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News > Science, Technology & Medicine > From Tonbridge to Tanzania - A Conservationist's Journey

From Tonbridge to Tanzania - A Conservationist's Journey

Award-winning Conservationist, Tim Davenport (HS 1977-82) on years at Hill Side, coming face to face with witchcraft, corruption and cobras in Central African forests, and discovering new species.

Tim Davenport (HS 1977-82) came to Tonbridge from Brambletye in 1997, later moving onto study Zoology at the University of Leeds. Today, he is an award-winning Conservationist and Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Tanzania Program. He has worked across Africa and is involved in research, protected area design and management, climate change adaptation, and community conservation initiatives.

Read about Tim's facinating career below, from mischievous memories of Hill Side, his early age pre-Spielberg facination with sharks, coming face to face with corruption and witchcraft, negotiating cobras in remote Central African forests, and the joy of discovering a new species. 

Perhaps my earliest memory is of leafing through a 1960’s shark edition of National Geographic magazine. I can still picture the saturated photographs of sleek elasmobranchs in clear blue waters, and surfers proudly revealing scars – dramatic reminders of close encounters. I was – pun intended – hooked, and this was some years before Peter Benchley and Stephen Spielberg took shark fascination in a very different direction. So whilst I would like to be able to say it was Tonbridge that inspired my somewhat unusual career path, the seed had already been sewn. That said, as Country Director for the WCS in Tanzania, I have to draw on an expansive range of skills, and I am convinced that the breadth of formative experience afforded in TN9 enabled my passion for wildlife to become a career reality.
I arrived at Tonbridge just as punk was starting to spit (quite literally) energy on the British way of life. Hill Side was stark. I thought icicles were supposed to form on the OUTside of buildings. But when it wasn’t your turn to be tormented, there was a genuine sense of camaraderie, and even adventure amidst the cultural reformation. I recall summer mornings leaping over walls and cycling down the banks of the Medway to catch pike an hour before dawn. In our adolescent naivety we assumed no one knew. Until Housemaster Peter MacManus once asked us at breakfast whether we had caught anything…

But whether it was lung-stretching Cras runs, obscure sports (Fives anyone?), drama (I played husband to the now Duchess of Wessex, Sophie Rhys Jones), or subjunctive recitals in Latin, there was a sense of all-rounder development that mattered then, and still does today. Whether Hill Side apple crumbles truly prepared me for eating monkey meat, termites, porcupines and elephant’s testicles I cannot say. But the work ethic that seems rarer these days, was instilled in me somewhere between the Fifty and Dry Hill Park Road.
After a BSc in Zoology at the University of Leeds and a PhD spent in the fields and grim abattoirs of north Yorkshire, I was blindly edging along my path. But it wasn’t until I back-packed across Africa that I knew what I wanted. My break came when I applied to volunteer with the Uganda Forest Department in 1992. As a “daktari” I was, on paper at least, amply qualified and I soon found myself in downtown Kampala on the edge of Lake Victoria. The reality was quite different of course, as I was immediately posted to Semliki Forest on the border with Zaire (as was) and ‘in charge’ of a team of less than eager Ugandan forest rangers. When the going gets tough, the tough collapse in their tent with amoebic dysentery. For the next four years I explored and surveyed the remote forests of central Africa. It was extraordinary, and the learning curve near vertical. Sadly, neither Tonbridge nor Leeds had adequately equipped me with the skills needed to repair a 30 year-old AK-47, or to handle a forest cobra, but I muddled through. Or rather my Ugandan colleagues muddled me through, and my prize was a year in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest working with mountain gorillas.

By 1997 I was in even remoter southeast Cameroon setting up a new national park with a team of Ba’aka Pygmies. This was an altogether darker experience. I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in my forest camp and I shouldn’t have. Whilst the years of being shown the forest through Ba’aka eyes were mind -blowing, the twin forces of corruption and witchcraft were less joyous. The realisation that a conservation colleague was surreptitiously running an ivory and a bush meat business brought everything into sharp focus. But such is conservation. Wildlife and science may underpin it, but this is a social and political battleground, and your main allies are empathy and diplomacy.
For the last 16 years I have lived and worked in Tanzania, a beautiful country beset with many of the challenges that face so many continental neighbours. But Tanzania is quantifiably the most important nation in Africa for the conservation of its habitats and rare and endangered species, and this is my drive. I have a team of over a hundred Tanzanians and expatriates across the country and we tackle an array of issues from elephant poaching to designing new reserves, and from education to forest rewilding. Amidst all the challenges, discovering new species provides the biggest thrill. We have described thirteen new vertebrates including a new genus of monkey, the kipunji, and a new species of viper that I named after my daughter. Conservation is not perhaps for the feint of heart but it can be deeply satisfying: As climate changes and human populations expand it has never been more important to protect our carbon, our water and our environment.


Deus dat incrementum? I am not sure, but Tonbridge did in various ways. And meanwhile, I am very pleased to say I have just started a new shark conservation program in the Indian Ocean…

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