Wild Geese: a lover of nature finds a home in southeast Asia

Neil Furey, consultant biologist and lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia

Dr Neil Furey: “My first few years in Vietnam were spent leading 10-week research expeditions in remote mountainous areas in the north and writing up the results”

Dr Neil Furey: “My first few years in Vietnam were spent leading 10-week research expeditions in remote mountainous areas in the north and writing up the results”

 

Dr Neil Furey’s career straddles the world of academe, conservation and consultancy in southeast Asia. Currently a consultant biologist and chief editor for conservation organisation Fauna and Flora International, he also lectures at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and works as an independent researcher.

But Furey wasn’t always an academic. Leaving school at 16, he pursued a musical career, gigging in Ireland, Denmark and Germany. He returned to Ireland in 1993 to take a diploma in amenity horticulture at Ringsend Technical College, and worked as a landscaper for a short time.

“I’ve always loved nature and this fascination grew during my gardening years,” Furey says. “I knew I wanted a career in environmental conservation and needed qualifications to pursue this, but found that related courses were almost non-existent in Ireland in the early 1990s.”

He moved to the UK in 1995 to begin a higher national diploma in environment management. It was to be a major turning point in his life, leading to a four-year degree in environmental management at Cranfield University and graduating in 1999.

Following a biological research expedition to a remote area of Vietnam in 1997, where he learned from ex-Viet Cong soldiers how to live and undertake research in tropical rainforests, he accepted a research assistant post with a UK-based expeditionary firm and moved to north Vietnam in mid-1999.

Unexplored rainforest

“The lure of Vietnam was irresistible, partly because it was so exotic but also because of the discovery of the saola in 1993. This is a rather beautiful forest bovine, which then was the first new large mammal to be found worldwide in 70 years.” In signalling the existence of enormous areas of unexplored rainforest, its discovery caused a scientific sensation which led to a spate of similar discoveries and hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in biodiversity conservation in Vietnam.

“My first few years in Vietnam were spent leading 10-week research expeditions in remote mountainous areas in the north and writing up the results. These essentially comprised of inventory surveys for plants and a wide range of animal groups. After eight gruelling expeditions I began researching bats.”

In 2002, Furey began working on biodiversity conservation projects led by non-government organisations in Vietnam. It led to the creation of a 190 sq km nature reserve in north Vietnam, and the introduction of innovative laws for gun control to combat rampant hunting in protected areas.

In late 2005, Furey began a part-time PhD at Aberdeen University as an off-campus student. He completed the degree in mid-2009, and “though the focus of the PhD was on bat ecology I was privileged to also co-describe and name three new bat species to science in the process”.

Doctorate

On foot of the doctorate he was offered a head of academic development post at the Royal University of Phnom Penh as part of a capacity-building project co-managed by Fauna and Flora International. He moved to Cambodia a week after his PhD defence. His time leading this initiative included several “firsts” for Cambodia – development of the first MSc degree, first natural history museums and first scientific journal nationally.

One noticeable trend in the environment sector has been the shift in donor interest from formerly less-developed-countries such as Vietnam towards emerging countries like Myanmar. As economies in the region have grown, legislative developments and infrastructure projects have increased the need for evaluation of environmental and social costs and benefits.

Interest within the wider community has also grown in sustainable financing schemes for conservation, and donors are increasingly emphasising the development of civil society within the region.

Most of Furey’s professional life has been in southeast Asia, but there are certainly gender-specific differences in the work culture and how people communicate.

“I’ve sometimes seen western colleagues struggle to establish effective rapport with counterparts due to insufficient appreciation of operational realities and how these are expressed and dealt with locally.”

His advice to potential emigrants is to take time to appreciate the differences in work culture, and how people communicate in Asian and in western countries.

“Irish [people] typically get on very well due to their relative lack of preconceptions and work ethic. Anyone doing their homework will also find plenty of forums and social groups which are always a great starting point.”

He sees great potential for bilateral collaborations between Irish and Cambodian businesses.

Restaurants

The cost of living is a draw to Cambodia. “You can get a nice one or two-bed apartment in the centre of Phnom Penh for $500 a month: 30 minutes out from the centre, a four-bedroom (all ensuite) semi-detached house in a gated community is the same price.

“Local draft beer is about $1, and the city centre is bristling with cafes and restaurants, western food stores, international schools etc so it is definitely an easy posting.”

For the future Furey would like to continue working with universities to develop academic standards and capacity for conservation science within the region. “Myanmar is another country that especially offers great opportunities in this respect having just emerged from half a century of repressive isolation.”

Recently engaged to a Chinese woman, Furey has made southeast Asia his home.

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