Click to read: Durrell, I thank you

Durrell, I thank you

It is unsurprising that, based on my ‘Mauritius’ photo album on Facebook, people have seen my time out here as a holiday. There is no escaping the postcard-perfect seaside and mountain views that can be relished all over the island – including from my bedroom window. Such photographs may have taken priority over those of me crawling out from under my cockroach-ridden mosquito net at 5:30am to begin a day in the field, the 2am selfies from behind the essay on my laptop, or the video of me bent over, head in a bucket, with swarms of moths watching me wash my hair in 3 litres of rainwater on the seventh day of isolation on Round Island (no, there isn’t really a video of that graceful scene).

When I first stumbled upon the postgraduate diploma in Endangered Species Recovery on the Durrell Conservation Academy website, I applied on a whim and thought very little about the idea of actually setting foot on Mauritian soil – the very soil that I would call my home for 7 months the next year.

The process was a blur. I sent my application and a few days later received an invitation to interview, followed swiftly by a message stating that and interview wouldn’t be necessary – I had a place on the 2016 course should I wish to accept it. Before long, my suitcase was packed (with tea, mainly) and I was ready to embark on my conservation adventure.

Flying over the indescribably blue seas, my tired eyes gradually shifted Ile Maurice into focus. The view was not one of conservation paradise as the texts had portrayed, but rather a tessellation of sugarcane fields bordered by roads, interposed by the occasional mountain range.

I was one of 18 budding conservationists on the course, all of whom were there for very different personal reasons, but with a shared goal of helping to save the world’s ever-decreasing biological diversity. Every one of us would have been told boldly at some point in the past that we will never be wealthy if we choose to follow a career in conservation. The discipline – a constant battle against anthropocentric, money-driven behaviours worldwide – is, without exception, poorly funded.

The task at hand is impossible. For as long as the world is turning, mankind will continue to overpopulate and in turn, overexploit its resources. The WWF estimates that we are losing a minimum of 10,000 species every year. Just to be clear – the conservation of biodiversity is integral to our future. A reduction in biodiversity will result in scarcity of food and fresh water, increased vulnerability to pests and diseases, and a climate that is changing at a pace far beyond that which would be manageable.

I cannot stress enough how much I have learnt in such a short period of time here. The experience has been a rollercoaster and I have met some immensely inspirational figures along the way. Unfortunately, in many ways, my positive outlook on conservation as a science has been dented; it has become clear that difficult decisions are very often made on the advice of an experienced individual, rather than, as would be assumed, on scientific evidence.

Conservationists are also stuck in their ways. I find it baffling, for example, how such a great proportion of conservation’s academic community is completely against the idea of novel ecosystems. That is, they are intent on the notion that ecosystems should be restored to their ‘historic’ (usually taken to mean pre-human) state, despite the inescapable fact that humans still exist and will not drastically alter their behaviours. As I see it, conservation in the modern day needs to focus more on increasing biodiversity than on restoring every detail of what was once there.

Several species that were hauled from the brink of extinction by Gerald Durrell, Carl Jones and the team, are now stuck in a position where they are surviving (or even thriving) on supplementary food, but without the prospect of being self-sustaining in the near future. Their natural habitat simply is no longer there; the native forest that remains is in small, fragmented areas, and even in the National Parks, most is still overcome by invasive species. In the present day, a gradual drive can be recognised from species-specific conservation to more ecosystem-based approaches: a much-needed shift in my opinion.

Many organisations have a long way to come before they can claim to be undertaking genuinely wholesome projects with a realistic endpoint of self-sustainable ecosystems. Nevertheless, change is happening, and the discipline is visibly undergoing some severe alterations in practice. The tagline ‘Saving Species from Extinction’ could not be more accurate for Durrell – an organisation that has pulled off several near-impossible conservation projects. Perhaps the most famous of these is the case of the Mauritius kestrel, which, once restricted to just four breeding individuals, now boasts a population of more than 200. Other projects in progress, notably the Round Island project (discussed in my previous blog post), are exciting programmes that involve the regeneration of whole ecosystems.

The postgraduate diploma is the only one of its kind in the world; it links conservation theory to practice seamlessly and involves numerous invaluable work placements. The course provides vast, honest insight into the running of a conservation organisation, stressing the importance of organisation structure and leadership as well as the unavoidable need for risky decisions to be made in what has become known as a ‘crisis discipline’. I am honoured to have been taught by world-leading academics and to have experienced the incredible work of Durrell and the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation first-hand.

I’m sure most conservationists would agree that at times, it feels as though we are banging our heads against a brick wall. Keeping sight of the overall goal is a challenge and trying to convince oneself that the work being undertaken is worthwhile can be difficult. My faith in the methods used in conservation as a science has, unfortunately, been dampened; my motivation to help to improve the practice and drive it forwards on the other hand, has never been greater.

In March, I would introduce myself as a graduate student who wanted to enhance her practical skillset in order to improve her chances of being accepted for a funded conservation PhD. The course was to act as a stepping-stone for me. On the contrary, it has rather imitated a sledgehammer to the face. My PhD applications will be put on hold. I hope to live and experience life in other parts of the world, whilst trialling my skills in the organisation and/or communication side of conservation, ideally in a role that would allow me to write.

This experience has been eye opening. It has changed the course of my life and for that, Durrell, I thank you.

Posted 21 October 2016

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