Start as you mean to go on
Adam Gretton, May 2015
Adam Gretton took part in one of the first ever projects awarded by CLP in 1986. Nearly 30 years later he is still working in conservation. We spoke to him about the expedition that kick-started his career.
I was studying for an MSc in Conservation Ecology at University College London when I first found out about the Rio Mazan project. The project was already underway, but 1986 was when it first received funding from CLP (or the Conservation Expedition Programme as it was known then). Based in Ecuador, the project aimed to address the loss of Andean cloud forest. The Mazan catchment forest had been bought by the Cuenca water company (ETAPA), decades ahead of its time, and we were helping to catalogue the biodiversity of the reserve, working with the local conservation group Tierra Viva.
Rio Mazan was a fantastic opportunity to study a stunning part of the world, working with a great team studying everything from orchids to bats and frogs, as well as birds of course! The 15+ species of hummingbird were a highlight, including the endangered violet-throated metaltail and wonderfully-named rainbow starfrontlet! The project’s most significant outcome was the support built for such a visionary approach to combining forest and water catchment protection, both locally and internationally. The Rio Mazan project ran from Norwich (UK) for several years, and the Fundación Ecológica Mazán is still active in Ecuador.
As a result of the Mazan project, I was asked by ICBP (now BirdLife International) to go to Thailand in 1987 to study the just-rediscovered Gurney’s pitta. We found three nests. I have a particularly wonderful memory of watching one of these and in a single hour three other pitta species passed within 15m of my hide, including a banded pitta, almost as stunning a bird as Gurney’s. With pittas being among the most difficult birds to see, seeing four species so close in an hour was a rare privilege.
Working in conservation has certainly thrown up some challenges: In 1988, I started work for ICBP on the slender-billed curlew, already one of the rarest birds in Europe. We knew that saving it would be a huge challenge, and despite many people’s strenuous efforts across 15+ countries, it seems we were too late. The species is quite possibly ‘functionally extinct’, with no fully-confirmed sightings for twenty years. If confirmed, this will be the first avian extinction in Europe since the great auk in 1844.
Whilst this is extremely saddening, I have been very privileged to see the positive impacts of conservation as well. Probably my biggest conservation success has been helping to save the Seychelles magpie robin from extinction. I started the recovery plan for the species and from a low of 20 individuals (just six females), the project’s efforts over many years resulted in over 180 today, on four islands.
Conservation work has also had a big impact on my personal life! I met my Russian wife while looking for the near-mythical slender-billed curlew mentioned above in south-west Siberia, working together on two expeditions.
I am currently the Senior Advisor on Land Management Strategy at Natural England. I am helping with the roll-out of the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme, particularly for coastal and heathland habitats, as well as fine-tuning the management of wet grassland for breeding waders. As well as this I am volunteering next month for RSPB surveying spoon-billed sandpipers near Shanghai, China. Locally I’m heavily involved with the Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group – our latest project is Save our Suffolk Swifts, and it is going very well.
I keep working in conservation because I am inspired by the wonder and beauty of the natural world, and I’m aware of the dire threats it currently faces. As the great majority of these are man-made, in my view it is clearly our duty to try and ameliorate our effects, and specifically reduce the current extinction crisis.
My advice to young conservationists would be to follow your passion and work on what you love – you may be surprised how quickly the time goes!