Podcast: Dr James Borrell | Conservation Scientist, Explorer & Blogger
Have you ever dreamt about going on a conservation expedition? Travelling to a remote corner of the globe to explore and discover the wildlife found there? Where would you start? What would be the destination and what would be its purpose? Who would you choose to take with you? Perhaps most importantly of all, how would you fund it? These are some of the topics I discuss this week with conservation scientist, blogger and expedition leader Dr James Borrell.
If you enjoy the interviews, we’ve spoken to over 400 professional conservationists, from across the globe, you can find their interviews on our website here. We’ve also collated their best advice into a FREE eBook which you can download from here.
You can listen and subscribe to the Conservation Careers Podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Stitcher using the following links, or search for ‘conservation careers’ and you’ll find us!
If you enjoy listening please leave us a rating and review on wherever you get your podcasts, it really helps us to get in front of more people! If you can share with your friends that would also be great. If you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast please tweet them to @ConservCareers. We’d love to hear from you!
“We didn’t see it but we heard it and we heard it really close, and it was just really rewarding to just kind of know it’s there and whatever you’ve done, you know, 0.0001% you might have done a tiny bit of work to help protect it.”
NICK: Hi there, Nick Askew from Conservation Careers here. Have you ever dreamt about going on a conservation expedition? Travelling to a remote corner of the globe to explore and discover the wildlife found there? Where would you start? What would be the destination and what would be its purpose? Who would you choose to take with you? Perhaps most importantly of all, how would you fund it? These are some of the topics I discuss this week with conservation scientist, blogger and expedition leader James Borrell.
NICK: Welcome to the podcast everyone, this is Nick Askew here from Conservation Careers. Joining me today is James Borrell. Hey James, how’s it going?
JAMES: Yeah great, how you doing?
NICK: I’m really good, thanks yeah. It’s a wet and rainy day here so if we hear a bit of pitter-patter then we know what’s going on. James, you are… how can I describe you? You’re a conservationist, you’re a really successful blogger, you’re really into kind of expeditions and explorations, you’re a TED Talker, we could talk about that too and also you’ve done a lot of different work in a lot of different areas of the planet. I’d like to start, if I can, by talking a bit about expeditions and things that you’ve been on. So tell us a bit about some of the places that you’ve visited to explore and what did you find when you got there?
JAMES: Well, I’m really lucky to have done some expeditions to the Amazon, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Oman a couple of times. Do you know, Oman was one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever been and actually it was the place I thought would be least exciting because when you think about Oman, sort of being a biologist, you think about desert and sand and dryness and not much life, but actually the wildlife for Oman, there’s this little tiny pocket of cloud forest right in the south and it’s just spectacular.
NICK: So it’s, what’s the cloud forest like in Oman? I do imagine desert but you’re describing something quite different.
JAMES: Yeah so a lot of the Arabian peninsula, the centre is the empty quarter, the huge sand desert, but right down on the coast where you have big limestone cliffs and you have moist air coming in off the Indian Ocean and it gets caught by those cliffs and you have this sort of 10-15km thick band about 200km long of cloud forest, and it’s the last stronghold of the Arabian leopard, which was one of the things we were there trying to work on.
NICK: So what happened during the expedition to Oman? How long were you there for?
JAMES: That was a few years ago and we were there for 8 weeks, and we spent about 3 of them in the desert and one of the cool things about that is you don’t even need tents, you can just sleep out on the sand and when you wake up, you can see all these little tracks of all kinds of animals, insects and things that have scurried around you in the night. And one morning I woke up and you know when you’re groggy and you’re kind of opening your eyes, and I opened up and at the foot of my sleeping bag was this enormous camel just kind of staring at me in the half-light before dawn. So that was spectacular and then for the rest of the expedition we went down and worked in a wadi, which is a dry river valley just next to the Yemeni border. We were doing a lot of things, we were camera trapping for leopard and there’s hyena there and there’s Arabian wolf, which is also critically endangered, but we were also doing mark recapture on dragonflies, which sounds quite niche but dragonflies tell you a lot about wetland health, surveying the birds, so Oman’s got over 500 species of recorded birds and a lot of them pass through there. They’ve got some spectacular stuff like Verreaux’s eagle, flamingos on the coast, so a lot of different projects, also surveying reptiles and amphibians, we caught a lot of different geckos and lizards and things like that. I think in the end we got 3 papers out of it. You know, the data we got, it’s out there, it’s published and then the next people build on it.
