How passion and perseverance can lead to a profession in pangolins

An interview with Dr Dan Challender, a Researcher in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford and Chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group.

Did you have a career in mind when you were young of what you wanted to be when you grew up?

I used to want to be a farmer for most of my childhood because I wanted to work with animals and be outside. I spent most of my early teenage years volunteering on farms in Yorkshire, England, before eventually getting my own smallholding where I reared different breeds of chickens, geese, and ducks.

You now work on illegal wildlife trade and pangolins. What first got you interested in pangolins?

Despite my interesting in farming, I actually studied Business Management at undergraduate level, mainly because I excelled in it at school and college, but realised part way through that I wanted to work in wildlife conservation. Having saved up some money, I decided to do some volunteering – which I had heard was good for my CV – in Scotland, Russia and South Africa. In preparation for my month in South Africa, I bought a copy of Jonathan Kingdon’s Field Guide to African Mammals. I was looking through the guide thinking about which species I would like to see and came across pangolins.

Dan with a Sunda pangolin
© Dan Challender

They seemed unlike anything else, so extraordinary and otherworldly that I set my heart on seeing one. And, I nearly did! The one day I left the bush to go and get supplies from the nearest town, my new-found friends on the game reserve did see one. My enthusiasm was in no way curbed though and I returned to the UK and followed up my Business degree with a Masters degree in Conservation Biology, including a project on pangolins, and I have remained interested in the species ever since.

How did you end up working as a researcher at one of the best universities in the world?

Following my Masters, I worked as an Ecologist in the UK for a few years before completing a PhD in Biodiversity Management on wildlife trade (including a focus on pangolins!). While I was completing my PhD, I re-formed the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group with Jonathan Baillie (then at the Zoological Society of London). We were introduced through IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) because we both had a keen interest in pangolins and wanted to do more for pangolin conservation. I was a PhD student at the time and I am thankful to IUCN for placing their faith in me as co-Chair of the group.

On completion of my studies, I went to work for IUCN focusing on sustainable use and wildlife trade issues, prior to joining the University Oxford, which was possible because we raised the funds for my job and I had a solid research and publication record for someone at my career stage. From my MSc onwards, I think I was always mindful that I was more of an academic than anything else, but all the work experience I have gained in this time has been invaluable to understanding how the world works, which is essential to achieving any success in biodiversity conservation today.

What were the biggest hurdles you had along the road to getting to where you are now?

The biggest hurdle has probably been financial, but I have been fortunate to receive my fair share of good fortune in my career. I received a competitive scholarship from Research Councils UK, which provided me with the means to complete my PhD that helped kick-start my career. University degrees – both undergraduate and postgraduate – are not cheap, and may involve loans, but they are worth it in my opinion. I am now in a position to pursue research I am interested in and passionate about and I very much enjoy my work and research.

What were the things that contributed to your success in your career?

Whilst my qualifications have helped provide me with most of the skills I need to do my job, two of the biggest things that have contributed to my success have been self-initiative and learning from others. Jonathan Baillie and I re-formed the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group in 2012 because we wanted to do some good for pangolins. It was possible because there was no such group at the time and IUCN were supportive, but crucially, it was our appetite to just get on with it, to set up the group, start initiatives to raise awareness of pangolins, and catalyse conservation action for the species. Having an idea and persisting with it can take you a long way.

Second, learning from others. I have been fortunate to have a strong personal and professional network around me throughout my career, which is the result of relationship building with friends and colleagues, and some outright networking. I also try to learn from people wherever I can, which is usually possible in any given room. You can learn from anybody and I have certainly done so, which extends to my PhD supervisors, Jonathan Baillie, my current and former colleagues, and applies to all aspects of work and research from good decision-making to data analysis, event organisation, networking and publishing.   

Is there anything you know now about your career journey that you wish you knew when you were younger?

You can achieve what you want in your career if you are persistent, determined, and are prepared to work for it.

Measuring Chinese pangolin burrows in southern China

For a young person looking to work in conservation or research, what’s the best advice you think you can give them to help them along the way?

My main pieces of advice are (1) use your initiative and (2) just do it. If you want to start in biodiversity conservation practice or research, you can do this without money or huge resources. For instance, you could start by seeking to understand what wildlife occurs in your neighbourhood or local green space, or perhaps set up a local wildlife club to watch wildlife or to research it. You could start collecting data on wildlife in your local area.

During the lockdown in the UK, I have taken daily walks to a local meadow in Oxford to observe the Greylag geese population (I still like geese!) and I am considering starting to collect data on them and record my observations because I am interested and may able to improve our understanding of their behaviour and ecology. 

Who or what inspires you to get out of bed every day and continue doing what you do?

The world is a fascinating place, from biological systems, to what is happening around the world socially, culturally, and dare I say it, politically. I am fortunate to be in a position where my job involves understanding elements of all these factors, which is critical when planning research projects or conservation activities and to achieving success, both in research and in biodiversity conservation. I hope to achieve some conservation success in my career and understanding how the world works in order to achieve that continues to motivate me.

You can find out more about Dan Challender and his research here.

Header image: A Sunda pangolin. © Dan Challender/Save Vietnam’s Wildlife