Dave Hemprich-Bennett – Conservation Conversations

11088231_10155348311470058_8464046797610362454_nHello and welcome to another episode of conservation coversations! I’m so happy to be welcoming my next guest. He’s a PhD candidate whos life kind of sounds like a dream come true to me. He’s studying conservation biology, specialising in the responses of tropical bats and their prey to deforestation. Dave Hemprich-Bennett lives half of his life in the forests of Borneo and the other in the UK! Here’s his responses to my questions.

  1. Starting off with something simple, what is your favourite species and why?

I guess that would be Hemprichs Long-Eared bat, a bat named after my wife’s great-great-great uncle. It feeds mostly on scorpions, whose venom it seems mostly immune to. These bats have been seen eating a scorpion whilst the scorpion stings them in the eye, just keeping on chewing impervious until they’ve eaten it all. And then once that’s done? They just fly off to find another scorpion, to eat and get stung by all over again. That’s pretty badass. (I agree!)

  1. So now I’m going to quiz you about your career in this sector, firstly why did you decide to get into conservation?

I’ve always been fascinated by animals, being totally obsessed with them as a small child. I didn’t actually realise that a career working with them was an option until I got to university though: I had gone there to study environmental science, with had few specific career ambitions to do with it. During the degree I had the chance to go on an expedition to the Peruvian Amazon and study Caiman (basically South American Alligators) and realised that living in rainforest, working to understand and protect them would be an awesome life.

  1. Sometimes working in conservation or the environment sector can be difficult, what inspires you to keep going in your career?

I work in tropical deforestation, which can be a pretty emotionally draining subject area. One of my study sites is a controlled deforestation experiment, where we’ve been literally watching as rainforest gets logged, studying its effects. In part it requires a certain mental distancing from a specific area or issue, but as a conservation researcher there’s two general things I try to keep in mind..

1.We may not succeed in preventing all the things that we wish to stop, but we can at least stop some of them. Its unlikely that there will be an outcome worse than not trying at all, so lets do what we can and try to make the world a better place than it would otherwise be. If some wild areas remain, with some cool stuff able to live in them, we can hold our heads up high. But lets get to work and try to keep the world as healthy as we can.

2.If we fail, if all the cool animals and systems that we work with die, at least we understood them better before they went. This is a truly terrible consolation prize, but its one that makes a certain amount of sense to me. I’m really interested in Pleistocene megafauna, the huge ‘ice age’ animals that our ancestors saw roaming around the world thousands of years ago, but sadly went extinct before we were able to document them in anything more detailed than cave paintings and sculptures. We’re able to understand a lot about these animals from their remains, but there’s inevitably a lot that we’ll never know because nobody observing them was able to write it down. I see a melancholy parallel role to field researchers in this: I wish people had been able to document for us the animals and ecosystems that no longer exist. If our job only lets us do the same for future generations, that’s at least something.

  1. What’s next on your career bucket list?

Oh gosh, this is a difficult question. I’ve had very little specific input in the direction that my career has ever taken in terms of place or species worked with: it’s all been a case of applying for the stuff I see that sounds interesting, rather than having a specific planned direction. Most of my work so far has been in tropical rainforest, I’d like to work in cloudforest somewhere: when rainforest grows up the slopes of a mountain it gets a lot cooler and wetter and can lead to some really unusual species evolving there, especially if its an isolated mountain. I’d love to catch bats somewhere like Mount Kenya, if any wealthy sponsors are reading…

  1. What’s been your career highlight so far?

Helping out on a macaw survey at dawn in the Amazon, we had to take our boat into an oxbow lake before sunrise to watch them leaving our roost. We got to watch a gorgeous sunrise over the water with river dolphins playing around us, monkeys looking down at us from the trees and macaws flying overhead, whilst several hundred waterbirds woke up in the trees around us to feed in the lake. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a beautiful view, or such a feeling of being surrounded by wonderful life. That’s a pretty special memory.

  1. 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?

I guess I’d love to see the northern lights. To find myself in a vast open space, looking up at an immense sky shimmering with beautiful colour? That’s definitely one for my bucket list, I really hope someday I get to see it

  1. If you could let the general public know one thing about conservation what would it be?

Its importance! We tend to think of conservation and care for the environment as a sort of luxury, something that we can jettison in times of hardship. This is pretty far from the truth: we rely on the world around us to live, from the air that we breathe and the food that we eat, to the products that we rely on for our everyday lives. The natural world provides it all and we need to take care of it for our own sakes. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to go and live in a yurt in the woods, using only foods and items from our own private allotment (though if you want to do this, good for you I guess), but it does mean having a better worldwide ethos of trying to make sure that we leave to future generations a world that can support them as it has supported us.

  1. Now if you could change one thing about how the world works what would you change and why?

The small-world, isolated way that so many peoples minds work. It can be tempted to only really care about the people and world directly around you, but there’s 7 billion of us now and like it or not we’re all connected in a phenomenal number of ways. Rather than building borders and celebrating our differences, lets maybe work together to try and make the world a better place for us all?

Now for some favourites!

  1. Favourite sound?

The sound of the Helmeted Hornbill calling. It’s a bird found in Southeast Asia that’s about the size of a swan, and makes the most absurd call, it sounds like somebody incoherently drunk attempting an impression of a kookaburra. They’re great.

  1. Favourite fact?

A scientist once published a paper on how he watched a male duck mating with the corpse of another male duck that had just flown into his window. That somebody not only watched that, but took detailed notes and wrote a paper on it still amuses me to no end.

  1. Favourite snack?

I’ve always been partial to crumpets. Versatile and they taste like childhood.

  1. Favourite word?

Arsloch. Its basically just the word ‘arsehole’ in german, but I think it sounds somehow much more pleasing

  1. Favourite curse word? 

I’d better make this an English one then, I’ll go with ‘fuck’. A bad motherfucking word that can be used to tell people what a fucker they are in so many fucking ways. Fuck you.

  1. Least favourite word?

I’ve never really had that tendency to find a word unpleasant, like in the way that people find the word ‘moist’ really horrible due something with its sound and meaning? That doesn’t bother me about any specific words really. So it would probably be something like one of the myriad unpleasant-hate filled words that humanity has invented to dehumanise other people. But I’d rather not list them.

And finally…

  1. What’s your best piece of advice for someone who wants to do better for the environment?

Reduce the amount of meat that you eat, especially beef. I’m not asking for a full boycott and going vegetarian or vegan, though more power to you if you are. I try to only eat one portion of meat a week, with beef being an especially rare treat. The environmental footprint of meat is huge, with cattle being especially bad. If you can reduce the amount of meat you consume, you’ll be reducing your emissions and footprint of land use by a great amount, and if you live in the west there are plenty of meat-free options so it shouldn’t even be especially difficult.

Thank you to Dave for such an entertaining episode. I don’t know about you but this episode made me think and laugh out loud! If you want to hear more about the wonderful work he’s doing as part of his PhD and other witty bat talk then Dave is on twitter as @hammerheadbat.

ThatBiologist Everywhere!

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