Approaching conservation as a system

By Henry Rees, CLP Programme Officer

Not long ago, when I was at a very early stage in my career, I had quite straightforward beliefs about biodiversity conservation. Back then, I saw very little overlap between the human and ecological worlds. My understanding of conservation was simply that these worlds should be kept apart where possible and that this was the only way to prevent further degradation. Now, with more hindsight, I can say with certainty that this view is limited.

Below I reflect on how broadening our perspectives, and finding a more holistic understanding of conservation as a system, could help us begin to unlock a healthier, more protected planet for future generations.

Henry Rees, CLP Programme Officer © Henry Rees

What do I mean by a ‘system’?

A system can be defined as “a collection of related components that interact with one another toward a greater whole and a common goal.” Early on in my career, I began to realize the power of systems-thinking: a discipline that helps us reveal the different components of a system and understand how they interact. Often used in other sectors like technology and engineering, it is now gaining traction in the conservation world, and it appealed to me as an effective tool for diagnosing problems that don’t have obvious, easy solutions.

The ‘blue jumper’ analogy helps to visualise a systems-thinking approach. You can ask: what components of a blue jumper come together to make the whole thing?

First, there are the threads, each of which is important and interwoven in such a way to give the jumper its unique structure. Other components are also at work. The blue dye and materials are also present and interacting. The jumper wouldn’t be the same without all of these different elements.

Employing systems thinking on our blue jumper may reveal previously undiscovered components and questions. Where were the materials sourced from? Where was it made? By whom? Why did they make it? And so on.

The list of components can be extensive, and some are more important than others. But, ultimately, if any of them are affected, then this could cause a chain reaction and dynamically affect the other components in ways you may never have thought possible. The blue jumper could be compromised for good.

Systems thinking and conservation

Starting to think about conservation as a system was a big turning point for me. I realised that using this approach opens up a range of seemingly infinite components that we can look at to find solutions to our most pressing environmental problems.

This realisation gave me hope, but it also helped me begin to comprehend the problems that we face. The systems in which we must intervene to protect biodiversity are complex, consisting of both ecological and social components.

Henry (far left) with the African Bat Conservation research team in Malawi © Henry Rees

Research has shown that if we wish to effectively intervene, we must first develop a holistic understanding of these components, including the varied needs, perspectives and values of the people involved.

As has been shown in conservation countless times before, intervening without considering these interacting values may lead us to fail in our mission to protect biodiversity.

Our actions may be linked to and have unintended consequences elsewhere in the system. Pulling one stray thread in your blue jumper may cause the rest of the threads to snag and eventually the whole thing will unravel.

Building a more complete picture of conservation

It is impossible for any one person to identify all of the hidden components of a system. They will only be able to recognise certain components and interactions that have some relation to their own perceptions and biases, which are informed by their unique life experiences.

So, the only way we can ever hope to achieve a holistic understanding of a system is by talking to and working with others.

As a programme dedicated to building the capacity of early-career conservationists, CLP works to achieve levels of collaboration not often seen in the conservation sector. We are a close partnership between three organisations (FFI, BirdLife and WCS) and we each have strong lines of communication and co-operation with one another.

Through our annual Team Awards, we fund and train exceptional conservationists leading applied biodiversity projects that seek tangible, long-term solutions to the world’s most pressing conservation challenges. Many of our alumni have gone on to deliver remarkable conservation impacts, most recently showcased in our latest annual report and in our News pages.

Each year, we host awardees at key events and at our regional and international training courses, where they get invaluable opportunities to meet peers and establish long-lasting friendships and potential collaborations.

This year, during the pandemic, we continued to form these important links in our first-ever online international Conservation Management & Leadership course, which has connected more than 30 conservation leaders from several countries including Kenya, Argentina, Georgia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, South Africa, India, Bolivia and Tajikistan (to name just a few!)

This year, CLP held its first-ever online international Conservation Management & Leadership course, which established links among conservationists around the world.

Collaborative thinking and action are key

We are all vital components of the systems in which we operate and we each see these systems differently. In this way, collaborative thinking and action are essential to understanding and combating the complex problems facing biodiversity. By taking the time to acknowledge and understand the perspectives of others, our alumni are able to build a more complete picture of their projects and the challenges they need to overcome. Only in this way can we not only keep our ‘blue jumper’ from unravelling, but also ensure the threads, and the connections between them, are strong and effective enough to last.

