Interview With Rick Jones, from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
3rd March 2015
Durrell Wildlife Park is a conservation centre on the picturesque island of Jersey, in the English Channel. It was founded by famous naturalist Gerald Durrell and works on projects at its headquarters and in habitats across the globe to protect some of the planet's most endangered animal species. Here Rick Jones of Durrell Willdife kindly answers some questions about their work.
Copyright: Durrell Wildlife
What is Durrell's mission?
That’s fairly simple to answer – particularly as it’s quite literally set in stone at the entrance to our Wildlife Park headquarters. ‘Saving species from extinction’, it’s both our mission, and our motto. Unlike some other NGO’s, we’ve had little to no ‘mission drift’ over the years, and although we do carry out fairly extensive community work as part of our projects, it all comes back to that mission statement. A favourite line of our Chief Scientist, Carl Jones MBE, is “species restoration drives habitat recovery” – and the projects he’s spearheaded in the Mascarene islands certainly bears that out. So for Durrell, it’s all about endangered species, and doing anything within our power to remove that ‘endangered’ prefix for them.
Can you tell readers a bit about Gerald Durrell who founded the conservation centre in Jersey, and what it is like today?
Gerald Durrell was, quite simply, a lover of animals from as far back as he or his family could account for. Born in Jamshedpur, India on 7th January 1925, his mother reported that the young Gerald’s first spoken word was “zoo”. Gerald went on to recall his later adventures, borne of his childhood passion for the natural world and its inhabitants, in his bestselling book My Family, and other Animals – one of a staggering 37 he would eventually author – but his legacy lives on in far more ways than his bibliography.
At 21 years-old ‘Gerry’ received an inheritance that allowed him to go on an animal collecting trip (for zoos) in what is now Cameroon, west Africa. This and subsequent collection trips often saw him keeping animals he had captured healthy and happy for up to a year whilst travelling. To his dismay, these same animals often didn’t survive once turned over to zoos of the era. Compounding the young Gerald’s concerns, he would often be asked to “get (us) another one”, and return to find less habitat and less animals – a situation that he began to see as wasteful, short-sighted and just plain wrong. Resolved to lead by example, Gerry eventually founded his own zoo here in Jersey. Jersey Zoo’s purpose was unlike any other such attractions of its day; it was to become an ‘Ark’ for endangered species; a sanctuary and a centre for captive breeding and encouraging guardianship of our planet’s fellow inhabitants, regardless of ‘box office appeal’.Gerald also insisted that every element of animal keeping – success, failure, observation or discovery – was meticulously recorded, and passed on willingly to anyone who wanted to save animals elsewhere in the world. He saw this as the future and the clearest way to save the world’s most threatened species from extinction. To this end, Durrell have trained 4,100 conservationists from 141 countries to date, and our track record with species recovery is unparalleled, as far as we can tell. We carefully track and measure our results, and they can be seen at www.durrell.org/index.
What is Durrell's greatest success?
It’s too difficult to settle upon any one answer. If we are talking ‘miracle recoveries’ then the Mauritius Kestrel’s return from just 4 individuals (only 2 of which were breeding) to a population of 350 today. The aforementioned Durrell Index should show some of the amazing turnarounds that we’ve helped endangered species to see.
Of course, on another level, being around animals full-time has allowed us some incredible opportunities to share the wonder; the world’s best footage of an orangutan giving birth
or perhaps the infamous story of Jambo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jambo) – the gentle giant silverback gorilla who changed the world’s opinion on his supposedly ‘savage’ kind.
There are too many stories to bring up in such a short space, but let us put it this way; when you devote real time, attention and care to animals, they repay you by revealing things that could exceed the wildest imaginations of any author. Durrell’s greatest success, it could be argued, will be making sure that future generations can come to this realisation for themselves – because the animals will still be here on Earth.
What animal is currently the most endangered in the World and what is being done to save it from extinction?
There are species that we have yet to even discover becoming extinct before we even notice they were here, sadly. Let us just say that currently, the most threatened vertebrate group on Earth are the amphibians... one of the least studied classes of all animals. Ironically, we only learn how abundant amphibians truly are in healthy ecosystems as we start to lose them en masse. The rampant spread of a fungal disease known as Chytridiomycosis, coupled with pollution, the rapid consumption of the planet’s finite fresh water sources and the largely human-driven spread of invasive species, all play in to a very uncertain future for the taxa. We are responding – along with some incredible partner organisations – and you’ll be able to keep up with our efforts at www.durrell.org/safe.
