Saving the Branches on the Tree of Life
How would you like to help save species on the brink?
Meet Rikki Gumbs, a postdoctoral research scientist the Zoological Society of London (ZSL)’s Edge of Existence programme. EDGE seeks to identify and conserve evolutionarily unique species on the verge of extinction, from pygmy hippos to pangolins, plus many evolutionary underdogs you’ve probably never heard of.
EDGE runs a Fellowship programme for future conservation leaders who live in countries and regions with EDGE species. Maybe that programme is for you? Read on to find out more about EDGE Fellows and Edge of Existence applications.
Why do you work in conservation?
I could answer that with a question of why isn’t everybody working in conservation? We are literally hurtling towards extinction on a global scale and humans rely on the natural world around us.
I was born with this curiosity into the natural world. I felt like I was left with no choice in my life but to try and do something about it.
What are your main activities in your current role?
My main activities are to lead on the science that underpins our work on EDGE species, how we identify the most important species and how to do that robustly. I use very big data sets we have for species around the world.
I work very closely with the what we call EDGE Fellows – these are early-career conservationists from around the world, usually from developing nations. These are people that live in the range of some of the most unique species on the planet that are facing extinction.
We work with these EDGE Fellows and we give them small grants. We give them a lot of training and mentorship, to go and enact the first-ever direct conservation work on some of these unique species.
I know that some of our readers might be interested in applying for EDGE fellowships. Is there anything they need to know?
Every year we take applications from different parts of the world. Basically, anybody is eligible to apply who is a resident or citizen of a nation where a priority EDGE species occurs. They need to have less than 10 years’ experience.
We work with a wide range of people, some people have never fully studied conservation academically, but they’ve worked for an NGO in the sector, or they are just coming out of a master’s degree in their country.
Each year we circulate through, so we will be starting projects next year in Latin America and then the following year will be Asia and then we circle back to Africa. People should be applying and looking out for that every time it’s released. All the information is always on our website.
What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is working with the EDGE fellows. You just feel blown away. We provide a month-long training course, to give them the basic tools to achieve a scientifically rigorous project.
We spend the month in the tropics, sometimes in the Bornean rainforest or the rainforest of Madagascar, with some of the most amazing, most enthusiastic, driven, passionate people, seeing the lengths and the efforts they go to, to conserve the species in their country.
What would you say are the least favourite parts of your job?
Replying to emails, sitting in an office in London. Working with people around the world, who are reporting deforestation or the loss of their species, potentially, and all of the things that are going on, climate change is accelerating faster than ever and then you are hitting brick wall after brick wall of trying to achieve things.
What are some of the highlights of your career?
Working in the field with the species that I’ve read about as a child in books and finally being there and helping conservationists to engage and achieve positive things. I work quite closely with our research on crocodiles, wading through swamps in West Africa, just for a glimpse of these crocodiles which are on the verge of extinction.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with Emanuel, our researcher in Ghana, who has found possibly the largest remaining population outside of a protected area anywhere in West Africa. Working with him and how he might be able to turn the tide.
Could you give a synopsis of steps that you’ve taken in your career to get where you are now?
I think it helps that I was born, absolutely obsessed with snakes and crocodiles. I knew that this is what I was going to do. I told my careers advisor I wanted to work with animals in the wild and they thought that was crazy.
I went and studied conservation biology at university. I did a master’s in animal behaviour, a research master’s in Manchester and focused my research on conservation-related issues. I was fortunate enough to have family in West Africa, so I could go out and volunteer with organisations.
After my master’s, it was very bleak. It took me two, three years of trying to secure a PhD, which I failed with. I was back living in the north of England.
After three years of unemployment, doing other jobs, I landed an internship at the Zoological Society of London with the EDGE team. I’d always been interested in the work that EDGE did and prioritising the tree of life for conservation. I took the opportunity with both hands, just dedicated my life to this internship.
I was lucky enough in that time to develop a PhD with the EDGE team, with Imperial College London.
What advice would you give to people on a similar path?
I’m quite rare in British conservation as I come from a working-class background. If you don’t have the monetary opportunities from your upbringing it can be difficult to find your way in. I’d say, if you know this is where you need to be, just keep learning, and don’t give up.
It just takes a lot of luck and hard work. That’s the advice I’d give. You’ve just got to plug away.
Could you explain the concept of “evolutionary significance” the EDGE of Existence programme uses to evaluate species to focus on?
Basically, the EDGE of Existence programme prioritises species around the world for conservation action based on how evolutionarily unique they are on the tree of life, and how threatened they are.
EDGE’s goal is to preserve these species which sit alone, often on long branches of the tree of life. Their close relatives have either become extinct, or they’ve been evolving for millions of years on their own.
The species which EDGE champions are the underdogs. These species, which may not seem, at first glance, very charismatic.
Are you ready to stand up for conservation’s underdogs? To learn more about the EDGE of Existence programme, and Edge of Existence applications, head on over to the EDGE website, or follow updates on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
To learn lore about ZSL’s work, check out this podcast with ZSL’s Director General Dominic Jermey OBE, or this podcast with Professor Ken Norris, ZSL’s Director of Science.