NICK: So why do an expedition like this, do you just go out to have a bit of fun, see what you find or you’re going in with like specific goals and a purpose behind it?
JAMES: I think there’s nothing wrong with going and having a bit of fun but it’s not really a scientific expedition, an expedition to me says there’s an element of science. It doesn’t have to be enormous, you don’t have to be an expert but I think that, particularly if you’re a biologist or you’re interested in the environment, when you spend time in their actual world and you get a lot of enjoyment from it and you get experiences from it that are great, we all know that it’s struggling and we need to do things in our life to help protect it if we can. And so I think if you get so much enjoyment from the environment then you have a bit of a responsibility to perhaps collect some information while you’re there and make it available to do your part to protect it. But I’d say there’s another point, so a lot of people you know, when I kind of make that argument they say to me, yeah no I appreciate that but you know, I’ve been working really hard for a couple of years and I just want to go away for 2 months and really, really enjoy myself somewhere remote and wild and beautiful. And that’s absolutely fine. But what I find is that, let’s say that you’ve got this big valley and there’s maybe some leopards living in it that are critically endangered. If you just go out there and you’re head down and you trek through it, you know smash through to get to the next place carry on, carry on, then you probably have a really good trip. But if you say, well you know, do that journey but while you’re there, could you keep an eye out for sort of scrapes on trees or possible denning sites? Or could you keep an eye out for any evidence you find of leopard? And all of a sudden, people go from walking face down looking at their feet to looking around. And if you’re looking around, if you’re a citizen scientist or you’re collecting some information, then you get so much more out of being in that environment because you’re looking for things as opposed to just trekking, for example.
NICK: It’s given you purpose, all of a sudden.
JAMES: Exactly, and when you’ve got purpose, you know, when you’re like, well I’m either here just as a tourist or I’m here for a purpose that’s bigger than me, particularly when it all gets tough, you know, you’ve not got enough food, the weather conditions are terrible, it’s like well, hey I’m here for a bigger purpose than just me. And if the places I’ve been lucky enough to go, if I’d just been there for a bit of fun then I tell you what, you’d quit pretty quick and then you’d leave. But if you’re there like, well you know, people have funded me to be here because we’ve said we were gonna measure this and do this and do that, then when it all gets horrible you have that extra motivation in the back of your mind to keep you there.
NICK: What have you discovered on some of your expeditions that excited you or that you were proud of? What made a difference?
JAMES: We got a new species of frog in northern Madagascar, which was pretty cool, but there are lots of new species of frog in Madagascar so I mean, it’s not probably quite as impressive as it sounds. I’d say the Oman work was really great, finding evidence of leopard in a remote wadi on the very last night we were camping just on the wadi floor and getting ready to pack up and leave the next day, and just as we went to sleep we heard this booming grunting call echoing down the valley. And you know, that’s Arabian leopard and I’ve got a good friend, an expert out there who’s worked on leopards for 15 years and he’s seen them 5 times in his life. We didn’t see it but we heard it and we heard it really close and it’s just really rewarding to just kind of know it’s there and whatever you’ve done, you know when 0.0001% you might have done a tiny bit of work to help protect it, it’s just pretty cool.
NICK: That’s really nice. Have you felt any kind of career benefits from your expeditions? It sounds like it’s really kind of exploring your passion, it’s delivering useful information for science but beyond that, do you think it’s helped you explore different directions?
JAMES: Yeah. I think it’s really hard to quantify and I’ve met a lot of kind of senior academics that I really, really, really look up to who have said, get all of this expedition stuff out of your system and just get a proper job and do science. But I still don’t buy that. It’s definitely helped me huge amounts. So, putting together an expedition, you’ve got managing other people in your team, finding the right people that have got the right skills, you’ve got knowing what your weaknesses are, so there’s things I’m good at but there’s things I’m rubbish at…
NICK: Like what?