About the author

About a year ago, Henry Rees joined the CLP team as a Programme Officer at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in Cambridge, UK. Before joining CLP, he had completed a BSc in Zoology and an MSc in Conservation Science and worked as a wildlife surveyor. Born and raised in London, he grew up in a family who instilled in him a deep love of nature. Working in conservation had been a dream that had motivated him for most of his life, but it wasn’t until he studied conservation formally that he began to view it as an interconnected system.

How conservation can help prevent future pandemics

While the exact cause of the COVID-19 outbreak is still a matter of debate, the broad consensus is that at its origin is a coronavirus that occurs in wildlife (a zoonotic disease). There is also strong evidence to suggest that human actions enabled the causative coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, to jump from wild animals to people.

In search of expert insights, we spoke to CLP alumnae, Iroro Tanshi and Dr Mariane Kaizer, who both lead conservation projects impacted by a zoonotic disease. Below they explain how human actions contributed to the disease outbreak, and why conservation efforts will play a vital role in preventing future pandemics.

Yellow fever is one of the main threats to the survival of Critically Endangered northern muriqui monkeys © Rodrigo Silva

COVID-19: A bat conservationist’s perspective

CLP awardee and bat specialist, Iroro Tanshi, has dedicated her PhD research and 2020 CLP project to saving the only known population of short-tailed roundleaf bats (Hipposideros curtus) in Nigeria. Thanks to her research efforts, the IUCN Red List has recently uplisted the species from Vulnerable to Endangered.

Yet Iroro’s vital work has been put in jeopardy since an ancestral version of SARS-CoV-2 was found in bats. Iroro and other bat conservationists are concerned that the misinterpretation of these findings will make people believe —very wrongly—that bats cause the spread of COVID-19.

Iroro notes substantial anecdotal evidence indicating the escalation of bat culling around the world, presumably due to the mistaken belief that it will curb the spread of the disease.

The only known population of Endangered short-tailed roundleaf bats in Nigeria was discovered by 2020 CLP awardee, Iroro Tanshi. © Chidiogo Okoye/SMACON (left image) © Benneth Obitte/SMACON (right image)

Iroro and her colleagues are fighting to prevent bat culling by stressing that it is people who transmit COVID-19 to other people, not bats. It’s also important to note that, while bats and other animals are known to harbour SAR-like coronaviruses, the exact mechanism that caused the virus to move from wildlife to humans (viral spillover) remains unknown.

According to Iroro, what is clear is that people played a key role in causing the outbreak. “Normally, the chances of a viral spillover event occurring are very, very low. But through our actions, we provided an already adaptable coronavirus with ample opportunities and the perfect conditions to flourish,” she said.

Iroro explains that the destruction of bats’ natural habitats and the wildlife trade are likely to have caused novel species interactions and increased human-wildlife contact, allowing the virus to spillover to humans. However, as the specific origin of the virus is still being investigated, it is unclear whether bats were involved directly or indirectly (via an intermediate host) or if there are other wildlife origins we don’t yet know about.

Irrespective of the origins of SARS-CoV-2, human actions are ultimately to blame for the spillover and community transmission. It is thus our responsibility to prevent such zoonotic outbreaks from happening again.

Yellow fever: Learning lessons from the past

In 2018, Brazilian primate expert Dr Mariane Kaizer led a CLP-funded project to raise public support for the conservation of endemic primate species in Brazil, including Critically Endangered northern muriquis monkeys (Brachyteles hypoxanthus).

At the time, Brazil was experiencing an epidemic of yellow fever (YF), an infectious disease caused by a mosquito-borne virus (for which non-human primates are the main reservoir of infection). The outbreak was spreading in both human and non-human primate populations throughout the south-east Atlantic forest region.

Mariane and her team set out to uncover how YF was affecting monkeys in the area. In the Caparaó National Park, they found dozens of southern brown howler monkeys (Alouatta clamitans) had died from YF. Another team working just 80 kilometres north in the Private Reserve Mata do Sossego found the illness had killed 26% of the northern muriquis population, which was a crippling blow to the already declining population.

Dr Mariane Kaizer during fieldwork in the Caparaó National Park, south-east Brazil. © Francisco Homem.

But the monkeys here aren’t just at risk from YF. Along with illegal hunting, wildlife trade and habitat destruction due to deforestation, they are also in danger of being persecuted and killed by local people who mistakenly fear they cause the spread of diseases like YF.

