We asked post graduate researcher, Emiel de Lange, about his work in Northern Cambodia and how he feels about the future of conservation.
What made you decide to pursue a career in conservation? Was there a specific event or moment that influenced you?
I’m not sure there was a specific moment. I think I was always interested in nature and animals: catching and keeping insects in boxes, playing with my cats, going to the zoo as a kid. Later on I enjoyed walking in forests and traveling to unspoilt places. I think the complexity of nature satisfied my curiosity for big abstract things.
The first project I worked on was studying the feeding ecology of Pangolins in Namibia. We spent hours late into the night radio tracking Pangolins through difficult terrain and getting into all kinds of trouble. It was an amazing experience and from then on I knew there was no going back.
Tell us a bit about the project you’re working on at the moment?
My colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have been coming across shocking scenes in Northern Cambodia, hunters and fishermen contaminate waterholes with a purple pesticide, killing not only the fish, but also the wildlife that drinks from them. The poison is indiscriminate so cattle and villagers are affected too.
This would be bad enough on its own, but some of the most important populations of critically endangered bird species like the Giant Ibis and White Shouldered Ibis also live in this part of Cambodia. There are only a few hundred individuals left so if the water holes they use are poisoned it represents a very real threat to the survival of the species.
I’ve been investigating the problem and working with WCS to develop strategies to tackle it. Our aim is to encourage villagers report water hole poisoning and make it clear to the individuals concerened that the community won’t tolerate this behaviour.
We’re using social marketing tools, combined with targeted surveillance and enforcement. I’m currently raising funds to test this approach with one community and when we’ve refined it we hope to roll it out to more areas.
Social media seems to be playing an increasingly important role in conservation. Why are you using it?
We want community members to be aware that eating poisoned meat and fish can have serious health implications so that they don’t accept it. We also want to encourage people to report it if they see someone poisoning their water. To get these messages across we’re going to use a variety of channels, including social media, but also holding events in the village and meeting with local leaders. More and more villages have mobile network coverage now and social media is increasingly popular, particularly amongst younger people, who make up an important part of our audience.
You’ve said that the best way to preserve biodiversity is by transforming human society?
I think it’s clear that humanity is having a destructive impact on the planet. Addressing this will require fundamental changes in the way we use natural resources, grow our food and build our cities. To be successful we need changes in policy and behaviour at all levels, from individuals, to governments, none of which will be easy. In Northern Cambodia we’re starting small, looking at some specific behavioural changes that villagers can make which will not only benefit them directly, but which will also have a big impact on the many animal and bird species living nearby.
There are lots of incredible role models in conservation, is there anyone who particularly inspired you?
There are many, many dedicated people working in extremely difficult circumstances around the world and I am in awe of what they do. In my research I’ve been lucky enough to see some of them in action and I particularly admire my colleagues at WCS Cambodia for their perseverance, pragmatism, and optimism in what may be one of the most challenging places for conservation in the world. I’m also inspired by my supervisor E.J. Milner-Gulland, who sets an example for how conservation research should be done: collaborative, interdisciplinary, & optimistic.
In your opinion what is the biggest challenge facing conservationists today?
Scale; often we have solutions that work, or approaches that generate results in one place, but scaling up, while ensuring the solution is still appropriate to local conditions, can be very difficult. Often it’s about money and politics – if conservationists had the funding and political backing they need, we could operate on a bigger scale and achieve much more. The same goes for timescales, too often funding for projects is short term, whereas conservation needs ongoing commitment and the development of long-term relationships with communities.
On a much smaller level there are lots of day to day challenges when you’re working in the field. In Cambodia, it can be hard to get around because the local roads often flood during the rainy season, meaning you’re pushing motorbike through muddy puddles, and I’m currently recovering from a bout of typhoid!
If you could choose to work on anything, what would your next project be?
I’m very much enjoying the project I’m working on currently: designing effective communications to drive social change. After the trial is complete and I’ve finished my PhD I’m hoping to secure more funding with WCS to roll it out to more areas. In the future I’m open to applying this approach to any conservation problem where it will make a difference. I’ll go where opportunity takes me!
Emiel is currently raising funds to support his research in Northern Cambodia, if you’d like to help click here to make a donation to his campaign.