Podcast: Dominic Jermey OBE | ZSL
Are you working in something totally unrelated to conservation and dreaming of switching into a career helping wildlife to flourish? Well that’s exactly what today’s guest has done successfully, and right in at the top.
Dominic Jermey OBE worked as a senior British diplomat for over 20 years in countries such as East Timor and the United Arab Emirates, ultimately serving as British ambassador to Afghanistan. From there he switched careers and moved into wildlife conservation as the director general of the Zoological Society of London.
Now ZSL is an international conservation charity with a vision of a world where wildlife thrives. They’re working every day to achieve this with science-fuelled conservation around the world, and by engaging millions of people at their two world-class zoos, ZSL London and ZSL Whipsnade.
In this fascinating discussion we talk about his career journey and highlights, and decision to move from diplomacy into conservation. We also discuss his role as director general and how he’s shaping ZSL as it approaches its 200th anniversary.
Finally, Dominic shares his careers advice and insights for people working in an unrelated role to conservation but looking to switch into it. As always, if you enjoy our podcast, please let us know and do leave us a review, we read them all and they really help us to get in front of more people.
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Discuss ZSL Podcast
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DOMINIC: I’m Dominic Jermey and I’ve been the director general head of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) for just over a year and we are an extraordinary organisation that has two zoos, a science institute and a global portfolio of conservation projects, and we’re about making this a world where wildlife thrives.
NICK: Fabulous. So you’ve been in place for just over a year or so. Prior to that, and we’re gonna talk about your career in a while, you were working as a diplomat outside of conservation. Have you always had an interest in wildlife and conservation, and where did that start for you?
DOMINIC: So I’ve always had an interest in wildlife as an amateur as a kid, I’ve enjoyed going to zoos, I’ve enjoyed going out into the countryside in the UK and just spending nights camping, getting to know the sounds and sights of the woods and the forests insofar as we had them in the south-east of England where I was brought up, and then through my professional career I’ve enjoyed taking the opportunity of a pretty global career to see conservation in action, and also to get a sense of some of the threats to conservation around the world. And the last trip that I went on with my family before leaving my previous employer was in fact to Sabah and to spend a few days really getting our fingernails dirty in the jungle there, and that was the most enormous privilege and a terrific backdrop for coming and engaging professionally on conservation for the first time.
NICK: Sounds really exciting, did you get to see any orangutans in Borneo?
DOMINIC: We did indeed and I’d like to say that we saw orangutans absolutely in the wild and we were the only people to see them there, but that wouldn’t be true. At a rescue centre we saw orangutans but we counted, I think it was 76 different species, we managed to see as we wandered around being ecotourists in the jungle there, which was quite something, although the backdrop to that concentration of species is because of the growth of the palm oil industry there, so there’s an extent to which the wildlife is being pushed into a narrower and narrower strip around the main rivers there, and one of the things that I really like about ZSL is that not only is it directly involved in conservation but it also kind of gets involved in conversations with people who are in activities, have real impact on wildlife, so ZSL produces something called the SPOTT guide which is about how you use transparency to encourage businesses to behave in a sustainable way, in particular around palm oil but also now timber, looking at pulp, rubber, other commodity productions.
And so it’s helping businesses to be better than they otherwise might be for the planet, and on the whole, if you have the right conversation with people, they actually respond positively to that. They certainly do when their shareholders are also asking the same questions, which is one of the reasons for producing this cut-down of research.
NICK: Really interesting. You mentioned there about how that family trip to Sabah was after your previous employment, let’s put it that way. Can you just provide a bit of a brief history of your career to date prior to ZSL? I’m aware that you were working as a diplomat in many different countries, could you just give us a bit of a run-down, an overview of your career prior to where you are now?
