Today’s interviewee is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology at the University of Venda, in South Africa. He studies the conservation ecology of large African carnivores and is currently developing a research interest in the ecosystem services provided by carnivores. As he told me One way of explaining his research is that he is trying to find out how carnivores help us and how we can help them. Here’s what Sam Williams had to say to my questions.
- Starting off with something simple, what is your favourite species and why?
Duck-billed platypus, because it’s probably the weirdest animal I have ever seen. An egg-laying mammal with an electrosensitive (why not?) duck bill? Oh, and it’s venomous.
- So now I’m going to quiz you about your career in this sector, firstly why did you decide to get into conservation?
I find it hard to imagine why most people would not want to get into conservation. I once gave a visitor from the UK the opportunity to help me bait leopard traps for collaring here in South Africa. He hated it, and left saying “I am so glad that I’m an accountant instead of doing this for a living”. (Getting him to help me shovel up maggot-ridden animal foetuses might have had something to do with it.) But to each their own – I am so grateful that I am not an accountant.
I got into conservation because it brings together my love of science with my desire to leave the natural environment in a better state than I found it, all while doing fascinating things in exciting places. I wake up in the mornings excited to start work, which is a feeling that not everyone gets to experience. I remember when I was little my mum advised me to find a job that I love, because it can be sad to spend so much of your life doing something that you don’t enjoy. Who doesn’t want to get paid to fly in a helicopter around African mountains, radio tracking large carnivores that you collared? Accountants, I suppose…
- Sometimes working in conservation or the environment sector can be difficult, what inspires you to keep going in your career?
Although I love working in conservation, it certainly comes with its fair share of challenges. Here are just a couple of things that I wish present me could have told past me about my experiences, when I was deciding to commit to a career in conservation biology. It’s hard work and the pay isn’t great. You will work long, long hours, weekends and public holidays, and despite earning a PhD you will get paid fraction of what you could have earned if you had dropped out of school and stayed at home working at McDonald’s. It does occasionally cross my mind that future me will kick present me when I can’t afford a space holiday because I have no savings or pension, and live in a bin.
But despite the challenges, it’s really not difficult to find inspiration to keep going as a conservation biologist. I cannot think of a more rewarding career. You can have a very real, very much needed impact on the world. You could help to prevent a species from going extinct. You could help people to live in harmony with nature. You could find out something about the way the world works that no one knew before, and share that knowledge with others to build upon. Not only is the endpoint incredibly rewarding, but the journey along the way is so much fun. I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it has been to live out of a hammock in the Indonesian rainforest, studying macaque ecology. To collect behavioural observations on howler monkeys in the cloud forests of Honduras. To track cheetahs, lions, wild dogs and hyaenas in Zimbabwe. To get married and start a family while living in a tent on a nature reserve at the peak of a mountain range in South Africa, while camera trapping elusive leopards. I even find working at my computer exciting – I still get a thrill out of running an analysis and finding out something new.
- What’s next on your career bucket list?
I don’t know about next, but it would be fun to one day discover a new species to science. The list of species that share the planet with us is going down every day. To grow that list by one, even though the species has probably been around for quite some time without us identifying it, I think would somehow feel quite satisfying.
- What’s been your career highlight so far?
I once met a man who told me that he (illegally) killed an average of about a dozen leopards each year on his small farm in southern Africa, in order to protect his cattle from predation. The reason he was telling me this was because he had recently shot a leopard that I had collared, and he demanded that I paid him if I wanted to get the collar back. He refused to let me do anything to help him keep his cattle safe, and he continued to kill leopards. I worked hard to turn around this inauspicious start to our relationship, and four years later he finally agreed to let my colleagues place a livestock guarding dog with his herd, which has been shown to be extremely effective at protecting livestock from predation. I ran a half-marathon to raise funds to buy and care for the dog, and as I write this, the dog is protecting his animals. Seeing that someone so disinterested in engaging with conservation efforts can change their mind, and knowing how much this could benefit a declining population of leopards, was probably my career highlight so far.
- Our world is pretty amazing with lots of wonderful things happening in the natural world. What natural phenomenon would you like to see or have seen?
Watching snow monkeys bathe in volcanic hot springs in Japan was definitely one off the bucket list. One day I would love to see the northern lights. And the wildebeest migration in east Africa.
- If you could let the general public know one thing about conservation what would it be?
Conservationists need your support – see question 15 to find out how.
- Now if you could change one thing about how the world works what would you change and why?
It would be nice if conserving the natural environment was a top priority for people and for governments, as humans and all other species depend on it to survive.
Now for a little favourites quick round!
- Favourite sound?
The sound of lions roaring and hyaenas whooping, heard through a tent wall
- Favourite fact?
Spotted hyaenas have a pseudo-scrotum and a pseudo-penis, through which they give birth.
- Favourite snack?
All the chocolate – me too!
- Favourite word?
- Favourite curse word?
- Least favourite word?
- What’s your best piece of advice for someone who wants to do better for the environment?
Have smaller families. Eat less meat. Turn things off when you’re not using them. Ride a bike or catch public transport when you can, instead of driving. Recycle stuff and try to cut down on waste. Be sure to vote, and do it based on environmental issues. Make sure that politicians know that if they don’t make conserving the environment a priority, they will not be elected.
Thank you so much to Sam for all those inspiring words of wisdom! Sam is one of my favourite bloggers in conservation so its an absolute honour to have him on the blog. I’d strongly recommend following him on all of the social medias. Here are all his links: