Dr Charlie Gardner - Conservation Scientist

Dr Charlie Gardner | Conservation Scientist

Interdisciplinary conservation scientist Dr Charlie Gardner holds a portfolio type career. With much of his work focussed on Madagascar, he has held various roles from Field Biologist to Consultant and Scientific Advisor for organisations such as WWF and has also been increasingly involved in communicating conservation as a Researcher and Guide for the BBC, Specialist Guide, Lecturer and Author – Life Amongst the Thorns.

Can you describe some of the key stages in your conservation career?

“I started off with a focus on endangered species recovery programmes and my first experience was in Mauritius on the pink pigeon programme for 9 months. Then I did a Bachelors in zoology, both because there weren’t really undergraduate courses in conservation at the time and I wanted to get a broader scientific background. I was also very much a traditional species or biology focused conservationist. After that I did some volunteering in Kenya doing bird surveys followed by long term residential volunteering with the RSPB. One of the things I’m sure comes up time and time again in all your interviews is the importance of getting experience.”


“Organisations like the RSPB are absolutely brilliant for helping you get that early experience. After that I did a few UK based contracts which were paid but all short term seasonal things and completed a Masters at the University of Kent. In 2005 I got a job in Madagascar working for a gap year voluntourism type organisation. One that takes paying volunteers, either to do dive-based surveying or forest surveying.”

Although saving biodiversity is the objective, most meaningful conservation is about working with people not wildlife

Although saving biodiversity is the objective, most meaningful conservation is about working with people not wildlife. (Louise Jasper louisejasper.zenfolio.com)

As a Conservation Scientist, what do you think of paid volunteer work?

“There’s a whole spectrum of organisations within the sector. At the really good end there are organisations that do important conservation work or research and they have paid volunteers as a way to finance that work. At the really bad end of the spectrum there are glorified travel agents pretending to do conservation as a way to market holidays.”

“As a rule of thumb, I’d say if you’re paying for a volunteering position then the primary thing you are contributing to that organisation is your money. Whereas if you already have some experience, or a degree, then you should be in a position to offer more, you can offer them useful labour or brainpower. Overall, yes in certain circumstances they can be worthwhile if you really can’t get any experience elsewhere and you can afford it but if you’ve already got a foot on the ladder than you should be able to do better.”

Gotcha, you can carry on with your life story now

“But I was field staff (rather than a volunteer) on that programme and it provided me with some good experience and took me to Madagascar. When the role came to an end I just stayed there. I picked up some temporary consultancy work with WWF, because I spoke French already I was well positioned, and I ended up working on similar WWF contracts for a number of years. Madagascar was in the process of creating lots of new protected areas around the country and I was providing the biodiversity and ecological information WWF needed to manage a few of those protected areas.”

“As we needed to do all this research anyway I thought I might as well do it as a PhD, and registered part time at the University of Kent, funding my fees myself. The interesting thing about new protected areas in Madagascar is that they are almost all co-managed by the local communities and so while I was doing this work it became more and more obvious that although I was a biologist, and really interested in birds and reptiles, knowing the animals wasn’t going to be any help at all in managing protected areas.”

“The problem was the forest was being cut down and if you are going to stop that you don’t need to understand anything about the ecology of the forest, you need to understand why it’s being cut down. That’s not an ecological problem, that’s to do with people, it’s about understanding people and their livelihoods and their interactions with the environment. So, the more I worked in protected areas, the more I made this transition from a biologist to a conservation social scientist.”

But cute animals though…

“After a decade in Madagascar I finally came back to the UK and for the last 3 years I have been working as a lecturer part time and doing consultancy for organisations I’d worked with in Madagascar. I also lead specialist tours back to Madagascar 2 or 3 times a year. Conservation is such a massively diverse field and I’ve ended up as sort of a jack of all trades rather than a master of one. And that leads me onto another message for early career conservationists; no matter who you are there’s always going to some opportunity in conservation to apply your skills and your particular interests in one way or another”

You’ve been involved in writing, documentaries and now lecturing, how important is communicating conservation?

“I do think communication is an incredibly important part of conservation. One of our jobs as conservationists is to persuade the world that biodiversity deserves to be saved. That means communicating it and I think generally conservationists do this very badly. We communicate amongst ourselves a lot, we write lots of scientific papers but they are never read by anyone except other conservation scientists so we spend most our time preaching to the converted.”

“And even though we live in such a connected world the information people receive is so filtered through our online bubbles that often wildlife issues go unseen. Personally, I’m always getting exposed to conservation messages online because that’s the pages I follow, that’s my bubble. With that said the need to include wider audiences in our work is becoming increasingly recognised and thankfully there are lots of ways to do that through writing, photography, public speaking and other innovative communication media that are available.”

I think I need to do some maintenance on my bubble. 

What has been your biggest career disappointment?

“For a number of years, as a Conservation Scientist I was working on establishing one particular protected area in Madagascar and although we did manage it, the funding ran out and so now it’s essentially what we call a ‘paper park’. Officially the park exists on paper but in reality, there is zero management. The area has suffered a lot of deforestation since and because we tried to do a protected area project there and weren’t successful it would be a lot more difficult to try there again in the future.”

“So, I think that particular forest doesn’t have much hope and that’s just tragic to me having spent so long trying to save it. That highlights an important thing that people should be aware of, working in conservation can take a huge emotional toll on you and it is for the most part a bad news business. If you are going to have a career in conservation, chances are you will work on things that you will then see disappear over the course of your lifetime.”

And why should we burden ourselves with this heavy emotional toll…

“For me even if I was to think conservation efforts are futile and everything’s going to disappear anyway, which I don’t, I’d still feel compelled to do something about it. Partly because it’s the only thing I know and truly care about but mostly because it is difficult to turn away from a fight even if you’re going to lose if it’s the right thing to do and it’s a fight that should be fought. You’ve just got to go and do it.”

Grey-brown mouse lemurs, one of about 120 lemur species in Madagascar

Grey-brown mouse lemurs, one of about 120 lemur species in Madagascar. (Louise Jasper louisejasper.zenfolio.com)

How optimistic are you feeling about Madagascar’s future?

“In terms of what conservation has achieved in the last 20-30 years I think there’s been an immense accomplishment, wonderful things have been done and we’re starting to find answers, we know how to address the problem. The thing is, the problem we are trying to address is just incredibly big. It goes well beyond biodiversity and involves the economy of the whole country.”

“My feeling as a Conservation Scientist with Madagascar, and I suppose it’s the same with my feelings for conservation globally, is we know what we’re doing, we’ve developed fantastic knowledge and experience and we know how to conserve biodiversity but the size of our efforts is mismatched against the size of the forces we are trying to slow down. I don’t really think of it as a problem of conservation any longer, I think of it as a problem of global society. If global society decides it wants to save the world’s biodiversity we know how to do it, but as a society we need to put our money where our mouth is, we need to devote much more resources towards conservation. If we provide the resources necessary then we can surely do it, so in that respect I’m optimistic.”

Then let’s hope global society stops being so preoccupied with, you know, the self-destruction of global society…  

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Scientist