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.
My pre-dawn walk through Gola Rainforest in Sierra Leone was rewarded with a perfect view of the elusive White-necked Picathartes sitting on its nest. I say ‘elusive’ as this was how Sir David Attenborough branded the bird for his famous 1952 Zoo Quest programme. Today, the Gola Rainforest National Park team know all the Picathartes colonies so for us it was simply a case of getting to the right place at the right time.
Sadly, the Picathartes did not hang around for long and once it was off its nest, it became elusive once more as it disappeared into the forest never to be seen again.
Not my photo! My colleague, Guy Shorrock took this brilliant picture of White-necked Picathartes a few years ago (rspb-images.com). I just managed a photo of an empty nest
While the Picathartes is the pin-up bird for the National Park even featuring on its logo, it is just one of more than 60 species listed as threatened on the IUCN red list. The primary task of the National Park is therefore to protect the forest.
When we arrived in Gola, we were first met by the National Park ranger team about to head out on patrol – one of 120 they were expecting to carry out this year. Since the National Park was launched in 2011, the ranger team have cracked down on illegal hunting, forestry and mining. The rangers have an impressive reputation and are now training rangers from other protected areas in Sierra Leone & Liberia.
The good news is that their efforts are paying off and species are benefiting as a result. For example, the National Park is home to a population of the critically endangered Western Chimpanzee. This is a species which is vulnerable to habitat fragmentation, poaching and commercial agriculture.
Research we have done has shown that the chimps nest preferentially inside rather than outside the National Park. Thanks to the enforcement activities of the Park rangers, the chimp population is stable or increasing unlike nearly all the other chimp populations in West Africa.
One of the many fabulous images taken by our camera traps in Gola (with thanks to Benjamin Barca)
There is a similarly impressive story for the red colobus monkey as we have recently shown that its population is increasing to the south of the Park. This is really promising as red colobus monkeys are good indicators of primary forest and it suggests that the forest in that part of the National Park is recovering following previous selective logging before the park designation.
For our carbon financing work, we need to show that we are preventing deforestation in the park and the surrounding community lands. And we believe the National Park activities are working. That’s good news for the climate, but also good news for some of the most critically endangered species on the planet.
This is why the RSPB will continue to support Gola Rainforest. We have shown that by working with local partners and the Sierra Leonean government, we can help protect this global asset. We are in it for the long haul and want to do what we can so that the Park team have long term sustainable funding to allow it to continue to protect the forest in perpetuity.
I wish the UK govt. showed this sort of enthusiasm for protecting and enhancing Brithish biodiversity.