This month’s blog theme is wildlife conservation heroes, so I’ve put together a list of some of the people I consider to be heroes. I’ve decided to focus on ones that are operating on a large scale for this list, rather than local people, simply because it will have more relevance to a wider audience. I’ve tried my best to keep it short and sweet but even doing that has meant spreading it out over two posts! Please do click on any links or watch videos, these are some of the most interesting and inspiring people working in wildlife conservation (in my opinion!).
So, in no particular order, here are the first 5 of my top 10 wildlife conservation heroes:
1. Jane Goodall
In 1960, aged 26, Jane Goodall set off to the Gombe in Tanzania to begin her research into chimpanzees. She had little scientific experience, but her observations of behaviour and family dynamics have been hugely influential. It not only changed our view of chimpanzees – we previously thought tool-use was something that made humans different from our ape cousins, but Goodall witnessed chimps using sticks to get termites out of the ground – but also our view of scientific studies, that wild animals need to be studied in the wild not in zoos, and over long periods of time.
But her contribution to conservation science in no way ended when she left Gombe. In Jane Goodall’s Desert Island Discs she speaks of a slow realisation that the world was in trouble, that rainforests were being destroyed and that species were on the brink. She realised that it was her ‘duty’ to speak out for these animals, and so she formed the global charity the Jane Goodall Institute, which works on behalf of chimps and wildlife conservation, and her Roots & Shoots programme which encourages young people to get involved with conservation and care about their world. Aged 81, she is still campaigning, speaking, working and inspiring.
2. Gerald Durrell
I’m doing a whole post on Gerald Durrell next week before my trip to Jersey, so I’ll keep this short and sweet. Durrell was born in India, had a brief stay in England before his family moved to Corfu for a magical childhood full of sun and animals, as featured in his book ‘My Family and Other Animals’.
On returning to England, he worked for Whipsnade Zoo for a while before setting off on various trips around the world to collect animals for private collectors and zoos, obviously something very much frowned upon today. It was during his travels that he realised animals were declining and needed help, and thats what kick-started him into setting up Jersey Zoo in 1959, later to become the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Durrell’s zoo was to be different to most other zoos though – rather than being for entertainment, his zoo was to be a sanctuary for animals, a “reservoir for endangered species” as he described it. The zoo became known for its large enclosures, healthy animals and strong breeding programme, with Durrell focusing on animals that were critically endangered and needed conservation help, rather than whether they brought the crowds through the gate. During the 1980s, they started to release animals bred in captivity back into the wild (a life-long dream for Durrell) as well as setting up the Durrell Conservation Academy as a way of sharing knowledge and skills with conservation workers all over the world, particularly those from countries such as Madagascar and Mauritius where Durrell does a lot of its Field Programmes. The Durrell legacy (he died in 1995) in the conservation world has been massive, they’ve literally brought animals back from the brink of extinction – but more on that to come in my next blog post, pre-trip to Jersey!
3. George Monbiot
George Monbiot is a passionate journalist and activist. He has many interesting stories, including being pronounced clinically dead in Kenya, being shipwrecked and being sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in Indonesia, but today he is in the public eye primarily for his support of the idea of ‘rewilding’. His book Feral (2013) caused quite a storm and encouraged a new style of conservation thinking – rather than trying to preserve habitats, worry about what state to restore ecosystems to or actively managing habitats, rewilding suggests we should just stop – stop managing, put all the elements of the ecosystem back in place (at a minimum by planting more trees, the highest goal is to bring back the top predators such as wolves and lynx, and ecosystem engineers like beavers) and just give nature the space to get on with what it does best. The problem of course is space, and a lot of the opposition to rewilding is from land owners and farmers whose way of life or income rely on managing the land, and these groups tend to be the main objectors to Monbiot. I won’t say any more on this wildlife hero for now (theres a whole month coming up on the topic of rewilding!), but I can’t say his name without sharing this video he narrates. It shows you the incredible impact of rewilding – it completely blows my mind and makes me feel really quite emotional.
Last year he set up Rewilding Britain, an organisation to help and support groups, charities and policy-making around the idea of rewilding. He isn’t scared to talk out and has very strong opinions – this no-nonsense approach seems to have ruffled a lot of feathers, as though people seem to be of the opinion that conservationists should be quiet, geeky scientists who are too nervous to speak up. Monbiot is showing that conservation can have a loud voice and that people will listen, whether everyone agrees with him or not. He has a great weekly column in the Guardian on a range of environment issues, all of which (and more) can be read on his website. Last year he was in a great thought-provoking BBC programme with Chris Packham (coming up later) and artist Jeremy Deller discussing TV, art, politics and nature. Unfortunately its not currently on iplayer, but worth a watch if it comes up again.
4. Georgina Mace
I’ll be honest and say I’d never heard of Georgina Mace until I started thinking about my top conservation heroes. But when I discovered she had led the development of the criteria for the Red List of Endangered Species for the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a huge organisation bringing together research, governments and conservation NGOs) during her time working with the Institute of Zoology in London, I realised I needed to know more about her. Established in 1964, the Red List has became the largest source of data on the global conservation status of animals and plant species. Prior to Mace’s involvement from 2000, the list was created from experts in the field recommending that certain animals or plants be added. Under Mace’s direction, the criteria for adding animals was based on data, making the system much more robust. The data is used by policy-makers and governments, as well as NGOs and charities to help focus conservation efforts on certain areas or species. The Red List has nine groups into which animals and plants are placed according to thing such as geographic distribution, population numbers, and rates of population decline:
Extinct (EX) – No known individuals remaining
Extinct in the wild (EW) – Known only to survive in captivity
Critically endangered (CR) – Extremely high risk of extinction in the wild
Endangered (EN) – High risk of extinction in the wild
Vulnerable (VU) – High risk of endangerment in the wild
Near threatened (NT) – Likely to become endangered in near future
Least concern (LC) – Lowest risk
Data deficient (DD) – Not enough data to make an assessment
Not evaluated (NE) – Has not yet been evaluated against the criteria.
The IUCN Red List has been hugely influential in species conservation (and in turn, ecosystem conservation) and is an invaluable source of data.
5. Charles Rothschild
Going back in time a bit for this conservation hero, Charles Rothschild lived from 1877 – 1923 in England. He worked at the family bank (the Rothschilds were a hugely rich and influential family) his entire life, but both he and his brother Walter were avid naturalists. Walter studied Zoology and went on to amass the largest natural history collection ever created by a private individual – at its biggest it included 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds’ eggs, 2,250,000 butterflies, and 30,000 beetles, plus thousands of mammal, reptile and fish specimens, which he held in his museum. After his death in 1937, the museum became part of the British Museum, now the Natural History Museum, and can be visited in Tring, Buckinghamshire (Tring natural history museum is amazing, you should go, click the link to see a really old blog post I wrote about a visit there). But it was Walter’s brother Charles who was the conservation pioneer, creating what is considered to be the first ever nature reserve in 1899 when he bought Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. He ensured his estate at Ashton Wold (Northamptonshire) was a paradise for wildlife, especially butterflies. In 1912 he set up the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (later to become the Wildlife Trusts partnership, as we know it today) to create a list of England’s best wildlife sites in order to buy and protect them – these became known as the Rothschild Reserves and totalled 285 by 1815. It was the SPNR that led to the growth of the independent Wildlife Trusts we have today, and all the wildlife reserves that come with them.
So theres my first 5 heroes! The second part of my top wildlife conservation heroes can be read here.