JAMES: How to identify Madagazi frogs, nightmare. So find the people that are really good at what you need. Apply for money. Everything in science and careers is about… especially in conservation, is about trying to get money. Then there’s a big element of, if you say you’re gonna do something, then go and do it and then write it up and deliver it back to the people that gave you the money and show them that you were a good investment. So all of those skills are really important, and there’s just the most obvious one that is, proper field experience. One of the big problems in conservation is, we train in a certain area and then we think like that for the rest of our careers. So for example, I’m gonna be controversial now, say you have a really great career learning about conservation and environmental issues in the UK, which is in many ways a leader, you know, think of how many small nature reserves we have and things like that, but conservation in the UK is just totally different if you wanted to try and do conservation in Ethiopia. Just the values by which people want to conserve things, not knocking down a building cause there’s one great crested newt in a pond 100m to the left of it or something like that, people would just laugh at you, it’s madness. And so you risk having a way of thinking and then sticking with it, so I think if people can get as much experience as they can in as many different environments, on different species, on different problems, when they then get a fresh problem, they’ll have the opportunity to think of it from lots of different angles and I think that’s really, really important. But the most recent job I got, after I finished my PhD I spent 6 months, I bought a big truck and I drove with my partner all the way from South Africa to Tanzania and all the way back down, and there was conservation elements, we were calling in on lots of different projects and finding out what they were doing and writing about it, but it really was an opportunity just to remind ourselves why we loved the environment and see a big part of the world. And I definitely wouldn’t have got the job I have if it wasn’t for just racking up the months and months of experience in those kind of environments. Because it’s all very well being able to do the science, but if you can’t feel comfortable and confident working in a really remote, distant environment trying to do something complicated then you can’t do the job.
NICK: Yeah, and I guess it’s good evidence for the kind of skills and experience, you’ve got a lot of people who say I’m great in a team, or you know, I can manage projects or deadlines or whatever it might be, this is absolute concrete evidence that I’ve done xyz, I’ve gone to this place, I’ve managed this project and it’s something you can really engage an employer with, and also what I’m hearing is it sounds like it kind of broadens your horizons too so just beyond your immediate location in the area, wherever you might be in the world, having travelled and seen all these different contexts and cultures and the way things happen, you know, you can be more successful either at home or abroad.
JAMES: Yeah. You have to just think of also about the type of person, perhaps if you’re trying to get a job, the type of person you’re trying to impress. There’s a lot of people who are gonna say, well you know, you’ve been on an expedition, whoopedydoo, but then someone else has gone and got a second masters so I’m gonna employ them, but perhaps that’s not the person you want to work for. So whilst you are narrowing your opportunities perhaps by spending time doing fieldwork and conservations and expeditions, the type of people that value that are the type of people I want to work for.
NICK: Yeah, really good point. I want to move on to your career in a minute and talk about what you’re doing and how you got there and all that sort of stuff but before you do, you mentioned funding and that is the key thing with expeditions and all areas of careers, as you touched on. If people really want to organise their own expedition, they’d love to go somewhere, they can see a real purpose by doing so, how can people find funding, where are funds available, where should people look?
JAMES: First place to look if you’re in the UK is the Royal Geographical Society. They give away over £180,000 a year in grants. If you don’t apply, you definitely won’t get any, so there’s nothing to lose by applying. I think it’s great to apply and even if you’re not successful, learn from it and then apply again and make sure you get it the following year. They’ll give you lots of advice, as well. If you Google “conservation grants”, I’ve got a list, I’m sure your website’s got a list, there’s all kinds of pots of money out there, you’d be amazed how many people are willing to invest in young people doing proper research and getting experience. But the biggest thing I would say is, have a concrete idea of exactly what you’re going to do. Just the process of writing like an application for money, what is your plan, what are you gonna do while you’re there, what is everything gonna cost, what is it gonna look like when you’re finished and what is your evidence of success, how are you gonna communicate it – just going through the process of writing an application helps you realise which bits haven’t you thought about and which bits do you need to do some work on to come up with your idea.
NICK: That’s really good advice. Have you seen anyone that’s been successful on things like Crowdfunding or kind of raising their own funds without you know, having to apply from a funder directly?
JAMES: Yes, there have been an increasing number of projects that have managed to do that. I think there was one on something called the Skywalker Gibbon. We raised a bit of money for some work in Madagascar through Crowdfunding. I think it’s an awesome idea, I have a few mixed feelings about it because, I just give you my experience of doing it. The expedition I tried to raise money for was, I don’t know, something like my 7th or 8th expedition. I’d done a lot and sure, on my first expedition I was full of sort of righteous confidence and I sort of asked if any of my friends wanted to donate to this great conservation cause which we were doing and so on and so on, and some of them did. But once you start doing it more and more, you feel horrendously guilty if any of your friends or family give you money because it just feels bad. I don’t know why, you just much prefer it from some complete stranger that you’ve never heard of before. My experience of Crowdfunding was yeah, we had lots of strangers chip in but every time you get that email through to say someone’s donated, you’re like God please don’t be someone I know because I just feel really guilty because I do this all the time. And so I think you just need to think really carefully about it. What I would love to see is perhaps a platform where you just donate £1 or £2, I would love to fund a £10,000 expedition with 10,000 £1 donations. How cool would that be? Because you’ve got 10,000 people interested in watching it, everyone can give £1. You know, I just thought that would be so much more engaging and that’s what I really pushed for is lots and lots and lots of small donations but you know, we didn’t get the recipe right, we raised enough money but it wasn’t in that kind of ratio. That’s what I’d really love to see happen. I think that’s got lots and lots of potential so I think it’s a really good idea, Crowdfunding, but just think carefully before you go down that avenue. And I’ve seen a lot of people do it, promise things and then fail to deliver as well. And that doesn’t just damage you but that, you know, damages conservation as well so definitely do it, but if you do it, get it right.