DOMINIC: So I started off in an investment bank doing what they call mergers and acquisitions. I moved fairly rapidly to join the Foreign Office and thought in my late 20s that being paid to learn Urdu would just be a lot of fun. I was taught Urdu and the reason why I was learning that was to go and work in Pakistan, in particular with opposition groups, fixing on human rights and what was happening with Islamist groups in the south of Asia at the time, and I just thought that was the most fascinating thing to do. I then found myself attracted across the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan, at that time there was a civil war in Afghanistan and the United Kingdom was supporting a UN peace process led by a very famous Algerian diplomat called Lakhdar Brahimi to try and bring the warring factions around the table and I had the enormous privilege of being pretty much the only OECD or western diplomat stationed in Afghanistan and so would go in representing the permanent five members of the Security Council and others in support of the United Nations to meet the different faction leaders.
From there, a number of other postings in Kosovo and East Timor focusing on peace negotiations and peace and reconciliation, and then moving back a bit to my original banking roots working in Spain as the ambassador in supporting inward investment from Spain into the UK, and then I was working for an organisation called UK Trade Investment that does a lot of that investment support and works with lots and lots of different companies in the UK trying to export, and I was British ambassador in the United Arab Emirates and then most recently in Afghanistan.
NICK: Gosh, it’s been quite a career to date! Have there been any particular memorable moments or things you’re particularly proud of when you look back? You’ve already touched on a few there already, but are there any moments that particularly stand out that you might tell your grandchildren about in the future?
DOMINIC: I suppose there are two from Afghanistan that spring to mind, one with wildlife rather than people. And that was in the late 1990s when the Taliban had just taken control of Kabul, I would travel around Afghanistan quite a lot and I would go to Kabul and visit Kabul Zoo and bring food and money for the keepers there who were trying to… struggling to keep the space open. And it was a pretty grim environment for wildlife, it was though the only place that I saw in Kabul where families actually came together.
Because all the trees had been cut down etc. etc. for firewood, it was one of the very few natural spaces in any way, not terribly natural but that had anything and there was this three-legged one-eyed lion called Marjan the lion, I supposed to go and visit Marjan and this lion was a kind of an icon for… of Kabul Zoo and I used to find money and things for feeding Marjan the lion and I remember going back in the early 2000s after the Taliban had been defeated and civil war, all this kind of stuff, big changes and going and seeing Marjan the lion and just thinking, you know, leaders come and go, diplomats come and go, etc. etc. but somehow Marjan survived and lived on for a number of years and died of old age in the mid 2000s.
So seeing Marjan alive was great fun and then on the people front, that sense that there were people in that conflict who might have survived because of what we were doing, because of what I was doing – there was a little trick I used to do, when I would meet one of the warring faction leaders, I would bring my camera and I would ask to meet their prisoners and I would meet their prisoners and the civil war was pretty brutal and had a poor track record of looking after people and I would just take out my camera and take photographs. And it didn’t matter there was film in them or not, just the simple act of having a foreigner who they knew would go off and talk to the ICRC and the UN taking photographs meant that people I’m told behaved just a little bit better than they might have done otherwise and so it’s just possible that there are people alive today who maybe because of the political work that we were doing then, maybe just because of having their photograph taken, survived that awful war.
NICK: Absolutely, yeah. Did you ever fear for your life during your career so far? It sounds like you’ve been in some really intense situations, have you always felt safe or have there been moments where you were fearful for what might happen?
DOMINIC: Like anything in life, you take a pretty hard look at the risks before you go ahead really, and you can’t mitigate all the possible things that might go wrong but you try really hard to do that, and so for example in Afghanistan I worked very much within a UN envelope of security and so I tried to take well-judged risks and actually, no I didn’t ever fear for my life but there were some things that, in retrospect, I would do a little bit differently if it was somebody reporting to me who was asking to take those risks today.
NICK: Absolutely. Or if it was a member of your family or someone much closer, right. Interesting you mentioned Kabul Zoo there because I read recently, in fact this morning when I was reading up in preparation for the podcast, that you had some visitors from Kabul Zoo recently to ZSL, that’s right? Looking to see how you do things at London Zoo in terms of animal care and welfare standards that they could take back with them. That seems quite a nice kind of closing of the circle there for you.
