World Rhino Day

An insightful & thought provoking interview with a member of an anti-poaching unit

Image: Martin Meyer

It’s World Rhino Day today, a day to celebrate and raise awareness of the dangers faced by the five species of rhino. Firstly, I will admit right now that I don’t know much about rhinos, at all. As you’ll probably know, great apes are my thing, so this was an exciting opportunity for me to learn more about the beautiful animals. I thought I’d start by telling you a little bit about them, just incase you’re like me and just learning.

Palaeolithic cave art depicting a woolly rhino at Chauvet cave, around 33,000 years old. Image: tourisme-en-france.com

Going back to the beginning, rhinoceroses, or rather, their woolly conspecifics, have their origins in the Miocene, around 25 million years ago. These hairy giants roamed Africa and Eurasia and have been found depicted in Palaeolithic cave art at archaeological sites like Chauvet, dated to around 33,000 years bp. Woolly rhinos went extinct around 15,000 years ago and their remains have been found preserved in ice. At the start of the 20th century, there were thought to be around 500,000 modern rhinos on earth, fast forward to 2021 and we are faced with the shocking realisation that there are as few as 28,000 individuals left.

There are five species of rhino; Sumatran, Javan, black rhino, greater one horned rhino and the white rhino. The Javan rhino is currently the most critical with only 74 individuals left, but of course each of the species is severely under threat and there is a chance that rhinos will become extinct during our lifetime if we don’t do more. In fact, the subspecies of white rhino, the northern white rhino is already functionally extinct, with just two females surviving under 24-hour guard in Kenya. This is a heart-breaking reality and the reason why learning about rhinos and celebrating world rhino day is absolutely vital for their survival now.

Image: Martin Meyer

So, why are populations declining so rapidly? Poaching. The last decade has seen a record demand for rhino horn on the black market and to keep up with this demand, poachers have killed around 10,000 individuals in the last decade. To find out a little bit more about the dangers that the remaining rhinos are facing, I met with Jonny, an anti-poaching ranger who worked at a nature reserve in South Africa. The name of the reserve was kept private to protect the security of the rhinos, but the mission of the reserve is to protect the species they house from poaching and work to boost the population. Jonny and I had a quick chat about the work he was involved with during his time in South Africa.

The Interview

Opinions and facts in this interview are not my own.

Image: Jonny on an anti-poaching patrol.

Firstly, how did you get into rhino conservation?

I did a degree in wildlife conservation and as part of that I did some voluntary work at the reserve. I then returned once I had finished my degree to gain more experience and to try and make an active, positive difference.

Can you give me an overview about the work you were involved in and what your role entailed?

I worked directly with the anti-poaching unit, patrolling the reserve in a vehicle whilst teams worked on foot with search dogs to detect any potential trespassers on the reserve. The reserve is protected by a large perimeter fence but it’s a huge area to police and people do still manage to break in. During my time there I did have to respond to poachers. However, most of the poachers that gained entry were not armed with guns and were in fact there to hunt smaller species such as antelope, for meat.

So what are the rhino poachers looking for? And why rhino?

They’re looking for rhino horn. Rhino horn is worth around $65,000 per kilo on the black market, giving it a higher value than gold or cocaine. In Chinese medicine, it’s believed horn can cure all sorts from typhoid to hallucinations, but it’s now increasingly common for it to just be displayed as a very expensive status symbol. The poachers have no thought for the animals suffering, they literally hack the horn off at the ‘root’ and leave the animal to die a very slow, painful death.

(At this point, Jonny showed me some harrowing video footage of a rhino who had been murdered for her horn, that image will stay with me forever.).

So what is this particular reserve doing to try and stop this?

The reserve practices ‘horn trimming’. (I looked into this controversial practice which seems common among reserves in several African countries). The rhino is put under a light sedation and it’s horn is trimmed by trained professionals. The horn is like human hair and nails, it’s made of keratin and grows continuously, this process causes no harm to the rhinos at all but I understand why people question it (animal welfare activists argue against unnecessary distress for the animal in question). The horns are then transported to secure locations, far away from the reserve. It’s a really expensive process which is why a lot of the national reserves can’t afford to do it, they tend to have more animals to look after and it requires equipment, time, staff, funding, that the national parks just can’t do.

Image: Rhino darted for treatment after sustaining a gunshot wound from a poacher, Martin Meyer

What is the point in horn trimming? Can’t they just work to protect the rhinos through guards and anti-poaching patrols?

Poachers are very determined, no matter what levels of security are in place. The idea is to deter. By performing this painless procedure on the rhinos, the idea is that the poachers will not try and break into the reserve for a horn that is maybe a third of the size of a full horn. Unfortunately sometimes they will still break onto the reserves in order to hack off the remaining horn and growth plate.

So what are these reserves in South Africa doing to try and stop the unnecessary murder of these beautiful animals?

Well, it might surprise you, (it did surprise me) ¸to know that there are organisations within South Africa that are fighting to legalise the international trade in rhino horn. It’s currently illegal to trade internationally but legal within South Africa. (Jonny clearly saw my puzzled expression and quickly worked to explain the idea). The reason that rhino horn is seen as such a status symbol is because it’s a banned product. The idea being that having a rhino horn which is potentially worth over a million USD, shows high status. But, if you were to legalise the trade of rhino horn then this would immediately lower the value of it and reduce the demand for poaching, with the view to eliminate poaching totally of course. There are lots of reserves who practice horn trimming and who have huge amounts stored in secure vaults. If the international ban was lifted, these organisations could coordinate to flood the market with this ethically sourced horn and bring the value crashing down. The money traded on the black market goes into the hands on criminal organisations who are making a wild profit out of the senseless killing of rhinos, if the ban was lifted then the money could go back into the reserves and straight back into the conservation effort. The mission is to essentially buy whatever time we can for the animals to rebuild their populations, while the people in positions of power agree on what we can do to secure their future.

That’s certainly a lot to think about, it’s clearly a complex issue and I’ll definitely be reading more about it. Thanks so much for meeting with me today, do you have any advice for any people who may be interested in pursuing a career in conservation?

Aside from the educational part, degrees etc, I’d just recommend putting yourself out there and getting as much experience under your belt as possible. A varied skill set is so useful in this line of work and you can do this by approaching organisations and volunteering for as much as possible.

Image: Martin Meyer

Final thoughts

Getting the chance to interview Jonny was a brilliant insight into the world of rhino conservation. As I said at the beginning of this, I don’t know a lot about rhinos and it’s clear that like with every aspect of conservation, it’s a very complex and dangerous situation. There is a lot of work being done to fight against the needless suffering of thousands of animals and to preserve them. But there is still a long way to go. I have done a lot of research into the horn trimming practice and the issues discussed in this interview, and I will leave a selection of sources in the ‘further reading’ section at the bottom. Perhaps when I have collected my thoughts in a coherent manner, I will write a post about my own thoughts and a more detailed discussion on this complicated and challenging issue!

For now it remains to say, Happy World Rhino Day, use this day as an opportunity to learn about the beautiful giants, and about how we must work now to protect them for generations to come.

Image: Savetherhino.org

Further reading:

International Rhino Foundation (rhinos.org)

Rhino Species | Learn | Save the Rhino International

Rhino | Species | WWF (worldwildlife.org)

Horn trimming rhinos in South Africa – in pictures | Art and design | The Guardian

Rhino Horn Trimming: Conservation’s Expensive Haircut – Conservation With Kate (conservationkate.co.uk)

A legal trade in rhino horn | Thorny Issue | Save the Rhino International

A special huge thanks to Martin Meyer, a South African based photographer with a passion for wildlife conservation, for allowing me to use his beautiful images. Visit https://www.martinmeyerwild.com/ to see more of his amazing work.

Instagram @martinmeyer_wild

World Chimpanzee Day

61 years ago today, an inspirational, ambitious young woman entered Gombe National Park to begin pioneering observational research, providing us with an up-close insight into the lives of our closest living relatives. This woman, of course, Dr Jane Goodall, dedicated her life to chimpanzees and today on World Chimpanzee Day, I want to tell you more about some incredible humans working tirelessly to save and protect the species and tell you why we should all be working together to secure a future for chimpanzees. 

