Podcast: Gianluca Cerullo | Wildlife Blogger of the Year
When the opening line of a story mentions an Aldi bag-for-life full of human poo, you know it’s gonna be worth reading on, right?
That story was the winning entry in the Wildlife Blog of the Year competition and written by Gianluca Cerullo. He’s a conservation scientist and writer with a passion for adventure, wildlife and wild places.
Now Gianluca has been involved in expeditions and research around the tropics from Borneo and Madagascar to the Colombian Andes and he shares his experiences on his blog. In this podcast you’ll hear from a young conservation scientist who’s really going places. He’s travelled the globe studying dung beetles and is soon starting a PhD at Cambridge University looking at rainforest restoration.
In this podcast we talk about his career to date, his passion for communicating science and his tips and advice for young conservationists. We also discuss some of the big conservation issues of the day like climate change, plastic pollution and much more.
Joining me on the podcast today is co-host, Matt Adam Williams from the Wild Voices Project podcast.
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MATT: Gianluca, it’s very nice to meet you and welcome to the Wild Voices Project podcast with me, Matt Williams and to Nick’s podcast as well which I’m sure he’ll introduce in a moment. But I just wanted to open by asking you to introduce yourself and by reading out your winning entry for Wildlife Blogger of the Year.
GIANLUCA: Awesome, thanks for having me. So I’m Gianluca, I am a recent masters graduate from Sheffield, I’ve done most of my research sort of focused in Borneo but then I’ve been on a year of kind of just being obsessed with rainforest and travelling around and doing fieldwork in various places. But I didn’t know when I wrote this that I would have to read it out loud so forgive the last sentence and I’ll get straight into it.
My nostrils had already been assaulted by months of trekking through the Bornean rainforest with an Aldi bag-for-life full of my own poo. Such is the price of conducting research on dung beetles. The one bonus? I thought I had become immunised to bad smells.
But the putrid stench of carrion slammed me like a brick wall all the same.
The truck crunched to a halt. Having just finished a particularly pungent day’s fieldwork, my blissfully empty Aldi bag-for-life and I were hitching a lift down the logging road and back to camp with some scientists who had been prescient enough to research birds instead.
“I reckon it’s a clouded leopard kill,” choked Cindy. At dawn, further up the track, she had caught a rare glimpse of a small leopard as it vanished into the forest. I buried my nose into my sweat-drenched shirt to mask the smell and hide my jealousy.
Sunda clouded leopards are one of Borneo’s most elusive animals. Apart from on Sumatra, they are found nowhere else on earth. Very little is known about these enigmatic mammals. There are thought to be fewer than 4500 mature cats left on the planet and some clouded leopard researchers go entire careers without ever seeing one in the flesh.
Like many species on Borneo, hunting and the replacement of their forested homes with monoculture oil palm plantations have seen leopard numbers plummet. They are now threatened with extinction. But they grab much less international attention and conservation funding than their tiger and snow leopard cousins.
We scanned the green tumble of trees and creepers in silence. The possibility that Borneo’s largest predator could be just metres away—could even be hidden in the undergrowth right now watching us—set my heart racing.
An Asian paradise flycatcher, its tail feathers trailing like strips of silk ribbon, detached itself from the wall of roadside forest and swooped in front of us. The sickly smell of the potential kill—maybe a small sambar deer, or a bearded pig—hung heavy in the humid air.
But no leopards.
“We’ll try again tonight,” said Cindy. The truck rolled on to camp.
At night, the rainforest comes to life. We set off under the light of the moon, our torches and the Toyota Hilux’s headlamps to a chorus of croaking frogs, thrumming cicadas and whistling birds. The silhouettes of enormous dipterocarp trees towered overhead, piercing the canopy below like skyscrapers.
But the further we drove out of the virgin forests surrounding our camp, the more infrequent these giants became.
Borneo has undergone some of the most intensive logging anywhere in the tropics. In Sabah, where we were based, four fifths of remaining forests have been subjected to logging, their oldest, biggest and most valuable trees chain sawed down for timber and their forest interiors opened up by vast networks of logging roads.
We passed a small strip of fluorescent tape that marked the forest entrance to one of my research trails. Patches of vegetation were sporadically illuminated and then plunged back into darkness as we cast our torches from left to right, in search of any tell-tale eyeshine.
As we approached the fetid smell of decay, a small mammal darted in front the car. My heart stopped. We all gasped. Then nervous laughs. It was a palm civet; a smaller, and much more common mammal that looks like a cross between a house cat and a ferret. We pressed on.
In the end, we all saw it at the same time. Sitting there on a road, seemingly without a care in the world. A Sunda clouded leopard. Greyish with cloud-shaped black spots. As we neared, it rose and walked next to our truck. For thirty seconds, or maybe a minute, it just stood there. It was so close I could almost have touched it.