DOMINIC: Yeah, it was an absolute delight to me that one aspect of ZSL’s impact on the world is engaging with a lot of conservationists around the world, a lot of zoos, a lot of scientists around the world involved in wildlife, and so ZSL had for years been working to help zoos across the world to raise their game using gosh, we have nearly 200 years of experience of that, and so very soon after 9/11, after 2001, ZSL went out to Kabul and looked to see how it could support the transformation of Kabul Zoo from a pretty bleak place and help them with their animal husbandry.
And so Saqib’s, the director’s, trip to us only a few weeks ago was part of that professional training and part of that networking, and in fact at roughly the same time I was in India where we’re working with the Wildlife Institute of India to support the professional development and training of wildlife vets from across India who work both in zoos, in wildlife reserves and actually out in the middle of the bush, so-called, and from other countries in east Africa and south Asia and it’s one of the things I just think is really neat about how ZSL works with other organisations, about raising the professional standards across the world, across the community, by helping to give key educational input at different points.
And so, as we, you know, as we look at the future of ZSL, we have this philosophy that runs from pre-school from professor so if you want to come in to zoos with scuffed knees aged two or three, or five probably with scuffed knees, or if you want to work with us on a project or to be a citizen scientist just after you’ve retired from your main role and you’re in your 70s or 80s, there are different ways of engaging on that lifetime learning journey in support of helping people to do more for wildlife.
NICK: Sounds fantastic. And as director general, as you now are, and you say you’ve been in the role for just over a year, you’re responsible for ZSL’s goal of achieving global conservation of animals and habitats, and you start to kind of provide a bit of an overview as to how you go about doing that as an organisation. What particularly attracted you to the job and the role when you were presumably in Kabul and thinking about what next and you saw or heard about this job, what was it that drew you towards it, you know, why did you choose to apply?
DOMINIC: I wanted a role that would let me change the world. That’s what I was trying to do in Kabul, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do as a diplomat for many years, but I wanted to move into an area that I’ve always really, really cared about bringing the skills I had, the skills I have around leadership but also around you know, thinking internationally, thinking globally, to a sector that is enormously strong on those kind of professional and technical skills of conservation. But when I look for example at the Living Planet Index that ZSL produces that charts biodiversity decline since 1970 to 2016 as the most recent data, and it shows more or less a 60% decline over that period of population sizes, I can’t help thinking that we as a global community, we as conservationists, are just not winning the argument, are not winning the fight for space in the minds of the public or of global leaders, policy makers or of corporate decision makers, the people who can really make a difference by what they do, either at the kind of mass democratic level or at a leadership level, and it takes something like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II to make people sit up and think about plastics, but the plastics story is not new.
So as I thought about that and thought about what cut-through looks like, I felt that there was some things that I could contribute from my diplomatic influencing background combined with an awful lot of people who know vastly more about conservation and conservation science than I do to see if we can have an impact on the world, and that’s what really excited me about coming to ZSL, it’s an organisation that knows what it wants to do, it wants to inspire, inform and empower people to stop wild animals going extinct, there is a sense in the organisation as we put together our new strategy that we could do that much better, and with more impact, if we think really purposefully about where we’re gonna play, how we do that as a society and how we do that at the heart of a network of contacts and partners in the UK and all around the world, and pulling all that together, bringing all that together and bringing that direction, purpose and impact I just found incredibly exciting.
NICK: You’re obviously optimistic about the future and making a change and turning things around, and I think a lot of conservationists listening will probably feel the same, that there’s a lot of skills and knowledge within the industry but we’ve not quite turned that to our advantage yet in terms of species and habitats that are still in decline. Where do you see are the biggest opportunities for doing things differently, to turn things around and how do you feel ZSL and your 200 strategies… sorry, your 200 anniversary which is coming up in seven years’ time, you know, how do you feel that you can actually change things to start to kind of bring those declines back and start turning them into positive index?