Why chimpanzees?

I suppose the main reason I am so passionate about a career in conservation comes from my childhood. I spent my life surrounded by animals, appreciating the beauty of our planet and everything it has to offer. It wasn’t until later in life that I started to pay more attention to the damage we are doing to our only home and the price we and every other being on earth are paying for the continuing behaviour of our own species.

But why chimpanzees? That’s a different, perhaps slightly odd story so let me tell you. I fell pregnant when I was in my early 20s, it wasn’t planned, I had never considered having children and yet here I was, laying in a hospital bed after 70 hours of labour, exhausted but with this tiny baby in my arms.

First time mum, exhausted and overwhelmed, with a little fluffy headed newborn.

I felt an overwhelming need to protect this tiny human that I had only just met. My son was in hospital for a little while after birth and that gave me a lot of time to think. I started thinking about my own newly developed maternal bond with this person and it got me thinking about the connection other mothers, non-human mothers, feel with their babies. I had read a lot about chimpanzees and bonobos already as they have always been a source of fascination and wonder for me, but suddenly I felt myself looking at this subject of parenting from a totally different perspective. I was suddenly seeing the world from a new angle and in that moment I knew I wanted to know more. So of course I got to reading up on the subject (you have a lot of opportunity to do night time research during those first few months of having a baby) and my reading took me around many academic papers about chimpanzee parenting until I eventually started stumbling upon literature on the horrifying illegal wildlife trade (which I will expand upon shortly), it was in that moment I knew I couldn’t stand back with this new knowledge and do nothing about it. But at the time, I didn’t know what I could do. 

Fast forward a few years to 2020, sitting on the sofa watching a new BBC documentary called ‘Baby Chimp Rescue’ where Professor Ben Garrod was at a chimpanzee sanctuary in Liberia, working with the team to teach the young chimps how to ‘be chimps’.

 As I watched more of the documentary I found myself totally in awe of Jenny and Jimmy Desmond for the work they and the caregivers at the sanctuary were doing to secure a future for these chimpanzees and I knew I needed to be involved in whatever capacity I could. So I reached out to Ben and by some miracle am now about to start working with him and another wonderful researcher, Dr Alex Georgiev, on a masters by research focusing on great ape conservation and science engagement, everything I have dreamt of! Thanks to Ben, I have had the absolute pleasure of connecting with Jenny and Jimmy Desmond and they have kindly allowed me to write this blog post to tell you a little bit about Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection in the hope that I can reach someone who maybe doesn’t know about the dangers faced by our closest relatives and by reading this, may be inspired like I was, to act.

Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection

Image: LCRP logo

My aim in writing this with Jenny and Jimmy is to highlight the sadness surrounding these babies and how the work of sanctuaries such as LCRP is vital for the future of the species and what we can all do to support them. But I don’t want to bombard you with statistics and intangible information, I want you, the reader, to connect with the stories of the residents of LCRP in the same way I have, with that powerful force known as compassion which has the power to change the world. 

Image: Jenny and Jimmy Desmond with Dr Jane Goodall and Princess, LCRP, 2020.

You can find out more about the work LCRP are doing here, but LCRP is a sanctuary in Liberia which has taken in and cared for over 70 chimpanzees, many of whom are infants under 5 years old. LCRP work together with local people and the Liberian government to track down those working in the illegal ‘exotic’ pet and bushmeat trade, in fact LCRP has been instrumental in the formation of Liberia’s first Wildlife Confiscation Unit (WCU) which has now evolved into the much bigger Wildlife Crime Task Force (WCTF) and as a result, more and more individual chimpanzees are being saved from a miserable life as a ‘pet’. As I said earlier, instead of listing stats here, I am going to tell you about a particular chimpanzee whose story made me realise exactly what these tiny, vulnerable babies have been through in their short lives. A ‘case study’ if you like to call it that, I prefer to call it a story of resilience and hope.

Image: Gaia*, LCRP, 2019.

Meet Gaia. Featured in ‘Baby Chimp Rescue’, her story particularly resonated with me. Gaia was just a few weeks old when she fell into the loving arms of Jenny and Jimmy after being found by a tourist who realised the person selling her was committing an awful crime. We don’t know how Gaia came to be in the hands of the person trying to sell another being’s life, but we can unfortunately guess based on what we know about countless other chimpanzees who are suffering in the same way. The most likely scenario is that Gaia’s mother was murdered, while she still clung to her and, too young to realise what was happening, she would have been forcefully dragged from her mothers body, away from everything a young baby needs to survive. Watching the footage of this newborn baby reduced me to tears then (and did again when I rewatched it a minute ago) but not just because of the sadness and tragedy surrounding her. I connected with this story because, when watching the footage of Gaia, too young to lift her own head, no teeth yet, entirely dependent on her mother for food, warmth and protection, all I could see was images of my own baby. Facial expressions Gaia was pulling, small noises she was making, all I could do was imagine my own child in that situation and that broke my heart into a million pieces.


Infants, human and non-human need touch and there is plentiful evidence to show the negative impact caused by a lack of this essential physical contact. Ape infants (don’t forget humans are apes too) who do not receive this care are likely to show what is known as ‘stereotypies’, abnormal behaviours as a response to stress. These behaviours can include rocking and self soothing and are devastating to witness. I think it is very easy (and a lot of people do it, I will admit now that I used to) to forget that humans are animals and all animals have a connection with their offspring. In some species it’s a purely ‘chemical’ connection, such as in mice who’s maternal bonds vanish the moment their young wean, but in others, like apes, the bond goes much deeper. Apes are altricial which means they rely heavily on their mothers and other members of their social group for protection and survival. Like humans, chimpanzees stay with their mothers for many years, learning the vital skills needed to be a chimp! 

Without the care of her biological mother, LCRP had to step in to ensure Gaia had a fighting chance at a healthy future both physically and mentally and took on the role, carrying this tiny baby 24/7 and doing everything not only a chimpanzee mother would do, but what I did with my own babies. With the help of LCRP, Gaia is now a thriving young chimpanzee, meeting her milestones and spending her days climbing with her adopted brothers and sisters. 

Image: Gaia, a happy and healthy young chimpanzee*, LCRP, 2020.

There is so much I want to tell you about LCRP, their work inspires me every single day so it was difficult to decide exactly what to write about in this short blog post. I hope that reading just a little about this one particular chimpanzee, you can see there is so much more to this story than just an animal being taken in by a sanctuary. Young chimpanzees like Gaia who would be with their mothers 24/7 need round the clock care, they need the right balance of nutrients and vitamins, they need physical and emotional support and without people like Jenny and Jimmy, Gaia and many other babies would have been living a miserable life right now, maybe chained outside the home of someone who bought them as a ‘pet’ or ending up as another statistic in the fight against the illegal bushmeat trade. 


What can we do?

Although we can all agree it’s a miracle that Gaia is now living a happy life at LCRP, soon to be exploring the forests everyday in the newly constructed natural habitat, enabling her to live an ‘as close to natural’ life as possible – the fact that Gaia is there is a tragedy. Gaia’s presence at LCRP is a reminder that a mother was murdered and a baby taken away.

