Meet the ‘Irish Attenboroughs’ who answer call of the wild

These four dedicated conservationists work with the planet’s most endangered species

 

David Attenborough has a lot to answer for. I don’t even own a kitten, and yet I struggled to get through an episode of Planet Earth – which completed its second series on BBC recently – without daydreaming about jacking it all in for a life working with baby iguanas, or rescuing sea turtles in Barbados.

I suspect I’m not alone. But for a small number of Irish people, working with at-risk wildlife isn’t just a Sunday night pipedream.

Four Irish conservationists describe the work that has taken them to some of the world’s most remote locations, and into contact with its most endangered species – from Atlantic bottleneck dolphins to Asian moon bears, to giraffes, who were recently declared vulnerable to extinction for the first time.

Whether it is surviving plane crashes, being threatened by poachers, radio-collaring sleeping lions, or just spending weeks alone in the desert, a career in conservation is not for the faint-hearted. But this four wouldn’t have it any other way.

David O’Connor
Community-based conservation ecologist, San Diego, Africa and South-East Asia

When we meet, on a dull afternoon in a pub in Co Waterford, David O’Connor shows me a photo on his phone, taken recently in Kenya. It takes me a minute to work out what I’m staring at: it looks a lot like a baby elephant strapped onto the side of a helicopter.

It turns out that is exactly what it is. The elephant had fallen into a well and had to be hoisted out, and transported to where it could be reunited with its herd. “It’s not ideal, but it’s Africa, and you have to work with what you’ve got,” he says.

I haven’t seen him since we left school – Newtown in Waterford – in the 1990s, but we’ve stayed in touch on social media, so I already know that his typical day at the office is a little different to the rest of ours. As a community-based conservation ecologist, a normal working day might see him traversing the dusty landscape of Northern Kenya in a jeep, gathering data on the dwindling giraffe population with local wildlife conservancies. Or it could see him in the markets of Laos, working with citizen scientists to survey shoppers on their appetite for bear bile. Or it might bring him to Oxford, where he lectures students on the threats facing giraffe, bears, elephant or antelope.

It’s safe to say that at every school reunion we’re ever likely to attend, he’ll get the prize for the coolest job. It wasn’t always like this. At one point, O’Connor did put on a suit every day and go to work in a Dublin accountancy firm. “I did my undergraduate degree in zoology in UCC, and then a Masters in conservation at the University of Michigan. Then I really wanted to come back to Ireland,” he says.

Jobs in conservation were not easy to come by in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, so he took what seemed to be the sensible route, and did a postgrad in business. “I knew the moment I started at the accountancy firm that I’d made a huge mistake, but sometimes you have to try these things.”

He returned to the US and a job as a conservation manager for an open space preserve in California. After a couple of years, a role came up at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, and O’Connor – who is now 41 – relocated there with his American wife, Christine. San Diego is still home to the couple, and their six -year-old-son, Bréas.

The nature of his work means that he is on the road a lot – from Northern Kenya, where his work is focused on community-based giraffe conservation projects; to South East Asia, and projects designed to combat the illegal trade in bear bile, saiga horn, tiger parts, rhino horn and pangolin scales.

He describes giraffe – whose numbers have declined by 40 per cent since the 1980s – as “the forgotten megafauna: we don’t know much about them, even though they are much-loved and famous. Until September this year, we thought there was one species of giraffe. Now, based on new genetic analysis, we know there should be four species, and each as different as a polar bear is to a brown bear. And we now know that giraffe communicate infrasonically, in a way that we can’t hear.”

Part of his focus has been training and funding jobs for those who live in the area to work with the animals and raise awareness. Ultimately, conservation is about people, he says. “It is the people who co-exist every day with the wildlife who are the ones ultimately who are going to save it.”

Is he depressed about the future for wildlife such as giraffe? “I’m actually hopeful,” he says. “ The biggest threat to wildlife is that they’re running out of space. The approach of these community conservancies are giving me a lot of hope.”

I probe him to tell me about hairy moments. I’m expecting to hear about him being charged by elephants - “yes, that has happened a few times,” he laughs. But “there have been a few other scary moments. In Asia, I’ve been chased out of places selling wildlife parts by guys with knives.”

