Helen Meredith knows a thing or two about frogs (and most other amphibians you care to mention). We’re delighted at Synchronicity Earth to have Helen join our team, where she will continue to carry out her role as Executive Director of the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA), and we look forward to learning from and supporting each other in years to come.
I caught up with Helen to talk to her about her new role and get an insight into what motivates her and what can be done to tackle the challenges facing amphibians around the world.
JP: Helen, how and when did you first become interested in conservation and can you tell us what excites you so much about amphibians?
HM: I have always been interested in conservation since I can remember. I just really appreciate the natural world and all of the wonderful species and habitats it contains, and I’ve always felt very much a part of nature. I just wanted to do whatever I could to protect it. I also wanted to help raise awareness of the richness of the natural world, and get people as excited as I was to be sharing the planet with so many amazing things.
And I must say, although my career has been based on working with amphibians over the last ten years, I do really like all other creatures too…sometimes people ask me if I care that much about anything else, but I really do, I love everything!
Amphibians captured my imagination because they are so threatened and often overlooked. About a third of all species are known to be threatened with extinction – it could even be as much as 40% or higher, given that we know so little about the threat status of many amphibians. Around half of all species are currently known to be in decline and there are several really serious issues facing amphibians at the moment. They are sometimes described as being at the vanguard of the sixth mass extinction. So it was really this great need that got me interested in them, and fortunately through working with some excellent people at the Zoological Society of London, I got involved in a project that was helping to preserve particularly evolutionarily distinct and threatened species (EDGE of Existence). Through that I learned more about the weird and marvelous world of amphibians, and have been hooked ever since…
JP: Ok, you’ve kind of pre-empted my next question which was to ask you briefly about your background in conservation, where you’ve worked in the past, and also to tell us about some of the regions you’ve visited and worked in as part of your experience in conservation.
HM: Since becoming involved in amphibians, I’ve mainly been based at the Zoological Society of London. I spent 5 years working on the EDGE programme at ZSL and then transitioned into a PhD where I was based at several institutions. These included ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, DICE – the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, UCL and Cambridge.
My PhD – ‘Improving the Impact of Amphibian Conservation’ – led on very well from my previous work, and I stayed involved in a number of conservation projects… I’ve worked in China with Chinese giant salamanders in partnership with collaborators at ZSL, I’ve worked in the Seychelles with a number of endemic threatened species to develop conservation capacity in that part of the world, in partnership with DICE. I am currently working on a project in Kenya in collaboration with DICE, the Taita Taveta Wildlife Forum, ZSL and others. This focuses on habitat restoration, principally forest restoration, in the Taita Hills, to conserve a lesser known species called the Sagalla Caecilian, a limbless, burrowing amphibian that requires good soil and good water availability – as do the local community who are heavily reliant upon subsistence farming. So this project works to unite the needs of the people with the needs of the species – linking biodiversity conservation with poverty alleviation through the development of a selection of sustainable livelihoods.
I think a fascinating part of this job is you never know where you’re going to go next, there are so many wonderful species to try and help…
JP: Staying on the theme of your recently completed PhD, you were looking at evidence-based approaches to conservation and basically how we can find out whether what we do works in terms of conservation. Can you tell us some of the key take-home messages that you learnt while doing your PhD, obviously with regard to amphibian conservation programmes but maybe also to conservation more generally?
HM: I think the key message is that there are a lot of actions that are ongoing in the name of conservation, and some of them are great and some of them are possibly useful, but largely untested, so what we need to do is make sure that we spend the limited funds we have on interventions that we know are effective and aren’t causing any major harms.
One of the things that evidence-based conservation could do is bring about an effectiveness revolution in conservation practice. We would start seeing more and more successes, where at the moment we are sometimes frustrated when our actions don’t have a long-term positive effect. Basing what we do on existing knowledge, and learning from failure as well as success, will surely drive us forward to make our conservation actions more and more sophisticated and cooperative.
JP: To a layperson, that would sound fairly obvious and they may be surprised that this is not happening so much already?
HM: Yes, it’s odd because another key area of our lives that underwent an effectiveness revolution off the back of evidence-based approaches is medicine. Up until the 1970s medicine was not as evidence-based as it is today. In medicine, people continue to build on knowledge, trials and tests, making medical interventions more and more sophisticated, and we’ve seen huge leaps forward. Thinking about medicine in the past – why did we believe certain treatments would work when we had no evidence to suggest they would, or why was some advice handed out to people routinely when actually it didn’t work, or even the reverse was true?
So, I think that it’s human nature to cut corners sometimes, or not learn from history. Taking a more rigorous approach to learning the lessons of history across the board would lead to more successes in the future. I think conservation interventions aren’t always monitored the way they should be, largely due to resource limitations, because evaluation takes time and costs money, and often that’s not necessarily the aspect of a project that people want to fund because it’s not as exciting as actually just doing something. But it’s so, so important, because we want to make sure that we do the right thing., We want to carry out conservation actions that work. Evaluating project outcomes, collecting evidence for the effectiveness of our interventions, and publicising and disseminating this evidence is just as important as any action on the ground. Our actions need to be part of a joined-up, holistic process, where we employ adaptive management based on the outcomes of ongoing project evaluation.
