Under The Spotlight: James Borrell

James Borrell, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew tells us how education is key to the future safeguarding of our natural environment.

James Borrell
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Royal Botanic Gardens

In this weeks edition of Under The Spotlight we speak with James Borrell, a conservation scientist, and science communicator with a passion for adventurous expeditions and conservation fieldwork.

He has been involved with a variety of research expeditions, from the Peruvian Amazon to the Dhofar Mountains and more. James is an accomplished public speaker and writer having spoken at TEDx and been published in The Biologist and The Guardian. He is also a keen advocate of ‘Citizen Science‘ and founder of Discover Conservation believing that science and adventure go hand in hand.

Lets see what James had to say as he went, Under the spotlight...🔦

What inspired you to get involved in conservation and the environment?

 I think what inspires you is often different to what makes you stay. In the long run, you need to keep being inspired, or eventually you’ll lose your passion.

My first taste of conservation was in Madagascar. The enormity of the challenge out there, and the desire to feel like you’re part of the solution (rather than the problem) is what inspired me in the first place. But now, it’s the small victories that really get me excited. I remember years ago, when the population estimate for the iconic Amur leopard was about 35. Now, it’s over 100. I think about all the species we chalked up as extinct, and then, miraculously rediscovered (check out the Lost and Found project). I think too about the explosion of citizen science projects, which would have been unimaginable a decade ago – millions of people getting involved in biodiversity monitoring. It’s all these things that make me feel like now is the most exciting time to be in conservation. In a hundred years, people will look back at what conservationists did here and now – that’s pretty inspiring.

James Borrell at Queen Marys University London

If you could change one thing to make a huge impact on the planet, what would it be?

It would simply be better and more accessible education (which of course, isn’t simple in practice!) I think it’s a trap to say reducing plastics in the ocean, stopping poaching or even tackling climate change, because if it’s not these things reducing biodiversity, something else will come along. Education on the other hand, means that we can move beyond simple appeals, like don’t use plastic drinking straws, or please donate £2 a month.

Real conservation is really tricky, there are no simple wins. Take palm oil, lots of folks say boycott it - you could, it might help. But palm oil also has a remarkably high yield per hectare, so if we all switched to an alternative crop, we would most likely need to convert a lot more land to agriculture. That, may well be at the expense of different ecosystems in a different part of the world. So there’s often clear no right or wrong answer, more of a spectrum to navigate as best you can.

In the long run, I tend to think that the more educated the public is, then the better we can have those difficult discussion and make the best decisions.

How would you convince the Donald Trumps of this world that biodiversity is important?

Some people, perhaps, simply can’t be reasoned with – so it might be a waste of effort and time to try. But the good news is that policy is governed by a mix of two things. On the one side is politics, which sometimes is out of your control. But on the other side is public opinion, which when the conditions are right can be unstoppable.

In the case of Donald Trump, I actually think he might have had a net positive effect – at least on climate change. Before you all gasp – remember when he withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement? Whilst disappointing, it galvanised opposition from just about every other country. Once upon a time, if the US and China weren’t involved, then no-one else would commit either. But the Trump effect made everyone determined to do it anyway.

It even worked in parts of the US, too – where 16 states formed the United States Climate Alliance to continue to advance the objectives of the Paris Agreement despite not having federal support.

James Borrell

What is your most memorable encounter with an animal or nature?

 Lots of wonderful experiences spring to mind – but one that will always stay with me is being camped out up a dry wadi in Oman. It was our last night after a two month expedition, working to try and gather camera trap evidence of Arabian leopard.

Just as my head hit the pillow (a rolled up pair of crag hopper trousers), this booming “UGH! UGH! UGH!” rang out down the valley. It was a leopard, somewhere close, likely looking down on us.

We stayed awake for hours, peering out into the black trying to catch a glimpse – but we never did.

Sometimes a species comes to mean so much to you, that if you ever saw it first hand, there’s a risk, that in the moment, it might lose its magical quality. I know that most likely I’ll never see one – so I’d rather picture it out there prowling, hopefully for decades to come.

There’s a lovely book called The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, who described the same thing. He’d built this legendary animal up so much in his head, through so many hardships, the he left the Himalaya completely content even though he hadn’t seen one.

James Borrell

Who is your conservation role model?

Ah, now that’s tricky. You know, I think conservation needs all kinds of people. There’s the incredibly rugged, awesome, field scientists (too many to list!). There’s the amazing communicators who are totally unapologetic for their bubbling enthusiasm (think Chris Packham). There’s the great thinkers like Georgina Mace or Bill Sutherland.  There’s writers that distil everything into outstanding books (think Andrew Balmford, George Monbiot) and the networkers who make the all important introductions (think Shane Winser). There’s folks that never give up, like Emily Penn and the conservationist/explorers that were way ahead of their time, like Captain Scott (there wasn’t even a word for it yet).

Most importantly there’s all the people that you work with every day, plugging away, out of the limelight. They’re the people that really keep me going.

Any of these role models in isolation wouldn’t be very successful at conservation – you need all these kinds of people working together to make the magic happen.

James Borrell


Website: www.jamesborrell.com

Twitter: @James_Borrell 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/james_borrell/?hl=en

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