NICK: Let’s talk about your career then for a bit. You recently did a PhD, what was the focus of that?
JAMES: The PhD was on the genomics and ecology of dwarf birch. In the UK we have 3 birch trees, downy birch, silver birch and dwarf birch. Dwarf birch has declined and now just lives in a few small populations in Scotland. So pretty niche and pretty small.
NICK: How would you describe that to your grandma, I mean what would you say you were doing and what did you find, in a way that everyone would understand?
JAMES: When we started, what I was really interested in was habitat fragmentation, so that’s something that lots of conservationists will know about, and when they think about it they’ll think of big tropical forests being carved up by palm oil or deforestation or other things like that. Whilst that’s really cool, tropical forests are further away, much more species rich, really complicated, harder to work in, big scale. So we were really interested in exactly the same kind of questions but with this tiny little 50cm tall shrubby tree-type thing in Scotland, because it has exactly the same problems. And so we were really interested in the effects of, if you like, deforestation and fragmentation and massive population decline and climate change, but on this much, much simpler system. And then what we learnt from that you can then hopefully apply to much more complicated systems.
NICK: And what were the headline findings, are you still unpicking it all or have you got anything that you’re happy with?
JAMES: Yeah, and this is where I think science is really cool because the findings are completely different to what I expected. Traditionally we think of fragmentation as massively reducing genetic diversity. But actually what we found in Scotland was, the diversity in Scotland is pretty much the same as in Scandinavia where the plant is everywhere in big populations, you know, it’s a bit like thinking of Scandinavia as like a primary rainforest and thinking of Scotland as sort of secondary carved-up forest. The diversity is actually really similar and what’s happened is the diversity’s ended up sort of partitioned between all these different populations. So each population has got worse but if you think if Scotland as a whole, it’s actually in really good condition. And that’s really important for things like reforestation if we could connect up the populations and it’s still got everything it needs to be a diverse, healthy population. And the second really surprising thing was, dwarf birch is kind of cool, so in England there’s just 4 plants left, which is kind of headliney and sexy, in 3 populations, there’s a 2, a 1 and a 1. And then in southern Scotland there’s some other really, really small single figure populations and conservationists think of those things and they think, right. That is exactly where we’ve got to start, let’s take the worst populations, let’s swoop in there, let’s do something cool and try and save them.
NICK: The ambulance approach, yeah?
JAMES: Exactly, triage, yeah. And actually that, we’ve discovered would probably be the worst thing you could do. Those populations are really unique, really different genetic diversity but actually we think that’s because of genetic drift. We think that’s because those populations have become so small, they’ve inbred, if you like and they’ve drifted off in some random directions. So actually they’re not well adapted to the environment at all and although it sucks, they really can’t productively contribute to the sort of Scottish gene pool any more. There is no loss in just cutting those ones off and unfortunately not focusing on them. And instead we should be focusing on the larger, healthier populations. And that is, again, if you’d asked me at the beginning, what should we do, it’s the opposite to what I would have said.
NICK: And I guess science is about the quest for truth, you know. And you can have a hypothesis and that can be proven to be not true and that’s fine.
JAMES: Exactly, and science is about being willing to totally change your mind. If you’re just dogmatic and say, well this is what we should do because I think it’s the right thing then you’re not helping.
NICK: Why did you choose to do a PhD?
JAMES: Because I like science, you know, and as opposed to an undergrad and a masters, if you do a PhD you can actually get paid to carry on doing science. And it’s a chance to every day just do something you’re interested in. And I think there’s a lot of people who would say, ah you know, but a PhD is pretty hard, you got to do all this stuff and then you’ve got to write a thesis and if you’re sitting there having done 4 years of a proper office job, just think about the things and the reports and the work you’ve had to do in the last 4 years and then just weigh it up against the PhD. Because I think people often think of a PhD in isolation and they think, that sounds like really hard work but for me just compare it to 4 years commuting to central London on the Central Line and sitting in an office and doing what you’re told. You just have to compare it like-for-like.
