of this came without loss and making difficult choices: being increasingly away from my daughter from the time she was 7 years old (for months at a time), and this work being hard on my relationships.  But to know that you are part of making a difference for a species that gives purpose to your life and your happiness – as well as that of others – is incredible and makes everything worth it.

In 2018, nine of my Iranian colleagues were jailed, accused of being spies; one died. Seven are still in jail. Once again, my life as I knew it changed and yet has given an even greater meaning to what I do.

Tanya and colleauges reviewing camera trap images while in the field in Turkmenistan

What my journey has taught me is: you are never too old or young to change, to make a difference. Create your own job description. Don’t be afraid of change and challenges – there are lessons in them and opportunities. Embrace uncertainty, follow your heart and be yourself. Lastly, surround yourself with a community of people who are there to celebrate your good days and hold your hand when things are bad.