The problems faced by the natural world are multiple and daunting, but the difference that each of us can make was inspiringly illustrated by a recent talk at Berkhamsted by Dr Niall McCann. The son of a British Antarctic Survey worker, adventure was central to Niall’s life from an early age. It is therefore no surprise that, as a zoology student at Bristol and a biology PhD student at Cardiff, he embarked on a series of expeditions, from rowing the Atlantic Ocean to cycling over the Himalayas and canoeing the Yukon River, to name just a few.
McCann’s scientific and adventurous passions joined in a 2009 expedition in Guyana. Its aim was to conduct the first biodiversity survey of the upper Rewa River. Along with fellow biologist Dr. Rob Pickles a team of locals, he travelled 150 miles by boat upstream of the last human settlement. Along the way, they encountered a vast wealth of biodiversity, including several new species, one of the largest snakes ever recorded and giant otters.
On their return, McCann and Pickles noticed that about every mile or so along the river was a sign that had not been there before. They were alarmed to discover that during their expedition, a gold mining company had purchased the land. The process of gold mining involves mercury, which is incredibly poisonous, so they feared that if this leaked into the river, all the fantastic biodiversity they had just witnessed would be compromised. Saddened by the potential loss of life and nature, McCann and Pickles lobbied to protect the upper Rewa River from gold mining. They were successful: the Guyanan government revoked the land from the mining company, leaving the area’s natural richness unharmed by human impact and industrialism.
The action in Guyana was McCann’s first in the area of conservation, and he has since gone on to do much more. It quickly became his passion, and in 2015 he graduated with a PhD in Conservation Biology, specialising in the Baird’s Tapir - one of the most endangered animals in Central America. Since 2012, McCann has been working on the front line of conservation in Africa, Asia and South America. As its Director of Conservation, he helped to establish National Park Rescue – an organisation that supports direct-action projects to secure national parks and safeguard wildlife in Africa, particularly focusing on lions, elephants and rhinos. He is also a trustee of the Wallacea Trust, whose aim is to create commercial enterprises in developing nations that are linked to biodiversity conservation.
McCann is currently travelling up and down the country speaking to schools, societies and universities about the importance of conservation, the power of activism and what the future holds. 50% of species face potential extinction by the end of the century. It is people like McCann who are dedicating their lives to fighting corruption, poaching and deforestation that are leading the fight to prevent this horrifying statistic from being the reality, by ensuring that governments all over the world are taking up conservation as an issue that has to be dealt with. There are still many challenges to be faced, but the future of biodiversity now has a chance.