Passionate about fieldwork and science communications, James has led expeditions to remote corners of the world, while inspiring others to get involved in conservation research through his hugely popular blog and regular speaking events.
His latest project saw him lead a team of a local and international biologists to carry out critically important research on the increasingly frayed edges of Madagascar’s rainforests.
The expedition was filmed by Falcon Productions and the feature-length documentary, Madagascar – Life on the Edge, follows the team in their efforts to understand how the changing forest conditions are affecting the animals that inhabit them.
We caught up with James following the launch of the film to find out what was the driving force behind this ambitious new project...
What inspired you to make a film about your fieldwork in Madagascar?
My very first expedition was to Madagascar, back in 2007 with the British Exploring Society. Ever since, I've harboured the ambition to go back and try do something useful. Over the years I've made lots of friends who also have a passion for Madagascar, so it was a great place to lead an expedition.
We're all very aware that producing something like a report or scientific paper is really useful and appeals to some people, but that if we could make a short film too that would open up our research – and the importance of conservation in Madagascar – to a whole new audience.
Why do you think it's important that research scientists and communications professionals collaborate?
I think science and scientists are great, but we're the first to acknowledge that we're not always the best communicators – especially on slightly unusual topics!
So getting communicators and film makers involved is brilliant. Anything that helps people understand the reality of fieldwork and conservation gets my support.
What does the film convey that couldn't have been easily communicated any other way?
I think the aspect missing from most scientific reports and papers is that humans – ordinary people – did the work.
We find the same things hard as everyone else, whether that's getting absolutely soaked in tropical storms, missing friends and families, getting ill, struggling to do what we set out to do, or having to sacrifice animals to take specimens. All these things get brushed over in the methods section of a report or paper, so I hope it's really useful for aspiring conservationists or anyone else to just see what's involved.
Hopefully it makes the science mean a little bit more too.
Do you think making the film taught you anything new about how to communicate conservation?
The process was great, because we – the scientists – were able to ramble on and on about what we thought was important and interesting (to us). Meanwhile, Duncan (our cameraman and director, all rolled into one) as an impartial non-scientist was able to put a filter on all that.
He very honestly told us what he thought people would and wouldn't find interesting, or where we needed to try and craft our story in a different way. It's a bit like peer review, but for science communication instead of papers.
What were the highlights of combining fieldwork with filmmaking?
When you're on camera, it makes you work really hard to distil your message – whether that's conservation, or anything else – down to something really crisp and precise. That's a useful exercise for anyone in science.
What were some of the challenges?
The weather was the hardest thing. We had pretty serious storms for the first few weeks, with lightening striking close and deadfall dropping out of the canopy. We managed, but it just made everything harder – keeping equipment dry and moving around a slippy muddy forest.
If it had carried on like that for the whole expedition then maybe it would have a broken us! But luckily the conditions improved, and we had a small, but crucial, supply of chocolate bars.
What did you least expect from the expedition?
I was just amazed that we pulled it off. It's one thing sitting at home in a pub, looking at a map and making a plan. It's another thing when you're in the middle of a forest trying to put it into action. We got data and nothing terrible happened – we'll count that as a huge success!
Do you think that conservation gets enough attention in the media?
No! Not at all. I personally think the issue is that 'animal rights' and 'conservation' get frequently confounded, and so conservation often seems a bit fluffy.
Proper conservation isn't keeping a lion in a sanctuary or petting a baby orang-utan - even though that makes great TV. That's why - against Duncan's wise advice - we insisted on keeping all of the scenes involving preserving voucher specimens. We know it'll put a lot of people off but hopefully people will understand why conservationists sometimes have to make difficult decisions and we'll help build credibility in the process.
I really don't know the secret, but hopefully we've shown how exciting fieldwork can be.
What advice do you have for someone looking to get into conservation communications?
Don't wait for an opportunity – like a dream internship at a conservation film company – they're few and far between.
Make your own luck, start telling stories using whatever means interests you. Write, write, write; start a blog, film stuff, record audio; practice, practice, practice.
Be patient, it won't happen overnight. Don't give up!