In June 2019 I headed to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico) with Opwall as one of the expedition herpetologists. This would be my second expedition with Opwall, as I also attended an expedition back in 2018 to the Buton Island site in Indonesia. As always before an expedition in a new location, I was eagerly anticipating my first footsteps into a different habitat, in this case, the semi-deciduous dry and lowland tropical forests of the Yucatán Peninsula. And of course, having researched the herpetofauna of the region religiously beforehand, I was ecstatic about the prospect of finding unique reptiles and amphibians in this region, especially those species that are endemic to the peninsula.
Before heading out to Mexico and meeting the staff and students, I was asked to make a presentation about a conservation/research topic that I have recently been involved in. I could have gone for a presentation based on my previous Opwall expeditions, or my experiences with the wildlife of Arizona back in 2014/15. However, I decided to go with something closer to home (the UK). My time as a voluntary committee member of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Amphibian and Reptile Group (HIWARG) over the past year may not have seemed as ‘exotic’ as the other talks, but to me this UK-based conservation work has been just as important as my time in tropical locations.
HIWARG is a county branch among the many Amphibian and Reptile Groups (ARG) across the UK. It started up around two years ago with the aim of carrying out long term surveys of UK herpetofauna in Hampshire. These surveys aim to monitor populations and community structure over time and to rediscover historic species records. 2019 has been a very successful year for this conservation charity. I, along with other members of the group, have developed relationships with various landowners such as Forestry England, County Councils and farmers to collectively set up almost 40 transects across the county, including the Isle of Wight. We have also made records on sites where some species have never been officially recorded before. Furthermore, our public outreach has developed superbly due to the educational stalls that have been set up at public events and the habitat management workshops that have been taking place during most weekends throughout the winter.
I decided to base my talk on the importance of local ARGs through my experience with HIWARG, with a particular focus on the drastic decline of the UK adder population in recent years. With the likelihood of student groups from the UK being on the Mexico expedition I felt like this talk would have a message that would stick with the audience more rigorously. A message that reminds young conservationists that conservation starts on their doorstep and that it is just as important as conservation overseas. I was also hoping that this talk may spark an interest in these students to join their local ARG.
During my talk, I mentioned an area in Southampton where I have recorded many reptiles and amphibians over the years. I have wanted HIWARG to get something set up here for while, but I had been struggling to contact the owners of the land. We always contact landowners first for permission to survey sites and to inform them of what we have found on their land. This sparked interest from a dissertation student who was collecting data for her project on Spider Monkeys in Calakmul as she studies at the University of Southampton. She informed me that one of her lecturers has been affiliated with the site for several years and that the students she has supervised have used this site for UK herp-related dissertation and masters projects. She also gave me the academic’s contact details.
I have now made contact with the lecturer at Southampton and we have organised a meeting to talk about how HIWARG would like to work with the University in surveying and protecting the snakes, lizards, frogs, toads and newts on this site. Bingo! What is even better is that the dissertation student that I met in Calakmul is a committee member of the University’s Natural History Society and we have agreed that HIWARG activity on this site will be a great way to get the society members involved with surveys while they gain hands-on field experience.
I would never have imagined that this conservation connection could have been made through somebody I met on the other side of the planet, but who lives in the same city as me in England! This is the beauty of Opwall expeditions as not only will you meet fantastic wild fauna & flora, but you will also meet like-minded people that may be able to help you with your personal ambitions.
If you want to get involved with UK herpetofauna conservation then please consider joining your local ARG. For more information visit: https://www.arguk.org/