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A career in conservation
  1. Nigel Leader-Williams


Nigel Leader-Williams is Director of Conservation Leadership in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge, where he works to build capacity in conservation through interdisciplinary research and teaching, with a focus on large mammals that conflict with human interests

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I WAS born in Sri Lanka where my father was a tea planter. We lived in the shadow of Adam's Peak, the island's highest mountain. Early memories include a working tea estate, candlelit elephant parades in Kandy and catching tiger fish in Trincomalee. We returned to England once the tea estates were nationalised following independence. We settled in the New Forest, where we kept horses and lived next door to the veterinary surgeon who ran one of two practices that covered the forest. It seemed natural that, from the age of 12, I should set my sights on becoming a vet. Equally, long walks and rides in the New Forest looking for deer and other wildlife began to show me how a natural area could be shaped and used by people, a growing interest as my career path gradually unfolded.

Vet school

A school friend's father sold drugs to the veterinary profession. He kindly polled his clients, who mostly thought that Liverpool was then the best school in the country. This poll probably reflected practitioners' views of the young vets trained at Liverpool, rather than considerations of research quality that underpin so many comparisons between schools and departments today! Thus I found myself, aged 17, entering the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences in Liverpool. The city had just produced the Beatles, and it was an exciting place for a country boy. Regular visits to the Anfield Kop, where Liverpudlian humour was at its best, left me a lifelong Reds supporter.

‘Seeing practice’ gradually led me to consider options other than the career in practice that I had assumed since childhood. Besides seeing practice around the country, in areas ranging from the Yorkshire Dales to south-west Ireland and from Staffordshire to Newmarket, I also spent periods working with the Curator of Mammals at London Zoo, and undertaking research on animal behaviour in Edinburgh. The Newmarket vet with whom I saw practice had previously enjoyed a distinguished research career. He advised me to do some research before settling into practice: ‘You will never regret it,’ he said.

Reindeer at opposite poles

So I began to look for suitable PhDs, and cast my net wide to look for opportunities that might involve research on wildlife. I was fortunate that one of our most distinguished veterinary colleagues offered to introduce me to the director of the British Antarctic Survey. Reindeer had been introduced from Norway to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia early in the 20th century, and there was concern over their impact on the island. Would this topic be of interest? The question hardly needed an answer, and I found myself sailing south in 1973 to spend two-and-a-half years on South Georgia.

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I lived for much of the time in the field away from the main base. Our field huts were in spectacular spots near sea-entering glaciers. Population dynamics formed the theoretical basis of my research. At the time, my study was the most detailed of any introduced species on a southern island. Scientifically, the key finding was that winter food supply determined the shape of irruptions among island populations of reindeer in the Arctic and sub-Antarctic. The key conservation finding was that introduced herbivores do not always cause extinctions among native floras, much of which can recover when grazing pressure is removed.

I was able to write up my results for a PhD at Cambridge Veterinary School. My tutor at Corpus Christi said I was the only person he had admitted to have applied from the Antarctic! The study also resulted in a monograph (Leader-Williams 1988), and a set of management recommendations. Plans are now being made to eradicate the introduced rats, as well as the reindeer, from South Georgia, in view of their impacts on the native fauna and flora.

Large mammals in Zambia

But how I could I call myself an expert in large mammals if I had not worked on Africa's Pleistocene fauna? I was fortunate to join the Large Animal Research Group in the Department of Zoology at Cambridge to set up a research project on the ecology of black rhinos in central African woodland in Luangwa Valley, Zambia. However, it became painfully obvious that black rhinos and African elephants were increasingly being killed illegally for their horns and ivory. Therefore, I refocused my research to examine the practical conservation needs of black rhinos and African elephants. Novel empirical data on law enforcement helped determine the manpower and financial resources required for protecting flagship species. Spreading resources thinly across large areas and large populations achieved little in practice. Subsequent bioeconomic models of incentives and disincentives for poaching showed that improving detection rates would achieve more than seeking high penalties, and that dehorning of rhinos could provide an incentive to private landowners to maintain rhinos on their land, were a legal trade in rhino horn allowed.

While working in Zambia, I was fortunate to live for five years just outside one of Africa's most impressive national parks, to marry on the riverbank, and to work with skilled trackers who knew more about the surrounding bush than any expatriate scientist could ever assimilate. Professionally, this period of research marked a personal turning point where I showed that answers to important applied questions could be published, and influence subsequent policy and conservation outcomes. Sadly, this old research is highly relevant again today, as Africa's rhinos face another onslaught of poaching.

