Niall McCann: Explorer. Adventurer. Biologist.

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See Niall give the Burt Memorial talk on Tuesday April 16th, 7pm in the Medical Building.
Entry free of charge, but reserve your ticket here.

I first met Niall McCann ‘Explorer. Adventurer. Biologist.’ as he strode through the satellite camp of Santo Tomas, shirtless, sweating, and having hiked over the mountainous core of the Honduran Cloud Forest to reach us. Let me explain. It was the summer of 2011 and I was a volunteer for the organisation, Operation Wallacea, where I aided a group of scientists – Niall being one – to collect data on the forest’s biodiversity to contribute to a long-term biological data bank.

Niall’s presence throughout the forest was one of legend amongst us volunteers: ‘He’s rowed across the Atlantic Ocean’ some whispered, ‘I’ve heard he wrestles anacondas’ speculated others, ‘I saw a photo of him slack-lining at 3000 feet’ gasped one. Like bees to a honeypot, we were inevitably drawn towards him. Radiating confidence, charisma, and boundless charm, it was unsurprising that people would swarm to gather around the campfire after a long day’s work, in the hope of hearing him talk with great animation about his life of adventure and exploration. And, if we were lucky, to glimpse a cheeky performance of ‘The Bear Necessities’ played on his trusty ukulele. Needless to say, all of the legends were true.

The Unforgiving Minute brighter

Accepting the term ‘Explorer. Adventurer. Biologist.’ which is posted across the banner of his website (niallmccann.com), Niall is quick to insist that he is principally a biologist, and that he always knew his interest lay within that of the natural world. Being ‘intrinsically interested’ in endangered species, Niall has now devoted over 12 years to advocating conservation programmes for some of the most critically endangered animals of our planet. His current PhD focus is on the genetic make-up and conservation status of the highly inconspicuous Baird’s Tapir (which, despite being one of the world’s leading experts on, he has yet to ever see…).

A self-confessed ‘relentless multi-tasker’, Niall is not only juggling his PhD programme at Cardiff University, but he is also at the forefront of several conservation initiatives (‘why wait until I have graduated?’), notably throughout Central America. Currently, he is working in close accordance with the Guyanan government as a conservation advisor, using information of both biodiversity and natural resources to locate the best areas to set up long-term protected conservation sites. Niall has a long history with this country – aged 27 he protested against a series of gold mining claims, and was successful in having them all revoked by presidential decree.

Having worked in Honduras for several summers, Niall was exposed to the alarming degradation of the Cusuco National Park through illegal poaching and deforestation events. It was evident that the park would not survive these activities: ‘something needed to be done, otherwise our guides would not have had jobs next year [2013], and Operation Wallacea would have had to stop their expeditions to the country’. Concerned, and after returning to the UK and setting up a contact, Niall met with the Honduran Minister for Environment, and convinced him that the park required immediate protection. The result? Subsequent militarisation of the entire forest: ‘We literally militarised a national park in a Central American country. It’s bloody nuts! It’s ridiculous. But the thing is – it happened because I tried. It can happen if you have the wherewithal to shout rather loudly and made a sensible point.’ Niall deems the protection of the Honduran park as an achievement that he is most proud of.Biggest&Baddest, Venezuela

From the man who has, quite possibly, the coolest career title ever, Niall’s advice to us is simple: ‘Go and do something that you love because you get so much more satisfaction out of it. What I am specifically trying to do with my career in general is to encourage others to take an interest in the natural world, to want to defend it, to fight to protect it, and to have some respect for it.’

Hearing Niall talk so passionately about his ambitions, I honestly believe that I had the privilege of working with him in an environment where he is at his most vibrant. I knew him as we explored the natural and untamed world of the Honduran cloud forest, as we interacted with those who share in the same drive and ambition, and as we actively endeavoured to protect and conserve the habitat around us. As he said to me, he would die happy if he could inspire at least one person to become a biologist instead of a banker. Well Niall, you’re going to go down as one content man.

Biggest and Baddest (visit the website here)

Niall is ever keen to continue with his front line conservation efforts, and his second branch into the world of the popular media is through his new television programme, Biggest and Baddest. Originally aired in the US, it can now be viewed on British TV. The concept of the show is to look at the largest and most dangerous animals on earth and to discover the root of their conflicts with the human race. Niall wished the show explore what made these animals both threatening and threatened, but more importantly to ‘shine a spot light on the more secretive and vulnerable side of these incredibly iconic animals’.

This series shows off Niall in his element: an intertwining of his three loves. He plays adventurer, he gets to explore some of the most unchartered territories, and as a result he gets to live in close proximity with some of our most wonderful wild animals. One of his most thrilling scenes from the show – one which his mother probably doesn’t enjoy viewing! – is when the filming crew were charged (twice) by a wild tiger. He recalls the memory: ‘When a tiger roars, the entire forest shakes and you feel it through every single cell in your body. You just vibrate and every hair stands on end. The first time it happened I heard the roar and I didn’t even know that it was coming at us, and I just looked down and suddenly out of nowhere, this tiger appeared. She stopped in a clearing, stared at me in the eye and then charged at us. That image is completely singed onto my retina – it was just incredible; looking down into the eyes of the world’s most formidable predator. It was not scary, just awe inspiring in every way.’

Catch up here on all of the Biggest and Baddest episodes.

Nepal Selection

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