Field Notes Revisited:
I am fortunate to spend a significant portion of the year in the tropics surveying the forests of Guatemala for amphibians and reptiles. This is a dream come true for me. While there is a huge need for conservation work in tropical regions, it can be easy to forget the need for it on home soil in the UK too.
Habitat loss and degradation affect British amphibians and reptiles as much as they do tropical ones. So after a recent expedition to Laguna del Tigre National Park, I found myself drinking mango smoothies in a restaurant on the island of Flores being interviewed by cofounder Adela Mei about my long involvement in British amphibian and reptile conservation and the Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK (ARG).
Interview with Rowland Griffin, Flores
Guatemala, 24 August 2016
Q: I wanted to talk a little bit about our involvement with ARG UK. Are you a member?
R: Yes I am a member. Well, I am currently a member of RAGS which is the Reptile and Amphibian Group of Somerset.
Q: Oh, so you join a local group do you?
R: Yes. ARG UK is an umbrella organisation that coordinates all of the local groups.
Q: How long ago did you join?
R: I joined RAGS in 2012 but I have been a member of an ARG since 2006 when I joined the Sussex Amphibian and Reptile Group and became their Secretary. So I have been involved with the ARGs and ARG UK for quite some time. 10 years now.
Q: Your involvement included adder research that you were doing at a ‘secret location’ on the Kent-Sussex border. Can you speak a little about that?
Q: So your work was contributing to a conservation management plan for a site where you were working with Barry Kemp of Sussex ARG.
R: Yes. Using pattern recognition we identified 23 adders that lived on that site. And I think it was over 40 grass snakes.
Q: Were you keen to use non-invasive techniques in your surveying methods?
R: Yes, we were using photographs of the head patterns. So snakes were captured, photographed, and released immediately.
Q: So none of the snakes left the site?
R: Nothing left the site. Everything was done there and then with an immediate release. So minimal disturbance.
Q: In terms of herp diversity, were there other species?
R: The site had all of the widespread reptiles and amphibians on it. So thats 4 reptiles, 3 species of newts, and common toad and common frog. I think it was 2.3 ha. It was a really small site, but it was not only diverse in having all of those species, but they were all there in really good numbers. Except for common lizard. Which I only found one of, but that was the first record of common lizard on the site.
Q: That was a pivotal study for you to start working with British herps and with Sussex ARG and contributing to conservation management.
R: Yes, it was the first field project that I did. Other than the small project we did in Peru in 2006 looking at survey techniques in rainforest.
Q: Oh yes, the work in the Tambopata National Reserve. We’ll come back to that later. So your adder research, was this during the third year of your degree?
R: It was for my third year dissertation, supervised by Trevor Beebee who is also a member of Somerset ARG.
Q: I see, while you were doing your degree in ecology and conservation, you joined your local reptile and amphibian group and got as involved as you could to get experience. Would you recommend that to other people who wanted to get into herps who are still perhaps studying?
R: Yes I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get more involved in field herpetology in the UK to join their local ARG.
Q: At the moment you are a member of the Somerset ARG. Can you give some examples of the kind of work people can get involved in if they wanted to volunteer?
R: Yes, in the Somerset ARG there are a number of really cool projects that are being run at the moment. One is the The Mendip Ponds Project that is restoring great crested newt ponds on the Mendips to expand their range and improve their population status on the Mendip Hills. That is all done through volunteers going out and either building new ponds or finding old ponds and improving them and restoring them back to ideal conditions. The other project that runs annually is the Adder Survey which runs in various places in Somerset depending on what is felt to be needed that year, and people get the opportunity to be trained to survey for adders and then go out to sites that they are given to see how many adders are on those sites.
Q: You mentioned a project in Peru. Did that further inspire you to work with herps?
R: Absolutely, that moment of finding the Loro machaco left me speechless. My overriding memory is not being able to form a sentence properly, for quite some time. It was so overwhelming. And it was that experience that really spurred me on to get as involved as I could not only in tropical herpetology but also in British herpetology. So when the opportunity came to get more involved with SARG I jumped at it. I was taking every opportunity I could to gain as much experience and be as involved as possible in field herpetology.
R: The next place I was inspired to visit was India, and I joined a King Cobra trip, which left the day after I got my results for my degree. I met Gerry Martin and became involved in the Gerry Martin Project for a while, spending several months there in 2011.
Q: I remember your next trip was in 2012 to Costa Rica with Todd Lewis at Caña Palma Biological Station.
R: Costa Rica rekindled my passion for Latin America and late that year I came to Guatemala and that was when my love affair with Guatemala started.
Gerry Martin RG with Protobothrops jerdonii – Jerdons pitviper. Arunachal Pradesh, India 2010
Q: Now as Indigo Expeditions, how do you get the drive and the motivation and the passion to do this work? Is it by leading by example? If you can do it, anyone can do it?
R: Its about making a connection between UK herpetology and tropical ecology, tropical herpetology.
Q: Now we have expeditions established and our own conservation projects running out in Guatemala, we are bringing back some of the magic from Guatemala to share with people and offer them the opportunity to come out and really experience for themselves what its like because its such an individual experience for everybody.
R: We are really excited to have people join our mission who already are excited about herpetology so we don’t have to teach people about reptiles and amphibians. They already love them. They are already in that camp. So its like come on, just come and further your exploration, further your passion.
Q: I guess the next step would be, come and join one of our expeditions. You are living proof that it’s possible to do what you want.
R: Yes, and we’re looking forward to welcoming anyone with a passion for wildlife to explore with us!
Rowland Griffin, Cofounder Indigo Expeditions
Blog first published October 2016