November 2016

No Lost Cause

Dr. Lee Durrell On the Joys and Heartbreak of Endangered Animal Conservation in Africa

Dr Lee Durrell

Durrell met her future husband, inimitable and acclaimed author and conservationist Gerald Durrell in the 1970s while finishing her PhD in Animal Behavior at Duke University. She is a driving force behind the Trust’s work to save endangered species from extinction. Durrell speaks to us about the challenges and joys of conservation work, particularly in Africa, the focus of her early research, and why “lost causes” are not in her vocabulary.

AR3’s Editor Ethan Chorin had the distinct pleasure to chat with Dr. Lee Durrell, Honorary Director of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

AR3: Faced with such enormous conservation challenges, how does the Trust determine its conservation and captive breeding priorities?  Presumably there have been cases where you are forced to forego a captive breeding program because the long-term prospects of habitat preservation are too bleak?

LD: Deciding on conservation and captive breeding priorities is really difficult. In fact, in the very early days, it was more of Gerald Durrell’s personal preference for a species than anything else!  But these were, in a sense, egalitarian.  He didn’t seek out the species that are normally found in zoos, the charismatic mega-mammals that have “box office” appeal, like tigers, elephants and rhinos, but rather the underdogs in the zoo world of the 20th century – the obscure, small, plain species that were conservation-needy. He felt that every species plays a valuable role in its ecosystem and asked who are we upstart humans to decide which becomes extinct and which not?  We have always followed Gerry’s philosophy, today refined into a “collection plan” for the Jersey Zoo (now called Durrell Wildlife Park) and a “conservation strategy” for the Trust as a whole, but it has undergone several iterations and will, no doubt, undergo several more, as conservation challenges change over time.  We do a lot of “horizon scanning”.  As for your second question about foregoing a breeding program because of bleak prospects for the wild habitat of the species, Gerry distinguished himself by not believing in “lost causes”.  That phrase was like a red rag to a bull for him!  Our earliest example concerns not so much an issue of habitat loss, but of low numbers of a species itself.  This is the case of the Mauritius kestrel, which had declined due to DDT in the environment and which, by the mid 1970s, had been reduced to a population of no more than four birds, only one of which was a breeding pair. You can’t get much closer to extinction than that, and a number of conservationists advised us to give up on it.  But the use of DDT was banned, and we devised breeding and release programs, backed up by good science in genetics and health that allowed the tiny population to persist and prosper.  There are now dozens of examples of species recovery achieved by Durrell all over the world.

AR3: Where does Africa sit in the Trust’s programmatic universe?

LD: Gerald Durrell’s first foray beyond Europe was to West Africa to collect animals through the 1940s to the 1960s. He adored that part of the world, returning three times and writing four books about his experiences. Thus it is odd that Africa does not feature strongly in the Trust’s current conservation program. We had, however, supported research on the illegal bushmeat trade in West Africa for many years, and we are very proud of our Gorilla Guardians (see Question 6 below).

AR3: What has been the Trust’s biggest success?

LD: There are many ways to measure success in conservation and many variations, from species recovery to habitat restoration, from training the new generation of conservationists in developing countries to doing significant original scientific research.  We’ve done all of these!  But personally, I am proudest of our recovery program for the ploughshare tortoise of Madagascar, as I started it three decades ago and managed it during its early stages. We set up a highly successful in-country breeding center, instigated the establishment of a national park with the tortoise as its flagship through our ongoing community conservation and empowerment work, and have had second generation breeding in the wild from captive-bred, released tortoises.  But it is a bittersweet feeling, because over the last few years the ploughshare tortoise has become a prize commodity in the global illegal wildlife trade.  It is being poached out of the national park at a rate so rapid that its extinction is predicted within a few years. I know this is nothing new in Africa, sadly, where poaching of elephant and rhino for the global trade in ivory and horn is increasing faster than ever.

The illegal wildlife trade finds fertile ground in places where the evil triplets – poverty, lack of governance and corruption – flourish, but it is driven by greedy and dangerous criminals stoking and feeding the desires of distant people, who are generally ignorant of the bio-havoc they are causing.  So, educating those people and bringing criminals to justice is the answer, but it is unlikely that these things can happen in a time scale which will help the beleaguered species!

AR3: How many African nationals are graduates of the Trust’s conservation programs, and where are they now?

LD: I don’t have the exact figure to hand, but we have trained more than 5,000 people from 137 countries (two thirds of the world), including many African nationals.  We are very proud of our Gorilla Guardians program, in which we bring park rangers from countries where gorillas are found to Durrell Conservation Academy for our three-month diploma course in endangered species management.  They work with our gorilla family and the animal staff, as well as interact with the other students, taking home knowledge and skills, as well as close friendships with people from around the world. Then they courageously return to their jobs as park rangers, which is difficult and hazardous work, even more motivated to protect these magnificent great apes.

