My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Last week Nepal suffered a second earthquake in as many weeks. Here, I welcome back Conor Jameson to offer his personal reflections on the impact of this disaster and what we can do to help.
Like everyone else I have watched with horror and dread as news and images from Nepal have reached us in the last few weeks. First one, then a second, major earthquake have devastated the country, killing thousands and injuring many more. The pain and distress - and the likelihood of further suffering - are almost unimaginable, viewed from afar.
I say ‘almost’, because the tragic events feel very close to home for me, the distress of affected communities all too vivid. Four weeks before the first tremor struck, I was lucky enough to be in Kathmandu. I was sitting in the historic Durbar Square, World Heritage Site, reflecting on a life-changing fortnight exploring the country. On the steps of temples I mingled with friendly Buddhist monks and happy children, exchanging smiles and greetings with strangers. It is the bonhomie and high spirits of Nepalese people that make such an impression on the visitor. One evening, when the front wheel of our truck disappeared into a storm drain, in minutes a group of passers-by had assembled, and without a pause had surrounded the vehicle and lifted us clear, amid much hilarity. They barely hung around to be thanked. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Most people have very little, but what they have they share, willingly and without expectation of much in return.
By chance I befriended a young couple, Sanjay and Nimisha. They are students of tourism who were just finishing their exams at college. They helped me shelter when an early monsoon rain sent us all scuttling for cover. They ordered me Nepali tea and Nuwari food, then lost no time in arranging to give me a free guided tour the next day, of the ancient temples in their home district of Bhaktapur – another World Heritage Site, of which they are very proud. We rode on the top of a bus to the oldest temple in the country, and we strolled back high above a valley, as cuckoos called, shikra hawks displayed, and eagles soared.
In the preceding ten days I had had the privilege of visiting half a dozen communities between the airy foothills of the Himalayas, and the hot plains of the Terai. A few communities are working with our partner organisation Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) on projects to achieve sustainable wildlife conservation boosted by activities like eco-tourism. The focal point of these projects is endangered vultures of different species. Safe animal carcases (free from lethal veterinary drugs) are provided to the birds.
Everywhere we went, my colleague Toby Galligan and I were greeted by friendly, good humoured communities. We witnessed the thrilling spectacle of vulture flocks in stunning valleys, against the backdrop of Nepal’s heavenly skyline. The sense of harmony with nature, in beautiful surroundings, will stay with me. No wonder the children always seemed so happy, enjoying such an outdoor life.
Cattle are sacred in Nepal. They wander freely until old age, adding to the cheerful chaos of urban streets and highways. Supported by RSPB and BCN, some of the villages we visited have developed a simple and brilliant scheme - setting up ‘retirement homes’ for very elderly cattle. We call these cattle rescue centres. They give the beasts comfortable final days, stops them keeling over in inconvenient places, or causing accidents, and ensures a safe supply of food for vultures locally. It also proves a tourist attraction, with Nepal’s many other natural and cultural attractions part of the package. There are a lot of winners in this arrangement.
Our goal has been to find ways of sustaining this happy relationship between local people and the wildlife that is the crowning glory of this dramatically beautiful, inspiring country. And then the earthquake struck.
It is needless for me to repeat that watching the tragic events unfold in Nepal in recent days has been difficult – like a recurring bad dream. Those centuries-old, sacred temples have crumpled. I still find this difficult to comprehend. The death toll has mounted by the day. I have had the reassurance that some of those I met and got to know are at least physically unscathed. Khadananda Paudel of BCN, who led our visit, has been quick to assure us that all at BCN are safe, and carrying on stoically with their conservation work with the village groups. Sanjay and Nimisha have been made homeless – like so many others they are living in temporary shelters, until buildings are made secure again.
We can all help Nepal by donating to the relief appeals. We can also help, in the longer term, by considering a visit to the country, when it is back on its feet. I hope if you do that you find time to get a little bit off the beaten tourist track and visit projects like ours, working with communities to sustain the sublime natural environment of this brave, spirited country, embodied in the reputation of its religious figures, mountain guides and Gurkha regiments which have done so much for us. Nepal and its people hold a deserved place in the world’s affections. I hope they know that.