“It’s a different one from this morning. Bigger,” whispered Cindy.
Nobody tried to take photos. We just watched in awe. Then, perhaps tired of our gawping faces, the leopard slinked into the forest. It observed us for a while longer. Then it was gone.
I will never forget that encounter. Not only because of what we saw but because of where we saw it. Not in a pristine jungle but on a logging road, flanked by heavily degraded forest.
Camera trap footage has revealed that clouded leopards are resilient animals. They cannot merely survive in logged forests—they can thrive. Overgrown logging roads provide an easier alternative than travelling through dense brush.
In fact, it turns out that Borneo’s heavily logged forests remain heartlands for huge amounts of biodiversity. From clouded leopards and orangutans, to butterflies, to smelly-to-catch dung beetles and endangered birds. Against all the odds, there is life after logging. Lots of it.
And that fills me with hope.
NICK: That is beautiful and you can see why it was the winning entry of the Wildlife Blog of the Year competition last year. Thank you for reading that out, it’s really nice to hear it read out by the author.
GIANLUCA: Oh, thank you.
NICK: I guess it takes you straight back to Borneo and that moment when you saw the clouded leopard. What were you doing over there in the first place? Just paint us a bit of a picture as to, you know, why you were there and what was your purpose?
GIANLUCA: Ok so I went out as part of my undergrad and masters. It’s quite weird, this is always a bit of a weird one to breach. I work on dung beetles, so what I was doing was looking at how the restoration of logged forests might affect wildlife. Like I said in the article, huge areas of forest have been logged and what happens after that logging is really hard to determine, sometimes the forest can explode with these vines, and that explosion of vines can actually slow down the recovery of the entire forest and what we’re seeing happening now in some areas of Borneo, and particularly Indonesia, is governments that are wanting to speed up the recovery of their timber, they are sending in huge forest teams in to the logged forest with machetes and they are macheting away vast area of understorey in attempt to speed up either seedlings that already exist in the understorey that have value, or otherwise seedlings that they plant in the understorey after they’ve done the macheting. And so I went out there on a masters project looking at what the wildlife effects of that was and it was kind of on my way back from a day in the field that I hitched a lift with some others and that was the day that I saw the clouded leopard.
MATT: Gianluca, can I just jump in, and I know that we’re focusing on clouded leopards but could you just say a little bit for a couple of minutes about where your interest in dung beetles comes from and what their role is in these fantastic ecosystems.
GIANLUCA: Of course. So I have a bit of a weird relationship with dung beetles, I kind of stumbled into it completely by accident and then fell kind of a little bit head over heels for them. I’ve always been interested in insects and when I was looking to start out my masters, I knew I’d have to specialise on some kind of taxa so that I’d be able to kind of do the biodiversity surveys I wanted to do. And the thing about dung beetles that kind of makes them almost unique in rainforests is how easy, cheap and quick they are to sample. So to paint you a picture of how you sample dung beetles, and it’ll be quite a gruesome picture, I’m sorry.
NICK: I can feel a bag of poo coming on, go on.
GIANLUCA: They’re dung beetles, right? So I don’t know how you catch great white sharks or tuna but you probably use fish, for butterflies you use like rotten fruit, but for dung beetles you have to use dung unfortunately, and the dung that’s easiest to use is your own so imagine you have a small piece of muzzling. What you actually have to do is spoon some dung into that, make it into kind of like a little package, it looks almost like a dumpling, and then you dangle that over a cup and that’s the way you catch dung beetles, the dung beetles fly and are attracted to the dung, they fall into the cup and then you can identify all the species and stuff. So that’s kind of how you catch and identify them, but the importance of them is just massive. They are really, really critical in terms of recycling dung. I think in the world – I need to check this – but every day, an amount of dung as much as Victoria Falls or something is removed by dung beetles, so it’s something crazy like that. If we didn’t have dung beetles in the world, we’d be up to our knees in crap. So in forests themselves, they also help with seed dispersal, they help turn over the soil, they help do loads and loads of things, so they’re a really interesting insect to study and they’re also really colourful and like have really cool horns and stuff, so that’s cool.
NICK: And do you find them in all forest types? It seems like you’ve been quite focused on emerging and improving previously degraded forests, you know, that are kind of working back towards their initial states. Do you find them in both forest types?
GIANLUCA: Yeah, so that’s kind of why they’re such good indicators. They can survive in different types of forests and the communities that you have in those different forest types. Because they’re such a good indicator of habitat change, you can kind of track the states of the forest by looking at the dung beetle community. So sometimes you can have quite distinct communities within say, a farmland, an oil palm plantation, a secondary forest and a primary forest. So you can get a really good gauge of the state of the forest by looking at them, yeah.
NICK: I love it. Poo dumplings as well. What’s not to like?