I have discussed the illegal wildlife trade in my previous blog post so please if you have time, read this to familiarise yourself with how you can help join the fight against the industry. But for this blog I just want to bring to your attention one thing that keeps cropping up time and time again. Right now mother’s are being murdered and their babies will not be fortunate enough to end up in Jenny’s loving arms. You may see that baby on Youtube, on a Tik Tok video, or across social media. Your friends might tag you in it to look at the ‘cute pet’. Well what if I told you that every tag, every comment, every ‘like’ on an image of a chimpanzee performing for the camera is an act in support of the illegal wildlife trade. Every positive reaction fuels the demand for chimpanzees (and other wild animals) to be torn from their natural habitats in the name of human entertainment and greed. The best things we as individuals can do are:

  1. Don’t engage with images and videos of chimpanzees in unnatural contexts. Be aware of the context of the content and if you feel something is not right, report it as animal abuse or harmful content and do not react to it. The less ‘likes’ these posts receive, the less demand there will be for ‘exotic’ animals.
  2. Engage with the right kind of content. Share the great work that conservation organisations and sanctuaries such as LCRP are doing. Use the disclaimers* provided to inform your audience of the dangers of sharing content which displays animal abuse. 
  3. Comment. Okay so I know I said don’t engage, and there are some negatives to commenting on this kind of content, of course any kind of engagement boosts the chances of the post being seen by a wider audience. BUT that doesn’t mean we can’t still have an impact. By commenting and calling out the content creators there is a chance that the wider audience will see your comment and be less likely to share and engage themselves thus reducing the demand. The Ape Alliance has a brilliant article on this which includes some polite but assertive examples of what you can say to deter audiences from engaging. 

My message to you

Image: Jenny and some of the young chimps on their way to explore the Hundred Acre Wood*, LCRP, 2020.

It’s World Chimpanzee Day, a day to celebrate our closest living relatives, but also a chance to raise awareness of the suffering that is happening now. I connected so strongly with the accounts of the chimpanzees at LCRP because behind their eyes I could see the sadness and tragedy and I felt, as a mother, the heartbreak and the reality of what is happening. Despite efforts of conservationists around the world, the suffering is still occurring and right now somewhere, a baby is being taken away from their mother and will not make it to a safe place like LCRP. But the point here is that ending up at LCRP to live out their lives shouldn’t be a consideration. These beautiful animals, like all wild animals, should be afforded the right to live freely in their own natural environments, to continue to thrive and survive as they have done for millions of years. As well as being an aspiring science engager and conservationist, I am an archaeologist. My undergraduate dissertation focused archaeology and primatology crossing over to teach us about where our species came from. Dr Jane Goodall paved the way for generations of researchers to learn from our wild cousins. We have learnt so much in 61 years, but there is so much still to discover and if we don’t act now then we will lose the opportunity to understand more about these complex and fascinating animals, losing the chance to uncover more about where we started with our last common ancestor. We humans do not have the authority to dictate which beings survive and who does not. We have to remember that we are part of nature. We, as a species, are forgetting that and unless we act now, nature will cease to exist. 


Further sources:

  • If you haven’t yet, then please watch the BBC documentary which tells you all about the story of LCRP so far.
  • World Chimpanzee day
  • Chimpanzee and me‘, Professor Ben Garrod’s brilliant book which tells of Ben’s journey with chimps, the dangers faced and how we can act. Also available in audiobook format for those of you like me who can’t sit still for long enough to read a book.

*LCRP Disclaimer: Chimpanzees are not and should not be pets or forced to live with humans.The chimpanzee orphans at LCRP’s sanctuary in West Africa are victims of the bushmeat and illegal pet trade. Their mothers were tragically killed by poachers and require around the clock care. Thanks to the dedicated caregivers and staff, the orphans are being rehabilitated so that they will be able to thrive with others in a natural and safe environment when they’re older. Please support LCRP’s mission to rescue chimpanzees in need and keep wild chimps wild

What a Load of Rubbish!

Last night I was listening to the latest episode of the WWF podcast, ‘Call of the Wild’ (Call of the Wild podcast | WWF). Naturalist, Steve Backshall, was in conversation with the host, Cel Spellman about plastic pollution and the effect that single use plastics are having on the planet. So of course, this prompted me to do some more investigating and I wanted to share what I found with as many people as possible! I know what you’re thinking, oh no not another person ranting online about plastics, we’ve heard it all before! That’s not my aim. My aim is just to pass on a message that we have all heard a lot of recently but doesn’t seem to be getting through to everyone just yet. So until it does, and until we start to see a positive change, I guess we just have to keep going on about it.

Discarded balloon made from Mylar – a synthetic material which does not biodegrade and contributes heavily to environmental and oceanic waste.

So, plastic. Convenient isn’t it. How much plastic do you think you use everyday. Stop for a second and count the amount of plastic items you can see around you. I can see a kids balance bike, an iPad case, a drinks bottle, a couple of plant pots. I’m pretty much surrounded. It’s a really useful product of course and has a long history, the first man made plastic was exhibited at the Great International Exhibition in London in 1862 and since then it has spiraled and expanded into the versatile product we literally see everywhere today. The Plastic Empire. But, like the ‘Call of the ‘Wild’ podcast, it’s not these plastic items we have in our home that I want to talk about. It’s the single use plastics that we chuck in the bin the minute we are finished with them. Next task, go to your fridge and count the amount of products that are packaged in single use plastic. At a guess it’ll be mainly fruit and veg, wrapped for no reason in an oversized, single use plastic bag. Some fruit even has it’s own natural packaging and yet we humans still feel it necessary to wrap our bananas up – they literally have their own biodegradable wrapper.

Landfill
Everything you throw in your bin (not the recycling one) ends up in landfill. The most common methods of rubbish disposal is to bury it in a giant hole, or just make a big pile and leave it to do its thing. A lot of products are not biodegradable so will just sit there – forever. Landfills are responsible for emitting over ten dangerous gases including methane. The uncontrolled degradation of materials which release methane into the atmosphere has a the potential to trap 20 times more solar radiation than carbon dioxide and as a result, contributes largely to a rise in global temperatures. Landfills are lined with a composite liner but this is not a guarantee that the land around it will be protected. In fact it’s suggested that all landfills leak to some extent, sending toxic waste, cleaning chemicals, whatever else there may be in the bottom of a landfill site, out and into the soil. Liner technology is forever evolving, but outdated lining techniques used in the 20th century cannot be repaired (they’re buried under tons of rubbish) and as a result are causing an environmental catastrophe. Check out this website to learn more about the dangerous effects of landfill sites and what we could do to change this – Causes, Effects and Solutions of Landfills – Conserve Energy Future (conserve-energy-future.com).

Landfill site. Photo Credit: Evan Schneider

Single Use Plastic
Back to the focus of this blog post, single use plastic often doesn’t make it to landfill. Around 32% annually finds it’s way into our vast oceans. It’s actually predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish! That is both astonishing and absolutely terrifying. Single use plastic accounts for about 150 million tons of the plastic we use worldwide annually. I’ve been for a few walks in my local area this week and have tried to count the amount of rubbish I walk past, an impossible task. Balloons, take away cups, bottles, wrappers, lids, even some broken toys and boxes! When you can’t be bothered to throw your empty bottle in a bin and instead throw it into a bush or on the grass as you walk past, do you ever stop and think about what happens to that plastic and the impact it has on the environment? Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it just gets smaller. Over time, heat makes the plastic item break up until it eventually turns into microplastics – 5 millimeters across and not really visible, they are everywhere. These microplastics that will never disappear will be absorbed into the ground, eaten by animals, enter the water systems and even end up inside you. If you eat fish, then you eat plastic. Plastic can build up inside an animals system causing potentially fatal blockages. So your seemingly innocent action because it’s too much effort to carry a bottle home to the recycling bin, has major consequences for the world around us. There is even research to suggest that a build up of microplastic in the human body can cause hormone imbalances, problems with fertility and cancer. This doesn’t just affect the planet, it affects YOU. Endocrine Disruptors (nih.gov).

So what are we doing about it? People are acting for change, but it won’t work unless we all work together, you and I, big corporations, governments. India is working to totally ban single use plastics by 2022 and many places here in the UK are working for change too. In 2020, the UK banned the use of plastic straws and we now have to pay for plastic carrier bags in shops. In fact in many shops now it’s more common to see paper bags being used in favour of plastic. Of course it’s not as simple as just banning single use plastic. If we did that, we would have to work to invest in other replacement items that also have an impact on the environment. It was found by the Danish Ministry of Environment and food, when considering water and land use and CO2 emissions, that you’d have to use a paper bag around 40-50 times for it’s environmental impact to be less than that of a plastic bag and a cotton bag around 20,000 times! And of course some people rely on items like plastic straws due to medical and physical conditions. We need to find a balance.

A take away cup in the middle of the woods today.

