Conservation in Academia: An Interview with Ben Phalan

Ben Phalan is currently a post-doctoral researcher in Conservation Science within the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. He researches how to balance agricultural demands with the preservation of biodiversity, specifically birds, as well as looking at the trade-offs between conservation and development.

Be Phalan


What is your job title?

I am a post-doc in conservation biology. More formally, I am a research associate in the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge and a Junior Research Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge.

Why do you work in conservation?

I am crazy about biodiversity; I have been since a very young age. I can’t remember a time when I was not fascinated by insects, frogs, small mammals, and most of all – birds. I was captivated by the beauty of wild species and wanted to know more about them. I realised gradually that there were some really big threats to wildlife and I wanted to do something about it. My love of wildlife led to a concern for the issues that nature faces, like habitat loss, and wanting to contribute and help in these situations. That is how I got into conservation.

What were the key steps in your conservation career?

I have been watching birds since I could read and write, and my mum encouraged me a lot. Growing up in the countryside in Ireland, I was able to wander off into nearby woods, find creatures and bring them home in jam jars!

A little bit later, I got involved with Birdwatch Ireland which organised birdwatching walks. I started taking part in citizen science surveys, including bird surveys and the National Butterfly Survey. The first break I got was getting a job as a seasonal conservation fieldworker with Birdwatch Ireland.

I spent three months wardening a little tern colony on the East Coast of Ireland. This involved living in a caravan next to the beach and monitoring and protection of the colony, which was beleaguered by all sorts of predators. Little terns and their eggs tend to get eaten by more or less everything; kestrels, sparrowhawks, hedgehogs, foxes…

They are also threatened because on unprotected beaches they get disturbed by dogs and walkers and their nests get trampled. Being a fieldworker there meant getting involved with public education and interacting with people, monitoring nesting success and doing hands-on conservation work like putting up electric fences around the colony and staying up all night to chase away foxes that were trying to break in. I did that for a few summers.

After that, I spent a year in Ireland doing consultancy work; bird surveys for environmental impact assessments. That was great! It included some offshore surveys for windfarms – doing transects on a boat for seabirds and cetaceans. These were all short term positions.

My first longer term position was as a field assistant with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) working on South Georgia on albatrosses and other seabirds. This involved doing satellite tracking, bird ringing, monitoring breeding success from year to year and keeping a database of individual albatrosses. That was a really important experience in terms of giving me lots of skills; fieldwork design, data collection, databases and an introduction to publishing – I helped write some of the papers on the work we were doing.

What are the main activities in your job now?

Day to day I work on analyses using GIS (Geographic Information Systems). At the moment I am working on a project which is mapping the distribution of certified crops. This means monitoring schemes like Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance, where those schemes are located in the world and how that overlaps with areas that are important for biodiversity. So we monitor to what extent these schemes are contributing to protecting biodiversity and the environment.

What is the best part of working in conservation?

Feeling that I am making a difference is really what motivates me the most. There are times when it’s frustrating because the problems seem so big and it is difficult to make an impact, but when you feel that you are contributing information that is helping to shape decisions and to improve the prospects for biodiversity is a satisfying thing. So I guess the best part is feeling I’m making a difference, and the worst part is worrying that I’m not!

What advice would you give an aspiring conservationist?

Pursue what you’re really interested in and what really excites you. If you’re working on something which you think is important, but you’re not very excited about it – then you aren’t going to be motivated, make as much progress or do as good a job. I think working on something that excites you, whether it is an issue, a place, or a group of people, is the most important thing.

What is the most memorable experience that working in conservation has given you?

I have been doing some fieldwork in Liberia in the past couple of years and had some amazing experiences out there. We heard chimps in the wild, hooting and shrieking and thumping the buttresses of trees. You feel a chill go down your spine when you hear them so close. I have a lot of memories from fieldwork in tropical forests. Seeing the African giant swallowtail – the largest butterfly in Africa – float over the treetops was amazing.

What is your favourite animal?

It is very hard to pick just one, and it has changed over the years, but I would have to go for the Wandering Albatross. I spent a couple of years working with wandering albatrosses on Bird Island in the South Atlantic. Each bird is an individual, they have individual plumage patterns and they are very long-lived – I was working with birds twice my age. They have their own personalities, some are shy and jumpy, some are calm, some are aggressive. Mostly, they are gentle giants, and I felt really privileged to work with them.

About the author

KetKeturah Smithson studied a BSc in Zoology at the University of Leicester. A love of animals, nature and being in amongst it all inspired her to aim for a career in Conservation Science. She is currently a Research Assistant in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, and is looking forward to travelling the world, seeing all kinds of ecosystems and aiding in the field of conservation science.

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