GIANLUCA: Yeah, that’s a nice one (laughter).
NICK: So you’re obviously working in conservation science, you’re obviously passionate about your writing and communications too. Could you just paint a brief history of your career so far? You know, what have you done so far briefly and where are you gonna go as well, like what’s next for you?
GIANLUCA: I’m quite early on I’d say in my career, I graduated towards the end of 2018. I did a couple of years working in Borneo in my undergrad and masters and then from that, I graduated early and headed straight out to Borneo for three more months to help set up a big restoration project there. And then from that, I went to France for a couple of months to help out with this really weird random guy who was looking at moths on glaciers, and then after that, it’s been a bit of a hectic time to be honest. I’ve not been home much in the last couple of months, so from there I went straight to Madagascar and I helped on a… it was a tree climbing project to look at how frogs might be responding to climate change. Then I moved on to Columbia with a team, we were doing lots of different biodiversity surveys within cow farms in the Columbian Andes and also within secondary forests, so forests that have been left to regrow on those farmlands to see what kind of birds, what kind of dung beetles, what kind of orchids, but also what kind of carbon amounts you get within these different forest types with a view to seeing, ok what happens if you were to leave a cow land or a cow pasture in the Columbian Andes to regrow back into forest? What happens to the wildlife? What happens to carbon capture? And then after that, I went to Oman for a couple of weeks to explore Musandam, which is a northern region of Oman where very little is known about the distribution of some of their rarer plants, so we were on a project tracking the distribution of these plants across Musandam, and that was just really, really beautiful, we were working in high altitude terraces, so these weird agricultural systems where you’re walking in these super rocky environments and it looks like there’ll be nothing there but hidden in these cracks you have these amazing succulent species and then you come across these almost highland meadows which are just bursting with life because they’ve been fenced off from the goats there, and we were looking in there collecting irises, bulbs, that was with the Botanic Gardens with the hope that they would be able to then propagate some of those rarer plants for their own gardens. So it’s been a bit of a hectic time, really but it kind of decided, yeah this year was the year to do things.
MATT: It sounds like you’ve done such a huge diverse of things in such a different range of countries, I realise we’re jumping about a little bit but I just wanna rewind slightly if that’s ok and ask where did your interest in nature, wildlife, whatever it was, come from in the very first place? Was that when you were very young or was it later in life?
GIANLUCA: I have that kind of cliché always had it, like, as a kid running around looking for insects mainly, I would go to my gran’s and there would be like a car park with some grass around the sides and I would just go around picking up beer bottles and crickets inside the beer bottles, so I was a bit of a weirdo I suppose as a kid. And I’ve just always liked being in the outdoors, nature and it’s been something that’s been with me my whole life, I suppose. So it was kind of inevitable, looking back, that I would end up working with animals.
NICK: Do you feel that right now you’ve kind of landed your dream career and things are going in the direction you want to go? Are you in your happy spot right now?
GIANLUCA: Definitely (laughter), when you put it like that. Yeah, I’m quite a happy person so I wouldn’t say I’m in my happy spot now, I’m just generally happy but I’m really excited for the next couple of months and the next steps so I’ve just landed a PhD so I’ll be starting that in a few months. So that’s kind of like, I feel a bit of stability in career for a bit, which is nice. It’s quite hard to… fieldwork you travel around a lot but it’s nice to also have a place where you can call home and spend a bit of time and have a bit of a life outside of travelling as well.
NICK: Yeah, it sounds like it’s been a hectic old time for you. So I just want to ask a little bit more about your career and then we’ll sort of move on to other areas, if we can. You just painted a picture of a huge amount of things you seem to have done in the recent months and years, and now you’ve landed a PhD at Cambridge with Andrew Balmford, who’s kind of a friend of Conservation Careers in a way, we’ve interviewed him on the site. Two questions I guess really, like how did you manage to connect to all these different experiences around the globe, how did you line them up and in a way sort of you know, fund them. How did you make them happen? If someone wants to kind of do all that too and get involved in all these different projects, you know, what were your secrets to success? And then as a bolt-on question to that, how did you secure the PhD? What do you think, you know, meant that you got it and someone else didn’t?
