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Wildlife conservation's big beast
As a young researcher with a serious interest in foxes, David Macdonald would occasionally turn up at the big house down the road from his cottage with fox cubs under his arms to exercise them in the spacious grounds. He was always guaranteed the warmest of welcomes at Tubney House, owned by Miles Blackwell, a member of the well-known Oxford publishing family, who came to take a keen interest in his neighbour’s fox watching.
Prof Macdonald, who was to help revolutionise our approach to wildlife conservation and understanding animal behaviour, readily recalls the kindness shown to him by the publisher and his wife, Briony.
More importantly, for the world’s wildlife, the Blackwells remembered Prof Macdonald; for more than 30 years later the trustees of the couple’s estate, the Tubney Trust, were to gift Tubney House for the use of Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, of which Prof Macdonald is director.
Sitting in his office in one of the oldest parts of the house, Prof Macdonald reflected on how both the house and the world’s attitude to the study of wildlife had changed since he first fell under the spell of the red fox.
His part in bringing about this global change had been recognised a few days before we met, when he was named in The Queen’s birthday honours list, getting a CBE for his contribution to natural science.
“In the late 1960s I was an undergraduate in the right place at the right time,” he says. “We were on the brink of a revolution in our understanding of animal behaviour and ecology.”
But for Prof Macdonald, seeing natural sciences rapidly becoming an area of serious study was never enough.
“My idea was how exciting it would be if we took this burgeoning knowledge about animal behaviour and used it to solve wildlife and conservation problems.”
With the support of people like Sir David Attenborough and the late Oxford zoologist Sir Richard Southwood, Prof Macdonald raised money to establish, in 1986, the WildCru (Wildlife Conservation Research Unit), as a pioneering research centre within the Oxford University’s Department of Zoology. It was the first university-based conservation unit in Europe and it remains the largest and best known.
His own work with foxes continued to set new standards in wildlife research, pioneering radio-tracking and infra-red night-sight techniques, with his interest in the urban fox making him, for many years, a familiar nocturnal figure around the streets of Oxford, dashing from radio fix to radio fix. His converted London taxi with sprouting antennae. became a famous local sight.
WildCru also benefited from its founder’s high profile and reputation as a documentary maker. His Night of the Fox won the BAFTA for best documentary film in 1976, while the professor’s film Meerkats United lifted the top prize at the Wildscreen Film Festival and was voted the best wildlife film of all time by BBC viewers, leaving tigers, great white sharks and even Sir David Attenborough trailing in its wake.
It is said to have been watched by 500m people.
The gift of Tubney House, near Abingdon, from the late Mr Blackwell, with the benefaction including more than £1m towards the refurbishment that began in 2003, gave the unit a base worthy of its status as a world-class academic centre addressing the greatest threats to wildlife.
The mission was to find practical answers, with solutions underpinned by major studies into creatures as varied as clouded leopards in Borneo to badgers in Wytham Wood.
There are now WildCru projects in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, where more than 100 lions are being radio tracked across 7000 sq km of woodland savannah, with the work having already led to a four-year moratorium on trophy hunting to allow the lion population to recover.
Another project, ongoing for 20 years, is helping save the Ethiopian wolves, of which there are now just 600, protected in their last stronghold in the Bale Mountains. Some 350 wolves in 70 packs are monitored by WildCru, while 50,000 domestic dogs have been vaccinated to prevent rabies transmission to the wolves.
Nearer to home, meanwhile, research on the impact of farming on Upper Thames wildlife encompasses studies of locally endangered moths, butterflies, damselflies, fish, bats, harvest mice, polecats and otters, together with invasive mink and crayfish.
But WildCru’s own development is now set to enter a new phase, thanks to a tiger-loving billionaire who studied history at Oxford University.
The mineral magnate Tom Kaplan has had a lifelong passion for big cats, since being given a copy of The Maneaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett at the age of seven. By the age of 11 he was travelling with his mother to Colombia to spot tigers.
“I am a businessman because I am good at business,” said Mr Kaplan. “But big cats are my first love.”
So he has set himself the remarkable mission of not just maintaining the number of tigers at their present level, but increasing their number by 50 per cent over the next ten years.
He founded the charity Panthera in 2006, which has gone on to become one of the biggest players in wildlife conservation in the world.
Now he has followed this up by donating millions of pounds to his old university, with a gift to WildCru that he says will turn it into “the premier university-based felid centre in the world”.
The money is being used to bring students to Tubney House from across the globe to study conservation to attend a diploma course in international wildlife practice. It has also funded the conversion of derelict but listed barns and stables at Tubney House into residential accommodation and a training centre, enabling foreign students to stay in Oxford for the course, which runs from April to October.
The conversion work was recently rewarded with an award from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
Prof Macdonald, 58, a Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, who lives in Standlake, recalls: “I met Tom during a visit to New York. He already knew about our work. He brought over his wife, Dafna Recanati Kaplan, to see the centre.”
The couple were to see it as a place that could assist them in their vision and battle to save the world’s big cats. In recognition of their support, WildCru’s base has now been renamed The Recanati-Kaplan Centre.
The first students, known as panthers, arriving at Tubney last year, come from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Bolivia, Nepal, Bolivia, Zimbabwe and Bhutan, and included a Maasai warrior who used to kill lions.
The aim was to enhance the field skills of budding conservationists in developing countries.
“Already, they have begun putting what they have learnt into practice by, for instance, establishing a research station to monitor the Andean cat in Bolivia, working with the WWF in China to save the Amur tiger, mitigating the effects of man-eating tigers in Tanzania and looking to do further research on the Persian leopard,” said Prof Macdonald, introducing me to this summer’s intake.
Wang Jun, from China, has already spent two years working to protect snow leopards.
“I came to realise the importance of improving scientific techniques when measuring the impact of habitat loss and over grazing by farmers,” he told me.
Francisca Jacob Malembeka, a young woman from Tanzania, works in a game reserve, one of the last great wildernesses in Africa, where hunting and poaching continue to take a heavy toll on the elephants.
She hopes to return there with a better understanding of monitoring poaching and how best to promote conservation-based activities in the villages that neighbour the reserve, where elephants are seen as having a negative impact on farmers’ livelihoods.
Iding Achmad Haidir, from Indonesia, is dedicating himself to saving Sumatra’s tigers, while Alan de Barros is working to conserve jaguars in Brazil.
Yet for all their passion and vivid personal experiences, these young conservationists readily accept that what they lack is expertise in designing research and conservation programmes, and in analysing and interpreting results.
The diploma has been taught by Dr Lucy Tallents, who has first-hand experience of remote fieldwork, having gained her own doctorate on Ethiopian wolves, with the course involving both theoretical understanding and practical skills, such as using radio-tracking equipment and sector-specific software and equipment.
“Many of these young people will never have left their country before, and could only have dreamt of the opportunity to study at Oxford,” said Prof Macdonald, who has dedicated his latest book, Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, to Tom and Dafna Kaplan.
Driving down Tubney House’s impressive driveway, the thought stuck how strange that this pack of eager panthers should journey to the Oxfordshire countryside to learn how better to protect big cats, rhinos, elephants and all these wonderful creatures in their own countries.
But then not so long ago it had seemed strange for an Oxford academic like Prof Macdonald to be dedicating himself to foxes and badgers in the Oxfordshire countryside.
It is indeed fortunate for the world that he chose to run with the fox, and has kept going while the rest of the of the world caught up with his mission.