The Great Conservationist
Gapyear.com interviews Leo Biddle, the man aiming to change the volunteer industry
The gap year volunteering world is full of interesting characters. Leo Biddle is one of them. From spending time selling cookers, living in a monastry in Korea and even working for gapyear.com, he has taken a strange and wonderfully interesting road to his current position as Head of Conservation in Malaysian Borneo for volunteering organisation The Great Projects. We caught up with him to learn more about his journey to the jungles of Asia, the honest reality of wildlife conservation and the rewarding challenge of animal volunteering.
Leo's route into conservation was far from conventional. After graduating with a degree in zoology you’d be forgiven for thinking that the door would have swung wide open; but he tells us it was quite the opposite.
"It was near impossible to get a job in conservation," he says. "I knew that I wanted to work with animals as it’s something I’ve wanted to do from a very young age. So many species are disappearing at an alarming rate and they are irreplaceable.
"But it didn’t happen right away."
Leo, 35, spent much of the mid 1990s travelling and volunteering abroad for various organisations, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who provide medical humanitarian aid to people. He eventually came back to the UK where he took up the unlikely job of commercial director for a company selling cookers. It seems a strange choice for an animal-lover. Why did he do it? "It paid ridiculously well," he says. "And the money gave me independence to travel."
But Leo was still unsettled, so he took some time out and checked into a British monastery in South Korea. "The travelling I’d done had shown me many things that had made me angry: poverty, arms trading," he says. "I was becoming more twisted out of shape and I thought some time in a place of calm would help me get back to better mental shape and give me time to decide what I wanted to do with my life."
During his stay in South Korea, Leo saw a huge demand for the trade in traditional Asian medicines; especially bear body parts like the gall bladder and bile.
"Back then it wasn’t seen as anything wrong," he admits. "Now we know that this is big business and some of these animal body parts are worth their weight in gold."
The illegal wildlife trade is pedaled by criminal gangs ruthlessly motivated to earn vast amounts of cash, with no thought for the endangered species they are wiping out. Leo started documenting cases, taking pictures and informing the authorities what was happening. It was the start of what would become a bigger role in raising awareness about wildlife issues.
After he returned to the UK he found a job with gapyear.com. Here he became a vocal critic of the pitfalls with volunteering.
"For some people volunteering was about giving money to a company so that they could go off and play with exotic wild animals with no conservation outcome whatsoever," Leo says. "There were plenty of organisations which didn’t look at long term plans, they just wasted time, energy and resources.
"You’d see a group of volunteers painting a wall white, then next week another group would arrive and paint it blue. When I met Afzaal Mauthoor, he convinced me to come on board The Great Projects to develop a more conservation-led approach to volunteering."
Afzaal Mauthoor is the managing director of The Great Projects. They champion responsible tourism tours and volunteer projects around the world, and last year the company was recognised in the Virgin Holiday Responsible Tourism awards.
Leo’s childhood dream of working with animals has now been realised as he heads up conservation for The Great Projects in Borneo, working closely with the Orangutans based in Sarawak in Malaysia.
"Orangutans are an iconic species and if we can protect them, it means we can protect their habitat which also safeguards other biodiversity in the forest," Leo explains. "There is definitely an argument for in-situ over ex-situ, but it’s not that simple.
We learn that in-situ means protecting animals in their natural environment, as opposed to ex-situ where animals are rehabilitated in sanctuaries/zoos. Why are there complications with the approaches?
"When you need people to put their hands in their pockets," says Leo, "the reality is they’re more likely to donate if they see a baby orangutan being rehabilitated at Sarawak than if we show them a photograph of a forest and say, 'your money will help protect this forest and also the apes which live in it.'"
Leo tells us that the fight is definitely in the jungle and not the enclosures and playpens, because the landscape is being destroyed. "But what do you do?" he asks? "There are a number of apes that come to us very disturbed and afflicted with some bizarre habits like smoking and drinking.
"It can cost as little as £4 for a local to buy a baby orangutan, so the pet trade is a real problem here as well as abroad where criminals can sell a baby to international buyers for around £24,000."
Conservation sanctuaries the world over are struggling to cope with numbers as they reach capacity. Leo says: "Ex-situ conservation is a hugely complex area and we are working all the time to try to take some of these animals back to the wild. But not all of them will be able to return to their natural habitat because they are so traumatised."
Some of the cases Leo tells us about are extremely disturbing."One three-week old infant I was responsible for looking after came to us with nine pieces of shrapnel and three bullets embedded in him, as well as third-degree burns," he says. "He was still covered in bits of bone when he got to us. That belonged to his mother; she’d put her arms around him before she was shot."
These cases haunt Leo because tells us he realises just how hard these females fight to protect their young from poachers who want them for the pet trade. "It took respite care around the clock for a year and a half to try to save him," he says. "Like so many other infants who come to us at a very young age, if there are no lactating females who don’t already have their own babies, they have to be raised by us.
"Which means they can become fixated on humans."
Habituation is seen by some within conservation as a double-edged sword. Returning apes to the wild after they’ve become comfortable around humans can make them an easy target for opportune poachers.
At the moment there isn’t a gold standard or an ombudsman to ensure that volunteer programmes run at different sanctuaries adhere to a set of common guidelines. It’s something Leo would like to see change in the future.
"There are noises being made in the industry," he says. "And we are moving with our partners to create primate protection guidelines, but it’s not an official stamp."
Leo says the best way to enjoy volunteering is to seek out organisations that have good reputations and try to talk to ex-volunteers who can share their experience with you. "A company who can’t provide testimonies should be avoided," he warns.
So what does the future hold? Leo says he would like to see the current project continue to go from strength to strength and perhaps roll out something similar for other species that are not on people’s radar - the underdogs of conservation.
"What we do in Borneo isn’t original," says Leo. "We are replicating good conservation models that other people have tried and tested. I would like to create a similar project for other lesser-known endangered species, especially those that are not iconic; like the Sun bears.
"I’d like to be able to rehabilitate them and eventually put them back into the wild."
It seems Leo’s time in the monastery in South Korea did more than just focus his mind, it put him on a career path to setting standards in animal conservation. Gapyear.com hopes he continues to challenge the volunteer industry to raise its game, and that maybe he can spearhead conservation and bring wider attention to other species in need of help.
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