It’s not about an all out ban on plastic. It’s about change. Every single one of us making change. Yes I know it’s easy to use single use plastic, I’m not denying it. I’ll admit in the past I’ve put loads in the main bin instead of washing it and putting it in the recycling, it’s quicker and easier and that is what we have come to expect from this world – convenience and ease. But convenience and ease won’t make a change, it won’t save marine life, coral reefs, the soil or reduce toxic gases in the environment. What will make a change is becoming more aware. Next time you’re in a supermarket, don’t pick the bananas in pointless plastic packaging, take a reusable bag to put your fruit and veg in and to carry your shopping home instead of spending more money on plastic bags (that you know will just end up in that bag of bags you’ve got in the drawer next to the kitchen sink….). Next time you go to the coffee shop (and the pandemic allows), take a reusable coffee cup, get some money off your drink AND reduce plastic waste, what a bonus! Buy some reusable straws if you are able to use them and keep them in your bag for when you’re out and about. Use that water bottle you’ve got under the seat in your car and refill it, it’s free! Packed lunches? Use a Tupperware or glass container for your sandwiches or a reusable food wrapper instead of clingfilm, there are so many options out there if you do a quick online search. Pick up your rubbish after a picnic and carry it home. Instead of throwing all of the items from your next house clear out in the tip so they can all end up in landfill, have a look at other options for your items which still have lots of life left in them! There are plenty of places you can list your items for free and I guarantee you someone will come and rehome it, giving the item the chance to be reused and reducing the amount of really good, usable stuff in landfill! Yes it may all seem a pain in the arse to start with but I promise you, from experience, once you do these things regularly they will become part of your every day life and you will get the pleasure of knowing you aren’t contributing heavily to the global plastic catastrophe. If we can look past the attraction of convenience and all make just these tiny changes then imagine how different the world could look!

Plastic bottle on the side of the road. One of about 30 I saw during a two mile walk (we went back and picked them up).

So next time you’re thinking about opening your car window and throwing your crisp packet or coke bottle onto the grass verge, please think about this blog. Think about the journey that plastic will make, from bottle to microplastic particles that will end up being consumed by another animal, close your window and take it home with you to dispose of responsibly. The amount of rubbish I see every single day is quite frankly disgusting. It’s lazy and there is no excuse for it. People claim that the pandemic has brought them closer to nature but the evidence suggests to me that all people are doing is using it as an opportunity to further expand the damage already done to the Earth. Think about it. Start by making one change today. And if you do, thank you for acting with me and being part of the change.

‘Nature Patrol’. Teaching the the youngest generation about the impact of plastic on the environment.

Get the kids involved!
As a quick side note to teachers and people with kids or young family members, it’s so vital that we get the youngest generations involved as soon as possible. The earlier they learn about this issue, the easier it will be for them to grow up knowing how to help the planet. For me, I bought two litter pickers and some gloves for my kids (5 & 4) and they have an absolute ball having competitions on who can collect the most rubbish. Now, every time we go out litter picking they are both confident enough to engage in conversation with people we encounter about what they are doing and why. And folks, if my 5 & 4 year old understand why we are doing what we are doing and how these simple steps can change the world, then I’m sure you can too.
There are plenty of resources for teaching kids (and grown-ups) about the issues discussed in this post, so many great books aimed at children but I would personally recommend ‘Protect the Planet’ and ‘What a Waste’ by vet and TV presenter, Jess French. They’re bright, colourful, affordable and engaging and perfect to have in the classroom or at home. Protect the Planet with Jess French (worldbookday.com)

Let’s start today.

Be hysterical.

Like everyone in the UK, I’ve been following the awful events surrounding the tragic loss of Sarah Everard as they unfold. This story is startlingly close to home, Sarah went to school with people, women, I am friends with and the whole thing has brought me back to earth with a tremendous thump.

After a lot of thought, I decided I wanted to put my thoughts down ‘on paper’, not to follow what everyone else is doing, but to add to the growing number of women who are coming forward with their experiences. I am ashamed to admit that until recently, there were things I’m about to talk about that I’d never really registered as ‘a problem’ and that itself is evidence of the problem at hand. From a very young age I have been vigilant. I have lived everywhere from rural French countryside to Nottingham city center and I have always been vigilant. This is because from a young age, women are taught that we must protect ourselves. We are told there are people who want to hurt us, and it is therefore our job to ensure that doesn’t happen to us. We accept this. As teenagers, we are told not to wear clothes that may draw too much attention to certain areas of our body. We are told by our older female relatives we look to for advice, ‘don’t have your boobs and legs on display at the same time otherwise you might draw too much male attention’. We accept this. As we grow and mature, we are subjected to cat calling, wolf whistling, remarks from large groups of men as we walk down the street, beeping car horns as they drive past us. We accept this. When we start university, we have ‘female safety talks’, are issued rape alarms, anti date rape drug devices for our drinks, advised to always stay in groups, never go out after dark alone, and we accept this. We tell our friends to text us when they get home, that’s our way of protecting them and making sure they are safe. We accept this as normal. I accepted this. Until very recently, these were all things I took for granted and I will admit that now. I will always walk down the street with my head down, avoiding making eye contact with too many people, especially large groups. I feel a rise of anxiety when I walk past building sites just incase they say something. A beeping car horn sends my mind into absolute overdrive pondering what it meant and why they did it. Until recently, I accepted this. Until I realised these are things that every women feels and experiences whether they admit it or not.

A recent article published showed that 97% of women surveyed have experienced some level of harassments and these are all women, like me, who have spent a lifetime accepting that this is just how things are. The derogatory comments in the office, the bloke on the desk opposite making a comment about how low your top is and his pals cheering him on while the rest of the women look at the floor – accepting it. I have recently taken up running. Admittedly I’m not a natural and as someone who has suffered a lot with body image (caused by my first boyfriend when I was 15 saying I was a ‘bit too big’ when he broke up with me), I already feel self conscious running and try to only run in places where I know there won’t be many onlookers. But I recently realised that part of my concern when running on my own is who else is going to be there? I find myself looking over my shoulder every couple of seconds for cars and people who may be walking nearby. If there is a van parked up, empty or not, I will turn around rather than running past. I will only have my earphones in one ear so I can still hear what is going on around me and remain vigilant. I know that if anything were to happen to me, the narrative would be, ‘woman running on her own in the countryside’. Comments would focus on the fact I was on my own, why wasn’t she in a group? Why should I have to be? Why have I accepted this as the norm up until now? Why has it taken a horrid event in the national news and a movement for me to realise that what I have always accepted is not okay. I have experienced it. Whether I realised it or not before now. I have been made to feel so uncomfortable in a pub by the comments of a man that were way beyond ‘flirty’, that I’ve left the pub and gone home. I’ve been followed through a multi-story car park at night. I’ve been intimidated whilst driving my car with my kids in the back by a man who felt challenged. I used to accept this but I do not accept this anymore.

I’ll be honest and what really triggered me to write this blog post was an article I just stumbled across in the Telegraph. The headline states a female professor has urged women to ‘not be hysterical’ over this. She states that men are still more likely to be murdered than women, so we are okay, no need to worry, no need to panic, just sit back and accept this as we have done for centuries. Well, no, we will not accept this any longer. I will not accept this any longer. It absolutely horrifies me that a fellow woman would say such a thing, it shows me that this ‘norm’ is so acceptable that some women don’t feel it necessary to speak out and protect each other. Women have historically been accused of hysterics. Usually when they do something (like read a book, try and vote, have hormones) that challenges the patriarchy. The professor in the article suggests that because these instances of murder are so rare, and also happen to men, that women ought to just calm down, quit the theatrics and accept it. But it’s not just about the murder is it? It’s about so much more than that. It’s about the 97% of women who have experienced some kind of harassment in their lives. It’s about the domestic violence (men and women) that goes unreported because of the feelings of shame associated with it. It’s about the feeling of anxiety and dread when going out for a run alone. It’s about the anti date rape drug devices we are issued at university so we can protect ourselves. It’s not just about murder cases. So if I am hysterical over this then so be it. If being ‘hysterical’ means standing up for my right to be comfortable when I walk down the street. If being ‘hysterical’ means challenging a behaviour which makes me feel uncomfortable. If being ‘hysterical’ is women standing together against an age old system which objectifies us. If being ‘hysterical’ is what it takes to get these everyday experiences of women noticed then I will be proudly ‘hysterical’.