DOMINIC: Well I think that there are things that individuals can do and organisations can do. At ZSL we’ve decided to focus on three areas; wildlife and people, which is in particular how we inspire nearly 2 million zoo visitors to think about wildlife, but it’s also how we work with companies, how we work with organisations, how we work with 150,000 formal school groups coming into the zoos every year and the other schools that we go out to, and how other organisations do that as well, to get wildlife on the agenda and we’ve seen plastics get on the political agenda in the UK and into public consciousness in the last 18 months in a way that simply hasn’t happened before, so that really is possible.
We also are focusing, our second area of focus is wildlife health, and there are collaborations happening now facilitated by international partnerships, by better communications, that are tackling some of the really difficult health issues facing wildlife, and that’s somewhere where I think at a technical level we can really play and we want to do that with different partners, we’re in a partnership with the Royal Veterinary College and University College London that we’re really proud of and looking to develop, to see how we can have an even more important global impact on wildlife health. And then our third area of focus is on wildlife… bringing wildlife back from the brink, and there we’re already involved in leading something called the Evolutionary Distinct Globally Endangered Listings of Wildlife, and this is based on the IUCN Red List but it looks at the species where if you lost that species then you lose an entire branch of the tree of life, and sometimes it’s really neat.
You uplift a species to that edge list and without doing any conservation ourselves, we uplifted the Mary River turtle, which is this extraordinary critter with a Mohican hair, clotted algae on its head and it breathes through its genitals, it was the most sensational media hit and 4,000 media stories later, the government of Queensland decided that it would put in a conservation programme for this turtle that wasn’t gonna happen otherwise. So there is direct conservation that we as conservationists can do, but there’s also catalysing public opinion, catching the public vibe where you can, or a political one, and making change that way. So we see at ZSL all sorts of ways in which change can be brought about, and we also see the importance of sustaining change so next year, 2020 is a big year for global thinking about a bunch of things, but in particular on conservation the Aichi targets come in, there’s the 2020 look at the UN sustainable development goals which focuses in particular to 2021 and so on biodiversity and conservation, there is CBD, the Conventional Biodiversity meeting in China, it’s great to have the Chinese involved in that, there’s the UNFCCC, God there’s a whole spaghetti soup, alphabet soup of acronyms here.
So there’s a lot going on politically and so there are different ways people can play, whether they are technical conservationers or whether they are activists who want to get into this space and who want to, you know, write to their MP or become citizen scientists and then talk about it on their social media posts. So yeah, we’re optimistic and we think there’s lots that people can do that can help change things.
NICK: Yeah, and it sounds like providing a role for people, mobilising support, showcasing the spotlight of things that need to change and inspiring people to make those changes is what good organisations and good leaders like yourself are all about doing. I’m interested in the start of your tenure, you started I think it was in November 2017? And you’ve moved across various leadership roles in your career so far. And I hear, you know, and I’ve read about online that, you know, as CEOs and director generals, people talk about their first 100 days in role, you know, their priorities over their first, you know, two to three months, say, something like that – how did you approach the start of your tenure when you got your feet under the desk in November 2017, how did you set your priorities, what did you do over the first 100 days to help focus your efforts and start to kind of, you know, focus your vision?
DOMINIC: Well the short answer is I met a lot of people and met a lot of wildlife. But…
NICK: So you got up to speed, that’s right, and started to understand the DNA of your organisation?
DOMINIC: That was beautifully put, thank you. I certainly did that, and that was a key thing. But actually what I said I would do on day one was, this is an organisation that has nearly 200-year-old history but it needed a strategy to work out what it’s gonna be for for the next 10-20 years as we go up to and beyond our bicentenary in 2026. So I said that I would lead ZSL in getting a strategy in place in six months and that we’d set out that road map for us. With my leadership team, that is exactly what we did.
And in order to do that, there were a whole bunch of things that I needed to learn, there were discussions that we as a team needed to have internally, externally so that really set the agenda for my first six months in the job.
NICK: What do you most enjoy about your job? Focusing on your job day-to-day, you know, when you kind of reflect back over the last couple of months or so, you know, what are some of the things that you enjoy doing as director general of an organisation like ZSL?