Developing wildlife policy

In my next post, I was tasked with developing policies for Tanzania's wildlife sector. As senior adviser to the government's Director of Wildlife, I found myself fulfilling the suggestion that effective conservation biologists should spend more time in community meetings and less time on field and desk-based research. To ensure local political acceptability, our project wrote novel research on key issues under the project's name, but policy formulation took precedence over publications. However, I published edited versions of policy workshops and a summary of Tanzania's policy transition.

Our family was lucky to live for five years on the edge of the Indian Ocean, to the south of Dar es Salaam and just outside a marine reserve. We could relax on the beach and regularly snorkelled its fringing reef. Professionally, this period marked another personal turning point where I realised that building national capacity is vital for the effective implementation of conservation policy. Equally, policy development is inherently a political process that provides a key interdisciplinary challenge.

Biodiversity management

In 1995, I was appointed to the newly endowed chair in Biodiversity Management at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent. There, I built a research group that both investigated applied conservation issues and strengthened national capacity. To address such issues, we studied a wide range of species including African elephants and black rhinos, giraffes, mountain gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, West African manatees, saola, Przewalski's horses, tigers, lions, Ethiopian wolves, Andean bears, sun bears, striped hyenas, Komodo dragons and Mexican reptiles. We undertook research in a wide range of countries including Bolivia, Britain, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, many of which I was able to visit on trips to supervise students' PhDs.

We focused mainly on large mammals because data on population trends and rates of illegal use, which both serve as measures of conservation success, are generally better in this than any other taxonomic group. Furthermore, we increasingly incorporated habitat trend data, especially of changes in woodland and forest cover, measured using geographical information systems (GIS) into our research, to gain further indices of success in conservation. We used these data to ask practical questions that increasingly addressed social aspects of conservation, such as how can conflict between large mammals and people be reduced, and how can we devise voluntary incentives or learn from common property regimes that encourage conservation? As previously, applied and increasingly multidisciplinary research was well published.

The profile of my own research group provides a snapshot of the importance of the training carried out at DICE. As Director from 1999 to 2009, I was privileged to oversee the training of some 500 postgraduate conservationists from some 80 different countries around the world. DICE alumni, the majority of whom are nationals of developing countries rich in biodiversity, are serving as a force for change around the world, and helping improve decisions taken about their national wildlife. I take great pleasure in hearing that another alumnus has reached a position of responsibility, where their decisions might influence the course of conservation locally.

Conservation leadership

In 2009, I returned to Cambridge, as Director of Conservation Leadership, based in the Department of Geography, and with a professorial fellowship at Churchill College. In Cambridge, we are working to develop a world-class programme of conservation learning and leadership that focuses on experienced conservation professionals who are ready to make the transition from a technical to a leadership role. With the convening power of Cambridge, we have been able to attract just the sort of students we had intended to the first two cohorts that have so far been through a novel and interdisciplinary Masters programme. With all the conservation organisations based in and around Cambridge that are members of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, we have been able to provide just the kind of learning experience the students require. We hope that this new programme will help accelerate more effective conservation action by fully focusing on the leadership sector at the outset. Meanwhile, my research continues to develop a focus on how to optimise trade-offs within conservation (Leader-Williams and others 2010).

Veterinary training

How different would my career have been if I had not trained as a vet? Liverpool's veterinary academics always stressed that being a vet was both an art and a science. Vets are faced with solving practical problems, for which the science may not always be available, and then there is the human dimension to consider. Conservation faces similar considerations, and I often think back to this premise. Indeed, I doubt that I would have had the courage to focus so much of my research on practical issues without my veterinary training.

How different would my career have been if I had followed that early roadmap assumed since childhood? Very, I have no doubt. Did I imagine I would be doing what I do now? No! Serendipity and taking opportunities has played a large role in my choices of what to do ‘next’. When I look back, my earlier wanderings sounded like really interesting challenges in spectacular natural areas at the time they were mooted. Yet, I can discern a logical thread of progression, in part professional and in part a response to changing family circumstances. Therefore, I only realised I had a career when I took up my chair in 1995. I hope that readers will be receptive to considering any serendipitous offers that might interest them: they can set all sorts of hares running in unforeseen directions!


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