Our Burning Planet


How science and intuition can work together to save species

How science and intuition can work together to save species
Carl Jones with an echo parakeet. (Photo: Supplied)

One of the world’s foremost conservationists, Professor Carl Jones, who has saved more species from the brink of extinction than any other conservationist, will share insights from his remarkable career at the 12th Oppenheimer Research Conference in Midrand in October.

“I don’t want you to think I’m a hippie,” says Carl Jones.

As if. Behind his name stand MBE and PhD Biology. He is the recipient of the Indianapolis Prize, considered the Nobel Prize for Conservation. He is chief scientist of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and scientific director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. 

Over four decades on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, he saved at least nine species from extinction, including the Mauritius kestrel, pink pigeon, echo parakeet, Rodrigues warbler and Rodrigues fody. He has rebuilt entire ecosystems and removed alien species from the islands surrounding Mauritius. He has restored the populations of Rodrigues fruit bat, Günther’s gecko, Orange-tailed skink and Round Island boa. No other conservationist is credited with saving as many animal species. It’s a long list.

He will be sharing insights from his long career at the 12th Oppenheimer Research Conference, which takes place in Midrand, Gauteng, on October 4–6. His presentation is titled “Lessons from the Dodo”. 

Jones is also a man seduced by beauty and fascinated by complexity, of both the natural world and the human psyche. As we talk, via Zoom, he is ensconced in his living room in Wales, which I mistake for his study from the many specimens and books. 

“This is just a tiny portion of it,” he says, his Welsh lilt brimming with good humour. “I’m a bit of a bibliophile. It’s my personality, I’m afraid. I’ve still got lots of stuff in boxes; I’m just a terrible collector of things.” 

His book collection numbers more than 6,000 volumes, mostly about natural history, and also subjects like psychoanalysis, but no novels. “I’ve never read a book of fiction in my life. It would be boring; it’s not reality,” he says. 

Among his favourites are “a lot of Victorian books”, and indeed there is a benign air of the slightly eccentric Victorian gentleman about him.

I ask whether he thinks there is a link between his hoarding instincts and the impulse to conserve species.

‘They bring me huge joy’

“That’s a very interesting question,” he responds, as he does to every question. “I’ve often thought about what drives me and certainly all the conservation work is because I get a lot of satisfaction from it. I love those creatures and plants I work with. They bring me huge joy. As well as understanding that they’re an important part of the world’s complexity. You can think about it at a rational level but very often when I’m in the forest and I see some birds I’ve worked with I get quite emotional. I think ‘wow, isn’t that amazing’. It’s very selfish. I just love it.”

Of course, the bigger picture is a big concern: climate change, the fact that the planet is experiencing its sixth major extinction, that we’ll lose 10% of animals and plants by 2050, and 30% within 100 years. 

“I do think about saving the world and reversing climate change and biodiversity loss and all that. But I’m driven by the aesthetics of it all. Complex systems are just so beautiful; the world is so beautiful,” he says.

Aware of the interplay of elements, Jones finds himself straddling the emotional and intellectual, scientific and intuitive. “I wrestle with the relationship of being a scientific observer and being part of the world,” he says. 

“There’s the side of you that’s driven by emotion and by feeling, and I’m a great believer in intuition and empathy. And then you’ve got the other side, of being a rational scientist. And yeah, you can get them to work side by side. Science works by reducing everything to the lowest common denominator; it simplifies everything, which is a powerful way to understand things, but it also dumbs things down terribly because the world is far more than just those basic building blocks.”

This nuanced approach is how, as a 24-year-old working for the forerunner of Birdlife International, he tackled the task of saving the Mauritian kestrel in the early 70s.

“The most important thing is knowing and understanding your species,” he says. “When I started working on Mauritius, when we only had small numbers of birds, we were trying to breed them and we weren’t in a situation where we could study them in some experimental way. I spent a lot of time just watching them in the forest, getting to know them. Yes, of course, I wanted to know how many eggs they laid and what they fed on and where they lived, but after a while I became quite intuitive about it all, as a naturalist. 

“I remember telling some of my bosses that the kestrels were short of food and I knew that because of the way they were behaving. I couldn’t quantify it in a scientific way, but I knew that they were food-stressed, and I was right. 

“I also did that with a lot of the other birds. I came up with hunches and ideas that later proved to be correct. Once you’ve got the insight, you can start looking at it scientifically and collecting data to support or refute your hunch. It’s all part of the same process. You’re being open to experience, empathetic, listening to intuition and testing things empirically using science”. 

