James Borrell kindly took time out of his busy schedule and let The Learned Lizard pick his brains.
We are confident you will find the article both interesting and inspiring and importantly you can feel the passion through his answers.
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- Tell me about how you first got interested in conservation?
I’ve been interested in the natural world for as long as i can remember, but then I think we all have that fascination as children – some folks just get sidetracked along the way. It was really galvanised in Madagascar at age 17, there seemed to be so much that needed doing, so urgently, but none seemed to know how or where to start. I didn’t have any answers either of course, I was just 17, but I thought it was worth working towards anyway.
- Do you have something specific, a lifetime ambition perhaps, that you would like to achieve?
I’d like to see biodiversity loss reversed in my lifetime. I guess that’s super ambitious – and I’m not saying I’ll necessarily have much of a role to play in it. I simply think that hey, if I live another 50 years, which I hope to, then that’s long enough for us to get our act together, don’t you think? If we keep losing biodiversity at the current rate, as an old man there won’t be much left to see.
- 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?
The reduction of deforestation in South America, and to some degree Southern Africa has been fairly spectacular. South East Asia seems to be lagging behind. Twenty years ago, I think people couldn’t have imagined this level of progress in the Amazon – we need to remember to celebrate successes, too.
- What would you say is your most rewarding moment?
Leading my own expedition to Northern Madagascar was tough, but rewarding in hindsight. It’s difficult, really, to ever sit back and feel any level of accomplishment, as there’s always the next hurdle or challenge.
- Tell me about your worst experience and how you overcame/dealt with it
Ah I’ve been lost in deserts, nearly sunk a Landrover and had deadfall come down in camp. After a few bad things have happened, I just try to remember that in all cases, a few hours, days, or weeks later you can look back and smile. Everything works out in the end.
- What do you miss most about home whilst you are away and what can’t you live without?
I like cooking, and so I miss a well stocked kitchen. Certainly on expeditions that I’ve been involved with, food plays a big part in keeping up morale. It’s not simply a question of having enough, or having the right nutrition – there’s something important about doing something a little extra and having that tiny touch of luxury. When conditions are really bad and you’re just on rice and beans, that’s when everyone starts to suffer.
- Do you have any pets of any kind?
I keep tropical fish, and I’m pretty keen on trying to recreate biotope habitats for them. I used to have a marine reef, and I’d love to support captive breeding of several species in the future. I’d definitely keep more pets (and would love a Lord Howe Island stick insect), but it doesn’t mix well with going away on fieldwork for the moment.
- Where is your favourite place that you have visited?
The Rub’ al Khali. It’s not exactly brimming with life, but it is the most captivating and impressive landscape I’ve ever witnessed. The desert really does cast a spell.
- Do you feel that enough funding is available for conservation research and that there is enough awareness outside of the community?
Of course not, conservation funding is minuscule compared to other sectors. We should of course be more ambitious, but it’s tough. Because we all talk to each other, it’s easy to forget that most people couldn’t care less about conservation, let alone really know what it is.
- What tips would you give to somebody who was interested in getting involved in these types of projects?
Start. Don’t make excuses or wait for the right time, or blame a lack of money. There is always a way. If you’re not sure what you want to do, then just do something – see if you like it? If you don’t, chalk it up as experience and move on to the next thing.
- Is there an ideal type of person, in terms of age, qualifications, fitness etc., which makes the best volunteer?
No, the one attribute I look for is enthusiasm.
- Where/what’s next?
I’m writing this from Johannesburg, at the start of a six month trip in search of conservation success stories.
- Some of these expeditions last several weeks; what’s your most annoying habit?
I know that I get grumpy when I’m tired or hungry. That probably doesn’t sound surprising, but knowing how you behave and when you’re probably acting unreasonably is important to make sure you don’t fall out with your team. Any problem or disagreement always looks a little more manageable after a cup of tea.
- If you could implement one change that would improve our planet, what would that be?
I don’t think so much that there is one big fix to our conservation problems. Perhaps we’re most likely to rise to the challenge through many small incremental changes. That being said, if nuclear fusion could be made to work, that might help – but of course it could lead to unforeseen problems too.