The ups and downs of conservation

Published: 30 May 2016

The ups and downs of conservation

The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, which runs Paignton Zoo, Living Coasts in Torquay and Newquay Zoo in Cornwall, also supports conservation projects in countries including Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Nigeria and Indonesia. Staff and students regularly trek to distant parts of the world to carry out scientific research or to catch up on how conservation work is progressing.

Fieldwork can be hard work. It can also be frustrating, exhilarating, sublime or downright dull. Here, a number of staff and volunteers from the Trust share their best – and worst - fieldwork moments.

Dr Amy Plowman, Director of Conservation, Research and Advocacy for the Trust, has many years of experience working in the field. One of her areas of expertise is the Aders’ duiker, a Critically Endangered antelope found in Kenya and Zanzibar.

“My favourite fieldwork moment was without doubt seeing an Aders’ duiker in the wild for the first time after six years of working on their conservation – even though it was just a glimpse for a second as it ran across a track in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest in Kenya.

“Another has to be horse riding in the Matopos National Park in Zimbabwe. We were investigating whether it would be a useful way to monitor animals as they don’t tend to respond to the presence of a horse whereas a person on foot or in a vehicle tends to raise some alarm.

“It was brilliant for being able to get really close to rhino, sable antelope, zebra, giraffe and other wildlife without them paying any attention. It was a wonderful ride!”

For UK Conservation Officer Tracey Hamston it’s very simple. “My best moment in the field so far has to be the time I held an osprey chick! It was in 2012 when the BIAZA Native Species Working Group was in Scotland for a conference. During the week we did some fieldwork - and I got to help ring osprey chicks!”

Zoo Research Officer Dr Holly Farmer seems to have had a rather harder time of it. “I was tracking howler monkeys in the Argentinian rainforest – the very first time I caught up with them, they urinated on me from the top of a pine tree…

“I went to Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam to visit the pangolins at the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program, which we support through Newquay Zoo. They opened one of the doors to show us a pangolin up close and it sneezed on me!”

The Trust’s Director of Living Collections Stewart Muir has also suffered in Vietnam. “During the course of my various trips to Vietnam there was the hotel that I stayed in which flooded up to the second floor, the one where they killed a pig outside my window and the one that they booked me into which was actually being demolished but was still open…”

Wayne Edwards, who is studying golden mantella frogs for his PhD, recalls: “In 2007 I went to Kenya on behalf of the Zoo for three months of fieldwork. One evening I was sat outside my hut after a long hard day in the field, beer in hand as the sun went down. Across the lake two bull elephants came out of the forest and started wrestling backwards and forwards along the bank. That was pretty special!”

The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Overseas Conservation Officer Andrew Bowkett seems to be spoilt for choice when it comes to both ups and downs... “One magical moment was viewing a solar eclipse from the top of a kopje in Zimbabwe after a morning ear-tagging black rhinos. I've seen all four species of giant elephant-shrew in the wild, plus an un-described species in Kenya.

“I’ve encountered leopard, buffalo, rhino, elephant, black mamba and king cobra whilst on foot… And I’ve had safari ants coming through camp at night, eating everything and biting everyone!”

The Trust’s conservation work around the world is supported by the money visitors pay at the gate and spend in the zoos. So the next time you buy lunch at Paignton Zoo or coffee and cake at Living Coasts, spare a thought for the people who are out there at the sharp end.

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