Otago skink. Credit: James Reardon
In the dusk of a Madeira evening, researcher James Reardon scrambled around a small hotel trying to recapture the 40 partially drugged lizards that had escaped from the makeshift pillowcase bag he’d left them in.
Under a blasting of Portuguese from the irate hotel manager he rounded them all up, until finally, with a pillowcase full of lizards, he left the hotel to spend the night sleeping on the harbour wall.
This particular misadventure was during a research project James was carrying out studying geographic variation in a beautiful lizard called Podarcis dugessi on the Portuguese island of Madeira, off the coast of Morocco. And to clarify, the lizards were being anaesthetised for scale counts and photographs and returned to their homes the following day.
Both lizards and adventures have been key features of James’ career. “I’ve been very lucky to have always made my living from the things I love, with a strange career that has woven between herpetological conservation and film making,” he says. His current role is as a science advisor for the Department of Conservation (DOC), specialising in reptile and amphibian conservation. These days he’s based in Te Anau with his partner and young family.
It was dinosaurs that first got him into lizards. As a preschooler he was obsessed with dinosaurs, begging people to draw them for him and playing elaborate games where his shagpile carpet was a Jurassic savannah. At six years old he discovered lizards, which to him seemed like tiny living dinosaurs, while on holiday in Spain. His mother gave him a hand net, and “I spent the rest of the holiday pursuing these lizards with enough success that I could examine them closely, make drawings of them and watch their behaviour. I was hooked.”
Twenty odd years later he was completing post-doctoral research with Grant Norbury at the Landcare base in Alexandra. It was during the time that Grant was scheming up the Central Otago Ecological Trust, and so James became an integral part of the early phase of the Trust, contributing his passion for and knowledge of lizards.
Family resemblance between James and his youngest
Yet James has an admission to make. “When Grant started COET I confess my interest in community conservation was only lukewarm. I used to think that those initiatives were fiddling at the edges,” James admits. But now, after fifteen years in New Zealand and international conservation he sees things differently. “Experience has taught me that meaningful community engagement in conservation is the foundation of how society can come to own these issues. Public ownership of environmental issues is absolutely critical,” he says.
After working in conservation at the national governance level he observes, “The solutions for the biodiversity crisis and now the existential threat of global warming (which are obviously intimately interlinked) will only be supported under the current political system if the public demand it.” And that requires communities that have become engaged with the conservation issues of their backyards.
When James was eight years old his local pond, home to a population of newts he’d come to love, was under threat from the development of a new bypass road. This was when he first became a conservationist at heart, appalled that this place of living diversity could be destroyed for the sake of a road. “That the intrinsic value of nature deserves our protection has been a tenant of my life ever since,” he says.
Experience has taught me that meaningful community engagement in conservation is the foundation of how society can come to own these issues.
James at work
While he can’t help admitting that by most reckonings the future of the planet can look pretty bleak, he does see grounds for hope.
“Greta Thunberg gives me great hope that the next generation can break the cycle of dependency on destructive political and economic systems,” he remarks.
“Ironically, I hope the impacts of global warming will be the lever to shift the general population out of their complacency, but I fear that the costs and losses that global warming will bring will be too gradual. We’re like frogs in a saucepan while the water slowly warms, adjusting as we go to the new normal and lacking the perspective to call a halt to the madness.”
James has two daughters. The youngest, Teifi, is five years old, and seems to have inherited what James describes as his obsessive-compulsive gene for wildlife. When he thinks about the future of the planet, he thinks about his kids, and his great-grandkids. “ I see my job as a caretaker of what biodiversity the planet has left. I hope that we can hand on as much natural wealth as possible to those that follow,” he says.