Ever wondered what it might be like running the Reptile Team at ZSL London Zoo? Or how you get there? We spoke to ZSL London Zoo's Team Leader for Herpetology, Benjamin Tapley.
Can you tell us a bit about your role at ZSL?
My responsibilities include:
- The collection of reptiles and amphibians at ZSL London Zoo and the herpetology team at ZSL London Zoo.
- Developing the collection plan. Every species at ZSL has a key role from conservation, education and research.
- Designing new exhibits.
- Overseeing and carrying out innovative research projects to answer questions of conservation importance or to further our understanding of amphibian and reptile husbandry requirements and disseminating our findings.
- Developing conservation programmes for reptiles and amphibians.
- Training future reptile and amphibian keepers and conservation biologists.
- Representing ZSL on various working groups (BIAZA reptile and amphibian working group, EAZA amphibian taxon advisory group, IUCN Amphibian conservation breeding working group)
My key areas of expertise are amphibian conservation breeding programmes and capacity building.
How long have you worked for ZSL and how did you come to be in your current role?
I have worked for ZSL since January 2012, prior to this I was volunteering for ZSL on the mountain chicken frog conservation project on the Caribbean island of Dominica. I have always been interesting in linking ex situ and in situ conservation programmes (captive based conservation programmes with wild based conservation programmes), this is a field that ZSL excels at and when I saw the position advertised in the herpetology section at ZSL London Zoo I had to apply.
What made you want to pursue a career in your current field?
I have had a lifelong passion for reptiles and amphibians and their conservation. I have always wanted to work in a field where I can further our knowledge and understanding of these creatures and conserve them. The variety of reptiles and amphibians is phenomenal and we know so little about them. Amphibians are disproportionately threatened and working to develop conservation programmes for Critically Endangered amphibians is extremely rewarding.
What is the best thing about your job?
The best thing about my job is the variety, no day is the same and everyday I learn something new despite working in the herpetology field for some time.
Have there been any particular highlights of your career so far?
I have had so many highlights in my career so far it is difficult to select one. They include:
- Mentoring our many amphibian EDGE Fellows. The EDGE of Existence Programme aims to conserve Critically Endangered species that are evolutionarily distinct. The EDGE programme offers a two year Fellowship programme to early stage conservation biologists working with EDGE species. I have been fortunate enough to mentor EDGE Fellows in China, India, Kenya and Mexico and find the capacity building component of my work at ZSL extremely rewarding.
- Working with mountain chickens has been a highlight. From finding some of the few remaining frogs in the wild on Dominica to breeding frogs in London and sending them back to Montserrat for release.
- Breeding the Critically Endangered Lake Oku clawed frog, the species had never been bred in captivity before and its reproductive biology was unknown. We successfully bred and reared this species in 2014 / 2015.
- Getting to grips with the world’s largest amphibian, the Chinese giant salamander. ZSL and partners are currently working in China to survey up to 100 sites across the distributional range of the species. I was involved in training teams across China in the standardised protocols we have developed in order to find salamanders and understand their conservation status and the threats posed to the species. We recently opened an exhibit featuring the only giant salamander in the UK, this was also a career highlight. Not only is our giant salamander an extremely impressive animal, he also highlights the cutting edge conservation work that ZSL is leading in China.
Cheesy question time! Do you have a favourite animal? (Alive or extinct)
My favourite animal is the moustached frog. There are several species of Moustached frog, all of which live in Southern China and Northern Vietnam. These frogs are territorial, during the breeding season the male frogs grow black spines on their lips and they use these to fight with other males. Most species of moustached frogs are endangered as their habitats are becoming increasingly degraded. Their tadpoles are huge and these are often eaten by people. I was fortunate enough to come face to face with several moustached frogs when looking for giant salamanders in China.
ZSL is a conservation charity. How does your role help ZSL as a society carry out its mission to aid conservation across the world? Additionally, in your opinions what needs to change or improve to further our ability to conserve endangered species?
My role helps bring people closer to a diverse array of reptiles and amphibians at ZSL London Zoo. If reptiles and amphibians are to be conserved people need to know about and care about them. I feel that many of our visitors appreciate these groups of animals far more after visiting the reptile and amphibian house and are more likely to be engaged in their conservation after exposure to our many conservation messages.
Training and supporting future conservation biologists is an important part of my role. From teaching MSc students on our Wild animal Health and Wild animal Biology MSc programmes to mentoring EDGE Fellows.
I also work towards conservation breeding. Conservation breeding programmes are the last line of defence for amphibian populations which are disappearing too quickly or facing threats too severe or complicated to conserve through in situ action alone.
Most conservation issues are intrinsically linked to uncontrolled human population growth, this issue is so vast and complex it is not often addressed by the conservation community.
Conservation is grossly underfunded. For example, global conservation expenditure is just a fraction of the global military expenditure. When funding is available for conservation it is often directed toward charismatic megafauna. Global expenditure towards conservation needs to be increased dramatically.
Wildlife trade is also an issue. We need to work in innovative ways to reduce the demand for species that are threatened by the wildlife trade.
What can people at home do to work for wildlife and conserve the animals they care about?
Everyone can support conservation in some way. A great way to do this is to become a Wildlife Champion. For just three pounds a month you can contribute to the conservation of a species or habitat.