A little over a year ago, a very good friend of mine send me a link to the website of conservationist James Borrell with the words “You’ll like this guy.”
She was right.
In that time I’ve become rather a fan of James Borrell, a PhD student from London who’s immensely passionate about conservation and has a love for communicating science that rivals even my own. James has undertaken scientific expeditions all over the planet, has received high praise for his TEDx talk titled “Is there hope in conservation?”, and when he was twenty-three founded a programme to help students experience conservation whilst telling the most uplifiting stories from the field; Discover Conservation.
James recently organised and undertook Expedition Angano – a research expedition to Madagascar to discover the mysterious future of the desperately fragmented forest there. It’s been a few years since I was out there, and with the imminent release of The Evolution of Madagascar I was incredibly keen to hear how things are out there now, and quiz James on the world of conservation in general.
It’s the cliché conservation question, but, what do you feel that the world of conservation needs now, most of all?
I think a couple of things. Firstly, we need to stop being so cynical about governments. The green movement is sometimes synonymous with being left-wing, and government-hating in general because it’s difficult to get the things we want. I saw a great talk by [an MP], the other day: “she said, if you don’t like it, stand to be an MP.” That’s all they are, is people who’ve got up and are having a go (most of them anyway).
Secondly, we need more ambition and to stop trying to ask for scraps. Conservation needs to make sense in an economically efficient way, that’s the only way it will be successful – at least in a time frame that matters. My pet hate is how much money we spend on crap species that are common as muck but we just happen to like – that goes for things like Elephants and Rhino as well, there are a lot of those, and while we spend money there, lesser known species are slipping to extinction. I’d like to see prioritisation on where you can spend your money and get the biggest bang for your buck I think, and there’s folks like the EDGE programme already making great progress there.
Very fair ideas, and I totally agree that the world would be so much better if people would moan a bit less and try a bit more. I’ve seen you speak a lot about Hope in conservation before, and would always say we could do with more of that, but do you think there’s a good amount of hope in conservation already?
Yeah, I see two bunches of conservationists: There’s those that I see in their own little world, managing little nature reserves in the UK, and then there’s the ones that are trying to work internationally. I appreciate both; you need both. But I don’t think that all conservationists in the UK can visualise the big picture, and that’s where you need to project hope – out of our little bubble in the UK and out to the wider world.
That’s why I’ve never specialised you know, I still call myself an Ecologist, as I’ve been on conservation expeditions a fair few times now and you meet people who are so passionate about snakes, or so passionate about birds, or so passionate about termites. Whereas I get my kicks from seeing the way that it all works together. And I still love snakes and birds and termites. But I feel that it’s… it’s kind of selfish, to prioritise something like that, and not see it as a component of something more.
Yeah, unfortunately though, career-wise at least, it’s pretty good if you specialise. If you focus on being the expert on Boophis of northern Madagascar, then people will recognise you as the Boophis expert of northern Madagascar.
Very fair point. But anyway, tell me more about Madagascar – is there any hope out there?
I think that’s the toughest place of all. There’s still lots of things I don’t get my head around out there. You see the scale at which everything operates, the small scale of forest fragments. I can’t quite imagine how these vast bits of forest are just disappearing. I don’t know, I think there’s hope, just. There’s a couple of really amazing statistics, and that’s that in modern history, no species of lemur have gone extinct. Chytrid hasn’t wiped out Madagascar’s frogs yet. And when you still find these intact patches of forest, that can be quite surprising, when you consider how much is gone. I think there is hope, but I think Madagascar is the hardest place to sell.
It’s such a strange place, I agree. So you’ve been working out there quite a bit recently, tell me what you’ve been doing?
One of the biggest problems in Madagascar is forest loss – you end up with just ten percent of it left and that’s bad situation. But one of the things you don’t think about is the resolution of the fragmentation. On average, Madagascar has some of the smallest fragments of any country in the world. So if you picked a point in the forest somewhere, eight times out of ten, it would be within a kilometre of a forest edge and a transition to grassland.
That’s pretty close! So, it’s not just that there’s not much forest left; the bits that are left are in really small pieces. My interests are in habitat fragmentation and how that works, and one of the things you get when you get smaller and smaller pieces, you get a higher ratio of edge to interior. Forest Edge, where it meets that grassland, is a really different environment to the interior. It’s a lot hotter, a lot drier; it has shallower leaf litter and higher tree mortality, more human disturbance and so on.