GIANLUCA: The first thing, I think you just have to ask, a lot of it is just asking so how I got onto my very first trip to Borneo, it was a university trip to Borneo and we all went along and I remember walking into the forest and it just hit me, just immediately. I just couldn’t get over the fact that just around the corner over there, there could be a clouded leopard or a pangolin, there could be an orangutan, there could be huge stick insects, it was just an amazing place to be and so when I got back after that field trip, I immediately just sent out a message to one of the lecturers that I got to know a little bit when I was out there saying I really like forests, I’m stuck between whether to go into tropical forest ecology or become a model, have you become opportunities? And (laughter) he replied back saying the list of places to work and these opportunities that were available, and because I did it quite early on in the year, which is definitely something I would recommend if you want to contact your… a lecturer or just read someone’s papers and see… within your department and see what they’re doing, if you read what they’re doing and you think it’s something you would be interested in, contact them early in the year and then you have months and months of time to try and actually get together some money to be able to go out on a trip in the summer. So I remember contacting some time in October and then I had months to search around for pots of money on the internet and grants, there’s loads of grants out there if you look for them. So I got together some grants for the first trip. And then after that, I suppose you just say yes to things that get offered your way and there’s always grants, and if you pick up some taxonomic skills, I was lucky enough that the wife of my supervisor is a dung beetle expert. So I would go around her house and look down a microscope for one day of the week for a few months and learn how to identify dung beetles, and then because I could do that, I’d be invited out and my trips would be paid and stuff to go back to Borneo or to go to Columbia, so that’s how I funded it. I think it’s a useful skill to be able to have, to be able to provide a bit of value to a project and then you can get a bit of support either through grants or through the university itself. And then for your second question, in terms of why I got given the PhD, it’s hard for me to say but I think there are a couple of things you can definitely do to increase the chances of you getting the PhD that you want to do. The academic world is good towards unfortunately publishing papers in scientific journals, so if you’re able to publish your undergraduate or masters thesis in a journal, then it shows that commitment, it shows you’re willing to overcome the last couple of hurdles that no one really likes to do but you went and reworked your manuscript, you submitted it to review, you made the changes and made comments to reviewers and all this kind of stuff, and you’re willing to do that after you’ve dumped your dissertation into that black box that you never wanted to see it again but you went and did it anyway, it’s good and supervisors like that, I think. The second thing is, if you are going for a position where you need to be away for months doing fieldwork, then of course the fact that you can point to a track record saying you’ve done it previously in the past will be very helpful. A lot of the questions I ended up getting asked for in my PhD interviews were about how I’d overcome problems in the field. And the third and final thing is, if you can get some grants together to support that fieldwork, then it’s not just helpful for doing the fieldwork at the time but it is a form of validation, someone read your research proposals and thought yep, I’m willing to back you, I’m willing to give you some money to go and do that. And those three things, I think, can help you get the PhD that you’d like. Along with the final thing, of course, which is you have to really get to know the research that your prospective supervisor is doing, there’s no shortcut, you do just have to sit down and get to grips with their research.
MATT: It sounds generally that like, there’s been so many different stages and so many different experiences that you’ve had and you’ve clearly learnt so many different skills along the way and also, as you say, increased your confidence to sometimes just ask for stuff. What are some of the most important lessons that you’ve learnt, or even if you’re willing to share them, failures that you’ve had that have helped you to succeed later on from your academic career or from your fieldwork experience? I find that’s always a question that, particularly with people who’ve done fieldwork, sometimes gives some interesting answers back.
GIANLUCA: Many failures. We could do a whole podcast about failures of fieldwork. My masters was originally, I had this beautiful idea, it was all… sounded so nice, I was gonna go into these forests of all these different ages that had been restored, a lovely gradient of time, I got there and there was a massive flood and I couldn’t access any of my sites so I had to completely change my masters question. And then I’ve had it before where we showed up in Columbia, this was a bit of a weird one – we showed up to this forest site, really excited to sample in these high altitude cloud forests where you get really strange animals and really strange ecosystems, where the clouds come in and suddenly you can’t see where you’re walking but we arrived and found out that the forest had been bought up by a, I don’t want to call them a cult, but they were essentially a cult. They were these Taoist monks who had been buying up land in preparation for a holy war. And we weren’t allowed to sample in any of the forest. So then we had to change our whole forest sites and it was all a bit of a palaver but I think these sort of failures, you can’t really look at them as failures, they’re just setbacks that you have to get over somehow, have to overcome, and I’ve also had it with – getting a little bit gross I suppose, but there we go. I had this project where I wanted to look at these different dung beetle communities, how quickly they would be able to bury dung, because that’s a really good indicator of… I had them in these boxes, I’d made up these different like fake communities and see how well different communities were able to bury dung. And I had this awful experience with this rat that just kept breaking into my boxes and like eating all my dung beetles. And I tried everything, I tried like locking the rat out in this tiny room, I tried hanging my boxes super high up on these shelves, and in the end the project just was not going to work and again, there I just had to completely change my entire project but, yeah. Failures kind of, they make you think on your feet I think. Definitely when you’re out in the tropics with not a lot of equipment and not a lot of time.
NICK: You’ve just got to innovate and make the most of it, I guess.
GIANLUCA: Exactly, yeah.