Such actions are probably increasing the risk of YF outbreaks in people. Deforestation destroys the natural barriers that would otherwise keep infected mosquitos at bay. And, by entering forests to illegally hunt or capture monkeys, people are more likely to be bitten by infected mosquitos and carry them back to other people, such as in vehicles.

Now that there is an increased risk of YF and other zoonotic disease outbreaks, health authorities in Brazil have had to start relying on non-human primates as ‘natural sentinels’ in wildlife disease surveillance programmes. In the case of YF, the virus affects monkeys before it affects people, providing a vital early indicator of a potential YF outbreak in human populations.

Mariane believes that learning lessons from such well-documented cases and conservation projects could help us prevent future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. “After the COVID-19 outbreak, it is now more vital than ever before to use what we have learned from past experiences (like in the case of the yellow fever epizootic in Brazil) to improve how we monitor and mitigate harmful zoonoses,” says Mariane.

Reinforcing the barriers against disease

To prevent future zoonotic disease outbreaks and protect nature, Mariane and Iroro are among many conservation leaders who are campaigning for change. Among the CLP partners, for example, two public petitions are calling on governments and the private sector worldwide – one to make living on a healthy planet a human right and another to pledge $500 billion in funding to local conservation groups around the world.

Moreover, there has been a call for a ban on the commercial wildlife trade that considers cultural and socioeconomic implications related to the traditions and food security needs of local people.

Across the world, it is clear that we must work together to prevent ecological degradation and restore natural habitats, prohibit nonessential hunting and the commercial wildlife trade, and establish comprehensive wildlife disease surveillance programmes. These changes could prevent future zoonoses and their potentially devastating impact on both people and wildlife.


Taking the high road: a journey towards becoming a conservation leader

By Pramod Yadav

Biodiversity conservation is a challenging task, especially when we consider the increasing dependence of rural communities on wildlife—both for consumption and for the commercial trade that so often supports their livelihoods. Ending the wildlife trade is likely to curb future zoonotic outbreaks and protect our precious ecosystems, but, as with any conservation issue, we must also consider the implications related to the traditions of local people.

Addressing these issues undoubtedly needs effective conservation leadership. However, becoming a conservation leader is no easy task and requires a great deal of support. As a young conservationist, CLP provided the mentorship I needed to kick-start my journey to becoming a conservation leader. As I describe below, CLP gave me the foundations upon which to build my conservation career and pursue my dreams of embarking on a PhD, which seeks to reconcile conflict between humans and tigers in the Indian Himalaya.

Tigress with cub in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, India. Photo credit: Aditya Dicky Singh

A sure-footed start on steady ground

In 2015, I was honoured to receive a CLP Future Conservationist Award to work on conserving the caterpillar fungus, Ophiocordyceps synensis, in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR), India. The caterpillar fungus, known locally as “Kira Jari”, has medicinal properties and holds great commercial value. However, while it has boosted the local upper Himalayan economy, it has also added pressure on ecosystems and created social conflict.

After receiving the award, I went from being a relatively inexperienced conservationist to managing my own team, establishing my project vision, and co-ordinating multiple facets of the project such as governance, advocacy, negotiation and strategic planning. It was a steep learning curve but, with perseverance, my team and I were able to reveal that the trade in caterpillar fungus was providing the highest source of income for locals (compared to other sources) and that unsustainable harvesting practices had likely contributed to its decline in the area over the last five years.

The initial support I received from CLP helped get my project off the ground and so was instrumental in securing further research funding from a Rufford Small Grant and Idea Wild Grant. We were thus able to go on to identify other key threats to the caterpillar fungus, such as grazing by livestock and the build-up of garbage near harvesters’ camps, giving us the impetus to campaign for locals to protect the habitat and commit to sustainable harvesting practices.

The CLP project team in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve field site. Photo credit: Anonymous

Gaining support along the way

As a CLP awardee, I obtained invaluable mentorship from conservation leaders, such as my project advisor, Dr Uttam Babu Shrestha, and members of the CLP Management Team. CLP has continued to offer me vital support and encouragement while I’ve written scholarship applications and project proposals.

However, while some of these were successful, many weren’t. For example, I was unable to gain a place for the MPhil in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge, despite applying five times. These were difficult experiences but they have taught me lessons to be calm, patient, improve myself and keep trying.