NICK: I did one 15 or maybe more years ago now and someone said to me at the time, and I hated it when they said this, that PhDs are the best time of your life, these are the best years, particularly if you’re doing something you’re really passionate about and that you absolutely love, you’re being paid to do this thing day in day out and just explore it to the depths your passion and your knowledge will take you, so…
JAMES: I think when I started I thought, great, finally I’m being paid to kind of work on conservation, as it was. But actually a PhD is just an extension of learning so you’re learning… you’re continuing to learn all of the software packages, all of the modelling, all of the fieldwork skills and you’re just continuing to learn, learn, learn. And if you do stay in science and the higher up you go, the less time you have to learn new things. The more you need to deliver based on what you already know. PhDs teach you to think in a certain way, let’s all do them, they’re great!
NICK: What are you doing now then? So you graduated a while ago and now, now what’s going on in James world?
JAMES: Now I’m a post-doc at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London which is pretty much the most awesome place to work in London, you know.
JAMES: Well, in winter you’ve got glasshouses, so I’ve got the Princess of Wales conservatory about 100m from my work so in winter I can go in and I can look at orchids, all year round, bananas, cacti, great big ponds with Victorian water lilies and then in the summer you wander round the amazing grounds, you know. I’m next to the grass garden and the family beds and the rock garden, the alpine house, so these are all on your doorstep. And so it’s just a wonderful place to physically be and then there’s 300 scientists working on all aspects of biodiversity and conservation and plant diversity all around the world, so there’s always interesting people to talk to.
NICK: And what bit are you working on, what’s your role?
JAMES: I work on a plant which is a really, really obscure crop that’s only grown in Ethiopia. But in Ethiopia it feeds 20 million people as their staple starch crop every day, so it’s a seriously major crop, that’s like a third of the population of the UK. This is what they live off. But because south western Ethiopia, the highlands have been traditionally quite isolated, there’s more than 60 different ethnic groups speaking 80 languages, has been really, really overlooked for centuries. To get an idea of what it looks like, think of a big banana plant, you know, big sort of green stem and big fat paddle-shaped leaves, looks a lot like that and it does produce “bananas” but they’re inedible. They’re small, full of seeds, rubbish. And instead you eat the trunk, if you like, and underground there’s an enormous corm that looks like a big celeriac. And to give you an idea about how big these things can get, they can be up to 12m tall, the trunk can be 1m across and the corm can weigh 100kg. And so, 50 or 60 plants can feed a whole family for a year. And so it’s this amazing, so productive and yet there’s so much we don’t know about it. We don’t know what pollenates it, we don’t know really where it grows, we don’t know the conditions it needs, we don’t know how many different types there are, we don’t know the genetic diversity, we don’t know the wild varieties, so there’s so much to learn and it all comes back by some big sort of circuitous route to conservation because if anyone wants to go somewhere in Africa to see remarkable wildlife, go to Ethiopia. The bird diversity is just mad, but meanwhile it’s lost so much of its forest. Because it has over 100 million people, 2nd most populous country in Africa, the rural population density is almost 500 people per sq km in the highlands and there’s just no room for forest, because everyone needs to grow food. So the more we can make these really highly productive sort of complimentary, sustainable farming systems work then the better chance we have of conserving the tiny bits of forest that are left.
NICK: So it takes the pressure off those areas that we’d like wildlife to still thrive.
JAMES: Exactly, and that’s what it all comes back to, but what I was saying earlier about if you learn about conservation in the UK, you say, well let’s go over to Ethiopia and say, hey, look at this wonderful bit of forest, we need to protect this, let’s please not cut it down, hey presto, job done. And unfortunately that just is not a motivation over in Ethiopia. So you have to think about completely different approaches that people are really on board with to achieve what you’re hoping to achieve.
NICK: Really fascinating. Where do you hope your career to be going in the future? So you’re on the kind of classic scientific route at the moment, aren’t you, you’ve done a degree, did you do a masters too or did you…
JAMES: I didn’t do a masters, no, I went straight to PhD.
NICK: Now you’re post-doc, where do you want to go? Let’s say 10 years from now.