NICK: What I love listening to you is you’re clearly a story-teller at heart. You describe yourself as a scientist and a writer and that comes across clearly, there’s kind of two sides to you. Now you’ve got a blog, you’ve got a podcast, you write for Mongabay, which is one of the biggest online environmental newswire websites, I guess. And then you’ve got this award recently as well, you know, Wildlife Blogger of the Year last year, so you’re really passionate about communicating science. Why do you feel it’s so important that you kind of, you know, tell stories about science and what are you hoping to achieve through that?
GIANLUCA: That’s a really tough question, I’ve never actually sat down and thought about it. I suppose I just like and enjoy writing. And then if I suddenly think that I have a story that I think is either important or just a bit funny and a bit weird, then it’s just good to tell, I suppose. With Mongabay, it’s been a lot of big learning curve, learning to write about stories that I haven’t come up with myself, so where you have to write about someone else’s research, I feel a lot more pressure for instance to kind of do justice to their work and to try and come across with the message that the people who have spent the time in the field or doing the research or doing the data analysis, you want to do justice to their work and make sure that their own message is coming across in your own work while still keeping kind of your own style of writing, so I don’t know if that answers your question at all but something I’m still learning is, how you can use storytelling to the best of its ability, because there are definitely some people, your podcast for instance Matt, and also yours Nick, are just, there are loads of people you have on where they’re really passionate and great storytellers with a specific message or a specific purpose and they’re just the people are inspiring me, really. I love listening to those sorts of stories, really, to people who are making a difference in the natural world and telling their stories and getting inspiration from them.
NICK: And I think one thing that kind of comes through quite clearly actually, in most of the conservations actually that we have on this podcast and with Matt’s too, is one of hope and optimism, you know. I think conservationists are a hopeful bunch and you always provide hope. And in fact your research is all about hope, isn’t it, it’s about bringing back forest to its former glory, if you like, and then sort of inspiring others to try and do the same.
GIANLUCA: Yeah, exactly. Like for the logged forests, which is what I’ve done a lot of my work in in Borneo, I was originally shocked myself to see just how much wildlife is surviving inside this forest that really they shouldn’t be. These forests have undergone some of the most intensive logging anywhere in the tropics. They’ve had their timber cut down at such unsustainable levels that you can walk inside them, and you’re still standing in a forest, you can still hear the birds singing, you can still see plants all around you, it still feels like a forest, it still looks like a forest and it’s still full of animals and those sorts of stories, maybe you don’t hear about as much and you’re right. I’m just a massive fan of getting across the resilience of forests. Because we hear all about these forests that are being chopped down around the world and that’s a horrible thing to see and it’s a horrible thing to see pictures of. But we very rarely hear about the resilience of forests and how they really can bounce back if they’re just given half a chance. And I think that came across to me in Columbia most of all, because we were working in these forests that 15, 20 years ago they were just barren grasslands and you walk inside it and you can still see the evidence that people had been living there, or people had that their cattle there, you have these barbed wire fences running through these forests, but these forests are like 20m, 15m high and they’ve got loads of dung beetles inside them, they’ve got birds, like black inca, they’ve got endangered birds, they’ve got beautiful animals, they’ve got really rare orchids inside them and it’s just amazing to see the resilience of forests, their capacity to bounce back.
MATT: When you say, give forests half a chance, for you, have you seen any common threads or themes in the different places that you’ve been in terms of what works for protecting or helping to restore forests? So is it as simple as putting down lines on a map and saying, this is a protected area or this is where logging is now banned, or is it more complicated than that?
GIANLUCA: I think it varies just hugely throughout the different areas. Sometimes if you are far away from people, local communities then it really can be a case of saying, this area, we’re setting it aside, you’re not allowed to come in, your industries are not allowed to come in and exploit this area. That can work. But when you’re near communities, I think the main trend that runs through these sort of successful restoration projects, is that the community has ownership and involvement in the project. So we stayed with a family in Columbia, these two community leaders, and really we were in the middle of nowhere, the only way to get there was this milk cart that you took for a couple of hours and you arrived in this area where there’s no funding from any NGOs or any wildlife conservation agencies, and yet despite having no money, through their own passion, we were staying with this family who in their own spare time just went and managed this community-run cloud forest and this area was amazing, it was one of the most beautiful forests I’ve ever been in, there’s orchids all around you, they had two resident spectacled bears, and they did it because they had a passion for wildlife and they had a passion for nature. And I think finding those leaders, and incorporating the local community in the managing of forests is really a key to having successful restoration outcomes.
NICK: Yeah, and a big move, I said it before where I think people get into conservation because they’re passionate about the wildlife and then quickly come to realise it’s all about people.
GIANLUCA: Absolutely. That’s something I’m discovering more and more. I feel like you’ll never solve anything unless you work with people and try to understand their own perspective. It’s not enough to just say, ok this forest is on a map, now protect it – because that means nothing if you’ve still got villages around who are having to go and exploit it for their own livelihood purposes, it’s much better to talk with the people that live there to get the leaders on board within that community, because often those leaders will be the people who most want to conserve that forest and it’s just about giving them a voice, giving them a platform, giving them the resources that they need, so it’s really a learning curve for me, definitely learning, yeah you really do need to work with people.