I also received CLP grants to attend various conferences and workshops, where I could develop networks and build up my interdisciplinary skills. One of these was a five-day workshop on the full process of planning, preparing and writing a manuscript for submission to a scientific journal in conservation or ecology, delivered by Dr Martin Fisher, Editor of Oryx–The International Journal of Conservation. The skills I learned enabled me to publish an article in Oryx about my work on the caterpillar fungus!

CLP alumni attending a statistics workshop at ATREE, Bangalore. Photo credit: Anonymous

Striding towards my dreams

During my CLP-funded project, I learned a lot about the vital role of indigenous communities in conservation. The more I travelled in the Himalayan landscapes, the more I realised that mountain dwellers are the backbone of biodiversity conservation and the epitome of climatic warriors. It also dawned on me that the role of humans in the conservation and sustainability of natural resources in the Himalaya are poorly understood and documented.

My dream thereafter was to fill this knowledge gap and to develop tools that enable conservation without hindering the socio-economic needs of local communities.

To pursue this dream, in January 2020 I started my PhD at Clemson University in the United States, under the umbrella of the Tigers United University Consortium. My aim is to develop an understanding of the human dimensions underlying tiger conservation issues in the Himalayas and build market-based tools using these insights. I believe that this will play a key role in building resilience among rural dwellers for tiger conservation and other threatened wildlife in the region.

Pramod Yadav conducting field work in the Nanda Devi Biosphere. Photo credit:  Manendra Kaneria

From mentee to mentor

After receiving doctoral training in tiger conservation and enhancing my leadership skills, I plan to lead a team to integrate effective conservation, governance and livelihood to protect wild tigers in the Himalaya. Looking to the long-term future, I hope to come full circle from mentee to mentor and help young people establish enduring conservation action plans in India. My ultimate dream is to play an influential leadership role in increasing investment for education, improving food security and alleviating poverty among rural mountain dwellers in the fight against biodiversity loss and environmental vulnerability.

About the author

In addition to being a member of the CLP Alumni Network, Pramod Yadav is a PhD candidate in the Park Solutions Lab at Clemson University, USA, under the umbrella of the Tigers United University Consortium. He previously completed a Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation at the Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi.

COVID-19: A catastrophe or opportunity for pangolin conservation?

By Charles Emogor

This blog was originally published on the PBS Nature website here.

Charles Emogor and his PhD study species, the Endangered white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis). Photo credit: Charles Emogor.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, pangolins have been making headlines. These shy, quirky but cute mammals are one of the most heavily trafficked yet least understood animals in the world.

The sad plight that pangolins are facing and the love I’ve had for them since childhood are the main reasons I decided to study them for my PhD. During my first field trip (before the pandemic started), I was lucky enough to see my first live pangolin after almost two decades of dreaming of that moment!

With my fieldwork suspended for now, I’ve been reflecting on how this crisis could impact the future conservation of pangolins and other threatened wildlife.

I haven’t always studied pangolins. In my early conservation days, I was granted an internship by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) to work with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Nigeria on a project focused on saving the Critically Endangered Cross River gorilla.

This subspecies is so rare that in two years of fieldwork, I never saw a single gorilla – although I found a lot of nests and dung. Although my research has recently shifted from gorillas to pangolins, this hasn’t stopped me from keeping a close eye on how COVID-19 is affecting vulnerable African great apes.

When I found out about my CLP internship, I felt overjoyed. Since then, one of the few experiences equalling that feeling of excitement was seeing my first live pangolin. He was an extremely shy white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis – EN) that I named Abacus.

As part of my PhD project, we have fitted Abacus and three other pangolins with VHF (Very High Frequency) transmitters so we can monitor them closely and gather data on their home range size and occupancy in Nigeria’s Cross River National Park. Just as we begin this vital fact-finding mission, we couldn’t have been happier to hear that CLP has granted us a $15,000 Team Award to help us implement the project!

Abacus: a male white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), weighing approximately 1.95 kg, tagged with VHF transmitters as part of Charles Emogor’s PhD research.

When I first heard the news that pangolins could be linked to the coronavirus outbreak, I initially panicked and felt overwhelmed. I thought about the fate of Abacus and the other tagged pangolins—would they be killed in retaliation by hostile humans or those people with a misplaced urge to curb the spread of the disease?

Then I started to notice a paucity of evidence indicating that pangolins are responsible for the outbreak. Nonetheless, there is evidence suggesting that they are natural carriers of coronaviruses, which are similar to SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus causing COVID-19, first identified in a so-called ‘wet’ market in Wuhan, China).