Then he tells me a story about being in a plane crash in Kenya last August. “There were four of us in this little Cessna, and we were landing on a bush strip. We hit the ground really, really hard, and the front wheel broke off. We flipped over and skidded. Thankfully, everybody survived. I broke my back.

“Luckily it wasn’t too bad, thank God,” he adds, in what I suspect is a fine example of the Irish art of understatement.

You can make a donation to O’Connor’s work in Kenya here: endextinction.org/giraffe

Emma Hart
PhD Student, Namibia

It is always a sign of a good holiday when you find yourself fantasising about pulling a Shirley Valentine: throwing the proverbial plate of egg and chips at the wall of your old life, and starting afresh somewhere new. For most of us, a few days back at home, and we’ve managed to talk ourselves round. Not Emma Hart.

She fell in love with Namibia during a horse safari in 2014. “It’s like nowhere else on the planet. It’s beautiful, wild and remote. They call it one of the last great wildernesses on earth. Your world gets bigger out there because there’s such a vast landscape, but it also strips down to that single expedition because there’s no outside influences. Namibia gets hold of you, and it refuses to let go,” she says.

Hart, who is 29, grew up in Oysterhaven in Co Cork, where her parents run a watersports and adventure centre. She returned from that trip, and settled back into life in Edinburgh and her PhD in psychology. But she found she couldn’t get the country, or its otherworldly landscape, out of her head. “To cut a long story short, I quit the PhD, and made my way back out to Namibia.”

She travelled for a while, before landing a job as a guide at a horse safari lodge. Through that she met Dr Julian Fennessy, who runs the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, which operates throughout Africa. “He was looking for a PhD student to run an ongoing, longitudinal study on the giraffe in North West Namibia.”

With her passion for wildlife and her background in psychology, which gave her an understanding of animal communication and social dynamics, and her comfort with the prospect of long periods of solitude, she was the perfect candidate. UCD’s School of Biology and Environmental Science agreed to sponsor the PhD.

“A typical day involves waking up in a tent in the desert, starting a fire, making a pot of coffee, and then we head out into the field, where we’re updating our giraffe identification databases. We’re looking for things like herd composition, and evidence of whether giraffe maintain relationships,” she says.

“There’s very little infrastructure there – we have to bring in our own water. But it’s funny how little you really need to be totally comfortable and happy. When I take people out there, they’re always worried about not having phone reception. But after a day or two, they realise they have everything they need.”

The highlight of her work is also the toughest part – capturing and tagging giraffes with satellite tracking collars. “Unfortunately, the effect of the immobilizing dart is to make the giraffe run at up to 60km an hour. So we take off after it in the 4x4. We have to try and get about 60 to 100 metres ahead of the giraffe, slam on the brakes and get into position with a trip wire. There’s a tight margin for error,” she says.

“When the giraffe falls, the capture team must jump on its neck. You’re using the neck as pendulum as you administer the antidote – it’s a two-ton animal, and suddenly it wakes up. There’s legs flying, people flying. But there’s no better feeling than getting off the giraffe and seeing it run off towards its herd, knowing that data is going to contribute towards the preservation of this beautiful species.”

Hart is overseeing an adopt a giraffe program as part of her research. You can adopt one starting from $50, or get in touch with her directly to find out about taking part in a field trip to Namibia here: emma@giraffeconservation.org

Peadar Brehony
PhD Student, Cambridge University and Tanzania

Asked where he thinks of as home, Peadar Brehony has to pause and think about it. “Tanzania, probably,” he answers after a moment. “But I have always had a strong sense of being Irish, too.”

He was born in Ireland, but spent his early years in Tanzania with his Irish parents, who were working in development. The family moved to Uganda when he was a toddler and then, within a few years, to Sudan and Ethiopia, before returning to Tanzania when he was in his teens. He grew up fluent in English, French and Swahili, and could converse in a number of other African dialects. “Like a lot of ‘third culture kids’, I felt very Irish, but without a strong sense of what that really meant. My impression of Ireland was mostly what I had heard from priests and nuns in Africa, so I had quite an idealised view,” he says.

His first significant experience of Ireland was as a 16-year-old, when he came “home” to do his Leaving Cert, and had an opportunity to develop “those cultural touchpoints that make you Irish”.

