Reports from the Field

Interview with James Borrell – Conservation Biologist

James Borrell


By: James Borrell | Posted on: 27 Jul 2016

Who are you, what do you do and what did you have for breakfast?

I’m a conservation biologist, which I guess is a kind of odd job description. It more or less means I study different aspects of the natural world, partly because it’s just so darn interesting, but also because it’s disappearing and I’d like to help preserve it. Sometimes this means I get to go out on expeditions and fieldwork to collect samples or count plants or animals, but more often it means doing statistics behind a computer!

For breakfast, I had marmalade on toast.

What did you get up to last Tuesday at work?

You picked a good day. On Tuesday I woke up in a woods outside London, having bivied out with my friend Dave Cornthwaite and a bunch of other wonderful people. I hopped back on a train and was in London by 7.30am.

My job on Tuesday was to read and write all about Natural Capital. That sounds like a bit of a yawn, but it’s important because it might one day change the way we look at the world. In the UK we worry about our financial economy a.k.a. how much money we have – we have a lot of debt, so that’s bad.

Now think about our natural economy; our woodlands, rivers, fields and air? They are arguably in a much worse state, so we need to be thinking about how to improve them. One day, we might have a world that invests in Natural Capital, as well as stocks, shares and businesses. Cool huh?

James Borrell

Who or what inspired you to do the job you do now?

I think I would pin it down to three things;

The first, is that as a teenager I found myself on an expedition to Madagascar (I went because I was trying to impress girls). I thought it would be a cool thing to do, but seeing quite how marvellous the natural world is really changed my outlook on life. I guess it was a bit of an epiphany – I wanted to do something to help.

The second is that I accidentally ended up surrounding myself with people that made ridiculously crazy things seem quite normal. I went to Explore at the RGS, started reading Al Humphreys’ blog and went on trips with British Exploring. In that kind of company, if you have big dreams then no-one bats an eyelid, they just encourage you to go and do it!

The last is that I don’t want to have any regrets. In the words of Kipling, I want to ‘fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run’.

What is needed to succeed in your career?

I think all you need is passion and positivity. I guess conservation can be a quite depressing pursuit, with a lot of set backs, so you have to stay optimistic.

The other thing, that I think really, really helps, is an enormous appetite for reading. You know, most of the solutions to conservation problems are probably out there already. We just have to hunt around for the pieces of the puzzle, and work out how to fit them together.

A willingness to change your mind is useful too, especially if the picture isn’t turning out quite how you imagined it would.

James Borrell

If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?

You know, I can’t think of much I would change. From when I was about 15-18 I was a rocker and had long hair, that was definitely an error. I cut it all off, and then got a girlfriend. True story.

What is your proudest moment?

There’s lots of things I’m proud of, but as with anything I think it’s best to always look forwards to the future. So I’m always thinking that the next thing will be the biggest and best.

Looking back though, in 2012 we did a big expedition to Oman, which was pretty awesome. Giving a TEDx talk is up there, as is driving around Botswana in a landy, which I still can’t believe we pulled off.

Plus I’m a nerd, so my first research paper is pretty special too me too – it’s about pollen dispersal (told you it was nerdy).

James Borrell TED X

What is your favourite quote?

Ah my favourite quote, a classic. It’s got to be:

“ Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”

I’m not sure who said it, but it’s pretty much the motto of Escape the City, an awesome group of folks.

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James Borrell
Posted on: 27 Jul 2016

How to Get a Job in Wildlife Conservation

wildlife rehabilitation


By: James Borrell | Posted on: 27 Jul 2016

Wildlife conservation is a huge, multi-faceted field. There are all kinds of opportunities available and the work is amongst the most varied you can find. It’s exciting, rewarding and offers the chance to make a difference.

In the autumn of 2014, the WWF released a report detailing some shocking statistics about our planet’s biodiversity. The headline fact was that Earth has lost half of its wildlife over the past 40 years. The two biggest causes are thought to be the exploitation of animals and habitat change, due to human expansion. The problem is continually getting worse and all kinds of animals are in danger of extinction.

But the good news is, you can help to change all of that.

primate rehabilitation

Conservation as a Career

As a conservationist, not only can you help to preserve the balance of the natural world, you can go and see it too! Travel, exploration, new people and loads of amazing wildlife. Sound good? I’m sure you’ll agree that a career in conservation is a great choice. So how can you start out on this exciting career path?

What You Need To Get a Job 

Of course, the primary characteristic you need is to love animals and the natural world. But as you’re reading this, we’ll assume you have that already! Here are the three things you need to get a job in wildlife conservation:

  • A degree
  • Specific skills
  • Relevant Experience

Once you put them all together, not only will you be ready to start your dream job in conservation, you’ll be in a much better position to find it. So let’s break them down and talk in more detail, shall we.

turtle conservation internship

Degree

The vast majority of people working in the field have an undergraduate degree, or higher. If you haven’t started a degree yet, don’t worry. A quick bit of research will reveal a multitude of courses from foundation degrees to doctorates. Fortunately though, it’s not all academic work. Many degrees allow for a practical experience component. We’ll talk more about that a little later on.

Specific Skills

There are three specific skills you’re going to need.

The first is the habit of learning. Conservation is constantly changing. To stay on top of the latest developments, you need to be an active participant in the field. Lots of reading is a must. Attending conferences and training events can also be really helpful. Try to think about the kinds of areas that interest you. What are you passionate about? Start researching now.

Another big part of learning is being willing to change your mind. Being at the forefront of science means new information is arriving all the time. Whilst it’s tempting to really get stuck in with one branch of thought, new research can often change everything. Whether it’s your understanding of your specific role, or the entire focus of the project, you have to be open to new information.