AR3: What is the Trust’s preferred path to engagement with local governments?  Do you find local governments are receptive and helpful?

LD: Our preferred path is to initially work with local communities at a grassroots level. When results are achieved and trust is gained, the local governments are usually more than receptive and helpful, as we become their partners in trying to protect their environment and native species.  The sooner we can become “the junior partner”, the better, because that means the local communities have become truly empowered.

AR3: I recall that your and Gerald Durrell’s 1990 documentary film, The Aye-Aye and I, discussed efforts to reverse dramatic deforestation and invasive species on Round Island – what has happened since?

LD: Round Island, which lies off the coast of Mauritius, was an “ecological basket case” in the mid 1970s, but Gerry saw it as his first opportunity to attempt the restoration of a whole habitat, which in turn would save the unique species dependent on that environment. In the 1980s we eradicated the invasive species – the rabbits and goats that had devastated the vegetation – and the island almost immediately “greened up” and populations of native species increased.  But then the invasive plants had to be controlled, which was rather more challenging, as the native grazers, the giant tortoises, had become extinct.  So we pioneered the concept of “ecological replacement” by introducing some closely related Aldabra tortoises, and – you guessed it – the native plants are returning and the invasive species are dying out. The Round Island story is a remarkable one of Nature’s resilience. Give Nature half a chance and she will heal herself.

AR3: And what has happened to the aye-aye’s prospects in the intervening years?

LD: As for the aye-aye in Madagascar, that is a different tale. The loss of natural forests in the country does not seem to be slowing down, and that is bad news for the aye-aye and other lemurs for which Madagascar is so famous.  It is equally bad news for the people of Madagascar, for without forests, as everyone knows, a land dies; it cannot provide clean air and water, fertile soils, medicines and all the other necessities that humans need to thrive.  Yes, we brought aye-ayes to Jersey to breed them, and we succeeded.  We collaborate with other endangered species breeding facilities around the world and there is now a reasonable number of aye-ayes “safe” in captivity, but that is obviously not the endpoint for the recovery of a species.

We have been working on the ground in Madagascar for more than 30 years.  It is our biggest program, with about 40 staff (only one expat) deployed on many species and habitat recovery projects.  Progress is being made in some respects, but not in others… and we haven’t saved the aye-aye!

AR3: How would you compare the state of conservation awareness and “capacity to act” in Africa now, versus 10-20 years ago? 

LD: I believe that “awareness” has grown tremendously, whereas “capacity to act” lags far behind. This is what I see in Madagascar and what I understand occurs across most of the continent. There are many excellent initiatives in education, training and capacity-building which call for actions to protect and nurture natural species, habitats and ecosystems, so people are becoming more aware of the issues at hand. There are also efforts to provide a legislative framework to support those actions.  But, again, the evils triplets of poverty, lack of governance and corruption, conspire to limit the “capacity to act”.

AR3: As a prominent scientist and conservationist, how do you remain optimistic, in the face of massive human destruction of habitat, the impact of climate change, etc.? 

LD: Of course it is difficult to remain optimistic, given the challenges facing the planet and its biodiversity, but I always remember what Gerry said: “I cannot not fight for this beautiful world that has given me everything.”  I feel that if you give up, then defeat is certain, but if you carry on, then there’s at least a small chance of winning!

AR3: How has modern media impacted your work?

LD: Gerald Durrell’s writing inspired and sensitized millions – myself included.  The conservation message in his writings has been communicated through traditional channels, such as music, stage and screen, but modern media opens so many more opportunities.  The Estate of Gerald Durrell and the Trust work together on eBooks, television, websites and social media, which are creating whole new audiences for us.

AR3: In an age where people read less, and consume information differently, do you find it more or less difficult to get the Trust’s message out?

LD: I would say it is not difficult, just more challenging because of the competition for people’s attention.  It needs a lot of imagination and creative thinking.

AR3: Has the acclaimed TV series based on Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical book My Family and Other Animals made a tangible impact on your work, whether through awareness, funding, etc.?

LD: That enchanting new TV series came out only a few months ago, but here at Durrell Wildlife Park, the Trust’s headquarters in Jersey, we are feeling an impact, albeit modest so far.  Many of our visitors mention that they’ve watched and loved the series, but our visitor numbers have only slightly improved.  I think it is early days yet.  The series has only just broadcasted in Australia and not yet in the US (air date mid October).

Thankfully, a second series has been commissioned, and possibly a third.  Once it beds down into the public psyche, I feel that people will be asking “what did the little boy, Gerry, do when he grew up?” which will lead them to the Trust.  It will help us enormously that the lad who plays Gerry, young Milo Parker, has enthusiastically agreed to become a Durrell Ambassador.  Our other ambassador is Henry Cavill, star of the blockbuster Superman movies, who was born in Jersey and grew up visiting the Wildlife Park. So, with two superheroes backing our conservation mission, we can’t go wrong!