NICK: I would quite like to ask some fairly big, open questions if I can. Just to kind of see, you know, your perspective on things, you know, given your experience so far. First thing, when you look at kind of conservation and the movement generally, globally, in fact just a couple of days ago, right, we had the UN report saying that, you know, there’s a million endangered species in the world and, you know, we are really losing the battle to save biodiversity globally, despite, you know, enormous herculean efforts by academics and charities and social enterprises and, you know, and so on and so forth. Where do you think conservationists are going wrong, what do you feel we need to do more of as a global movement?
GIANLUCA: It’s hard to say what conservationists are doing because they’re such passionate people, they’re so willing to just really try. A lot of it is the odds are stacked against conservation. So conservation is a great movement but it’s a small movement. It’s having to contend with economic forces, it’s having to contend with politics and the more I think about it, the more I think that unless conservation actually gets mainstreamed and it becomes the case where we’re thinking about the environment and nature and the natural planet, when we’re actually making political and economic decisions every single day, unless we start doing that, I think it’s going to be really difficult. And it was interesting, I thought, I don’t know what you think about this but I saw in the IPBES that in that report, they said that the only thing that we need to do really is transformative change, and I read that and thought, yeah we kind of do need to transform our systems a little bit because we can’t have it where it’s just ok to degrade an environment to make a profit. We have to make it easy to make the right decisions for the planet, and that has to happen to some degree. I think the real thing that excited me about conservation and the real thing that conservation can do is provide the evidence for a movement. We need the best possible evidence to be supporting the best possible policies. I don’t know how much of it is a failure of conservationists and how much of it is a failure of politicians or economists, I think everyone has their own bit of blame, but that’s kind of what needs to happen, it’s a sort of shift I suppose.
NICK: We spoke to Professor Bill Adams actually, Andrew Balmford’s co-professor at Cambridge about conservation evidence, and he put it so simply and beautifully, which is “we need to do more of what’s been proven to work and less of what has not been proven to work”. (laughter)
GIANLUCA: Yeah, that makes sense.
MATT: Without wanting to put you on the spot too much, and there are no easy answers to these questions, but do you have any views on why climate change and the climate crisis commands so much public attention and media attention and political attention, particularly in the last few weeks, and yet the crisis that’s facing wildlife and nature, which is in a sense very linked to it but fails to command the same attention, and I saw a really interesting statistic today that there’s been around, I think it’s at least 10 times less media coverage for the IPBES report than there has been coverage on climate change in the last few weeks.
GIANLUCA: Well that’s depressing. I suppose there’s the thing that climate change seems more like an immediate threat to humans and humans naturally are more worried about themselves I guess, that’s kind of cynical, that must be behind it a little bit. There’s also the fact that we have this huge amount of change that’s happening, often in tropical environments, so the huge land use change and the huge devastation of wildlife, the frontiers of that at the moment is the tropics and also coral reefs. But yeah, on land it’s the tropics. And I don’t know whether it’s the fact that few people have actually gone out and seen what’s happening out there, what’s happening, what deforestation looks like in person, maybe that’s a reason why fewer people are worrying about land use change but also I think it comes down to a… maybe some kind of failure of media. Today and yesterday all I’ve seen on the news is this new prince or whoever this new baby that’s been born. It’s a failure of the media to not talk about the things that actually are most important in society. We depend on people who are clued in to be funnelling important information into our ears and not distracting us with frivolities. And I think too often unfortunately is the case that we’re not talking about the most important things in society or we’re thinking too short-term and maybe that’s kind of why biodiversity loss just seems to sweep under the radar. But I do think it’s changing, I think more and more people are concerned about what’s happening to the natural world and to wildlife. I see some of my friends on Facebook who I didn’t even know had the remotest interest in wildlife, and they’re talking all about species extinctions, they’re sharing statistics about decline in the natural world and how we need to act, I think there is a change coming. Maybe it’s a little bit slower than the climate change movement, but I think soon enough a momentum’s gonna build and it will become, like what’s happened with climate change, it will become something that’s really at the forefront of lots of people’s thoughts.
NICK: Yeah. I feel that hope too and I think you know, Extinction Rebellion and the youth movement now provides huge hope for change in the hopefully not-too-distant future. Hopefully not too little too late, but you know, I certainly feel that. I’d be interested actually, for both of you actually, to kind of get your impression of, there’s been a big focus recently on marine plastic pollution too over the last, you know, few years. A lot of people have been focusing on their own use of plastics in the house, we use plastics, you know, we’re all trying to kind of you know, be better around that. Do we think that’s been a really good thing? And this is to you Matt as well. Or do we think that is perhaps, you know, a distraction from some of the bigger issues that we’re facing?
