From possibly my greatest achievement in life, to discovering a whole new world, a trip of a lifetime and the start of a new adventure, 2015 had it all!!
The year started with the completion of my research dissertation, the result of over six months hard work. My project studying the effects of a partial salt pan closure on flamingos in the Camargue, Southern France started way back in July 2014, when I began my fieldwork in collaboration with la Tour du Valat documenting flamingo distribution and breeding success. After overcoming many challenges in the analysis and write-up of my research, I was able to draw some interesting conclusions from my data: flamingos do in fact have reduced breeding success and a different distribution in renaturalised salt pans compared to artificial salt pans! Differing from initial perceptions that animals have improved survival rate in natural conditions compared to anthropogenically modified habitats, my results drew interesting insights into the ecology of flamingos. Nesting in the industrial salt works of Salin-de-Giraud, flamingos were able to take advantage of the preferential water conditions surrounding the breeding island, something that became less reliable after the salt pans became renaturalised. I was consequently very excited to discover that my work had revealed fascinating new insights into the biology of one of the most-loved, charismatic bird species worldwide. It has also been pleasing to hear that the Tour du Valat and the Conservatoire du Littoral decided to recently reconstruct the breeding island in Salin-de-Giraud in light of my research and that of others to optimise future flamingo reproductive success.
Following the submission of my dissertation, the final few months of my undergraduate degree at Oxford lay ahead of me. During this period I continued the development of my understanding of the natural world, including gaining new insights into marine biology, species conservation and animal behaviour from some of the world’s leading researchers. As I completed my last ever tutorial essay and attended my last ever lecture, an amazing three years at Oxford were drawing to a close. After concluding my revision and sitting my final exams, my time in Oxford was finally over. This period may well be the hardest I have ever worked, but it resulted in probably my greatest ever achievement, as I was able to gain a first class honours degree. My time spent in Oxford, whilst challenging, was a thoroughly enjoyable experience created many memories I will never forget. It was time though to move on to the next chapter in my life, but not before a couple of incredible adventures.
The most amazing summer began in July when I was able to fulfil a lifelong dream and learn how to dive. As I undertook my PADI Open Water and Advanced Open Water Diver training in Tenerife I quickly realised diving was even more fantastic than I initially believed it would be. Not only was the feeling of being weightless underwater incredible, the chance to see marine life below the waves was just something else. I had never properly appreciated the marine environment until I was able to explore it, a world so foreign to most people. Nevertheless, I quickly began to realise how poorly adapted humans are to the marine environment, and just how incredible the adaptations of marine life are, allowing them to not only survive but thrive in the big blue oceans. Learning to dive in Tenerife and seeing special animals, such as stingrays, starfish and barracuda, gave me a greater appreciation of the marine biome and caused my inner desire to protect this neglected environment to grow and flourish. I really hope marine conservation continues its expansion and that the marine environment begins to gain the recognition its awesome biodiversity deserves before it is lost.
Soon after discovering the wonder of the oceans I was lucky enough to explore another part of the planet I have always dreamt of. In August I was able to explore the beautiful tropical rainforests of Malaysia in what turned out to be a trip of a lifetime. Having never visited a tropical country previously, I had never fully appreciated the shear biodiversity of these ecosystems, until now. In total I spent 4 weeks exploring the cities and wildlife of Malaysia, but the highlight of the trip was by far visiting the rainforests of Sarawak. These forests were just spectacular! Plant life everywhere you looked, incredible different invertebrates, and home to amazing birds, herptiles and primates! It was extremely satisfying to finally visualise these habitats I had learnt so much about, and to grasp an even better understanding of how they function. I was lucky enough to experience a range of forest biomes as we trekked through the hilly national parks situated at different altitudes. It was incredible to observe the differences between the mixed dipterocarp forests of Kubah National Park, the mangrove and heath forests of Bako National Park and the montane forests of Mulu National Park. Even more unbelievable is the spectacular changes in vegetation and turnover of biodiversity over such a small distance within these national parks. The chance to speak to locals and hear about the conservation work they are trying to implement in Malaysia was great. It was sad though to hear about the many difficulties they are facing in South-East Asia to protect these awe-inspiring forests, with increasing deforestation, land clearance for palm plantations and illegal trade of flora and fauna. It was devastating to see how enormous tracts of rainforest had already been converted into palm plantations and to witness firsthand a forest that had recently been burnt to make way for a rubber plantation. This trip to Borneo left a truly lasting impression, and I hope to return one day and make a contribution to protecting the shear biodiversity of these tropical ecosystems.
Before I knew it, my summer travels were over and it was time to start the next stage of my life. In September I started my Masters in Conservation and Biodiversity at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus in Penryn. Since starting this course I have had the pleasure of living in Cornwall with all its beautiful coastline and stunning scenery. It turns out delights can be found closer to home too! Throughout the Masters so far we have had the opportunity to hear from many different guest lecturers, gaining an insight into the many different ways conservation is being implemented both locally and abroad. It has been great to hear about the success that many of these organisations are having, showing there is still hope to try and protect global biodiversity. It has been fun to make the most of the opportunities Cornwall has to offer, including learning how to identify marine mammals, assist in post mortems for the Marine Strandings Network and visit the Eden Project. Overall, it has been a very enjoyable start to my Masters and life in Cornwall.
So from a fantastic year, I move onto 2016 and look forward to all it offers. I am particularly looking forward to our field trip to Kenya in January and to my research project studying the artisanal fisheries of Peru. I am excited to continue to see more of the incredible biodiversity our planet has to offer and to potentially making a difference to the conservation of Peruvian marine life. If 2016 is anything like 2015 I can expect another brilliant year!