Now to the men reading this. This is not an attack on you. I am lucky to be surrounded by wonderful men in my life. My friends, my family, my academic mentors. Men who realise the issues we are facing and who stand up in support of us. I thank all those men who have stood up and admitted they never realised how privileged they were to be able to go for a run at night with their music on loud in both ears. I thank all those men who are taking steps to ensure they know how to make a women feel at ease in their presence, whatever the situation – out for a run, in the pub, at work. The problem is the victim blaming attitude that certain men are adopting. The #NotAllMen trending on Twitter is only shifting the blame. WE KNOW not all men treat women like this. WE KNOW it’s not all of you. We are not targeting you all. We are not targeting anyone. We are targeting a system. A socially accepted concept that has been present in all of our lives, forever. By saying #NotAllMen, you are knowingly or unknowingly, supporting victim blaming narratives we are all used to which say a women shouldn’t dress a certain way if she doesn’t want attention. A women shouldn’t walk home alone at night if she doesn’t want to be attacked. She should know better. Whether you realise it or not, this is what you are supporting.

I’m not going to sit here and tell men what they should do or think. But I am going to say that we should all start to think. Think about our actions. I’m talking about those every day actions that are accepted and classed as normal behaviour. Think about how those behaviours can make a person feel and what impact those behaviours could have on a persons life. Every action has consequence, so we all need to start thinking about the consequence, not just in this context but in every context. Whatever happened to #BeKind we all rave about until something that challenges us directly happens?

So, women, stand up, be ‘hysterical’, shout and scream, speak up about your experiences, call out the behaviours. Men if you see these behaviours, please challenge them. Don’t let it be ‘the norm’ any longer. I don’t want men to be too scared to talk to a woman, I love chatting to people in a pub, a shop, everywhere, I’m a ‘people person’ and always will be. But I do want you to think about what you could do to help end this ‘norm’. Sarah should have been able to walk home at 9pm without fear of being attacked. My love and support goes out to those grieving for Sarah now.

This is for every woman who has ever been made to feel uncomfortable in the presence of a man who believes his behaviour is acceptable. And to every man who has looked down at the ground while his mates objectified a women – stand up.

This is for ALL WOMEN. Make it count. Be hysterical.

The article which sparked me to write this:

Sarah Everard: Criminology professor urges women not to become ‘hysterical’ as anti victim-blaming protest is planned (telegraph.co.uk)

International Polar Bear Day

Artwork by Jessica Peto – check out more of Jessica’s amazing work on Twitter @jessrpeto

Rider of Icebergs, The Ice Bear, The Seal’s Dread. These are all names used to refer to Ursus maritimus, or more commonly known as the polar bear. Perfectly adapted to a life of extreme weather conditions in one of the world’s most challenging environments, the polar bear is thought to share a last common ancestor with the brown bear that lived around 400,000 years ago. The polar bear has become perfectly adapted to life in the cold, with small ears to reduce potential heat loss and thick fur to cover layers of heat retaining fat. Traces of polar bear have been found in the brown bear genome suggesting an episode of interbreeding after the two species split.

I won’t lie, I know nothing about polar bears. I’ve seen a polar bear ‘up close’ at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park – whoever thought there would be polar bears in Doncaster? But apart from the basics I have no knowledge of the majestic Arctic giant. So I thought as it’s International Polar Bear Day today, I could use this as an opportunity to teach myself about them and tell you all a little about polar bears and the threats they are facing today.

Source: Wildlife Conservation Network

As I mentioned, each part of the polar bears anatomy is has adapted perfectly to combat challenges in their environment. An adult male can weigh over a whopping 800kg and females around half that size. You would think an animal of such enormous weight would risk cracking the icy terrain they traverse daily, but this of course is not the case. When crossing patches of thin ice, the polar bear lowers it’s body closer to the ground by spreading the legs further apart, distributing the weight over a larger surface area. Think about that scene when Bambi slid across the ice, legs everywhere, but a lot more precise and purposeful. Their big paws can measure 11 inches across and the black pads are covered in bumps which help them to grip the ice. The sizable paws act as swimming aids in the water, the front paws as paddles and the back paws as rudders, steering the bears through the water in pursuit of prey. Polar bears can be found in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Canada and Russia. Their sea ice homes are forever moving and changing meaning the bears have huge ranging distances and no territorial boundaries, most bear seems to have a ‘home range’ of several hundred miles though as you can expect, tracing and tagging a polar bear is quite tricky.

Now we know a bit more about polar bears, let’s explore some of the threats facing these beautiful animals and what we can all do to help polar bear conservation. The earth is heating up, extreme climate events are becoming more and more frequent and are likely to become more damaging for everyone, the longer we go without acting. It’s true the world goes through climatic phases, but the problem is we have spent the last 200 years burning through fossil fuels, creating a huge increase in greenhouse gasses. Imagine putting a foil emergency blanket around you, hugging a hot water bottle and not allowing any heat to escape. Feeling warm? That’s how the planet feels right now and it’s getting hotter. Alongside the increase of greenhouse gasses, we are chopping down trees at an alarming rate, destroying huge areas of rainforests. What does that have to do with polar bears I hear you ask? Well, trees soak up excess carbon dioxide and that is one of the greenhouse gasses I’ve been talking about, so the more deforestation that takes place, the less trees there are to help soak up the damage we have created. So not only are we increasing the greenhouse gasses, we are removing one of our opportunities to clean up the air! Sounds crazy when you put it simply like that doesn’t it? What are we doing?!

Source: Polar Bears International

So back to polar bears – the IUCN (you heard about them in the World Pangolin Day post) have listed the polar bear as vulnerable and it’s estimated there are around 23,000 individuals in the wild. The abrupt peak in Artic temperatures resulting in a dramatic decrease in sea ice is reported as the single most dangerous threat to the species. So why can’t polar bears just move inland as the sea ice shrinks? Well it’s not that easy. Imagine if land, say England where I am currently, began shrinking. There would quickly be less space, less food, more competition and more stress on the individuals that depend on the land. And it’s exactly the same for polar bears. They live, hunt, breed and depend on the ice to live. The more ice shrinks, the more polar bears are forced to travel further out of their home range in order to find food. Polar bears stock up their fat supplies during the summer months and if they are having to swim and walk further to find limited resources, the result is malnourished bears, unable to survive the winter months, unable to breed efficiently, unable to thrive as a species. To lose polar bears would have a huge knock on effect. Polar bears are apex predators and contribute to limiting the Arctic seal populations. If polar bears disappeared, seals would quickly overpopulate the region, eating all the fish that are usually a food source for other wildlife and local human populations. Scavengers such as the Arctic foxes and birds depend on the hunting behaviours of the polar bear, so do you see how losing one species would have such a huge knock on effect on the whole Arctic ecosystem? Not to mention how devastating it would be to lose another animal because of the actions of humans. The species is also under threat from direct human action of course. A reduction in sea ice is forcing polar bears to look for food in other places, including places where humans live. I’m sure you can guess what humans do when they see a huge polar bear entering their town. It’s reported that there has been a 600% increase in the shooting of ‘problem bears’ from 1991 – 2012. Polar bears are hunted for their fur and meat however in most cases, the hunts are governed by yearly quotas and suggestions are made about how to hunt sustainably. Despite the recommendations, polar bear skins are still exported in their hundreds in the form of rugs and even taxidermied bears which are seen as a status symbol. Despite a decline in demand in some parts of the world, others are seeing a steady increase but the USA made the importation of skins illegal as soon as the species hit the IUCN list.