MATT: Just to briefly share my view. I think that’s been a great thing in terms of priming public awareness for the environmental activity and activism that we’ve seen in the past few months, so I think without Blue Planet and the awareness, the increased awareness of plastic pollution that that brought, you wouldn’t have had perhaps the same level of government or public attention on the environment that we’ve got right now. But I’m sceptical about the extent to which individual action on plastic pollution, as important as it is, is enough to tackle the environmental crisis, or even the plastic pollution crisis, and I think actually government and big companies like supermarkets, for example, need to be put under a lot more pressure to change the way that we package goods, whether we even use packaging at all, as opposed to people being forced to solve it all, or thinking that they need to solve it all, through individual actions at home. And I think the same is applied to climate change and energy as well. We need to see movement on charging network for electric vehicles, on the types of energy that power our homes, rather than telling people that they need to, you know, as we were ten or fifteen years ago, that they needed to change their light bulbs to more efficient ones. So it’s been really important for that public awareness piece and for priming things, I’m a bit more sceptical about its actual effectiveness in real world terms, but I’d be really interested in your guys’ views as well.
GIANLUCA: I have to say I agree with you completely. I think it’s been really heartening to see the sort of movement behind plastic and it shows that with Blue Planet II, for instance, or with media, we can actually create this huge interest and this huge desire to do good. Is it a little bit misguided… misfired even? Is it… are there better targets that we should be trying to change rather than plastic pollution? Almost certainly. But I agree with you completely, it’s priming. Now is the turn of more media, more good information, more people getting involved in different topics and hopefully that energy that we’ve seen building behind the plastic pollution movement can now be applied to other areas, arguably much more important. It’s something unfortunately we see quite regularly where you get this kind of obsession on one thing, or this sort of raising up on a pedestal of one issue, and it really is up to our media to direct us in the right direction, to show us what are the big problems of our time, and not build up a bit of a straw man and say, look how horrible this is, this is the awful thing. And we need to be focusing on the priorities, and at the moment I don’t think that’s the case.
NICK: Ok, yeah so we’re talking about plastic pollution and Blue Planet. So I was saying, I think for my side, Sir David Attenborough, you know the god of conservation and the BBC Natural History unit have done so well, I think over the last, what, 50 or 60 years to kind of showcase the beauty of the natural world and get so many people like probably us three into conservation and into wildlife and really passionate about it and want to save it. And in recent years, it’s started to showcase some of the realities too about some of the threats and some of the losses of biodiversity across the globe. What it’s not done so well yet, and I think the plastic issue has started to kind of connect with that, is provide actual actions that people can do in their day-to-day lives, that can start to make a bit of a difference and I think that’s something which as a global movement we need to do more of. The natural world is beautiful, here’s an issue but this is what we as individuals can do that is gonna start to address it to make a difference, you know, in governments and others but it’s that kind of connecting to the action and that’s what I think for me the plastic issue, if you like, has kind of provided a huge amount of hope around. Look at what we’ve achieved in just a short space of time around plastic. What can we do about other things and what actions can we kind of, you know, connect with others for? So given that we’ve kind of some got some open questions here as we kind of wrap up in the last few minutes, it would be interesting to hear from both of you again actually, if I could make each of you a conservation tsar for the day, a new head of state for the world, and you could make one change, you could click your fingers and enact a new law or whatever it might be, you know, and this change would happen. What change would you like to see made that would have a significant impact on the planet for the good? Either of you can answer and you can take time to think about it, that’s absolutely fine because I know it’s a big question.
GIANLUCA: Well that is a big question. So to start off with, we have these amazing places on our planet, these few amazing, really important places that I think kind of just, they need to stay around. So we have a third of Borneo that’s still got forest on it, we’ve got unvisited pristine remote areas of Papua New Guinea, we’ve got huge areas in the Congo or small fragments that are still hyper diverse in Madagascar, we’ve got the Western Ghats, we’ve got the mother of all rainforests in the Amazon, those areas need to stick around. That’s so important but more than that, I think we need to have it so that we’re not just not destroying the environment, we have to leave a legacy behind of environmental stewardship and I think the one thing that if I could do, it would have to be restoration of degraded ecosystems and especially of rainforests. We’re seeing this global movement right now for the restoration of degraded systems, and it’s under the Bonn Challenge. And the Bonn Challenge is saying this amazing thing, it’s saying by 2030, we’re going to restore an area of degraded land into forest and that forest in total is gonna add up to bigger than the size of India. India is massive, imagine how much carbon we’re going to capture, how much wildlife we’re gonna help if we’re actually able to restore forest over an area the size of India. So unfortunately, what’s happening at the moment is some great scientists looked and saw that when you look at the blueprint of government commitments to that restoration process, a lot of that restoration is not going to be the recovery of natural forest. So some crazy 40% of it, what they’re calling restoration is actually just the planting of acacia, eucalyptus, monoculture plantations. So if I could change one thing, it would be to urge the governments, especially in the tropics which I love, which has so much wildlife, which is so disproportionately important for stopping the ecological meltdown, it would be to urge those governments to imagine bigger. Yes, you can have those plantations but can you not also be having this huge effort to restore proper forest? To restore natural forest? To let it regrow? So that would be the one thing that I think I would say.