Research also suggests that pangolins might have acted as an intermediary in the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, we might never get a clearer picture of the situation as the markets at the epicentre of the outbreak were shut down by the Chinese government for health reasons.

Whether or not scientists manage to identify the origin and dynamics of COVID-19, we can build on the abundance of available evidence showing that wildlife markets are continually posing danger to human health and well-being. This alone should be a compelling enough reason for us to act now to prevent future outbreaks.

Indeed, many conservationists and organisations have already started calling for a ban on the trade of wildlife for consumption. Although banning the commercial wildlife trade might prove critical in curbing future zoonotic pandemics, it is essential that any ban consider cultural and socioeconomic implications related to the traditions and food security needs of local people.

With projected challenges in enforcing ban regulations, the consumption and trade of wildlife is a globally widespread and complex issue, which almost certainly requires a careful response at the national level at a minimum and more complex global policy protocols to the extent possible.

A meeting with a group of local hunters in one of the communities surrounding the Cross River National Park in Nigeria. Photo credit: Charles Emogor.

Lately, I have become more optimistic that the crisis might be beneficial to pangolin conservation. I’m hoping that more funding will become available for pangolin conservation and research, which will throw more light on the dynamics of their illegal trade and ultimately curb the decline of pangolins.

Furthermore, there is the possibility that the demand for pangolin meat will decrease – as already observed in Gabon – and lead to less killing by local hunters. Nevertheless, we should continue to push for a complete ban on the hunting and trade of pangolins and the active enforcement of bans already in place in numerous countries, including Nigeria.

In the meantime, there have been encouraging examples of authorities taking action against pangolin trafficking. The Chinese government, for example, has recently removed pangolin scales from the list of approved ingredients for traditional medicines, after the protected status of pangolins was raised to the highest level in China.

From wanton trafficking to being the suspected cause of thousands of deaths worldwide, pangolins have always found themselves in situations they did not bargain for. But while we watch the current plot twist play out, we can take solace in knowing that this crisis has resulted in increased awareness about the conservation status of pangolins and has already started prompting actions at national levels.

I am indeed privileged to be contributing towards saving these vulnerable animals from extinction. As I count my blessings from my internship days, I am grateful to those individuals and institutions that have played critical roles along my journey up to this point.

About the author

Charles Emogor is a first-year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, supervised by Professor Andrew Balmford in the Department of Zoology. His research focuses on understanding the ecology of the white-bellied pangolin and carrying out conservation education and outreach among local communities in the Cross River National Park, Nigeria. Charles attained a BSc in Forestry and Wildlife Management from the Cross River University of Technology, Nigeria, and an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford. He also holds a post-graduate diploma in Endangered Species Management from the University of Kent and is interested in tropical ecology and conservation.

Empowering women in conservation

By Trang Nguyen, founder and Executive Director of WildAct

As a woman working in wildlife conservation in Vietnam, it may (or may not) be surprising to hear that I have experienced gender inequality in the workplace. I had brushed it aside in the past as there was always “something more important to do.” Until last year, when another woman working in conservation told me something so shocking that I decided to take action through WildAct, an NGO I founded in 2015.

WildAct has started a new programme this year called Empowering Women in Conservation. As I describe below, the programme aims to protect female conservationists in Vietnam from Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), which can be defined as any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will based on gender norms and unequal power relationships. 

Trang Nguyen, founder and Executive Director of WildAct, in Cambodia during her CLP internship in 2014. Photo credit: Trang Nguyen.


First, let me describe my journey up to this point. Growing up in Vietnam, I witnessed the terrible harm done to animals for the illegal wildlife trade and I swore I would do everything I could to protect them. One of my earliest steps towards this goal was my CLP internship with FFI’s Cambodia Programme: Marine, Flagship Species and the University Capacity Building Project in 2014.

During my internship, I became passionate about changing people’s attitudes and behaviours towards wildlife, so I founded WildAct, an NGO based in Hanoi, Vietnam.

One of WildAct’s first major activities was to deliver two short-courses, Combating the Illegal Wildlife Trade and Captive Animal Welfare, in collaboration with the University of Vinh. These courses are offered to Vietnamese Masters students and early-career conservationists, as well as to graduates in other fields who are thinking about pursuing a career in wildlife conservation.