The second skillset you need to develop is communication. Working directly with nature is not the whole story. Some of the most important work undertaken by conservationists is persuading other people that their work matters. Being able to communicate effectively across several platforms is crucial to your success.

There are loads of ways to do this. Something you may already be good with is social media. Typically, pictures of cute animals come across really well. But you’ll also need to be able to document your findings, keep records and write convincingly to tell people about your project. As with most things, diligent practice helps immensely. Maybe there’s a local project you can help out with. Or perhaps you can start out online. Commenting on conservation blog posts is a great way to connect with people and improve your writing.

Finally, networking and people skills are essential. You’ll find that the better you are at meeting people and cultivating relationships, the more you’ll be able to achieve in your chosen area. This applies at conferences, in your local community and in the field. Being somebody who can connect with others is often important. But in the field of conservation, the relationships you have can really impact how successful your work is. Consider looking for conservation meetups in your area. The more likeminded people you can meet, the better.

 wildlife internship

Getting a Head Start

So you’ve either got a degree or you’re working on it. And now you know what skills you’re going to need to work on. You may already feel well on the way to getting that job you want. There’s just one thing missing. Probably the hardest thing to get, is the most important of all – experience.

Almost every job posting requires experience and it can quickly seem like a chicken and egg situation where getting either a job OR experience, can seem almost impossible. Whatever degree you’ve chosen, it’s hard to get the hands on experience you’ll need to land your dream job.

Don’t worry though. There’s a fantastic way to tackle that problem and have a lot of fun at the same time. The best way to get an edge over other candidates is experience. And the best way to get experience, is through an internship.

 

Internships

There is wildlife in need of your help in every corner of the world and starting with an internship will broaden your understanding of the issues they face. Not only that, but you’ll get hands-on practice with all aspects of the field. Of course, there’s the added bonus that you get to travel. Often to exotic locations not open to mass tourism.

As we talked about earlier, many degrees allow a practical component and a summer internship is perfect for that. So if you’re already doing a degree, check with your uni about the specifics of your course.

An internship proves to employers that you already have the necessary skills and experience to fulfil the role you’re applying for. But it also gives you the chance to have some fun, meet like-minded people and make the world a better place.

So get a degree, work on your skills and then go out and get some experience. Then you’ll be able to get a job in wildlife conversation, have an adventure and make a difference.

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James Borrell
Posted on: 27 Jul 2016

What Next? How To Build On Your First Expedition

James Borrell


By: James Borrell | Posted on: 10 Jul 2015

James Borrell is a conservation biologist with a passion for challenging expeditions. He’s been involved with a range of projects on four continents. From critically endangered big cats in the remote Dhofar Mountains to biodiversity surveys in the Amazon and forest genetics in the high Arctic. He also founded Discover Conservation, a website to inspire the next generation of young field biologists. In this post, James offers his best advice on what to do on coming back from your first expedition – with a taste for more.

You’ve just returned from your first project overseas. Beds seem weirdly high, soft and comfortable; you’re tempted to roll your mat out on the floor. Food seems rich and plentiful (hello bacon old friend, we didn’t have you in the jungle). Clean water, straight out of a tap, is a gift you swear you will never take for granted again.

I believe strongly in the benefits of challenging fieldwork expeditions and projects overseas. They don’t just help us develop personally and broaden our view of the world, but they also offer an opportunity to contribute to worthwhile causes, often in developing countries. Quite literally, it’s a win-win situation.

Expeditions can feel like the culmination of months or years of hard work, and the comedown of stepping back into reality can be strange. But just as they say ‘it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all’ – the same is true for expeditions. Many will slowly slip back into their ordinary lives. That trip will be a great thing they did once, but that wanderlust itch has been scratched.

For others though, a minority perhaps, expeditions are an awakening. What next? How can I get involved with more? Is this a serious career path?

These are questions I hear a lot, so here are five options for staying involved with expeditions long term. I have friends and colleagues who are slowly finding their way down all of these paths, it’s not easy, its not fun all of the time, but it is possible – and you’ll often leave the world a better place as a result.

  1. Fill your free time with expeditions – the simplest ‘no strings attached’ options. As a teenager it can be hard to find the money to get yourself out to projects in far-flung countries. With a semi-normal job, a few years down the line, it gets easier. In fact pretty soon, it’s no longer money, but time, that becomes your most precious commodity. If you can be scrupulous and hoard a few weeks of holiday to head overseas then it’s easy enough to get your annual expedition fix.
  1. Become an expedition leader – help run overseas logistics. Lots of organisations require cool headed, experienced and organised individuals to help them run their projects. Often this involved taking young people on their first expedition or project, you’ll probably remember what that was like! Whilst it can be a stressful job, it’s also hugely rewarding.
  1. The science route – make your passion your job. As a result of my first expedition, conducting research in Madagascar, I’ve spent the last few years developing skills as a conservation biologist. This has led to opportunities on several other projects abroad, but for every week spent in the field there’s normally a couple of months of preparation and write up afterwards in front of a computer screen.
  1. Set up your own project – increasingly a realistic option. I know several people that have been so inspired by a travel experience that several years later they have headed back out to work there long term, or even set up a similar project in another area. Often, their venture grows and begins to take international volunteers and so the cycle repeats itself!
  1. Become an expedition medic – a tough job, but possibly the easiest way to get on expeditions. Medics are always in huge demand; their flights are often paid for too, the only downside is that it takes plenty of time and money to train! That, and you have to deal with all of the worst-case scenarios.

 

This list is by no means exhaustive, but my single piece of advice (I have no idea who said it first!), is this: ‘Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.’

Good luck.

 

www.jamesborrell.com

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James Borrell
Posted on: 10 Jul 2015