MATT: My answer would be that we’ve talked a lot in this episode about telling stories, but actually I think one of the most powerful changes that we could make is around listening. And one of the most interesting episodes of my podcast that I’ve done was with, and I haven’t actually published this one yet, it’s in the bank of ones that I’ve got recorded, it was with Dr Kinari Webb who works in Indonesia as well, and has worked with a lot of local communities, and her and her organisation that she set up there went through a radical listening exercise where they went and simply asked local communities what it was that they needed in order to stop logging and stop mistreating and harming the forests. And through that listening exercise they learnt the top two things that local communities needed were, money to help them afford healthcare, particularly emergency or unexpected healthcare bills, and training in how to do organic farming so as they didn’t have to spend money on chemicals. And that meant that they didn’t have to log the forest in order to gain money at short notice and were able to turn to other means of sustainable livelihoods. And I think if we could change our legal systems and our conservation organisations so as they started listening to and incorporating into their legal decisions and their strategies the voices of much more diverse ranges and types of people, who have other concerns beside the environment perhaps, like their economic wellbeing, or their physical and mental wellbeing, and maybe even the voices of young people and future generations and integrating those more fully into the political and legal decisions that we take. I realise it’s quite a long way for protected areas and on-the-ground conservation and it probably sounds quite abstract but I think that might make quite a big difference as well. But I don’t think we can do one without the other and I don’t think there’s any one silver bullet solution to all of this.
NICK: Yeah, I totally agree and I think reaching outside of the conservation movement is our biggest challenge, as you said Gianluca as well, it’s a… we’re still a fairly modest, small, young movement really, you know, but we need to have a much bigger impact and I guess the question is, how do we make that impact, you know, greater? How do we escalate it, you know, according to the scale of the challenge? I’ve never had to answer the question myself but I’m gonna try and do it anyway (laughter). For me, I think the change I might do, if I could click my fingers, thing I’m thinking through are, one is just have more vegetarianism in the world, eat less meat, you know, as a simple thing, it takes ten times as much energy to produce meat as it does plant matter, so if we all ate plants, and I’m a meat eater so I’m a total hypocrite here, by the way, I think that would really lessen our need for resource use on this, kind of, you know, small planet we call Earth. Another thing I would like to explore, just as an idea and I don’t know how you’d implement it, we do need to reduce the population somehow over time, there’s just too many of us. So… (laughter) controversial or not, I don’t know how we’d achieve that but… one child policy globally? I don’t know, you know, how you’d enforce it I’ve no idea but something that means in a totally ethical, nice, lovely way, could we just start to have fewer – and again, hypocrite alert, I’ve got three kids so (laughter)… you know, I don’t know… but I do think reducing less energy, you know, energy consumption, resource use and just pressure on the planet, which is applied by the growing population, the 8 billion or more people that we have now, you know, those are things that if we could tackle them, it would give wildlife a bit more of a chance. It looks like our time’s up, guys, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, it’s been really nice chatting and getting to know you a bit, Gianluca and it’s been great co-hosting with you, Matt. Gianluca, if people wanted to find out more about you and to follow your work and your efforts, where should we direct them?
GIANLUCA: Thanks so much for having me, I’ve enjoyed it as well. It would be on my website, gianlucacerullo.com, or on Twitter which I’m not sure but I can send you the link afterwards.
NICK: And we’ll make sure those links are very clear in the notes as well, that’s great. And Matt, my co-host for a day. Wild Voices Project, I encourage everyone to go and listen to it, it’s a great podcast. If people want to find out about you and the project and other things you’re involved with, where should we direct them as well?
MATT: Oh thanks, and the podcast is WildVoicesProject.org and @WildVoicesProj on Twitter and you can subscribe in iTunes and Stitcher. And if you want to find out more about me, that’s @MattAdamW on Twitter and MattAdamWilliams.co.uk and yeah, thanks to you as well Nick, I’ve really enjoyed this and thanks Gianluca for being our guest on our podcasts today.
GIANLUCA: Thanks for talking with me.
NICK: Ok, take care guys, thanks again.
MATT: Cheers both, bye.
NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that everyone, if you did then please do hit that ‘subscribe’ button to get notified when new episodes are live and also give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. 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, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out.