JAMES: To be honest, I would just be happy if I’m able to keep doing conservation science. I don’t really mind how it works out but if I can keep doing it, keep learning and keep having a positive impact then I’ll be very happy. I’ll always do, I hope, other things on the side so science communication, expeditions, fieldwork, getting people interested in conservation, but unfortunately that stuff doesn’t really count much for a career, as it was and doesn’t really help you. In science it’s just the kind of hard findings that support what you’re doing. But science is a really, really amazingly tolerant environment, you know, so you have your job but everyone has lots of other things they’re doing on the side because everyone loves what they do so it’s just a great environment to be in.
NICK: And one of your big side hustles is your blog, your website and it’s got a great following, it’s how we first connected back in the day.
JAMES: Yeah back in, I don’t know how long ago!
NICK: It was a few years ago now! But it’s a really great resource for people who want to know a little bit more about conservation, science, what it’s like to work in the field, hints and tips and advice and stuff like that, and what do you think have been the kind of key pieces for it to take off and be successful? Because it is successful, it’s hugely successful.
JAMES: In terms of being successful, I think there’s no shortcuts. So nobody, for example, called me and had these conservations about it being successful for the first 3 or 4 years. So I don’t know how old it is but it is old and for the first 2 years, no one read it, at all. And you’re just writing stuff and you’re thinking, why am I even doing this?
NICK: Why were you doing it?
JAMES: I don’t know! I think it just changes, I think these days it’s much more accessible to sort of, for example write for other websites and write articles – these kind of things. But 6-7 years ago it was much harder to do that and so if you have your own platform, you can write things and then you can just get it out there. And then, on the other hand, lots of people ask you the same kind of things like, how can I do an expedition? Where can I find some money? And you think, well it’s just easier if I just write these things down. And then when you find people use things, you know, that’s nice, it gives you sort of confidence and that, and you want to add more resources and put more resources on there. But on the other hand, it’s also for your own credibility, so that sounds a bit selfish but there has to be a big selfish element of why you have a website, and if you’re applying for money and you’re applying for funding, or you’re saying, please invite me to give a lecture or something like that, if people Google you and it comes up with something fairly smart and presentable that looks useful, then it gives you that credibility and you can’t just magic that out of nowhere. And so I think you spend a lot of time in life trying to make more opportunities, more opportunities, more opportunities and then all of a sudden you have too many and you have to start filtering, cutting, cutting, cutting and just trying to do the ones you’re doing. I don’t think there’s ever a sweet spot and I think, you know, the website kind of did that, it started leading to more opportunities, people hear about you, they invite you to do expeditions or fieldwork or things like that and then all of a sudden you have too many to manage and you have to start making tough decisions and things like that.
NICK: Yeah, I think that’s life too isn’t it, you start off saying yes to everything and then you start saying no to stuff.
NICK: What benefits have the website given to you then, it’s allowed you to connect to different people, go different places?
JAMES: Yeah, connecting with other people and you know, like you for example, but loads of people, you connect with, you hear about and then you meet them at a conference or something. To give you one really long-winded example, so I got interested in fragmentation and edge effects in forests and then we put this funding application in to get some money to go to Madagascar, we went to Madagascar, we came back, we got invited to an awards evening where we talked about what we did and I got chatting to someone else in the back who’s working on gibbons, who they think also might be affected by fragmentation and then I got talking to their student, and then 2 years later we’re working on some models to do with gibbons and edge effects. You know, and it’s impossible to say exactly where that link came from but I wouldn’t be doing it if I hadn’t done all those other things before, which is just so cool.
NICK: And I think there’s something about the process of sitting… it’s a bit like what you said when you’re writing a grant application, there’s something about sitting down and formalising your thoughts into writing and then you’re publishing it on a website, you know, but that just helps to get your mind straight to in certain areas. It’s almost like writing a diary but it’s a public diary in that sense.
JAMES: Yeah, and it’s practice. You know, I guarantee if someone’s listening to this and they’re like, ok I’m gonna start a website and a blog, first 10 things you write, if you look at them in a year you’ll just think, oh my God, what was I doing? And that’s true for me, yeah don’t go back and look at like the archives. But the process of writing and writing and writing, you get better and better and better. And then all of a sudden there’s something you’re really passionate about and you want to write about because you think people need to read it and need to know, and you’re in a much better position to then communicate that, than if you’d been in before when you hadn’t written anything. If you want to suddenly be controversial then get something out there, then if you’re practiced and you have a website that has a following, you can quickly kind of action that.
NICK: Yeah, and I think particularly if you want to get in kind of communications, marketing, all that side of stuff which is, you know, a really useful skill.