The result was that the four kestrels Jones started with, the sum total of the species at the time, grew, through captive-breeding and nurturing, to about 500 birds. And while there have been wobbles along the way, the kestrel numbers, and those of other rescued species, have mostly stayed up.

Jones says that when numbers dropped, after the early euphoria of success, it was because “we took our eye off the ball a bit, and now more management is needed”.

‘Long-term commitment’

“There’s a very powerful lesson there. Yes, we can restore the populations of critically endangered species, but we also need to continue to look after the populations. A lot of people don’t like that idea. They think we should restore the animals and then move on to the next one. But what you have to remember is that we have been mistreating the world for centuries, if not millennia, and we can’t be expected to solve all those problems overnight. We’re learning that it’s not that difficult conserving species, it’s easy, but it does need a long-term commitment. We need 100-year visions for our programmes. Then we will achieve great things. This is something the conservation community has yet to embrace.”

Saving the world took its toll, in those early days. 

“I came home after my first 18 months and I was mentally and physically exhausted. It had really taken its toll on me, the politics, the challenges, the destruction, and in the early days some of the kestrels had died. The operation was looking desperate. The funders weren’t happy with my approach. I was very hands on, and in the 1970s and 1980s a lot of the conservation organisations were protectionist and didn’t believe in active management. They believed that the best way to save species was to put up a national park, protect them and go round schools and educate people. I just knew that wouldn’t work. There was destruction, and degradation of the forest, populations were growing, and I knew we would have to be proactive. These species were on the very brink of extinction, and I knew it would take aggressive hands-on action: breeding, management, reintroduction of species in the wild.

“There was this huge philosophical debate, conflict, tension, between the protectionist ideology, which still exists in the western world, and the practical get-out-there-and-do-it ideology like you have in South Africa, and which I admire. Funding was withdrawn because they said I was in breach of contract because I wasn’t doing all the things I should have been doing, in terms of negotiating with government about setting up national parks, for example. I was very lucky that Gerry [Durrell] came in and saved my bacon and gave me a job.” 

The rest is history, a country Jones doesn’t like to inhabit, except for what it can teach about the future.

“The world is going to change dramatically,” he says, “but the one thing we mustn’t get obsessed with, is trying to turn the clock back. Thinking like that can be very destructive. 

“We’ve got to look to the past but so we can guide development in the future. One of the problems that western thought has had is they want things to be how they were however many centuries ago, but of course we can’t get there.

“And now with climate change, people have woken up and they’re saying, ‘Bloody hell, we can’t turn the clock back even if we wanted to’.

“We’ve got to think in a very creative way about what may be in the future. I see the future as offering lots of opportunities, for rebuilding systems, moving species around, understanding how in some cases we can build novel systems with different elements in them. And if we see how the world has progressed, and how science has progressed in our lifetimes, it is quite conceivable that in the future we will be genetically modifying animals. We may be able to adapt animals to go into new situations, into rebuilt, novel systems. That’s being very science fiction, but think about it, if you embrace the idea that we’re going to turn the clock back, we’re going to get nowhere because the world is changing so quickly. 

“It is a Brave New World; there’s no two ways about it. I think it’s great that we’re trying to resuscitate extinct species through genetic engineering. Let’s embrace it.”

Bringing back the dodo

Would Jones like to see the dodo come back? 

“They’re working on it but I don’t think they have enough genetic material. What they will be doing is moving genes around, and come up with something that’s a chimera that will have some dodo in it. Most of the genome of the dodo still exists in other species, so who knows where all that’s going to go.”

The extinction of the dodo is pivotal to Jones’s thinking. He has written: “During those quiet moments when one’s mind drifts, I often think what it would be like to go back in time to see the world before we modified it so dramatically. I would like to travel to the sixteenth century, to the island of Mauritius, to see the dodo and many of the other remarkable birds, and other animals that lived there but are now extinct.”

The lesson of the dodo, the “iconic lost species”, he says, is that “it was the first species that became extinct, in 1662, where we realised that we’d caused its extinction. People then looked back, years later, and said ‘where’s the dodo gone?’ and they realised that the world was exhaustible, that we could deplete species, that they weren’t just there for us to take and take and take. Yes, it took a few more centuries before it became embedded in western consciousness that we were causing extinctions. But one can honestly say that it was on Mauritius, with the loss of the dodo, that we had the dawning of the modern conservation consciousness.”

Another lesson, for Jones, is that saving species is not a question of one here, another there. Each one saved is a spearhead towards changing the world. “These animals are catalysts for that bigger vision that we all embrace”, which is to build a “caring society”.

