How getting involved in conservation can help your mental health

Looking after yourself, looking after others and looking after the planet: is there anything more important?

Right now in New Zealand we’re celebrating Mental Health Awareness Week, but did you know there are links between mental well-being and protecting wildlife?

Here’s how.

Spending time in natural surroundings is linked to reduced stress and anxiety

1. The power of nature

Have you ever found a walk in the park has helped when you’re feeling stressed or anxious?

Well you aren’t the only one, and scientific data also backs up the idea that spending time in natural surroundings can have real benefits for your mindset.

Let’s have a look at a study from the University of British Columbia, where three groups of people were given different tasks to see how they affected their mental state:

  • Group 1 was asked to document their reactions to encountering nature – this could be something as everyday as a tree or a flock of birds.
  • Group 2 did the same, but with man-made items.
  • Group 3 did neither, acting as a control for the experiment.

Over 2,500 submissions were made, and the conclusions pointed strongly to the idea that individuals who interact with nature feel both happier and more connected to other people than those who don’t.

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2. Doing good and feeling good

The simple act of doing something meaningful and selfless (often without getting paid) is a second way that conservation can benefit mental health.

Of course, there are paid roles in conservation, but many people start as volunteers prepared to give up their time for something they believe to be important.

Here are some of the ways this contributes to mental wellbeing:

  • Happy hormones: Dedicating your free time to something you love is a great feeling, and volunteering has been linked to the release of dopamine, a hormone that creates positive feelings.
  • Find like-minded people: Conservation organisations are full of people working towards the same goals, and can be a great a place to make friends who think like you. These friends can go on to be a strong support network.
  • Grow your confidence: This is another benefit of making these connections, but also stems from the sense of purpose that conservation can give.

In addition, getting involved in conservation can open doors to opportunities you never knew existed.

‘Volontourism’ is a popular trend of travelling to volunteer in exciting places around the world. Even if you stay closer to home you may get to see reserves or sensitive areas normally closed to the public.

Getting outside to research wildlife
Conservation and research activities cause you to be active, which is positive for your mind and body

3. Sweating for the planet, and for your mind

Conservation ain’t no walk in the (national) park, trust us.

Whether you’re planting endangered Kauri trees or researching endangered Hector’s dolphins your body is working hard – and this can give you more than just a flat stomach.

Exercise releases powerful hormones called endorphins. These endorphins stimulate positive feelings throughout your body, and this is important when it comes to the associations between active lifestyles, conservation and mental health

In fact, exercising just one hour a week could help prevent 12% of future cases of depression, according to research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

And that’s not all, states that exercise can be beneficial in countering other illnesses including anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), stress and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

The combinations of nature, activity and sense of purpose are just some of the benefits that conservation can have for mental health.

More important, however, is that people keep talking about mental health. The issue has gained more acknowledgement in recent years, but we’re still a long way from where we need to be.

If you’re struggling, or know someone that is, a walk and a talk can go a long way – in 2018 it’s okay not to be okay.

Update: Hector’s Health Surveys

March 20th 2018

Our new project is underway!

We have begun piloting a new technique which we will hope will teach us more about the health of our local Hector’s dolphins.

We are using a sampling technique never before attempted with this species known as ‘blow sampling’ to determine whether it can be used to detect infectious diseases.

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We use a petri dish on the end of a long pole to catch samples of dolphin ‘blow’.

This method has been used successfully in the past with orca, humpbacks and bottlenose dolphins, and requires us to capture the air and water expelled from the Hector’s blowhole (basically dolphin breath!).

We do this using a petri dish on the end of a long pole, and the samples are then labelled and sent away for analysis at the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences at Massey University.

This project was prompted by the discovery of a new disease within our local Hector’s dolphin population.

In December 2016 a Hector’s dolphin that washed near Harnett’s Creek, Kaikōura, was found to have died from tuberculosis. The bacteria that causes this particular strain of tuberculosis, Mycrobacterium pinnipeddi, is common in fur seals in sea lions, and has been reported seven times in New Zealand beef cattle, but has never before been found in cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises).

Hector’s are only found around New Zealand, and are already listed as endangered, so it is crucial that we understand how infectious diseases such as tuberculosis are making their way into our local dolphin populations.

The blow samples are collected in tubes and sent for anaylsis.
The samples are sent to Massey University where we hope analysis will teach us more about the health of our Hector’s dolphins.

One possibility is that human related pollution and pathogens can be washed into the ocean following heavy rains. This phenomenon is known to have caused the deaths of sea otters off the California coast. In this case the otters were found to be infected with a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii which comes from cat faeces.

We are hoping that blow sampling will allow us to detect the presence of this, and other, infections– a first step in determining where the problem is coming from and devising a strategy to better protect our dolphins from this new threat.

Update: Hector’s Dolphin Surveys

February 8th 2018

K.O.R.I is pleased to announce the successful completion of our first batch of boat-based surveys for 2018!

These surveys are part an ongoing study that began in 2013 which aims to record and monitor the critically endangered Hector’s dolphins found in the waters around Kaikōura.

Our survey routes alternate between the two sides of the Kaikōura Peninsula, taking us as far as the Hapuku River to the North, and the Haumuri Bluffs to the South. We note all the marine mammals we encounter (as well as any penguins!), and also record environmental data as we go.

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We are happy to report that among a multitude of other species including dusky dolphins, common dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, little blue penguins and Hutton’s shearwaters, we have had numerous sightings of our main subject matter – the Hector’s dolphin.

Encountering Hector’s dolphins allows us not only to monitor their behaviour and habitat, but also helps us achieve the other main aim of our surveys – to add to our catalogue of recognisable individual Hector’s dolphins.

We use photo identification of the Hector’s dorsal fins in the hope of spotting distinctive markings to distinguish an individual from the group. This isn’t always easy, but the dolphins do help us out as they come close to the boat to play in the swell. The photographs we take then go into our catalogue to help build a picture of the populations we have here.

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The surveys we have conducted so far have been possible due to generous funding from several groups – and K.O.R.I would like to thank the Encounter Foundation and The Department of Conservation for helping us carry out this important work.

The analysis of the data so far collected is ongoing, but we are already looking forward to getting back onto the water in March for the next batch of surveys!