I've always been interested in animals – I know everyone says that, but I've always had a real passion for the outdoors and the environment. There are not many courses in the UK that actually do wildlife conservation in the way that Kent does it, with a focus on global biodiversity, and does research the way that DICE [Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology] does. The year in professional practice was something that I really, really wanted to do too, because there's only so much you can learn in lectures; it's really good to go out and apply yourself, apply what you've learned.
I love the course! All the modules are amazing, all focusing on different parts of the planet and different aspects of conservation. In the first year I liked the module on surveying and monitoring for biodiversity because that was practical. And this year, I really like the climate change module because as new science comes out, we're writing about it, learning about it and presenting it. It's really interesting in that way.
I found my own placement just through Google searches and conservation careers sites. It was with a company called Wild Otters. There’s very little research about otters, especially smooth-coated otters and the Asian small-clawed otters I worked with in India, so they are building up a database which is then given to the IUCN red list for conservation actions. I really like the idea of being involved in building the database for conservation, rather than just taking part in projects where the underlying data had already been gathered.
I was based on Chorao Island in Goa, and there's a smooth-coated otter population there. Every morning we'd go out and survey with the GPS, which involved looking for poo, pup prints and live sightings. From that we were able to create a map of where the otters are located across the island. We also did a lot of camera trapping, which allows us to see the otters’ natural behaviour without us around because they're very elusive. And I did a lot of eDNA sampling: all animals interact with the environment and they leave DNA behind, so by taking a sample of water and testing it, you can get the DNA of all the creatures that have been in the water. This meant we could find out whether otters had been there without needing to walk around the area or set up camera traps. So that was very interesting.
I wasn't just based in Goa, we also had projects on Asian small-clawed otters in Karnataka in the jungle, so I'd go there every month or so and do my research out there through camera trapping. I also went to Zor in Maharashtra and looked at pangolins. I wrote the grant proposal for a project for camera traps, which was accepted, so I helped to set them up. The pangolins are being recorded out there right now, which is very exciting because they’re critically endangered – they are the most trafficked animal – so the more data we can get on them, the better.
I'd learnt different ways of surveying and researching but I'd never applied them. When I arrived in India I spent the first few weeks learning the fieldwork techniques. For instance, I knew the basics of camera trapping but I needed to learn exactly how to position it and so on. In the second year at Kent we learnt how to use ArcGIS, which is mapping software, and that came in really handy – my skills in using that have really grown and I’m producing the most amazing maps for my dissertation.
Oh, so many! Once, I'd just set up a new camera trap during breeding season, and we were hoping to catch even one transient male out there and I took back the footage and there were four otter pups. And I'm seeing these tiny little otter pups, it's the first time they've come out the den and they're just going along, still partially blind at that point. So that was so exciting. Working in the jungle, it's just such an amazing experience. We saw a 12-foot rock python really close to us, and king cobras and all sorts ...
The way it works in Goa, they have fishing pools, and the fishing pools are sold every single year. So if you buy a fishing pool, for maybe like a few thousand rupees, you need to make that money back. But the otters are going to fishing pools and eating the fish, so the fishermen set snare traps and kill the otters. It’s difficult because you can't just say “Don't kill the otters” because they’ll say “I won't be able to be feed my family”. So we’d do presentations to local councils and the forestry department to try to get them more interested in wildlife protection. And we tried to work with the local community to help them understand that otters are a keystone species and without them in the environment, the whole ecosystem collapses. They need the otters. But it isn’t easy.
For one, I have just so much more experience, so my CV is great. Also I feel I'm so much more confident because I was presenting to people I didn't even know: I'd have to go to the councils in India or the forestry department and present our findings and try to get them to make changes. The placement has really focused me on where I want to go in my career. I want to go back out and work in that kind of company again doing species-specific research and building up databases. It’s given me a focus for my final year back at Kent.
My dissertation is activity budgets and behaviour of smooth-coated otters in a human-dominated landscape. An activity budget is the different behaviours the otters display over a 22-hour period – what percentage of time they spend sleeping, grooming, defecating, and so on. I’m looking at how much time they spend displaying sentry behaviour. This is when they go up on their hind legs and make an alert call; it's when they're feeling on edge, alert and cautious. No one's looked at the impact of human activity on otters and how that has really significantly altered their behaviour so I’m hoping my research will get published in the end. And it will be really helpful across different populations, not just smooth-coated otters but of all otters because then it allows us to see how they are adapting in this human-dominated landscape.
I one hundred per cent recommend coming here. And I'd definitely do a placement year as well, because it's so important to have that experience. But in terms of the uni and what's on offer, you can't really do much better.