JAMES: Absolutely, then it’s demonstrating that you can do all those things. It’s a bit like, a lot of people are saying ah, I just need to get experience but you have to pay to go on trips and I can’t get any experience and bla bla bla. If you want to work in communication or media or anything like that well then, hey you don’t need anyone to give you an opportunity, you just go make it. And it’s the same for fieldwork really, you don’t need someone to give you an opportunity, if you really want to do it just go and do it. My first trip, I worked in a Co-op on the checkout for like a year and then went and did something, you know.
NICK: Do you need to be a real techy to have a website nowadays?
JAMES: No, not any more, I think maybe a little bit helped back in the past but no, it’s a piece of cake these days really.
NICK: What do you do?
JAMES: I use WordPress but there’s lots of other platforms. I mean, you can get really nice-looking things out of the box and then as you get a bit more sophisticated, you can start to customise it a bit more, as it were. I tell you what, a sign of you getting older is when all these new features on things like Instagram and Twitter come out and you’re like, what is that? What is an Instagram story? How does that work? Cause there was once upon a time when I felt like I was at the cutting edge, but now there’s, you know…
NICK: Well we’re looking at each other, I’m noticing little grey hairs everywhere…
JAMES: I know, there’s about the time Snapchat sort of started happening, I was like, what is this? You know, I remember when it was just Twitter and Facebook and then you were totally plugged into the world, you know.
NICK: So in terms of setting your site up, if people are listening, I guess my steps would be, you know, find your domain name, your URL, and purchase that. You can get some really cheap server space nowadays online, it doesn’t need to cost much, particularly in the early days you’re talking a few pounds a month, like £5 a month will be plenty, lots of these servers nowadays will have WordPress installed on it so you just need to connect your domain name that you’ve purchased to that WordPress installation and the host will help you to do that, these £5 a month people, and then away you go. You just plonk a theme on it, you plonk in some… a theme is the look and feel, you plonk in some plugins, which is some specific functionality you might like, like show your Instagram images or whatever it might be and before you know it, you’ve got a website that looks good, it functions, it’s very easy to use and you’re out of the box really, aren’t you. You’ve written some really interesting articles, you’ve written a lot of articles over the years, what are the kind of top 10 or whatever, however many tips, what makes an article come alive and makes it really well read?
JAMES: We’ve got a bunch of articles about working in conservation and planning your own expedition or applying for funding or what types of careers are there in conservation, all those kind of things that are very much practical and the number of people that Google “do you need a masters or a PhD to work in conservation”, and you don’t and I wrote about it, all those kind of things. And then the other ones, you know they’re the practical ones that I feel like I’m being useful, you know and then there’s the more controversial ones like, I had a big bash at red squirrels. Not because I don’t like them, they’re very cute but the inordinate amount of money we spend in the UK on conservation when really, in the grand scheme of things, we don’t have anything left to conserve and the natural world in the UK is a bit of a joke. You go to a national park and it just looks like every other bit of the country, when really, if we want to actually be conservationists, as a country, and conserve biodiversity, we should be spending it a long way away, where £1 goes a hell of a lot further. Or if we really want to be a bit nationalist and Brexit about it we could just spend it on UK overseas territories, have the vast majority of the “UK” endemic and endangered species. So I think writing lots of useful stuff then gives you a platform to write things that are a bit more controversial. The other one that I’ll just butt in as well is, about GM crops. If you’re opposed to GM crops then you probably don’t know what they are so yeah, I’ll leave that one at that and people can Google it because it’s one of those things where GM crops have suffered from people having to make 10 second sound bites or 300 word articles and you can’t get the important messages across so you need to read more about them, for example.
NICK: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. And just a few open questions at the end then before we wrap up. If I were to give you say, £1 million, that sounds like a lot of money, I know it’s really not when it comes to actually making a difference in the world – let’s make it £100 million, ok, and you’re kind of conservation tsar for a day, you can invest this £100 million into something, how would you choose to spend that money that would make the maximum impact on wildlife and the planet, let’s focus you know on conservation efforts?
