Sir David Attenborough's surprise visit to University of Cambridge conference inspires students
Sir David Attenborough made a surprise visit to take part in a Q&A session with students as part of the 20th conference for conservation science at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, writes Adrian Curtis.
The veteran BBC broadcaster’s visit was kept under wraps by the department, which celebrated two decades of the event set up by Mark Avery, then head of research at the RSPB, and which gives opportunities to young researchers from around the world to present their work to their contemporary conservationists.
A number of questions were chosen at random for Mr Attenborough to answer and he had the audience spellbound with his answers.
One question came from Inês Maria Simões Silva of Portugal, who asked him how they could stay optimistic in their research when faced with so much bad news and events happening in recent years?
The naturalist replied: “We must be optimistic – we don’t have an option, we have to point out successes, and show that we are happier people with a healthy landscape around us.”
Many of the students have become more interested in conservation since the airing of the BBC TV wildlife series Blue Planet, which was written and narrated by Sir David.
One of the subjects he spoke about was the controversial plastic waste problem facing the world, particularly in the global ocean environments.
He cited one particular incident while they were filming Blue Planet, which concerned the albatross. The adult birds return to the nest to feed their young chicks by regurgitating food but, in a shocking moment, the cameras caught one of them regurgitating a stomach full of plastic rubbish.
The incident underlined the major threat to the planet from discarded plastic, which is clogging up oceans and savagely affecting wildlife and its future in many parts of the world.
The Student Conference for Conservation Science (SCCS) is a joint venture between the University, the RSPB, the Tropical Biology Association and many other conservation NGOs and funders, and serves as a flagship for the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.
Over the last 20 years, 3,200 delegates from 134 countries have taken part, with more than 440 receiving SCCS bursaries and the Arcadia-funded post-conference internship scheme. Demand is so high that the series has since been replicated in New York, Bengaluru, Brisbane, Beijing and Lake Balaton (Hungary), with around 1,000 each year now going through the SCCS programme.
The opening plenary was given by founder-organiser Rhys Green on “The place of science in making conservation decisions” and it told the story of the white-rumped vulture – a conservation success story in which the rapid decline of the vultures was halted by virtue of detailed conservation science.
There were many other conservation stories told over the course of the conference as well as ways to inspire activism and community engagement from places as far apart as Estonia, Mongolia and Madagascar.
Special events to mark the 20th conference included plenary talks from former SCCS-delegate Amy Hinsley, from the chair of the Paris climate talks Christiana Figueres, as well as the student-focused Q+A session with Sir David Attenborough.
The three-day event consisted of around 30 short talks and 100 posters presented by young researchers.
The event was the last to be run by Mr Green who studies the effects of human activities on populations of wild species.
His work includes the effect on population size and demographic rates of agriculture, game management, habitat and climate change, pollution and deliberate and accidental killing.
The conference also saw the retirement of long-time administrator Shireen Green.
The delegates, volunteers, fellow organisers showed their huge appreciation of their efforts in the final session of the conference.
Andrew Balmford, professor of conservation science at Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology, was delighted with Sir David’s attendance.
The naturalist spent three hours chatting to students, even those whose questions he didn’t answer because of time constraints.
He said: “The conference is the high point of my year and wonderfully inspiring. We managed to get Sir David to agree to come a year ago but kept it secret until we knew it was all going to work.
“We invited the student delegates to come up with questions and then we went through them and picked some of the best ones to be asked on the day.
“He answered between 15 and 20 questions, probably about 18, and he was really lovely. He did a few other things too, like having his picture taken with all the questioners, including those lined up to ask him a question but who didn’t get the chance due to the time, but then he deliberately asked them what their question would have been and answered them personally.
“He interacts one to one in an extraordinary way and as some of the delegates said, it was like you were the only person in the room at that moment."