The six-week courses involve two weeks of lectures, as well as a four-week placement at an NGO or a research institute focusing on a conservation issue in Vietnam. Many of our trainees have secured full-time jobs within Vietnam’s conservation sector.

Although the success of our trainees was fantastic news for conservation, it was later distressing to learn that some of them have been suffering from different degrees of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in the workplace—mostly while doing fieldwork, but even in the office. As soon as I heard about this, I decided that WildAct must do something to help.

Gender-based violence in conservation

It all started when one of our graduates told me she had experienced sexual harassment while working in the field for the first time. She mentioned it to her colleagues, but they shrugged it off as normal behaviour that was to be expected. Finding no support from her peers, she was considering quitting her dream career in conservation just as it was starting.

To hear this was really concerning. Was WildAct encouraging young women to work in a sector where they would be unsafe? I felt we had to support them and provide a safer and better working environment. So, this year, we kick-started the new Empowering Women in Conservation programme to support female conservationists and benefit both Vietnamese and foreign colleagues.

However, this is a very new topic in Vietnam. As yet, no organisation has performed any research into the working environment for female conservationists in our country. Added to this, all of us at WildAct are biologists with no experience in dealing with gender-related issues in the workplace.

After a few months of writing to different organisations and bodies both within and outside Vietnam, including several embassies, we finally had a breakthrough. We were introduced to CARE Vietnam, whose aims include ending SGBV against women in ethnic minority groups and those who work in agriculture.

A female volunteer for WildAct holding the organisation’s badge. Photo credit: Trang Nguyen.


Supporting female conservationists in Vietnam

In collaboration with CARE, and supported by the Alongside Wildlife Foundation and the J. van Walraven Fund, our new Empowering Women in Conservation programme includes the following activities:

  • Conducting surveys with both males and females working in the field in Vietnam to understand more about the situations and contexts in which SGBV occurs.
  • Designing a series of workshops for both men and women working in conservation to raise awareness about SGBV, and provide advice on preventive measures and how to support colleagues who are experiencing SGBV.
  • Inviting NGOs and government bodies to review their own policies regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. This means defining the term and the type of behaviour involved, as well as defining ‘workplace’ in a way that includes fieldwork.
  • Collaborating with other NGOs and government bodies to produce guidelines focused on SGBV prevention that considers the complex social and cultural context in Vietnam, while ensuring these policies are not ignored.

We also aim to create a Women in Wildlife Conservation Network in Vietnam, where women can share experiences and give each other support and advice. Along with this, we will establish a telephone hotline that women can use to report SGBV and receive help from professionals.

Building a better future for women in conservation

I used to believe that the long-term protection of threatened species was almost entirely dependent on increasing conservation capacity. Now I realize that this is only laying the foundations, and that a myriad of other factors make up the bricks and mortar. Without adequately protecting the conservationists we train, all of the work by WildAct and that of other capacity-building initiatives will be in vain. We hope our actions to support women in Vietnam will encourage more NGOs in other countries to do the same, so we can continue to empower the conservation leaders that will ultimately help save our planet’s precious wildlife.

About the author

Trang is a truly inspiring early-career conservation leader in Vietnam. In addition to being a member of the CLP Alumni Network, Trang has an MPhil in Conservation Leadership & Management and a PhD in Biodiversity Management. She is the founder and Executive Director of WildAct and was recently listed in the Forbes Asia 30Under30 – Social Entrepreneurs 2020.

In Borneo, building a nest box — and a future for conservation

By Christina Imrich


This blog has been adapted from a version originally published on the Mongabay website, which can be found here.


The Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Borneo is a regenerating forest, home to eight species of hornbills including populations of the Critically Endangered helmeted hornbills and Near Threatened rhinoceros hornbills. The loss of suitable natural cavities for these hole-nesting, large-bodied birds is one of the key reasons for their decline. Luckily, a team of CLP alumni has intervened to provide a safe home for these extraordinary birds using artificial nest boxes. In a recent trip to the area, I had the privilege of seeing the team at work—and what an eye-opening experience it would turn out to be!

Rhinoceros hornbill chick fledged from nest box in 2019. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/


Every day, tourists to lodges along the Kinabatangan River catch glimpses of Borneo’s “Big Five”: orangutan, proboscis monkey, pygmy elephant, rhinoceros hornbill, and estuarine crocodile.

I wish I could tell you this reflected their thriving populations. In fact, the narrow strips of land that abut the river are the last remaining forest patches in the area, loosely protected from expanding palm oil plantations. There is nowhere else for the animals to go.