Photo credit: Hans-Jurgen Mager

What can we do about it then? Well, we are causing the problems so it’s up to us to do something about it. Of course addressing the issues surrounding the hunting of polar bears is vital – there must be a crack down on companies who are exploiting the polar bear populations to meet the global demand for fur items to increase and show off their social status. There is a lot to be learnt from communities who have lived alongside the polar bear for thousands of years and who have an in depth understanding of their changing behaviour, population, migration patterns and sustainability. As previously mentioned, climate change continues to be the main threat to polar bears today, we can collectively help in the push for change by being conscious about our carbon footprint and reducing this – I will be publishing a blog post specifically about our carbon footprint soon so stay tuned! It goes without saying that reducing and reversing the process of deforestation and making the planet greener (literally) will help to suck up all that carbon dioxide and reduce emissions that are lingering in the air and suffocating our beautiful Earth. Finally, as always, you can do your bit by learning about endangered species, telling your friends about them, signing petitions to pressure governments to act and donating to the wonderful polar bear conservation organisations who do fantastic work to promote and preserve the lives of these incredible beings for many years to come. It’s predicted there will be a 30% decline in populations by 2050. It’s up to all of us now.

For more information and to get involved in polar bear conservation, please visit:
Get Involved – Polar Bears International
Top 10 facts about polar bears | WWF
Should polar bear hunting be legal? It’s complicated. (nationalgeographic.com)
Adopt a Polar Bear | WWF
Ursus maritimus (Polar Bear) (iucnredlist.org)

The Laidlaw Scholarship

My first experience in a lab! Nerve-wracking and exciting. Photo credit: Alex Holland.

I nervously pressed side button on my phone to light up the notification screen to see it sitting there. The email I had been anxiously awaiting. I put the phone away, convinced it would be a rejection email, almost instantly thought, “sod it”, and opened the email. To my absolute astonishment, it read, We are delighted to offer you a place on the Laidlaw Scholarship Programme, 2019/20. Of course I was amazed and delighted, but little did I know, this opportunity would pave the way towards an incredible, exciting journey.

Lonely in the trench – the day I found out I had been offered a place on the scholarship. Photo credit: Chloe Rushworth.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The Laidlaw Scholarship is a unique opportunity across several universities around the world, open to first year undergraduates in any discipline to undertake a self-led research project under the close supervision of a chosen expert in that field. Funded by Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay, the scholarship allows students to gain valuable skills that wouldn’t necessarily be taught at undergraduate level (this was definitely the case for my project), as well as in-depth development centers where scholars can learn to harness their skills and identify areas for development. The two year period culminates in a Chartered Management Institute level 5 award in management and leadership. All this as well as a stipend to allow students the chance to really focus on the project and development without having to worry about financial barriers. An all round amazing opportunity.

Dr Nathan Wales ensuring I didn’t drop the samples everywhere. Photo credit: Alex Holland.

It was during my first year when I was sorting through my university inbox and spotted an email that had been sitting there for a month. I opened it and read about the opportunity and saw the deadline was coming up fast. I decided when I returned to university as a mature student that I was going to seize every opportunity and really throw myself into it, so of course I had to apply, what did I have to lose? I had never really done any proper ‘sciencey’ stuff but I knew this was the direction I wanted my career to follow and thought this could be a good gateway. So after a lecture on ancient DNA, I went to the front of the theatre and spoke to the unsuspecting lecturer, Dr Nathan Wales. It seemed no one had ever applied for this scholarship from the department and he had an idea for the perfect project that would fit the bill and fit the university research theme of environment and resilience. And here is a summary of the research proposal to give you an idea of what I had the chance to work on!

Historic corn smut: using ancient DNA methods to understand risk to UK agriculture
The aim of this research project is to extract DNA from historic and modern samples of Ustilago maydis, the fungal pathogen responsible for corn smut disease. By analysing genome-wide genetic differences in the historic and modern samples collected in the United Kingdom, it will be possible to ascertain when the pathogen first entered the region and which New World population(s) is ancestral to UK lineages. This analysis has two possible outcomes. If historic and modern pathogens are found to be closely related to many U. maydis populations across the Americas, it would suggest that the movement of maize diseases into the UK has occurred countless times from many dispersal routes. Alternatively, if the UK strains are exclusively related to one population from the New World, we could infer that the disease dispersal is limited by trade or other factors. For instance, it is plausible the U. maydis lineages from the United States are suited to cold winters, similar to those in the UK, thereby making it pre-adapted to Northern Europe. This would open the door for government-affiliated organisations that monitor crop pathogens to investigate what can be done to prevent further introductions of the pathogen. A “shotgun” sequencing approach will provide an unbiased assessment of recent gene evolution in the UK, revealing whether U. maydis is becoming more virulent. I anticipate my findings will encourage further research into agricultural resilience and how the UK can invest resources into the protection and sustainability of cereals in the future, key goals which supports the university research theme “Environment and Resilience”. With a focus on food security and sustainability, this research project would aim to assist in the development of methods and techniques to tackle agricultural vulnerability.

To my surprise, after a rigorous interview process, I was offered a place on the programme and became the first person in the department of Archaeology to become a Laidlaw Scholar. Before the research commenced, I attended a series of leadership and personal development centers. This involved some really in-depth activities which gave the scholars the chance to really dig deep into our personalities and leadership styles. I learnt an awful lot about myself in those development centers and I was able to take the information and feedback from the brilliant staff forward and use it to my advantage. I realised where my strengths were, no prizes for guessing presenting and networking were high up on the list, and I realised areas for improvement and could begin working on them. I learnt some valuable leadership tools and took part in some interesting sessions on teamwork. I won’t lie, some of it felt like therapy, drawing images of my life journey so far and identifying hurdles I have had to overcome and delving into just how I overcame them. But all of this combined with a big essay on my leadership style and personal reflection finished with a certificate from the CMI which I can pop on my C.V. and use the skills I took with me in my future career.

The extremely patient and brilliant Dr Nathan Wales, teaching me the necessary skills to undertake the project. Photo credit: Alex Holland.

The research portion of the project was probably more daunting than the development centers. I felt some real imposter syndrome on the first day in the ancient DNA lab. Putting on the white suit and entering the lab, I was put through my paces and thrown straight into learning ‘on the job’. I had acquired my samples from the Food Environment Research Agency and from Kew Gardens Herbarium and I’d just like to stop here and say a huge thank you to those involved from those organisations, who really took the time to make me feel at ease in the process and spent a lot of time helping me along the way. Learning the skills in the lab really opened up my eyes and made me realise that maybe, after a lifetime of arts and humanities, it would actually be possible to follow my dream of combining those skills with a scientific career. Our project is still ongoing and has become wider with more students analysing the data and writing up the results, I’m excited to see where it goes. Now the scholarship has ended and I’m entering the final stage of my degree, I know I don’t want a career in ancient DNA, and that was never the plan, but that’s not the point here, the point is what I have gained from the scholarship. I am extremely overwhelmed with gratitude for all involved for giving me the kick start I needed to actively pursue my goals. The confidence I gained by getting the scholarship and completing it spurred me on to nervously make contact with the people I wanted to work with going forward and by some magic, it worked and I am on my way to the career of my absolute dreams. It gave me the confidence to work and present at a number of science festivals on topics I never thought I’d be able to communicate, from micropropagation to isotopic analysis and even prehistoric cheese-making , starting my journey as a science communicator. Who knew that checking my emails that day and making the decision to apply would lead me to the path I’m on now. Never in a million years did I think I would be in a lab performing shotgun sequencing (I didn’t even know what that was a few years ago) on some ancient samples of a fungal pathogen, and that is not something that is normally done at undergraduate level so I know how lucky I am to have had the chance to do so. I suppose my closing message, as always, is just take those opportunities. If they feel right, don’t hesitate, just take the leap, they may lead you down some extraordinary roads.

For more information on the Laidlaw Foundation please visit:
The Laidlaw Foundation – Because education can change lives.

And here is me bumbling my way through my first ever podcast interview as part of the scholarship programme:
What Motherhood Teaches About Leadership – Charlie Bingham | Laidlaw Scholars Network

The Laidlaw Foundation, to whom I am forever grateful for taking a chance on me. Source: The Laidlaw Foundation.

