Growing up, sat on my parent’s living room floor whilst glued to the television, flipping between BBC natural history documentaries, The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and Nat Geo, I always made sure to catch each new episode of one of my very favourite nature documentary series whenever I possibly could: Biggest and Baddest with Niall McCann. This well-known and loved television series follows Dr. Niall McCann across the globe as he explores some of the toughest terrains, researches diverse biology from around the world and delves into the need for active conservation efforts. When I was younger, this series was up there on my list of top shows to put on whenever I had the chance. And no doubt, it was one of the things which inspired and impassioned me greatly on how I viewed the natural world. Fast-forward to the present day, and I have had the true honour and pleasure of sitting down with Niall to discuss his career and the work he continues to do.
Niall, who was born in Victoria, Canada, but was raised for most of his life right here in the UK, is a professional biologist, conservationist, explorer, public speaker and award-winning presenter. He has travelled to practically all corners of the globe studying, researching and educating others about biodiversity and the importance of protecting the environment whilst participating in essential conservation efforts himself. He has been the host of three seasons of the award-winning television series, Biggest and Baddest, and an award-winning PBS documentary titled, Lost in the Amazon. You may also recognize Niall from his most recent appearance in last week’s episode of the BBC series, A Perfect Planet with David Attenborough. Niall is currently the director of conservation with National Park Rescue, which is a direct-action conservation organisation based in sub-Saharan Africa, wherein he and his dedicated team focus on preventing the slaughter of some of Africa's most iconic large mammals including elephants, rhinos and lions. Niall is also a trustee of the Wallacea Trust, a charity which funds projects that empowers communities in developing nations to develop commercial enterprises linked to the protection, conservation and promotion of biodiversity within the region. His level of expertise is unlike that of many others in this field, and I am overjoyed to have been able to chat with him about the current climate crisis, conservation and what we can do to help save our precious planet.
Throughout the entirety of his life, Niall has fostered a deep involvement with the natural world. Both of his parents were biologists, and he himself wanted to follow that same path. But as his career began to develop organically, his focus shifted from research biology to conservation. “It was during my PhD on the Baird tapir that really confirmed for me that research was not really my forte, nor my interest really – I wasn’t a good enough statistician to really be a great scientist anyway,” said Niall as we discussed his journey through conservation. “I felt that while I was just studying a species as it slowly slipped towards extinction, there was an element of futility in it. Instead of doing that, I wanted to try and stop them from going extinct, so I switched my focus from research to conservation.”
It was during his four and a half months volunteering with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) between the end of his college days and the start of his university education, where Niall was afforded the opportunity to work on projects which were contributing directly to conservation in a meaningful way. The experience allowed him to work under the current scientific director of the MWF, Carl G. Jones, who was a hugely inspirational figure for Niall. “He is personally responsible for saving the Mauritius kestrel,” Niall said of Carl Jones. “The Mauritius Echo Parakeet would probably also be extinct without him," said Niall as he listed a few of the many achievements of the esteemed MWF director. "The pink pigeon would also probably also be extinct without him. And then there’s a few other species that he has been involved with that are certainly doing much better as a result of him.”
After his undergraduate degree, Niall went on to volunteer on a project researching jackals in Namibia. When that was over however, he returned home “dirt poor” and needed to earn a living for himself. He spent the next four years taking what he deemed a “hiatus from biology” as a recruitment consultant, simply in order to earn enough to meet his basic living needs. During this period however, he took the opportunity to spend time away from his day job to engage in extracurriculars that eventually lead to many wonderful opportunities for him and would shape his future career; some of which he perhaps would not have done had he been distracted by a career he was deeply passionate about. Today, after an extensive career spanning most of his adult life as a biologist and conservationist, Niall has been greatly influential as a scientist, explorer and television host.
Now the current director of conservation at National Park Rescue, Niall identifies that one of the single most important elements of a successful conservation project always comes down to community engagement, and we at Forage & Folklore Tours would echo much the same. Although solutions are always going to be context-specific - based on the location, culture, values, and socioeconomic status of the area where a project is being undertaken - successful conservation efforts always depend on the attitudes of the people. “The thread that runs through successful conservation programs is the engagement of the people that live in that region,” said Niall. “Community engagement is critical.”
“Our attitude of antagonism towards much of the natural world, and how we feel we have to dominate it, and that it’s an inconvenience - really, we shouldn’t be seeing it that way. We must see it as an intrinsic part of our landscape, and find ways to coexist,” Niall spoke of our modern relationship with nature. “As a conservationist, it’s my role to try and engage people in conservation, as opposed to pit them against it. To do that, you have to understand people’s motivations and how they interact with the natural world. That goes for a rural farmer in Zimbabwe just as much as it goes for a rural farmer in Lincolnshire,” he remarked.