JP: You’ve mentioned that amphibians are a very at risk group, and that in some ways they are at the vanguard of the sixth mass extinction. With this in mind, why do you think they receive relatively little attention and how do you stay positive amid all the doom and gloom?
HM: So, it’s interesting to ask why they don’t receive very much attention. I think it’s partly to do with how people hear the key messages about conservation, and I think media is often dominated by charismatic megafauna and birds, and species that are immediately attention-grabbing. Sometimes amphibians aren’t able to compete at this same level of traditional media coverage. They have other incredible charms that may require deeper attention in order to fully appreciate their merits! However, there are a great many absolutely beautiful and vividly colourful amphibians out there.
I think people struggle with the fact that they are slimy and cold-blooded…we feel a greater affinity with species that are more similar to us sometimes. But in a way the greatest selling point for amphibians is that they are so different from us. They lead extremely unusual lives, which makes them even more fascinating, so I think shining a light on the lesser-known characteristics of the amphibians does tend to pique people’s interest. For example, even tackling the slimy side of things, if you tell people that there are compounds that frogs release through their skin secretions that are highly active against pathogens like MRSA and HIV, and can be used in drugs that treat cancer, Alzheimer’s and depression. In fact, there are any number of fascinating things that amphibians can do so, first of all, you mustn’t judge the book entirely by its cover! But also maybe get a bit more interested in that cover, because there are some really fascinating secrets to be uncovered.
In terms of how I stay positive, it is probably that I really love the natural world. I feel very lucky to have been a part of learning more about it and trying to do my bit as part of talented and motivated teams all over the world to save parts of nature that would otherwise be destroyed. It is a privilege to be given opportunities to shine a light on so many wonderful things that people don’t necessarily have the chance to consider in their everyday lives. I think that we’re all better off for learning more about the world around us.
You know, we live in an increasingly urbanised and homogenised world, and I think the more I travel, the more I start to think the world increasingly looks the same wherever I go because so many things are being paved over and turned into monocultures. But each country has its own sacred identity, even if it’s fragmented and threatened. I think trying to support people who really care about these persisting fragments is so important. We’re all better off if we protect our natural world, there are so many things that we gain from it. So yes, I guess staying positive is about seeing the potential of what remains and trying to help it thrive and grow.
JP: My next question is about your role as ASA Executive Director based at Synchronicity Earth. Can you describe the main priorities you have as you start your work here?
HM: I am the new Executive Director of the Amphibian Survival Alliance. This position is now embedded within the existing structures of Synchronicity Earth, to enable us to learn from one another and improve the outlook for amphibian conservation, and conservation networks in general, and provide mutual support. I am very grateful to Synchronicity Earth for investing so many of their resources into amphibian conservation over the years, and I look forward to being part of their bigger picture as we strive to improve the effectiveness of conservation action through positive collaborations and innovative approaches.
I think my priorities with ASA going forward are, among other things, to coordinate global partners working in amphibian conservation, and help promote the resources and awareness necessary to scale up the impact of amphibian conservation globally. The Amphibian Survival Alliance is a network of partners around the world who focus on amphibian conservation, and we need to ensure that this partnership is well-supported and working cooperatively to implement global conservation strategies for amphibians. I want the ASA to work closely with networks such as the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group, which is a global network of amphibian conservation scientists and practitioners, and Amphibian Ark, which promotes ex situ conservation actions for amphibians in zoos and other institutions around the world to help restore healthy, sustainable populations to the wild. I want to ensure that these, and other, coordinating bodies communicate really well so that we’re all helping each other to achieve as much as we can in global amphibian conservation.
Getting this work up and running will necessitate a lot of fund-raising and promoting more amphibian stories in the media. We need to ensure people know why amphibians are important, interesting and exciting, and why we should support their conservation. So, yes, it’s a big job really! But I’ve been preparing for it for a long time and, most importantly, I work with a team of fantastic people all over the world who are brilliant, supportive and passionate. I’d like to bring those networks into Synchronicity Earth so that we can support each other to do what we’re here to do, which is to try to maintain the integrity of the natural world and keep it there for future generations.
JP: My last question is about conservation more generally. What do you think are the current biggest challenges in conservation?
HM: I think there are a lot of big challenges in conservation! I think making sure that conservation and the environment is prioritised on the global political agenda is absolutely key to the survival of our species, as well as so many others. We need to look at the environment as the source of everything that helps us thrive. We need to be concerned about growing human populations and associated resource use, because we must find more efficient and less destructive ways to get what we need out of the Earth without compromising what remains of the natural world.
I think we have huge challenges ahead in terms of issues like climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, invasive species, disease, and other threats that are continuing to intensify. A lot of these threats act synergistically, so we now have a burgeoning situation where our environments are stressed by changing temperature regimes, pollutants, species compositions and all sorts of other things, and this is unpicking nature’s ability to sustain itself and regenerate. We really need to understand that there’s only so much pressure we can put on the natural world before it breaks and starts letting us down on a much, much greater scale. So we need to protect what we’ve got and treat it with respect, because we’ve only got one Earth. This is our home and we need to look after it!
JP: Thank you very much!
Interview by Jim Pettiward