Conservation Field Scientist | Ashley Vosper

Ashley Vosper is an experienced conservation field scientist who uses his skills to increase our knowledge and understanding of the distribution of species, how many there are and what threats they face. He then creates action plans that can help protect them. He has worked extensively in the Congo, as well as Afghanistan, and is currently employed as a consultant for Chester Zoo.

What are some of the key steps you’ve taken in your conservation career to be a Conservation Field Scientist?

“Doing a masters at Oxford Brookes University in Primate conservation and then taking the opportunity to come out to central Africa for the very first time when nobody else wanted to and being able to carry on working out here for nearly 15 years.”

Is there something that draws you to seemingly dangerous and unstable places?

“Somebody else asked me that once.”

Only once?

“No, it just seemed to happen. Congo was the first place I went to properly to work and jobs carried on from there. Once you get to know a country and its people, learn how the lay of the land is, at least a little bit, then people start wanting to use that knowledge and experience. With me I think maybe people began assuming I could work in those rather difficult countries so I probably got a bit pigeon holed after a while. I never would have thought of going to Afghanistan but I wanted to work out of Africa and I read about the Afghanistan snow leopard project at the time and it sort of all came together. Perhaps there’s a little bit of excitement sometimes when thinking of working in more dangerous countries, although, not so much now to be honest.”

“I’ve never actually felt threatened in Congo or DRC. Which is interesting, despite all the problems, despite having to sit down and discuss situations with rebels and other crazy times, I’ve never felt that threatened there. Afghanistan was different.”

What perception did those at home have of your work in Afghanistan and what was the reality?

“They didn’t like me doing it, none of them did. My wife was worried all the time, same as the rest of my family, understandably unfortunately. But it was interesting. Very different sort of work to Africa. I was up in the mountains of the Wakhan corridor, god it’s so beautiful there. This huge massive mountain, something like 5000 meters high, luckily no Taliban or anybody like that but they weren’t that far away – 30, 40km down the road… a bit too close for comfort.”

“It seemed to me there was no negotiating with the small percentage of the population that hated us. So, if something goes wrong you’re dead, or at least you’re in an incredibly dangerous situation very very quickly. Whereas I always felt in Congo there were ways to negotiate, ways to pay bribes and things like that. Now I never had to get into those situations myself luckily.”

Good save.

“But I felt confident that you could get your way out of trouble. In Afghanistan there’s no way. So, it’s a difficult country to work in.”

Have you ever had moments in your career where you’ve considered giving it up and doing something else, if so, what were the circumstances and what kept you going?

“Uhhhh… no. Short answer.”

“I don’t think of giving up conservation because something bad has happened or things have gone wrong. Its more a case of I’ll run out of steam one day and not physically be able to go into the forest anymore. What I’ll do otherwise I have absolutely no idea, probably something completely stupid like work in a coffee shop. I mean what do you do after you’ve spent 15 years walking around forests in Africa? You’re not going to go and work in an office, it’s not going to happen. I just want to carry on doing this and hope I’m making a difference.”

I’m sure Ashley means no offence to the budding conservationists currently working in coffee shops, or to the barista profession in general. 

Where do you see the battle for biodiversity being decided?

“Probably in the wrong places – big business and governments. Which really are the two worst places to decide it.”

I’m sure Ashley means no offence to… oh whatever.

“Unfortunately, we only ever look at natural resources as a monetary thing. How much are they worth? Whether it’s for mining, oil, logging, whatever and there’s always more money in chopping trees down than keeping them standing. You can’t add up the value of having a tree standing somewhere for the next 500 years. So, we have to find another way of doing things if we want to keep biodiversity. If people don’t mind living in a world with just humans and I don’t know, cows, then I guess that’s up to them. I think that’s sad and totally selfish of us but most people in the west don’t even care and we’re the people with all the privileges in the world… Complicated is the future of conservation, very very complicated… The successes will come from grassroots organisations”

Is there any specific knowledge or skill needed for a role such as a Conservation Field Scientist that you wish you had when you were starting out?

“It would have been nice to be better at stats, I knew a little when I started but it would have been better if I knew more, you need statistics for everything when you’re doing science. Mapping too, I had to teach myself mapping, how to use QGIS and ArcGIS, that would have been useful to have beforehand but statistics in particular. And perhaps a better understanding of certain realities on the ground.”

Now where would be the fun in that?

Do you have any other advice for someone looking to follow in your footsteps as a Conservation Field Scientist?

“Learn better French than mine… No, don’t give up. It may be boring and cliché but just don’t give up, keep pursuing it, keep going for it. And take those risks, you’ve got to sometimes take jobs you don’t particularly like if you feel you can use them to get into an area that you want to be in. You have to take risks at times. And just give it everything gosh, you only live once as far as I know”

Myself and Conservation Careers accept no responsibility for the risks taken as a result of this article. Unless of course it works out, in which case we take full credit.

By Patrick Pester BSc, PGDip.

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