World Pangolin Day

Image by Jessica Peto. Find more art by Jessica on Twitter @jessrpeto

A short survey of friends and family showed that most people didn’t have a clue what a pangolin is. If they had heard of a pangolin, it was in relation to Covid-19. It is suggested that Covid-19 originated in wet markets where animals, wild and domesticated, are sold for human consumption. Today is World Pangolin Day so I wanted to take the opportunity, as a wildlife communicator, to share some facts about the elusive animals and discuss why it is so important to speak about them.

It may surprise you to know that there are actually eight species of pangolins. The White-bellied, Black-bellied, Giant Ground and Temminck’s Ground pangolins all live in Africa while the Indian, Philippine, Chinese and Sunda pangolins are found in Asia. Most are terrestrial but some live in trees. Pangolins are relatives of the bear, cat and dog despite their nickname – scaly armadillo.

Pangolins are insect-eating mammals, with their diet being predominately made up of termites and ants and they can eat a whopping 70 million insects per year. Imagine how many insects there would be if there were no pangolins! They use their amazing sense of smell to locate insect nests and their sticky tongues, which can be over 40cm long, to scoop up their prey. Pangolins are the only truly scaly mammal and their scales are made out of the same material as our skin, fingernails and hair, keratin. When born, the scales are soft but they quickly harden up and create a brilliant defensive barrier, protecting them from predators.

Source: WWF

Despite four pangolin species being placed on the IUCN list of critically endangered animals, and being protected by national and international law, Asia has seen an 80% decline in the pangolin population over the last ten years, leading wildlife traffickers to turn their attention to African pangolins instead. Pangolins are hunted for their meat which is considered to be a delicacy, and for their scales which are used frequently in traditional medicines to treat conditions from asthma to arthritis, even though they have been removed from the list of approved medical ingredients. Scales are also found in the fashion industry being used to make boots, bags and items of clothing. Their defensive strategy of rolling into a tight ball when threatened instead of running makes them an easy target for poachers and their scales, unlike ivory, can be transported discreetly in small quantities and even in pockets and luggage.

A rescued pangolin pup on the way to a sanctuary. Source: Paul Hilton BBC Earth

It is thought that over a million pangolins have been trafficked over the last decade, with the biggest discovery to date being in April 2019 when two 14 ton shipments of scales were seized in Singapore with a value of around $30million. In light of the pandemic, China has moved to ban the consumption of wild animal meat and other countries are looking at taking similar decisions, but the demand for these animals is still high and pangolins are still being poached and trafficked. What is needed now is pressure from the global community to tighten law enforcement. Traffickers have access to the whole world through social media and online advertisement, and there needs to be a crack down on these criminals using the internet to broaden their opportunities to exploit these beautiful animals. In March 2020, it was reported that 3.3 million listings had been blocked or removed but there is still work to be done.

Source: Savepangolins.org

So what can we do to help? The first step is to raise awareness of the species. As mentioned previously, a lot of people haven’t even heard of a pangolin. By raising awareness of the dangers faced by all pangolin species, we can contribute to the global push to end the illegal wildlife trafficking industry which affects so many animals every year. Social media, despite it’s flaws, has a lot of potential – share information you find about trafficked species, tell your friends what you have learnt about wildlife trafficking, sign petitions lobbying governments to tighten laws on the consumption and trade of wild animals, donate to sanctuaries and organisation’s fighting trafficking and by doing so we can collectively work to end suffering.

Hard to swallow – approximately 4000 individuals in one of the largest seizures of pangolins. Images like this are hard to look at I know, but without seeing the reality of what is going on, it is easy to ignore the crisis. Source: Paul Hilton BBC Earth

We only have one Planet Earth. There is no planet B. The trafficking of all species, not just pangolins, plays a part in the spread of zoonotic diseases. The more habitat we destroy and the more we exploit non-human inhabitants of this beautiful planet, the more we risk further outbreaks of new diseases. If we don’t stop and change our actions then I’m sure we can expect more global emergencies. We need to work together now before it is too late. I speak to countless people who simply do not care about other animals and the actions that humans are taking to destroy the planet, they ignorantly think that it does not directly affect them. But of course it does and we can and must change the minds of these people and make them see the damage we are all contributing to. We do not own this planet and we must stop acting like we do.

My message to you all.

For more information and to find out how we can help in the fight against pangolin trafficking please visit the following sources:
The fight to stop pangolin extinction | Stories | WWF (worldwildlife.org)
Conservation – Save Pangolins
African Pangolin Working Group – Conservation on a different scale
BBC – Earth – Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal
International trade and trafficking in pangolins, 1900–2019 – ScienceDirect
Please Help Pangolins | Fauna & Flora International (fauna-flora.org)

Please feel free to share this simple infographic – in doing so we can help conserve these beautiful animals together

Creating the key to open the door…


It was the day of the university open day. I was late. Very late. After navigating the busy roads of a new city, I flung the car into a parking bay, flew out of the drivers side, grabbed the pram out of the boot and with a baby under one arm and an 18 month old toddling behind me, ran through the doors of a glorious fifteenth century building. Out of breath and with two children in tow, I was greeted by a warm and friendly staff member who came out to assist this overwhelmed and very late potential new student. In that moment, I knew that this was the right place for me.


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Kings Manor, York. The sight that greeted me on that life changing day.

And that, folks, is how my journey as a mature student began. A 26 year old mother of two and feeling a little lost, like I had forgotten myself. I don’t know what made me decide to go back to university, I wish I could say it was some dramatic epiphany but it was just a desire to rediscover myself and start forging some kind of path for myself – which I suppose is an important revelation. I had had a varied work history up until that point. I had worked for two hours in McDonald’s when I was 16, a shoe shop, an abseiling instructor, a supervisory role at a log cabin holiday site before falling into a job as a trainee dental nurse which I stayed in until I started maternity leave with my first child. I fell pregnant again when my eldest was just nine months old and a difficult pregnancy followed by a premature baby prevented me from returning to work straight away. A long period as a ‘stay-at-home parent’ gave me a lot of time to really think about my life and what it was I wanted to do with it.

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Celebrating the decision I made to rediscover myself in the best way, through the medium of an overpriced gin.

It was actually when I was giving birth to my second child, that I had an inkling about what I wanted to do. Giving birth in a very clinical setting, hooked up to drips and machines and having a baby whisked away into an incubator really removed any potential to birth in a natural way and it really made me realise how much I wanted to learn more about our evolutionary story. In the back of my mind I had always wanted to follow a scientific path. I am and always have been, passionate about animals and conscious about the human impact on the natural world. I always thought how incredible it would be to spend a lifetime making a difference. I did not think it would be possible for me to enter a scientific pathway as I had always pursued ‘the arts’ in school- my side passion is for music and theatre and I still dream of being on the stage (only now as a science communicator rather than a West End star. Okay maybe a singing science communicator). As a child I would spend a lot of time wandering up and down the common behind our house collecting Victorian medicine bottles that were uncovered every time there was a large rainfall, pieces of pottery and rocks (that I would of course stick googly eyes on, everyone had pet rocks – didn’t they?). I had a lifelong interest in archaeology, I knew it would be an interesting degree to study but I knew it wouldn’t be the career I wanted to do long term. What I didn’t know is the doors that an archaeology degree would open for me.

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Last year I got the brilliant opportunity to assist with some data collection with captive gorillas. I am eternally grateful for this first experience.