DOMINIC: I have the most fun meeting the people and the animals, so one of the great things that I’ve been privileged to do, actually, has been to go around my organisation and ask the really basic questions that go along the lines of, hey I’m passionate about conservation but I’ve never done it professionally, you know so much, come and tell me stuff.
And sometimes that’s with master students, sometimes it’s with zookeepers who’ve been in the role for 50+ years in some cases, and sometimes it’s with volunteers that we have who come in and volunteer as citizen scientists counting seals or eels on the River Thames or they volunteer as learning and support people in our zoos, telling the story of the animals that we have there, asking all those questions has been such fun. But I tell you what, one of my highlights was when I leave lengthy discussions, meetings of our order committee or doing some of the detailed stuff that you gotta do as a boss from time to time, you wander into the zoo and you go and meet baby tamandua that’s just cool.
NICK: I bet! I was gonna ask you actually if you do get a brief hour off, you know, obviously you work, you know, within London Zoo, where do you go, what animal do you go and see and maybe you’ve just answered that, I don’t know?
DOMINIC: Well I particularly like London Zoo’s rainforest exhibit which is a lot of fun, and particularly that at dusk when the bats start flying around in the most amazing ways, terrific mixed exhibit with all sorts of pearls in there. When I’m in Whipsnade, I like to run around Whipsnade lunchtime, which is a great way of meeting people but also seeing what’s going on there, I don’t think they’ve got quite used to having a director general in lycra, which is funny and then the other thing that’s just enormous fun is as I mentioned, we have teams doing some extraordinary conservation projects around the world, ranging from angel sharks to seahorses to tigers and rhinos and everything in between, and visiting some of those teams in some of the really remote spaces where wildlife are now flourishing because of the intervention and support that ZSL and our partners there were able to do, that is just the most enormous privilege.
NICK: Yeah and seeing and feeling the impact of you and your organisation’s work must give you a real sense of career pride I would think, yeah. So I’m interested in your, in the strategy as I say, seven years until ZSL is 200, celebrating your 200th anniversary which will be an astounding achievement for any organisation. In order to achieve that strategy and the goals set out within that, you obviously need to attract people and talent into your organisation who currently don’t work for you. What are the types of people that you need within your organisation now to work within the modern conservation age?
DOMINIC: We need people with very diverse ranges of skills so from the technical conservationists, people who know how to manipulate data, the scientists who have backgrounds in particular wildlife health issues, veterinarians, the people who either want to get or have the zookeeping qualifications, ranging to the people who are perhaps a little bit more like me, who are passionate about conservation but have different skills, the media folk, the retail purchasing, the people who really understand how to drive great experiences for our visitors at the zoos to colleagues with a background in accounts, in fundraising. So right across the whole area of ZSL, you know, there is just a broad, broad range of skills.
And just going back to something we touched on earlier Nick about education opportunities from pre-school to professor; we teach and we learn so we have a lot of PhD and masters students studying with us, a lot of students coming in with their school groups, a lot of people on MOOCs with us or engaging on necropsies that we do, of citations online, engaging as citizen scientists so there are ways in which we, as it were, formally teach but we also really learn. And one of the things that a lot of people working at ZSL love is that opportunity to learn outside of what they know, so I’ve met really experienced conservationists who by virtue of joining ZSL understand, you know, they’re used to being in the field in Kenya, in Cameroon etc., but they really understood for the first time how an outstanding zoo can contribute to conservation, and also how it can contribute as an organisation to changing a political agenda and this was just something that they perhaps had no exposure to, and so looked for opportunities to get involved, as it were, outside of their previous area of expertise. And that’s pretty good fun too.
NICK: Yeah. Which is very similar to the career that you’ve had, in a way, having switched out from outside of conservation into conservation and there’s lots of people out there in the world nowadays that perhaps mid-career are doing something, you know, which perhaps they enjoy or not, but their passion is in wildlife conservation and would love to work professionally in wildlife conservation too.
