The Bare Bones of Conservation with Ben Garrod

Ben Garrod is an evolutionary biologist with a huge interest in primatology and bones!  He has presented his first 6 part television series ‘Secret of Bones’ on BBC4, and has around 6 months left before he finishes his PhD in primate evolutionary biology at University College London.  He is also a part-time lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, helping teach modules such as Communications for Conservation and mammalogy.

Ben has a special interest in bones.

Ben has a special interest in bones.

How did you become involved in conservation? 

“I was studying A levels in biology, chemistry and physics and wanted to go into pathology, but after a while of doing some volunteering and getting involved in the process I actually hated it and went home to my Mum and told her I didn’t know what to do.  She said ‘Do something you love, so what do you love?’ I told her I didn’t know but she kept telling me I did and I eventually said ‘animals’, she said go out there and study and do something with animals.’

I attended Anglia Ruskin University where I graduated with a BSc in Animal Behaviour in 2005.  I became really interested in primatology, especially chimps.  I wanted to be the next Diana Fossey or Dr. Jane Goodall.  I wanted to get out there and be in the field, doing real conservation work.”

Ben worked for the Jane Goodall institute in Uganda with chimpanzees, then worked as a scientific liaison officer in Sumatra with the Sumatran Orangutan Society.  He then went on to do my MSc in Wild Animal Biology  at the Royal Veterinary College.  “To help pay for this I started my own business in articulating bones.  My interest in bones started as a child, and became more applied in Africa where I was able to identify species from skeletal remains and start articulating them.  I find bones a useful way of looking at the biology, evolution and conservation of animals.”

What is the best thing about what you do? 

“The passion.  After deciding to not be a pathologist, I wanted to do something that I love and it not be boring.  I want to be able to get up each morning and say ‘yes, I love my job and I’m happy to go to work’.  I may not get a lot of money, there may be down days but I love it and I believe it’s really important to love what you do.  You work for a long time, so why be in something you don’t like for your whole life.”

And the worst thing? 

“As clichéd as it may sound, the passion is also the worst thing.  Working in conservation is not a 9 to 5 job; you never really turn off.  I have a notebook by the side of my bed so that if I wake up with a good idea or something I want to do I make a note of it.  There are times I’d love to switch off, but in reality that never actually happens, there is always something else to get involved in.  There are also times when working in conservation is hard, when another animal dies or someone you know dies in conservation.  But it’s about trying to do the little bits you can and realising you can’t help everything.  I think it was Oscar Schindler that said ‘he who saves one life saves the world entire’.”

What are your main activities? 

“At the moment I am trying to do a full time PhD, be a full time television presenter, a part-time lecturer at Anglia Ruskin, and a part-time human!”

What are you most proud of in your work in conservation? 

“I was part of the team to dart and de-snare a chimp in Uganda in 2005.  This was the first ever successful attempt in the world.  It was the first time ever I had done anything remotely veterinarian such as administering things like ketamine and checking on the chimps health. It was macroscale conservation, but we saved one female 9 year old chimp named Kiiza that went on to live out her life.  It was the start of a process that has been repeated over and over successfully and it’s so important as 50% of chimps have things like a hand missing from these snares.”

Picture of Ben and the team rescuing Kiiza in 2005. Photo courtesy of Ben Garrod.

Picture of Ben and the team rescuing Kiiza in 2005. Photo courtesy of Ben Garrod.

What has been the most bizarre moments of your career to date? 

“Whilst in Madagascar I went to a voodoo exorcism and a circumcision party where the foreskin was fired into the ocean by a very old shotgun as the people there feel any body part has to be deposited into the sea before someone dies.”

What advice would you offer would be conservationists? 

“You will never have a career; it’s a life in conservation. You really never do switch off and it becomes very consuming.  You have to get down and dirty, and be prepared to see things you might not like such as animals dying or even people, dealing with corruption in governments and hearing about another animal victim of the bush-meat trade.   It is the most frustrating but most rewarding career ever.”

Ben stated that he would “tell people to get as much experience as you can. Get the licenses such as bat handling, newt handling and know what you need to do and prepare.  There will be thousands of people that employers will come across with the same qualifications, it’s up to you to make yourself stand out from the rest.  Get yourself known, people are far more likely to hire someone they have heard of and about than someone in obscurity.  Network as much as you can.”

Your television show broke the mold with its choice of music, did you have a say in it?   Also what would be your song of choice in conservation? 

Ben didn’t choose the music but had a say. “There were some very talented people that came up with the music which was edgy and appropriate.  My favourite song would be Louis Armstong’s ‘What a wonderful world’ as it really fits in the field and where ever I am working.”

Finally, who do you aspire to be like?

“No one.  I’m not trying to sound arrogant.  I just don’t want to be like anyone else.  I want to be me.  I’ve met some of the people I look up to like Dr. Jane Goodall and they are wonderful, and unique, and we are all so beautifully different.  We should all aim to be just ourselves.”

Many thanks to Ben Garrod, for giving up his time to do this interview for Conservation Careers!

About the author


This post was written by Conservation Careers Blogger Keri Russell. Keri is a animal and plant enthusiast with lots of interesting pets and a passion for being outside as much as she can! She is currently a student at Anglia Ruskin University, studying a MSc in Applied Wildlife Conservation. Her undergraduate was in Ecology & Conservation, and her main interests are ecology and conservation biology, phylogenetics and biogeography.

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