It was with mixed emotions that I visited the river in July 2019, hoping to see the Big Five for myself. While I didn’t see them all, I did get to witness something even more inspiring: a team of rising conservation leaders that has worked tirelessly and with abundant creativity to create more space for these amazing animals.

The core team for the group I visited in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo are a trio of CLP alumni working to conserve hornbills. The team was originally granted a Future Conservationist Award in 2017 to help improve breeding opportunities for hornbills. Along with support from the Sabah Wildlife Department and Sabah Forestry Department in Malaysia, the team used the CLP grant to design nest boxes that mimic the natural nest cavities that these birds need for breeding.

Team leader Ravinder Kaur brings the scientific expertise. I’ve gotten to know her through my role managing parts of the program for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Ravin’s partners include her husband, Sanjitpaal Singh, and Helson Hassan. Amidi Majinun also recently joined the team. Sanjit provides the photos and videos that capture public attention.


In front: Sanjitpaal Singh (left) and Ravinder Kaur (right). At the back: Amidi Majinun (left) and Helson Hassan (right). Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/


Building the foundations for hornbill conservation

The team shares responsibility for monitoring hornbill nests eight hours a day, six days a week. They track what and when the hornbills eat, how long the male spends at the nest cavity (where the female and chick are almost completely encased), when the chick hatches and fledges, and more.

This data is collected in silence in cramped, hot, and humid conditions. Mosquitoes are everywhere. The team knows the work is hard but the larger purpose of this data drives all four of them. As the team builds the scientific foundation for hornbill conservation, they also learn what hornbills need to survive. This is critical considering that six of the eight species of hornbill found in Kinabatangan are considered vulnerable to extinction.

When they are not making short-term trips to Borneo, Ravin and Sanjit work from Kuala Lumpur, the capital city. They are ingenious fundraisers and take advantage of any opportunity, no matter the size. They’ve developed a local bar drink for which a percentage of sales goes to their research and conservation efforts. It seems, no matter the situation, the team’s approach is “Sure, just try.”

When Ravin learned I would be visiting their field site, she immediately asked Helson, who lives in the area, to meet me and my colleagues. The team was eager to share their work on the construction and installation of artificial nest boxes for hornbills.


Eddie Ahmad and Sudirman from HUTAN/KOCP placing a nest box in the tree. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/


Building a safe home for hornbills

The artificial nest boxes are the brainchild of this hornbill team working together with HUTAN-KOCP (Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project), the Chester Zoo, ZooParc de Beauval, and the Phoenix Zoo. In 2013, HUTAN-KOCP piloted a set of artificial nest boxes, which, after four years, attracted their first pair of rhinoceros hornbills; in July 2017 a pair successfully fledged a chick! This was the first ever wild pair of rhinoceros hornbills to nest in an artificial nest box.

With the 2017 CLP funding, the team were able to design nest boxes that would attract diverse nesting pairs faster. The trick is to mimic the temperature and humidity conditions of a real tree cavity. Lacking formal training, Helson drew inspiration for the box design from his father, a fisherman whom he had helped build boats. In the end, the team’s box weighed 180 pounds (about 82 kilograms). It was lifted 20 meters (about 66 feet) and secured to a tree.

I am pleased to report that five of these boxes were installed and are being visited by four hornbill species! Hornbills aren’t the only ones to visit the boxes — three of them were taken over by other species, including the red giant gliding squirrel, civet, and stingless bees.


Rhinoceros hornbill and nest box. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/


Future re-wilding of forest fragments

Looking to the future, the team intends to re-wild forest fragments. Helson showed us the modest nursery the team set up in his backyard, where they are growing trees that hornbills favor. While this team recognizes the challenge, their ‘just-try’ attitude prevails. Since my visit this summer, the team has grown 270 seedlings that have already been transferred to the forest through HUTAN’s reforestation team. These trees will eventually provide important food for hornbills.

A new five-year commitment to the Conservation Leadership Programme from Arcadia — a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin — will help hundreds more conservationists across the globe work to conserve the natural world. The work of Ravin, Sanjit, Helson, Amidi, and the rest of their team demonstrates powerfully what this initiative can accomplish and the obstacles it has inspired young leaders to overcome.


About the author

Christina is a Program Manager based at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York. She joined the CLP team in April 2011 and is committed to developing connections between people and the environment. She has a Master’s in Environmental Studies and a BA in Biology.