DOMINIC: I would say, don’t be shy. So as I looked at ZSL from afar and thought, gosh that director general job looks really interesting and that would really speak to my values and perhaps I could bring something to it, I was a little held back a bit by thinking, ah but they wouldn’t want anybody who didn’t have a professional conservation background for that. And then actually I looked at what was relevant, what the organisation was looking to do and to have some conversations with the people involved and decided, you know what? I could really add value here.
And I think for anybody who has an interest in conservation and knows they have particular skills that they can offer, it is always worth having that conservation. Don’t hold back, don’t self-censor, would be my advice and I’m really glad I didn’t.
NICK: Fantastic, that’s great advice I think for people. I think people do undervalue the experiences they have already, particularly what we call, I guess, transferrable skills, you know, all these things that you accumulate through your career which conservation as a professional sector, you know, really values nowadays, it’s not just about the science and I think you’re proving that really successfully.
DOMINIC: Well thank you, and what I would say is ZSL has job opportunities coming up a great deal, and so if there are people listening to the podcast who would like to be part of ZSL’s vision, a world where wildlife thrives, then please do take a look at our website, www.zsl.org/careers, and see what’s bubbling along if you’ve got that passion.
NICK: That’s great advice and we’ll link that in the notes, thank you. So just some final open questions then as we kind of start to wrap things up. We talked about ZSL and your 200-year strategy, seven years out now; cycling forward seven years into the future, where do you hope to have got to at ZSL, what would be different about the organisation, what do you feel you might have achieved by then?
DOMINIC: I think we would have achieved three things. I think there will be species solidly alive on the planet, stably alive on the planet that are looking wobbly at the moment, and that’ll be as a result of our interventions and our work with partners on their conservation. I think that we will be in a transformative partnership on wildlife health, in particular focusing on zoonotic diseases that… looking at a wide range of wildlife issues that certainly neither we nor the RBC nor UCL have had the academic bandwidth to reflect on up till now and that will produce answers to some of the most pressing issues facing wildlife at the moment from a health perspective.
And then finally and most importantly, we will have engaged with an ever-increasing number of people to get them to think about wildlife and in particular through our zoos, and in London Zoo we are positioning London Zoo as a city zoo that is international in outlook, and we’re positioning Whipsnade Zoo as a wild space for adventure with wildlife, and those are very different experiences and I think people will respond really well to those experiences and to engaging with wildlife as a result. So that’s what the future looks like.
NICK: It sounds bright, and I wish you and your team all the very best in achieving those goals. My final question would be, if I could somehow make you a global tsar for the day, so you could make any changes you saw fit, you know, on this little precious planet of ours, what would you do that would have the most impact, do you feel? If you could make one change, enact one big motion, what would you seek to achieve?
DOMINIC: I would seek to stop the clock for a minute and for the world, a bit like Earth Hour, for the world to take time-out and think of the impact of what we do on wildlife and think about what the world would look like if that wildlife wasn’t there and then just reflect, right so how can I make that impact an impact for the good, not an impact for the bad?
NICK: Fantastic. And I think on that, that’s probably a great place to wrap up. Dominic Jermey, thank you so much for your time today and coming and speaking to us and our audience here at Conservation Careers, it’s been so nice having you on the podcast. If people wanted to find out a little bit more about ZSL, where should we point them?
DOMINIC: You should, please point them at the website, www.zsl.org/careers and you should encourage them to come and visit us. And we have nearly 2 million people who come and do that every year in London and Whipsnade and it would be great to see them, it’s a very good way of learning a bit about who we are. And we also have lectures and scientific talks on conservation, on conservation science, on a regular basis, at least monthly, open to the general public and I’d encourage people to look at the website to see what’s coming up and to come along.
NICK: Great, so whatever age you are, whether you’ve got grazed knees or you’re a retired professor, get involved, right?
DOMINIC: Absolutely, we’d love to have you join the partnership.
NICK: Right. Well thank you again Dominic, I really appreciate your time. Take care.
DOMINIC: And you, thanks Nick. 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.