- Tell me about how you first got interested in conservation?
It was sort of by accident actually, I think. I don’t actually remember consciously thinking “Ohh OK now I am a Conservationist” or something like that. I chose a module at undergraduate and became really interested in the concept of Invasive Species and really enjoyed the module. I then saw a really good masters degree at the University of Leeds, it had really good modules and just happened to be in Conservation and Biodiversity. So yeah, that was when the die was cast.
- Do you have something specific, a lifetime ambition perhaps, that you would like to achieve?
Nothing but a huge cliché I am afraid. I would really like to discover a new species. Not very original I know but just the thought of finding something new that no other scientist has seen before really excites me. I know you can’t name them after yourself anymore but your name and the year of discovery goes next to the species name in official documents and such like. That lasts forever, well unless someone comes along and reclassifies it…. Perish the thought!
- In the years that you have been involved in conservation research, what would you say is the biggest change that you have witnessed and what has been the effect of this?
Well I guess the spread of the Chytrid fungus is up there. Yes, it was about when I was a conservation underling but to me it has only recently shown its true strength. It is now a globally distributed pathogen and the effects are catastrophic. Population crashes and extinctions are rife as a result. Huge amounts of work is being done to stop what is a very hard beast to stop! There are success stories but there are more stories of destruction and there may be more on the horizon. There is now a new strain which is salamander specific.
- What would you say is your most rewarding moment?
I actually haven’t really had any. Well not one that I sit down and look back on specifically and say “yup, that’s why it’s all worthwhile”. For me I don’t think those moments exist. Well not as we think they do, as a clear-cut Hollywood movie moment, its less obvious than that. I think gun to my head, the time I was most proud of myself was when I got my first ever paper published. It was hard work and when it finally came good and got printed I was so relieved. It was brilliant to see the final PDF and my name up in lights on the Journal website.
- Tell me about your worst experience and how you overcame/dealt with it
When I was working on the Dominica Mountain Chicken Frog project in 2016 we were supposed to be treating the captive population of frogs for chytrid fungus. Which involves leaving them in a bag for a few minutes and coating them with treatment liquid. I was let down by a colleague and ended up having to do it alone. I got flustered and forgot about one of the frogs and left him overnight. Needless to say, he was dead the next morning, I was absolutely heartbroken! I had killed the one of the big breeding males for a captive breeding population of a Critically endangered frog species. There was only me to blame! The guys managing the project back home were really supportive, and told me about similar things that had happened to them. After that I consolidated myself and vowed never to take my eye off the ball again in situations like that and I then re-doubled my efforts towards the project. It really made me think, it was a horrible but valuable lesson.
- What do you miss most about home whilst you are away and what can’t you live without?
Easy one. The family dog And Yorkshire tea, other than that very little! Lots of people miss wifi and stuff but I actually love being away from it.
- Do you have any pets of any kind?
Well not really, I travel too much. I have a Leopard Gecko called Ramprakash (The cricket fans out there will know that one) I have had him for 7 years and he must be getting nearly a decade in age. I have had other reptiles but they either died or escaped. I keep things simple now. Most of the time he is actually at my parents’ house because I am always moving around. It’s not set to change now I am in London.
- Where is your favourite place that you have visited?
Thailand, I spent 3 months there on a lake called “Chiew Larn” and it was bloody fantastic! The wildlife, the people, the food, the culture everything. I was way out in the sticks miles from the god-awful backpacker route. Just me a few scientists, small villages and the jungle. I loved the whole vibe and living out of hammocks in the jungle for most of the 3 months was great. All my best stories are from there. All my best animal encounters are from there. I would go back in a heartbeat!
- Do you feel that enough funding is available for conservation research and that there is enough awareness outside of the community?
It needs to be ramped up tenfold on both accounts. Funding in any science is lacking and conservation can be very expensive sometimes. You can always have and you always need more funding. It is great how much you can get from the public though, but I think larger bodies should care more. Look at how much footballers are paid for example? They get the entire amount of money I get in my 4 year PhD in like 2 months or less. As for awareness, there can always be more of that. Even people who actively claim to be animal lovers or passionate about wildlife are utterly clueless about certain aspects of the environment. You ask anyone outside of conservation about how bad prawn farming is, they are likely to have no idea what you are on about. Yet it is a horrible, horrible business destroying the environment in SE Asia and elsewhere.
- What tips would you give to somebody who was interested in getting involved with these types of projects?
Be careful where you go! For god’s sake, don’t end up at one of these “bunny hugging” ranches where you go and help stroke Lions who have been take from Zoos etc. Yeah, its better than having the animal shot or put down but spending your time doing the grunt work at a sanctuary where the animals are there until they die or have no place in the wild, does absolutely nothing for your CV and it’s not really conservation. If you want to make it in conservation you want a strong science element or something that makes a difference to the species or environment as a whole. Or something involving the education of local people about environmental issues, that always needs to be done. But still be warned. I worked on a project once that was about as far from the advertisement as possible, it was miserable and the science was pointless yet from the outside it looked fantastic. You have to be very careful and weigh up everything before you commit.
- Is there an ideal type of person, in terms of age, qualifications, fitness etc., which makes the best volunteer?
Yes you have to be physically fit because there is a lot of outdoor labour, but really everything else doesn’t matter. I have met people with fantastic grades who are terrible to work with and vice versa. What you need to be is resilient. If you are the sort of person who gets upset at a little seal cub dying on a BBC documentary, conservation and associate voluntary work is probably not for you. It can be a very dark and depressing line of work and you need to be able to come back to work the next day, every day, ready. You have to be able to deal with the tough conditions of the fieldwork, being away from home and even working against or even with some pretty rough characters. If you can keep your forward momentum regardless of what happens around you then you should be OK. Resilience, common decency and a stiff upper lip and you’ll go far in conservation.
- Where/what’s next?
I have just started a PhD on the NERC London Doctoral Training Programme, so I am currently planning a project working out on the Panama Canal and the surrounding forest. Where I will be looking at the adaptation and evolutionary ecology of reptiles on different islands. Hopefully I can split my time equally between Panama and London but we shall see. PhD life is very complicated. I graduate from that in 2020 and all bets are off after that.
- Some of these expeditions last several weeks; what’s your most annoying habit?
You might have to ask someone else about that, I’m not really aware of any bad habits I have on expedition. Maybe that in itself is one? I can be slow at packing all my gear away I remember getting told off by an ex-girlfriend I was on expedition with for taking far too long. But in my defense, I had over slept on those occasions and was running late so it might have seemed I was taking longer.
- If you could implement one change that would improve our planet, what would that be?
I would make everyone fully conscious of their impact on the planet. Every bottle they used, every can of tuna they ate, every chemical they poured down the sick. They would see just how bad it is. I think a lot of people genuinely want to help the environment, they just don’t see how and they don’t see the damage they do. Everyone is just so wrapped up in their own lives or themselves. Even I would like to be more aware. I actually had products with microbeads in and was completely ignorant of the damage they do. For shame! I think if everyone saw what was really happening to the planet and how they were the cause. Things would change, very very fast!