When he finished school in 2007, Brehony – now 28 – went on to study zoology and environmental sciences in UCC. “Initially, I wanted to be an astrophysicist, before I realised that I wouldn’t get to spend a lot of time outside,” he says.

He was hungry to see more of the world beyond Africa, and did one year of his degree at the University of California Santa Barbara, before spending time travelling in New Zealand and Western Australia. By then, he was missing the “chaos – the noise, colour and vibrancy” – of Africa, and so in 2013 he found a job as part of a marine research team working off the coast of Gabon, in Cental West Africa. “Gabon has a lot of oil, so there are all these offshore oil platforms. On the one hand, you have illegal oil spills that we were trying to document, but on the other hand, the oil platforms acted as nursing grounds for a lot of marine life,” he says.

“Our job was to do surveys of the oceans to find out where key species were, including the Atlantic humpback dolphin, which is extremely endangered and rarely seen. We spent all day every day out on the water, in the biggest humpback whale breeding ground in the world, the biggest leatherback turtle breeding ground in the world. It was an incredible experience.”

The precarious journey out into the ocean every day, and the remoteness of the location, made for a tough environment, but he stayed for five months, eventually becoming the leader of his research team. By then, East Africa was calling again.

In 2014, he moved to Kenya, initially to work as a researcher on a human-lion co-existence project, and then to a job as an overall co-ordinator with the Kenya-Tanzania Borderland Conservation Initiative, a role that involved sharing research on endangered wildlife species across a number of NGOs and community landowners. He spent last year in Tanzania with the Pams Foundation, which is working to combat elephant poaching, “using small sums of money to make a big difference.”

The hazards of the kind of work he does range from being on the receiving end of threats because of his work combatting poaching to “radio-collaring a lion, which can be scary – especially if they wake up”– to the always-present risk of being charged by elephants.

For now, Brehony is back in Europe, doing a PhD in Cambridge on the socio-ecological systems in the Borderlands area of Kenya and Tanzania. “Irish people have had a huge impact all over the globe in development. Now I think there is an incredible opportunity for us to become a global leader in conservation too. We don’t have any colonial baggage, and we tend to be good with people. In the end, conservation is all about people,” he says.

You can donate to the Pams Foundation via its website: pamsfoundation.org

Brian Crudge
Research program manager, Free The Bears, Cambodia

Brian Crudge’s passion for wildlife developed during summers he spent working in Fota Island in Cork. “I didn’t immediately consider it as a career path: I actually studied chemistry first. But then I took a year out and went travelling in South East Asia. By then, I’d made the decision that I wanted to work in conservation.”

Now 32 and from Cobh in Co Cork, Crudge returned to Ireland to study freshwater and marine ecology at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. When he had finished his course, a friend put him in touch with a project in Cambodia that was looking for volunteers to work with bears. He jumped at the chance to go back to Asia, and a role with Free the Bears in Northern Laos. “My job was to walk a rescued bear every day. Following a bear around the forest, and watching him figure out how to forage, is a great way to learn about them.”

Currently based in Phnom Penh, where he is a research program manager, Crudge says there are two main threats bears face: habitat loss, as forests are converted to palm oil plantations; and the illegal wildlife trade. Bears in the region are vulnerable to poaching for their bile, which is prized in Chinese medicine.

“There are thousands of bears being held in captivity – maybe 10,000 in China and 4,000 in Vietnam. They’re held in tiny cages of 1.5 metres by 1.5 metres, and as a result they suffer from psychological stress. By the time we see them, they are pacing; they might shuffle from one foot to the other; they might swing their head from side to side.”

Free the Bears provides sanctuary to rescued bears, and carries out research that can help bears in the wild. Its work also involves education and community outreach: he is partnering with O’Connor on projects to survey the attitudes of the local population to bears.

“We have 140 bears in the rescue centre here in Cambodia. We provide lifelong primary care for them, and we learn from them. We still have much to learn about sun, moon and sloth bears if we are to protect them in the wild – and these bears can help us answer many of the questions that we have.”

Visit the FreeTheBears website to donate or learn more about ongoing volunteering opportunities: freethebears.org

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