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David Macdonald

Professor of Wildlife Conservation and Director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit
David Macdonald

'In brief an accurate, if somewhat colourless biography, might say  that I am Oxford University's first Professor of Wildlife Conservation. It might also note that I conceived, and implemented the appeal which led, after all too many years of struggle, to the foundation of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit in 1986. In addition to directing the WildCRU I hold a Research Fellowship in Wildlife Conservation at Lady Margaret Hall, and was  deeply involved in creating this, the first Fellowship in any British university dedicated to biological conservation, just as the WildCRU was also the first such research unit. 

My scientific background is in behavioural ecology, with an emphasis on carnivores, although my research has spanned published studies on organisms from moths to penguins and even, occasionally, plants. As both the WildCRU, and the whole field of conservation, have evolved, our work has become inter-disciplinary. More recently my biological writings are increasingly enmeshed in issues of environmental policy, economics and research strategy. 

These studies span habitats as pristine as tropical forests and montane plateaux and as transformed by man as agro-ecosystems. Themes as diverse as endangered species, invasives, human-wildlife conflict, wildlife diseases and payments for ecosystem services, all fit within the WildCRU's wider aim. The aim, as it was in 1986, is to undertake original research on aspects of fundamental biology relevant to solving practical problems of wildlife conservation and environmental management. The research we produced can thus underpin policy formation and public debate of the many issues that surround the conservation of wildlife and its habitats.

At greater length of course, the reality is much more colourfully haphazard than the foregoing (a fuller, and even more palidly formulaic, version can be found in, "Who's Who"). 

The reality  involves a roller-coaster journey as exciting and improbable as it has been turbulent. The story starts with a little boy from a Glaswegian family, with  a penchant for taming animals, and childhood  recollections of pilfering plaster of paris from his,  medical  father's Surgery to make castes of fox footprints in the sandy bunkers of golf courses (this and other early adventures are elaborated in Running with the Fox, 1987). Zeal  for communicating the science of natural history  developed into  parallel career  writing and film-making alongside  research in behavioural ecology which was just coming of age on the academic scene.

Perhaps it was the background of a medical family that made me so convinced that this wondrously enthralling new science could and should be made useful I'm fond of remarking that while it's difficult enough to be interesting, its much harder to be useful I was scarcely twenty when this thought became my cause celebre, and not much older when it took the shape of a dream that has been realised in the WildCRU. That this has become a reality is the result of almost unimaginable luck and the support of a cluster of remarkable people for example, academically, Niko Tinbergen and Hans Kruuk who nurtured my youthful vulpine obsessions,  visionaries like Sir Richard Southwood and Sir David Attenborough who supported my early efforts to create the WildCRU, friends like James Teacher and Terry Collins amongst those who put their money and that of others where my mouth was, and lead us ultimately to our centre at Tubney House, and latterly Tom and Dafna Kaplan who have now made possible the opening of our new training centre for inspirational young conservationists from the developing world the WildCRU Panthers. This story, and the characters that populate it, has more than self-indulgent personal interest because it so closely coincides with the emergence of conservation science as an academic profession.'