Most of the big animal species are highly threatened – elephants, rhinos, tigers – and it is wrong to allow them slip to the brink of extinction due to factors we can prevent. I work in tropical conservation ecology and lead a project called the ‘Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants’ (MEME). Essentially, we study elephants: their movement, their diet, how they impact ecosystems, and their interactions with people. The main aim of MEME is to bring an evidence-based approach to the conservation of wildlife. By conserving elephants – which have an important role in their habitat – we hope to be able to preserve primary rainforests and many other ecosystems.
The MEME project was originally very technologically-driven. We have been using GPS-satellite telemetry collars to tag and track elephants and then record where they are at any given time, and drones to map their habitats. We have also undertaken molecular work; for example, extracting hormones from elephant dung to understand their physical condition or using DNA to identify the seeds dispersed by elephants. But our work has increasingly leaned towards more social aspects of conservation. For example, we study how elephants affect communities by eating their crops, and how we can mitigate this conflict. Another research strand is investigating the working conditions for wildlife conservation authorities and what constraints hamper their ability to do their jobs. The conservation problems we address are fairly common, especially in tropical countries. Hence, our work is relevant for people trying to conserve wildlife in other parts of the world.
What we do has to be meaningful in the real world; I try to remind myself of that regularly.
What’s the biggest challenge that you face in your field?
Tropical ecosystems are massively threatened by human pressures. The main challenge that I see in my field is to make sure that our research genuinely makes an impact. It’s not difficult to develop research questions, collect data or publish a paper, and in an academic environment that’s fine, but what we do has to be meaningful in the real world; I try to remind myself of that regularly.
In the 21st century humankind is going to have to decide: do we do the right thing, or let go?
I am convinced that we are living in one of the most important times in history. In the 21st century humankind is going to have to decide: do we do the right thing, or let go? We are facing real threats such as climate change and loss of biodiversity and are reaching the point of no return. My future challenges are not so much technological as they are social. I think the most pressing area of our research will centre on people’s complex mindsets. We need to find approaches that really engage people to live more sustainable lifestyles. Science alone will not solve the problems we are tackling.
When I originally came to the University of Nottingham Malaysia I was trying to understand animal movement and behaviour – very basic things. Nowadays we have scaled up to include technological components, social science, governance and psychology. As we don’t have in-house expertise in all those areas, we have built up extensive external partnerships. We collaborate with the Smithsonian Institution in the US, Chester Zoo in the UK and lots of NGOs and local universities. Our papers include a wide range of collaborators. It’s a good network; I really enjoy it.
Having the opportunity to work in Malaysia is one of the most exciting things to have happened to me professionally; I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Conservation of biodiversity and capacity-building are two things that really matter here. Being part of the University also puts me in a very good position. It’s a small, friendly campus which encourages me to collaborate with colleagues outside my discipline. I also have a lot of support from senior management; the MEME project is a flagship study at the University. It is an excellent place to work.
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