What animals are Durrell currently assisting with conservation work and how is this being achieved?
Currently, we have around 50 projects in 14 countries, and we are training conservationists working with many, many more from all over the world. These range from the tiny, cryptic and yet to be formally described (such as the orange-tailed skink) to the world’s rarest snake (St. Lucia Racer), world’s most threatened duck – and perhaps most endangered bird – (Madagascar pochard), the Amazon basin’s most threatened primate (black lion tamarin) and many, many more.
Is there any animals not currently at Durrell but you think might soon require your assistance and are beginning to consider how you might help them?
There are many, particularly, as mentioned previously, amongst the amphibians. We’ll be looking to create assurance populations, restore habitats and creating a Durrell Centre for Excellence in Amphibian Research. Perhaps most importantly, we’ll be looking to build knowledge, pride and capacity for amphibian conservation amongst communities who share the wetlands and waterways that are essential to their local amphibian populations.Our Head of Mammals, Dominic Wormell, has been heavily involved in training and capacity building with South American zoos and primate rescue centres. Dom sits on the IUCN Taxonomic Advisory Group for tamarins and marmosets, and is an expert on the captive care and breeding of these tiny monkeys. Whilst he’s been able to change the fortunes of those animals lucky enough to end up at rescue centres, he’s particularly concerned for a couple of species – such as the buffy tufted marmoset and the white-handed tamarin – and can see the value in having an assurance population back here in Jersey.
As well as the centre at Jersey do you assist animals in their habitats, and if so how and where?
We work with pygmy hogs – the world’s smallest and rarest pig – in Assam in India. We are attempting to restore wetlands in Madagascar (for multiple species of lemurs, frogs, birds and even an endemic fish species). Also in Madagascar, we’re breeding the world’s rarest tortoise (angonoka or ‘ploughshare’), an ancient species of turtle (rere). In the Galapagos, we’re involved – with partners from San Diego Zoo and Charles Darwin Foundation – in an all-out effort to save the mangrove finch from extinction. Our bird and reptile work in Mauritius is ongoing and producing some spectacular results, despite immense challenges. We’re active for endemic reptiles, amphibians and birds in the Caribbean. Here in Jersey we aren’t just working in the Wildlife Park, either – we’ve successfully head-started thousands of rare local agile frogs and re-introduced the red-billed chough after a 100 year absence.
There are many great threats to wildlife habitat, such as deforestation, over population, pollution. How grim is the situation? Is there anything to be positive about?
Absolutely! The issues you mention are very real, and may be the worst they’ve been in modern history, but each year we’re seeing more and more up-coming conservationists gripped by true passion, and a sense of urgency. More people are realising how important nature is to our own survival, and the advent of Social Media and better and better images and footage are helping them to spread the message. Conservation has always felt like swimming against the tide of consumption and destruction, but more and more individuals are realising that this tide has to change if we are to continue to live on Earth.
Henry Cavill, the actor who plays Superman and is from Jersey, is now an ambassador for Durrell. Did he have a favourite animal when he visited?
Henry told us he has fond memories of family visits to Durrell Wildlife Park whilst he was growing up here in Jersey. He’d mentioned how the gorillas, Jambo in particular, had stuck with him, and that he’d always had a fondness for lemurs since first seeing them at Durrell. We took him to the award-winning ‘Island Bat Roost’, and he was visibly taken with the huge Livingstone’s fruit bats, telling us afterwards “That was something really very special, they are incredible animals!”.
How can readers support Durrell's work?
Firstly, please feel free to find out what we’re up to, talk to us and get involved via facebook.com/DurrellWildlife or @durrellwildlife on Twitter. Whilst we rely on support, and any donations, adoptions or sponsorships are always gratefully received, if you care about endangered species, we want you with us! We run many courses in Jersey and Mauritius through www.durrell.org/academy , and we’re always looking for the next Gerald Durrell. If you feel it’s time to act for threatened animals, we want to share everything we’ve learned with you.
More info - www.durrell.org
Thanks! And best wishes and thanks to all the Durrell team, for their excellent conservation work.