Meet Russell Gray: Science Advisor and Technical Specialist at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

In this series, we chat to the dedicated staff members, conservation partners and volunteers at PTES. We find out why each of them chose a career in wildlife conservation, what they find rewarding about their work or what they love most about what they do and why they get involved.

Russel works at Save Vietnam's Wildlife as a Science Advisor and Technical Specialist
Russell works at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife as a Science Advisor and Technical Specialist

Russell Gray

Science Advisor and Technical Specialist at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

Why did you decide to go into wildlife conservation?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had an interest in wildlife. It started when I was a kid, about 10 or 11. I’ve always been passionate about reptiles, and would visit the nearby forests to find them, particularly snakes. I remember my friends and some of their families were always villainising the snakes and I heard people talking about killing them. I was confused why people would say such things and just wanted to protect them. There were many occasions I’d passionately argue against these attitudes.

Later in life this drive to protect under-valued or at-risk wildlife manifested itself into a career focus and drew me towards ecological conservation. All around me there seemed to be a general lack of compassion for most wild animals, and a targeted hatred for others. I began to learn about the very real risks of extinctions in the natural world. My early days as a herpetologist (someone who studies amphibians and reptiles) were spent studying venomous snakes, because they are so undervalued and most in need of protection. Later I began working on species that needed protection for the completely different reasons such as over-exploitation.

Today, I’m still as passionate about protecting wildlife from any human threats they may face. I feel an obligation and responsibility, like others who have chosen to dedicate their lives to this cause.

What’s your role and what’s the most rewarding part of it?

I’m Science Advisor and Technical Specialist at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, responsible for the technical aspects of our research work, whilst also advising on project design. Whilst I do a lot of data analysis, fundraising, and report writing, I’m still involved in the practical aspects such as rescue, rehabilitation, release, anti-poaching, post-release monitoring, and the reintroductions.

The most rewarding part of my work is analysing data from each of our organisation’s departments and identifying patterns, trends, and statistically significant changes to inform and enhance our work. This process often leads to “eureka!” moments, because there’s so much data coming in from all directions, and they all have unseen linkages to each other that can only be assessed, to some extent, through complex statistical models. As a data nerd, this excites me. As a conservationist, this provides the support my organisation requires to make informed decisions.

Has your conservation work been rewarding and, if so, in what way?

Russell has been part of frontline efforts to rescue animals from organised criminal traffickers, rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild, in well-protected sites.

I’ve been part of frontline efforts to rescue animals from organised criminal traffickers, rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild, in well-protected sites. I’ve seen Critically Endangered species recovering to the extent that they’re regularly spotted in the wild. This gives me hope for the future and a belief that restoring the natural world is not an impossible task.

We often associate conservation with negative factors such as deforestation, over-exploitation, climate change-related catastrophes, decreasing populations, and extinctions. When facing these challenges, it can be overwhelming and depressing, or result in feelings of indifference or helplessness. But I’ve seen how we can overcome these challenges, even in very severe cases and I’m confident they can be replicated and expanded in the future.

What are the main reasons for some of your greatest successes?

I attribute most of my successes to a combination of curiosity and stubbornness. But the real successes always come from close collaboration with others. My motto is, if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.

What difficulties or challenges do you face in your work and how do you think you’ll overcome them?

All wildlife and conservation work is challenging. There are endless, confounding factors at play. To quote Heraclitus: No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. Everything in nature is constantly changing and adapting. In a practical sense I face challenges such as acquiring funding, and carrying out work that appeals to a broad spectrum of donors. In a philosophical sense, I always wonder if the actions I’m taking to protect a species or landscape are the right choices, and if they truly benefit the ecosystem or if I’ll trigger some inadvertent adverse effects down the line as a result of my actions.

I’ve learned to tell stories with data, connecting with people, and bringing stakeholders into the field to show them the work we do so that they can these first hand the challenges we face. I’ve also armed myself with complex statistical modelling techniques so I can account for as many variables as possible, whilst being open-minded, transparent, and accepting the fact that some things I do may have unanticipated consequences, but if my team closely monitors the work, we will be able to tackle any unexpected issues when they first arise.

Russell taking a photograph of a newly released pangolin.

What does the future hold for you and for pangolins?

My organisation works tirelessly to restore and protect threatened species and landscapes in Vietnam. Sunda and Chinese pangolins are two of our most important species. We’ve learnt so much whilst working to protect them; now we’re planning to collaborate with others in protected areas across Vietnam to scale up our work to restore pangolin populations nationwide. While both species have been on the brink of extinction for several decades now, we’re starting to see a recovery. We’re hoping that our efforts to reduce demand will protect pangolins for future generations.

Thinking about my own future, like any conservationist, I want to do myself out of a job. My desire is for a sustainable coexistence between humans and wildlife, to that extent that conservationists no longer exist. My first ambition is that I help recover the species I’m working on sufficiently that their status is radically changed, from being listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, to Least Concern. And my ambition is the first species I achieve this for will be pangolins.

Learn more about our work saving pangolins and how you can get involved:

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