The Journey of a Behavioural Ecologist Conservation Biologist

David Fernandez is a behavioural ecologist conservation biologist.

Behavioural ecologists play an important role in conservation. Behaviour links organisms and the environment and is a fundamental aspect of animal life. Changes to the environment can affect animal behaviour.

For instance, the food available in degraded and pristine ecosystems might differ, which could in turn affect a species’s social dynamics and their survival. Understanding how this works is crucial to conserving a species.

With expertise in field research and the experience of being a Senior Lecturer and Programme Lead at the University of the West of England for Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Science, David is well-versed in the conservation industry. 

David has field sites in Bioko Island and Monte Alén National Park – both in Equatorial Guinea (Central Africa), as well as the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania. His work aims to understand the drivers of environmental change and its consequences on wildlife.

In this interview David shares information about his conservation career and offers advice for other budding conservationists. 

Why do you work in conservation? 

I started off as a behavioural ecologist, studying primates. I focused on reproductive strategies, especially of females, and how they make sure their infants are healthy and grow up strong. 

That is something that really fascinated me, but as I worked in Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea, I realised that to ensure that these animals were able to stay alive for a long time, it became more than just knowing what females do to improve the health of their infants and the behaviours of these primates. We need to be more focused on trying to make sure that the threats that exist for that habitat and that species are understood and addressed, so that’s why I started to focus more on conservation rather than just behavioural ecology.

What are the main activities in your current role? 

I would like my work to be more focused on research, but I am a lecturer also, so I do quite a lot of teaching and admin. Probably 75% is teaching and admin and being the programme lead. 

The other 25% of my role is research and monitoring the work of the assistants or post graduate students working or doing research, or simply just trying to do internal analysis and to publish them and write grants.

What’s the best part of the job?

Travelling to these different places is fantastic! It is not the travelling itself, but it is being there and being able to go into these pristine environments and seeing signs of animals in the forest.  

I also work very closely with local assistants and government officials from these countries, trying to contribute to policy change by communicating with policy makers the results of my work. The best part is working in the field but working with the local people and learning from them and trying to make the country a better place in terms of conservation is very rewarding as well.

I also get the same rewarding feeling teaching students about what it is to be a conservationist. Making sure students understand the conservation issues and think critically to find solutions is equally rewarding. 

Are there any bad parts to the job?

The worst bit is the admin that goes with the job, for example arranging the dates of the assessments and filling out forms for fieldwork.

Sometimes in the field it is difficult or complicated and things don’t always work the way they should. For example, getting a permit or some paperwork to do surveys is sometimes really complicated for no particular reason, or is denied.

It is not always easy!

 What are your career highlights and what are you most proud of so far?

One of the things I am working on right now, that is not quite finished, will hopefully be a significant change in terms of conservation for a particular group of primates. I am working on a conservation action plan for a group of primates called Mangadrills, that include mangabeys of the genus Cercocebus, as well as mandrills and drills (genus Mandrillus).  

They live in West, Central and East Africa and some of the least known and most endangered primates I am working with pretty much every conservationist and researcher who knows anything about these animals to build a comprehensive 5-year conservation plan for all these species across all these countries. We have been working on this for the past year and a half and I hope to finish it over the next few months. 

It is going to be published by IUCN which will set out a list of feasible and effective priority actions which will fuel conservation action and promote policy change to ensure these species survive. So, I have high hopes for that, and I hope that will be one of my highlights.

I’ve worked in Equatorial New Guinea for 18 years now and I have seen the place change quite significantly. When I first started working there it was still a very small country. Very few researchers and conservationists worked there. 

During this time, I have worked a lot with students and lecturers from the local university, the National University of Equatorial Guinea. Eighteen years later some of the students and lecturers I worked with now have high positions in the government or more senior roles at the University. I really like seeing those changes and seeing the new generation of conservationists. 

What key steps in your conservation career have you taken to get where you are now? 

The first step was to get my PhD. When I finished my undergrad in zoology in Spain, I went to Equatorial Guinea to work for a conservation organisation, the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Programme, mostly in primate conservation. 

At that point I was sure I wanted to continue down that route, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. The conservation organisation was based in the US and after getting to know the team in Equatorial Guinea they gave me some advice and recommended if you want to work with primates you should go to the US. 

I decided to go and do my PhD in the United States. At that point my English wasn’t great, so I had to learn English. This was a big step, but I decided I had to do it. 

Are there any conservation issues that aren’t in your area of expertise that we currently face that you would like to get involved with?

I think there are two. One of them is climate change, I don’t know when we will start seeing the effects in the tropics, but I would like to know more about it and start monitoring the changes that climate change is bringing to the equatorial forests.

And the second one: I’m currently writing a paper reviewing the main threats to primates. I’m reviewing all the primates that are on the IUCN Red List, whether they are Endangered or Critically Endangered and the threats that put them in those categories. 

The preliminary analysis shows that the main threat wasn’t hunting, which is what I originally thought; it was agriculture. Across primates and across regions, agriculture was one of the main threats. This was quite surprising, so I have been wondering for the last couple of weeks if I should look into that more often.

What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps? 

I will say, be very proactive, nothing is going to be given to you. You need to show that you want to get to a particular place and that’s when people will help you. 

I was helped by senior colleagues when I was studying because they saw that I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. So, I would say you need to be very proactive and be prepared to go wherever you need to go.

Have a very clear focus and go for it!


Want more? Why not visit David’s website or explore his publications.

If you’re interested in primates, you might also like the article Working to save Gunung Palung Orangutans and The Pros and Cons of Being a Primatologist.


Careers Advice, Interviews