JAMES: Do you know, I was trying to think about this the other day and I’d love to say I have some magic solution that all I need is £1 million and I could go and do it, and I could have a massive impact but I really don’t think I could and d’you know, my best answer would be a bit of a cop-out and it would be to fund thousands of small projects that are working. And that’s all I could say really because so many of these problems, either money doesn’t solve straight away or even £100 million then rapidly would get depleted if you tried to use it to protect a national park in Africa, or something like that. They’ve got to have long-term sustainable income and it’s a bit like, the more money you put in at the beginning, the more places don’t worry about then trying to make what they’re doing sustainable. So I think the best answer I could offer would be to find 10,000 of the best charities and to seed fund them all a little bit more and to fund a big cohort of young people to go on expeditions, to get experienced, I think I’d find 1,000 nuclear conservationists too, all really awesome and amazing people that are volunteering for the RSPB, the Wildlife Trust, all these people, and I would say, here’s a plane ticket to the tropics, just go and see what the other way is like and then take the best of both worlds and do what you wanna do. I think it would have to just be so many small little things. I’d love to say there was one big magic thing but I just, I haven’t come across it yet.
NICK: Yeah, it would be a nice problem to have, wouldn’t it.
JAMES: It would be a lovely problem to have, yeah! If anyone’s minted…
NICK: It might be Virgin or something like that where they actually, what they did with a very large investment was to make a competition and set a really clear goal, it’s a bit like oh I want to put a man on the moon, like something really discreet, you know, we want to produce zero emission fuel or something like that, and there’s £100 million prize pot for the people or team that does this thing and just then let people go off and explore and come up with their own ideas because the prize pot is so significant you get some really, really significant minds kind of coming to the table and trying to crack this problem.
JAMES: Like XPRIZES, but instead of engineering things like that for conservation. It’s a good call.
NICK: Do you have like an earliest memory of wildlife or something that kind of drew you into this and helped you to develop the passion you have?
JAMES: No, I mean I think I was always encouraged as a kid but you know, I don’t come from a background of conservationists or anything like that, I don’t really know where I got interested in it to be completely honest, I remember chasing around butterflies and caterpillars and cocoons and things in the garden but that’s about it. I guess I’m just grateful that I’ve found something that is so fulfilling. Who knows what else I could have ended up doing? I doubt I’d be as happy as I am doing conservation.
NICK: If there’s people out there that would love to follow in your footsteps, you know, if they sound like you’re having a great time, enjoying your career, they’re a few steps behind you, maybe they’re just looking to do a degree or coming out of there, what advice would you give them?
JAMES: I would say, don’t whatever you do, lose your passion. You know, I remember a kind of phase where I was, I don’t know, A-Levels or something like that, or university thinking, you know, I just want to be a conservationist, all these bits of paper, they don’t mean anything. But actually they do. If you can revise and do well in your exams and make good coursework, then they’re all really useful tools to be a good conservationist, you know if you’re at school doing all those things, working hard they’ve set you up to then work hard as a conservationist so I would say, just stick at it and don’t lose your passion. Take advice from people you look up to but don’t be put off if you disagree with them. You know, I remember a guy I really looked up to saying I needed to get all of this conservationy fieldworky stuff out of my system and just do proper science and I’m glad I didn’t listen. You know, that’s just one isolated guy but you do hear about it. I would just say, search for opportunities and network but if you don’t find any, make your own opportunities. Don’t wait for someone to say, I’ve got an all-expenses paid 9-week bird ringing trip to Hawaii, would you like to come? Make your own opportunity, apply for things, just start and I promise you, you’ll never ever feel like you’re completely ready to, for example, plan your own project or lead an expedition. You’ll never ever feel like you’ve got everything all set up so just go for it and learn on the way and then do better next time and do better next time and do better next time.
NICK: So have confidence, have faith, continue to learn, challenge yourself.
JAMES: Yeah, yeah.
NICK: James, it’s always a pleasure to chat to you, thanks so much for finding the time today, mate, I really appreciate that. Our paths keep crossing, I hope they continue to do so.
NICK: Yeah. If people want to find out a bit more about you, where should they go?
JAMES: Website, Twitter, JamesBorrell.com Twitter @James_Borrell I think, I’m sure there’ll be links, or you know, drop me a line.
NICK: Great, we will do and we will go back and look at your blog number 1 from about 9 years ago.
JAMES: (laughter) No! Great.
NICK: All the best, yeah.
JAMES: See you later, bye!
NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that, everyone. If you did then please do subscribe and give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people like you. If you want to find out more about James and his work then please visit JamesBorrell.com and if you enjoy the interviews, we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free e-book which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please Tweet them to @ConserveCareers, we’d love to hear from you. Ok well till next time guys, this is Nick signing out.
JAMES: At the foot of my sleeping bag was this enormous camel just kind of staring at me in the half-light before dawn.