So fast forward to January 2019, I was one term into my archaeology degree and having a brilliant time. The university had a great community of mature students and support for student parents and through that community I met some fellow students who understood the challenges of studying with young children. I was learning a lot, having fun and absolutely feeling I had made the right decision. But I still wasn’t sure exactly where my career would take me. An email dropped into my inbox – “Laidlaw Scholarship applications now open” – I clicked on it and read it. An opportunity for first year students to undertake two summers of paid research in an area of choice and while you’re at it, study for a leadership and management qualification. “Okay”, I thought, “what have I got to lose?”. We were part way through a module on archaeological science so I grabbed the chance and at the end of a lecture, I spoke to the lecturer who was totally willing to take me on as a supervisee and even had a project in mind that would give me the opportunity to gain lab experience and my first introduction to the scientific field. I wrote the proposal, went for an interview and one day, whilst excavating a wet and muddy Roman town in North Yorkshire, I opened my emails and found I had won the scholarship. I won’t talk too much about the scholarship experience, I will write another blog post about that in the future, but I will say that the opportunity gave me such confidence in my abilities and the gumption to just go for it and pursue exactly what it is I want to do. So after a couple of nervous twitter messages and a phone call, I’m now here finishing my third year of my degree and waiting to start a master by research in biological sciences, focusing on the welfare and enrichment of captive chimpanzees. It still doesn’t seem real and I imagine I’ll feel like this for quite some time! But choosing a degree that has given me a huge amount of transferable skills and taking a chance on an opportunity has worked, I’m finally entering a world I never thought I’d be able to.

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Conducting vital analysis (trying to work out what the witch marks at Creswell Crags could mean).

I suppose the message I want to send through writing this is, don’t ever feel like you can’t pursue your dreams. Even if the road to your goal is long and winding, there is still a chance. My journey is far from complete. I hope to become fully engaged in conservation and animal welfare. My absolute dream is to become a broadcaster and author, communicating important messages about conservation to the public (see, once a performer, always a performer). A few years ago, I would never have believed any of this was possible and yet here I am. So this one goes out to all those people out there, thinking about maybe returning to university, always wanted to do a degree but thought it was too late, it’s not. Begin your journey now, who knows what doors will open for you if you can just create the key to unlock them .

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Who knows what’s next on my journey, but whatever it is, I know it’s going to be amazing.

Homeschooling – the good, the bad, the impossible?

Homeschooling. A year ago, this word had never really meant much to me. I had friends who were homeschooled, I had an idea of what it included, but I never truly considered the real meaning. It’s February 2021 and in the UK, the school doors are closed and working from the kitchen table has become the new ‘norm’. Only, it certainly isn’t normal and it doesn’t feel normal for anyone (and if anyone says it does, they’re probably lying, we are all hiding in the downstairs loo to eat chocolate. Right?)

I have two children. A five year old and a four year old. My youngest is fine, thriving. He is enjoying not going to nursery, spending so much time with mummy and getting the opportunity to explore the great outdoors in all weathers. But today I want to talk about my eldest child and the effect that ‘lockdown schooling’ is having on him. Jack is a child who absolutely loves school, a very lively child who enjoys learning. He has a brilliant imagination, adores science and numbers and gets a kick out of the challenges school presents him. The first lockdown we were plunged into, almost a year ago now, didn’t seem to phase him. The weather was great, we spent all of our time outside, the schools all told us not to worry and just to focus on having quality time with our kids while the world dealt with the pandemic and we all adjusted. But now, a year in, schools have no choice but to ensure the kids are following some kind of curriculum otherwise we risk a nation of children who have fallen behind on their school work and need to play catch up. The schools have excellently prepared materials which are accessed through google classroom and older children are having online zoom classes, but there is just one problem. While this works wonderfully in theory, the reality is very different. The online classroom assumes that a parent is adept at teaching. It assumes the parent has the time to dedicate to teaching the child all day, every day to ensure they don’t fall behind. It assumes the parent isn’t also working full time from the kitchen table or in my case, studying for a degree. And finally, perhaps most importantly, it assumes that children are not struggling with the changes and the expectations being pushed upon them.

Alternative schooling activities – watching the live stream of the NASA spacewalk with astronauts Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover – https://www.nasa.gov/nasalive

I Jack is feeling the strain. I can see that every single day. He is becoming more fractious, angry and less cooperative with his online classes and school work. He is not alone in this. You only have to do a quick search in all the ‘family lockdown tips’ Facebook groups to realise that hundreds of parents are reporting the same issues. You see, as much as I try, I’m not a primary school teacher. And even if I was a primary school teacher, it is a well known fact that children don’t respond in the same way with their parents & carers as they do with teachers. I have friends that are teachers who will say the same – their kids don’t respond in the same way to their efforts to homeschool, and they’ve had all the training! To date, we are lucky if we get through two pieces of work during a day, and even luckier if those pieces of work don’t trigger a cataclysmic event in the household with his brother and I running for cover.

School is such an important time for children, especially those early years where we learn skills like socialisation and relationship building. These are the skills that make us human and I’m worried what prolonged shielding from the development of these skills will do to our children. Are we squashing their chances to build on their imaginations with their peers? I can certainly see the frustration in Jack when he doesn’t get the same response from me or his younger brother as he would from his friends, when he wants to play a role playing game. There’s only so many times I can break from my work to take on the role of Doctor Eggman (Sonic).

The latest role I have to assume daily – source https://sonic.fandom.com/wiki/Doctor_Eggman

The words ‘zoom’ or ‘breakout rooms’ strike horror into the souls of most adults now, so I can only imagine how the kids feel. We know that a zoom meeting removes the opportunity to build those real connections with other humans, but no one seems to be discussing the fact that kids are also missing out on these experiences.

A tribute to the wonderful Captain Sir Tom Moore who sadly passed away last week after raising an incredible £33m for the NHS – by Jack
https://www.army.mod.uk/people/leave-well/service-leavers-veterans/army-skills/captain-sir-tom-moore/

I absolutely want to take a moment to give a huge thank you to every single teacher out there who is fighting to give our kids the same opportunities and the same access to education as they would at home. An especially huge thank you to those teachers who have their own children and are trying to teach them AND other people’s children. This past year I have developed a new level of respect for teachers and realised the hard work and effort that goes into the job, dedicating their lives to giving the next generation a chance.

A rare moment captured, a completed piece of homeschool work – by Jack

There are of course some positives. This time has given me time with my boys. Time that I wouldn’t normally have had with school, nursery, university and working commitments. It’s given me a chance to really get to know my children well. There have been some excellent resources put out there to help parents and children and we have made great use of them. We have found that taking the school work lightly, doing what we can and submitting it to try and keep him up to date and learning in a more practical way which suits Jack yields better results. As does spending as much time as possible outside, exploring the world around us. We have to try and balance what is required with our children’s wellbeing. Jack’s writing has improved, he enjoys reading, we’ve built a bug hotel and learnt about insects that inhabit our garden. He’s built a model of the solar system and can now outdo most adults with his knowledge about space. My boys have had the chance to become best friends. They spend every waking moment together and while that of course has it’s rough moments (who doesn’t have rough moments when you’re trapped with the same people endlessly), but it’s brought them much closer together with a bond that I hope will last.

Our Solar System – by Jack

I don’t know what I wanted to achieve from putting this down on ‘paper’. I am not here trying to solve the problem, I’m just trying to highlight the fact that people are struggling. I know full well that the benefits of opening schools must outweigh the risks posed by the surging virus, but if we don’t speak out for the children’s mental health then who will? I am here in the hope that someone will notice and take my message on board. I am also here writing honestly and openly about my experiences homeschooling in the hope that it will reach another parent who is struggling and let you know that you are most definitely NOT on your own. Kids are struggling, kids mental health is declining, what are we going to do about it? What can we do about it? The answer, I just don’t know.

Exploring the great outdoors – a frozen York racecourse creating a spectacular optical illusion

Here is a little list of resources that are helping us get through:

BBC Bitesize has been a bit of a lifesaver, also available on the Iplayer:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize

STEM Homelearning have some great lessons prepared to give your kids something different to focus on:
https://www.stem.org.uk/home-learning/primary

I will keep adding to this list in case it helps someone!

Finally here’s a link to a short article in a local paper, featuring yours truly. https://yorkmix.com/for-us-its-getting-worse-single-mum-from-york-reveals-the-strain-of-prolonged-home-schooling/
I was also given the wonderful opportunity to speak about this on BBC Radio York with Jonathan Cowap. I am grateful for that opportunity and hope my experiences reach people and let them know that it’s not just you, we are all in this together. We all have our own battles to fight, but the more we pull together, the sooner we can ride our way out of this storm to a brighter day.