Niall identifies that in order to make conservation work effectively, we as conservationists must empathize and understand those who may not necessarily find that the protection and sustainability of our natural world is as important as other aspects of their day-to-day lives. It is perfectly understandable that people have different values, beliefs and circumstances, as well as cultural differences. It would be unreasonable, of course, to expect all people everywhere to be passionate about the same subjects. A major aspect of conservation is to successfully engage with those people who are uninterested or uninvested with the protection of our natural environment. When asked about how to tackle to problem of engaging with such members of the community, Niall has a very straightforward and practical approach.
“Brutally: their back pockets,” Niall honestly remarked about how to engage any folk who may hold either a resistant or disinterested attitude towards with the efforts of conservation projects. “Having an explicit link between the livelihood improvements that you can bring, and the amount of biodiversity, is really important.”
Much like our own mission to reconnect folks here in England back to the land that we carry out through our work with Forage & Folklore Tours, Niall and his talented team at National Park Rescue focus much of their efforts on re-establishing the relationship between the people of Zimbabwe and their natural spaces. It is the gradual disengagement from the environment that has brought about a cultural shift globally (not just in England or Africa) and the disintegration of this crucial relationship has unfortunately devalued the innate and vital reciprocity we have as humans with nature. We can see this reflected all across our planet, as the separation continues to increase between us and our wild spaces; posing not only a major problem in terms of fixing already existing issues, but actively creating complex new issues.
But there is hope. Specifically in Zimbabwe, Niall works as one of the two directors for National Park Rescue, where he and his colleagues have had to find simple yet brilliant ways of gaining community trust and respect from the local people in response to this ongoing and growing problem. One of the most significant issues in the area where National Park Rescue centres its work around has to do with the inherent tribal hierarchy which is central to the region and based on cultural, political and economical circumstances influences. Most of the communities living around the national park belong to the Tonga tribe, and a large majority of those who work for the government as park rangers living inside the national park are members of the Shona tribe. A major issue with this dynamic is that according to Zimbabwean regulations, park rangers are given an annual quota of wildlife that they permitted to hunt for their rations; the same wildlife that they are there to protect and stop others from poaching such as elephants, buffalo, kudu, warthog, impala and baboons. As outlying communities witnessed park rangers hunting animals inside the park for food, a serious divide was created and an animosity grew between the rangers and the members of nearby communities. Understandably, it was difficult to see the justification for this from an outside perspective; the local communities from one tribe just outside the park could face serious jailtime for shooting wildlife, while park rangers whom belong to a different tribe were allowed to do so freely.
In order to resolve this conflict, Niall and his team put a stop to the ration hunt undertaken by rangers as soon as they arrived at Chizarira National Park. This, however, presented an entirely new problem: How were they to replace the protein that the rangers required, which they were getting from wild game? As a simple yet ingenious and practical solution that not only provided the necessary resource of food, but also a commerce opportunity for the local communities surrounding the park, National Park Rescue began to purchase two cows monthly from the local villages on a rotational basis between each community to then give to the rangers. This solved the problem of inequity, whilst also providing a unique commercial opportunity to the communities; ultimately bringing about a mutual reliance between the national park and the surrounding villages. The park must now rely on the communities for food, whilst the communities rely on the park for commercial trade.
When asked about the impact Covid-19 has had on the work being carried out by National Park Rescue, Niall informs us that things have been surprisingly positive. Despite having to conduct his work from here in the UK via Whatsapp, Niall and his co-director, Mark Hiley, have been able rely on their amazing team of 30 staff who continue to manage the day-to-day operations of their work on the ground at Chizarira National Park. They have built such an efficient management structure and have employed such an absolutely fantastic team comprised of mostly all local Zimbabweans, that they have been able to manage the park remotely without much trouble at all. “I have been deeply impressed and grateful for our team on the ground,” Niall praised those working for National Park Rescue. “We have trusted our staff and given them responsibility, and they have thrived in those roles.”
Even with a lack of tourism as a result of the pandemic - which is a major trouble facing most national parks at present in Southern Africa - National Park Rescue, fortunately, have been relatively unaffected. Chizarira National Park is approximately a seven-hour drive from the nearest international airport, and tourism coming into the park is relatively low compared to other locations in Zimbabwe and neighbouring Botswana, despite the "unbelievable wilderness character" that is present at Chizarira, as Niall describes. With some fortunate circumstances and with the hard work of the incredible staff at National Park Rescue, Niall and his team have been able to cope surprisingly well with the current global situation.
If you are interested in helping out National Parks Rescue and learning more about their efforts, please follow the link posted below to be directed to their website. Be sure to follow National Park Rescue on both Facebook and Instagram to keep up-to-date with their efforts in Africa and the fantastic work they do for both people and wildlife. You can catch Biggest and Baddest on Discovery UK, and if you haven’t yet seen Niall speak on the climate crisis in the latest BBC documentary, A Perfect Planet, you can find the series now on BBC iPlayer. I would like to sincerely thank Dr. Niall McCann for taking the time to speak with us and share his time, knowledge, expertise and passion for this planet that we all call home.
National Parks Rescue: https://www.nationalparkrescue.org/
Dr. Niall McCann: http://niallmccann.com/
*All photos above taken by Tom during his internship in South Africa in the Greater Kruger region with the exception the photo of Niall.