What we don’t really know though, is what you call “The Edge”. Do you call it first five meters or the first fifty? That makes a big difference; if you’re looking at a satellite image and you can see one square kilometre of forest, how much of that is good, intact, original forest, and how much is subject to these different conditions?
So the edge of a forest could easily be one, two, three, four, five degrees higher temperature than the interior. So in the field what we’re trying to do is study reptiles and amphibians in an attempt to detect this transition from edge to interior. If you walk on grassland in Madagascar, you’ll see some skinks, some snakes, you’ll see species that can tolerate disturbed habitats and so on. As you go into a rainfoest, they should disappear and be replaced by ones that can’t survive outside of that original habitat, things like tree frogs, little leaf-litter frogs and that kind of thing. So basically we’ve been trying to find that transition, and see at what distance from the edge you get that change.
And you were working up in the North weren’t you?
We worked in the North because most of the research that’s been done in Madagascar has either been done in the East around Moromanga, or Ranomafana in the South, which is great, they’re both lovely areas. In fact they’re nicer areas where the forest is in better condition, but the largest chunks of remaining forest are far far up in the North. They’re very very hard to get to, and comparatively much less studied. I happened to be able to put together a team that’s capable of getting to somewhere really remote – you know, and that’s part of the fun of it.
One of the thigns that was really interesting about your expedition – what was the name of the expedition again?
Angano. An “Angano” is a story or a fable or a legend in Malagasy. I didn’t know what to name it, I mean the name wasn’t particularly important. We didn’t know the name of any of the regions we were trying to get to, because they didn’t have names – at least as far as we knew or as far as google earth tells you. So we picked Angano because it means a ‘story’ or a ‘legend’ I was like “well, a story, that’s nice. Let’s name our expedition a story and then use stories to teach people about conservation.”All my guides then pee-d them selves because apparently an Angano, a legend in Malagasy means a story that isn’t true. I tried to argue that it’s a legend that can come true, and they were all just “Nah”.
Oh well that’s alright, you can still sell it to people in this country as Angano, it’ll be fine. So yeah, one of the interesting things about Expeditoin Angano was that you crowd-funded it.
Yeah we tried that. We got quite a lot of money from grants, quite a lot from members of the team, and then we managed to crowd-fund a little bit extra to support some Malagasy students that we took with us.
That’s awesome! I’m glad it’s all been such a success! And it’s a really great way of connecting people generally with conservation efforts.
I really love the way you’ve set up your website because it’s absolutely full of articles and advice on how to get involved with conservation, but for anyone who hasn’t yet read it all, what advice would you give to people who haven’t yet experienced conservation, and don’t yet realise how much we need it.
I think the way to realise how important it all is, is to realise how much everything depends on the environment. The value of the services that we derive from the environment, and don’t have to pay anything for as a society is massive. But that’s quite boring. I mean, it comes across as really really boring. I just can’t see a way of catching someone’s eye with an elevator pitch for something that, as much as I would love to. That’s why so many NGOs use big fluffy animals, to attract people’s attention.
My take, I guess, is I try and mix something a bit adventurous, a good story that appeals to everyone, with a bit of purpose. That’s expedition Angano. For someone who’s not a conservationist, we could say “we had a team of fifteen people living in the rainforest for a month.” They might think “ooh that’s cool”, and then they could see what you were doing. So my take is try to mix a little bit of adventure with conservation but that’s definitely not the only angle. I really liked Monbiot’s take on the iconic idea of rewilding, that’ a great one for getting people interested.
Incidentally the reason why I love rewilding and think it’s what we should do, is in conservation we don’t have a lot of money, and rewilding should be the cheapest possible strategy. Conservation charities in the UK don’t have very much money, and they spend ridiculous amounts managing tiny reserves, stopping tree encroachment and that kind of thing. If you could replace everything that wasn’t there and makes reserves large enough they should, eventually, manage themselves. You could then spend the money on educating people instead – but that’s all a bit out there at the moment I think!
All in all you’ve just got to capture people’s imaginations with these kinds of things, but I definitely don’t have the answer for how to do it.
My most sincere thanks to James for taking the time to talk to me, hopefully the next time we meet it’ll be in a pub with good beer and we can really give the world a thorough chewing-over. In the mean time, we may not have the answer to the world’s troubles, but I’m confident that the world of conservation –and it’s communication – is in good hands with him.
Visit www.jamesborrell.com to hear even more from this brilliant fellow.