Generally not given to dwelling on problems, he says “one of the problems in the world is there are too many small thinkers, and when it comes to conservation, we need big thinkers, bold thinkers. I love thinkers like EO Wilson [who originated the idea of biophilia, or ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’], and Jared Diamond [who theorises about the factors that cause societal collapse, which include environmental collapse and climate change].

“I have also been inspired by individuals, people like Gerald Durrell [author and naturalist who founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo on the Channel Island of Jersey], Peter Scott [who pioneered breeding programmes to save some of the world’s rarest birds from extinction]. I like the early ethologists, I like the Freudians, because they were thinking way outside the box.” 

He acknowledges that many people, many scientists, “follow a rigid path”. But then “there are these whacko people who have lots of crazy ideas, a lot of which fall on barren soil but some of them come to fruition. I love whacko people”.

He insists that all species can be saved, and bridles at the suggestion that choices need to be made about which ones to save, and that there isn’t enough money to do so anyway.

‘All species are saveable’

Carl Jones with a white-tailed eagle, a species that Durrell Wildlife is helping to restore to its habitat in Wales and the wider Severn Estuary. (Photo: Supplied)

“When you start saying there’s a limited pot, you become less creative in your thinking. I always say all species are saveable. Of course not all species will be saved. That’s a reality because of the nature of the world. But the moment you start saying species aren’t saveable, you start giving up. 

‘And I don’t think we should ever do that. How much are people spending on skyscrapers? How much has been poured into Ukraine? I’m not saying we shouldn’t have. Of course we should. But how much money goes into armaments compared to conservation, to looking after this planet? I think we need to restructure the way we look at the world.”

And not just as a matter of survival. 

“Keeping the planet healthy keeps us healthy, not just in terms of physical health but mental health. We need diversity. We need complexity. The human soul feeds off complex interesting worlds. People may say, ‘What is the point of a black wildebeest, or an African elephant?’, but if we lose those, we impoverish the world, making it a duller place. Do we all want to live in skyscrapers, surrounded by concrete, with a few sanitised areas that we call parks? We want wild areas, we want complexity.”

At home, on his three hectare patch of Wales, it’s the simple pleasures of his own birds and other animals that occupy Jones.

“I breed Andean condors. I’ve got those because they’re very intelligent. They’re social. They’re complex. I just like being with them and working with them. I have a number of birds. Birds of prey. Parrots. Some owls. I’ve got birds that I fly, that I let go and they come back. I’ve got a tortoise. I’ve got some fish. I like surrounding myself with wildlife. 

“You know, if you build a rapport with birds, especially with the intelligent ones, they become very intuitive about you. They know your feelings. There are people who’ve argued that there are senses in animals that border on the telepathic. It wouldn’t surprise me if many animals had telepathic ways of communicating. And intuition is a step towards that.

“I’m not saying this in some airy-fairy, New Age sort of way, but there are modes of communication between animals which we don’t fully understand. My birds, the ones I’m closest to, pick up my feelings, and I can pick up their feelings. And I find that quite extraordinary. There are things about our relations with the animal world which are not understood, and not fully acknowledged by science because of the way that science is very reductionist. 

“I don’t want you to think I’m a hippie. But I like to think I’m open to other possibilities in the world.”

A world which is more complex, more bounteous, and more beautiful thanks to Jones’s efforts. DM

“Every species when you get to know it is quite beautiful.”

Carl Jones with a Mauritius kestrel, which he saved from extinction and of which there are now about 500 individuals. (Photo: Supplied)

‘Every species when you get to know it is quite beautiful’

The Mauritian kestrel is the first species Carl Jones saved from extinction, which recovered from four individuals to about 500 today.  “It’s still one of my favourite birds,” he says.

“For a large part of my life I dreamt about them every night. I was obsessed. I think it is absolutely exquisite. It has short, rounded wings, it has a beautiful white breast and lovely spots in heart shapes.

“It looks beautiful but it flies beautifully as well. It flies among the canopy, catching lizards. They have a beautiful aerial display where they circle up in the spring and they stoop and dive at each other. They ride the up-drafts of the big cliffs.

“I’ve seen them rising up until they’re out of sight, and then I’ve seen them close their wings and plummeting to the ground. When we’re talking about the beauty of the bird, we’re also talking about the bird in its natural environment.

“Every species when you get to know it is quite beautiful.” DM

Yves Vanderhaeghen writes for Jive Media Africa, science communication partner for Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation.

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