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Childhood Conservation

I grew up in Berkshire, Southeast England, close to the River Thames and the Chilterns. I was one of seven children, and our parents encouraged our love for nature. Our father was a farmer in Dartmoor National Park before becoming a geography teacher, and our mother ran a creative business from our family home. My free time was spent outdoors, hiking or cycling in the countryside, or helping on family and friends’ farms in Devon and the Lake District. These experiences sparked my interest in conservation, further inspired by friends in Cumbria who were members of a partnership monitoring golden eagles living near their farm.

Winter Hill, overlooking the River Thames and Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Winter Hill, overlooking the River Thames and Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

When I was around eight, my primary school teacher set-up a conservation corner, which I didn’t hesitate to get involved in. Two of the activities I remember most were creating a wildlife pond and planting native hedgerow species. It wasn’t long before I joined the Young Ornithologists Club. I used to love watching and sketching birds so much, that I made a bird table and nest box in my woodwork class at junior school. I used to put out food to encourage birds into my suburban garden and it wasn’t long before a family of birds used the nest box to raise their young.

It seemed natural to me that I would develop an interest in wildlife, and get involved in conservation initiatives throughout my life. However, my interest in conservation got side tracked when I became a teenager.

Conservation Volunteering

When I was in my late twenties, I moved back to conservation, working for several conservation groups. Over a period of a year I volunteered for three conservation organisations in Norfolk: The Norfolk Conservation Corps, The Wensum Valley Project and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) at Titchwell Marsh Nature Reserve, their flagship reserve.

How I Got Started In Conservation Volunteering At Local Nature Reserves

I started off with the Norfolk Conservation Corps getting my hands dirty in all weather conditions doing habitat management work at various nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. For example, Wheatfen Broad, Scarning FenFoxley Wood, Honeypot Wood, and Wayland Wood. I really enjoyed learning about coppicing, tree surgery, reed cutting, and other forms of practical habitat management work.

It’s not all about hard physical graft, the Corps founder, Eddie Boosey provided plenty of opportunities to learn about the habitat and species. I had many close encounters with wildlife and being part of a team helps you get to know many interesting people from diverse backgrounds.

River Restoration Work

I went on to do similar work with the Wensum Valley Project. The River Wensum is a particularly beautiful Special Area of Conservation and Site of Special Scientific Interest in mid-Norfolk. However, restoration work was needed to improve the ecological condition of the chalk river, as over the years draining nearby land for farms and dredging for watermills had led to slow flow and sedimentation. So I contributed to habitat management work on river meadows, heathland and city fringe sites.

It was a pleasure to work with Robin Goolden and Louisa Lloyd of the Wensum Valley Project. It was a brilliant opportunity to work with project stakeholders, including both public and private landowners such as Environment Agency, Natural England, Norfolk County Council, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and local farmers.

Female Marsh harrier bring nest materials to her reedbed nest on the North Norfolk Coast
Female Marsh harrier bring nest materials to her reedbed nest on the North Norfolk Coast.

Voluntary Nature Reserve Warden

The icing on the cake was a six month stint as voluntary reserve warden for the RSPB. At the time, this was the only RSPB reserve warden traineeship in the country. So it was an amazing opportunity to develop new skills as well as improve existing habitat management skills. I was mentored by Adam Rowlands, now the RSPB Suffolk Area Manager. Adam is not only experienced in reserve management but he is one of the UK’s leading ornithologists being the Chairman of the British Birds Rarities Committee. He provided inspiration by sharing his experiences of working in conservation over the years.

The highlights at Titchwell were breeding birds surveys, WeBS counts, and non-avian taxa surveys. The reserve receives approximately 100,000 visitors a year, so a substantial amount of time was spent interacting with a wide spectrum of visitors providing help and interpretation as required. Other fun activities included leading pond-dipping and birdwatching events for inner-city schoolchildren, leading guided walks for biology students and managing volunteers visiting the reserve for a week.

Species Survey Work

The amount of effort and dedication I put into surveying species like marsh harriers, avocets, bearded tits, water voles and dune tiger beetles, led on to doing lots of other interesting survey work. I conducted surveys of natterjack toads, common lizards and adders for the Herpetological Conservation Trust and dragonflies and damselflies for the Norfolk recorder. I even managed to record a few firsts for Norfolk, including the Lesser emperor dragonfly with the help of Adam.

Conservation Education

One of the aspects of the wardening for the RSPB that I enjoyed the most was leading pond-dipping and birdwatching activities for inner-city schoolchildren from London. I wanted to ensure that each individual in my group would enjoy their visit as much as possible. This included encouraging the keener ones who were more inquisitive and confident without excluding the quieter children or the “naughty” ones. This meant that I had to divide my attention as equally as possible between the children, answering questions and trying to stimulate further investigation. The naughty ones soon found that their attention span was miraculously elongated and birds weren’t that boring after all. This approach seemed to work as all the children got stuck in and enjoyed themselves, some even said they’d like to find out more about wildlife after their trip to Norfolk.

Having been the beneficiary of conservation education as a child, it was my obligation to share the passion for wildlife that was passed on to me.

Wildlife Photography

It was about this time, I got interested in photography. I bought myself an SLR and travelled to Nepal to trek the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas. I developed an interest in Asia. The culture in some countries is about being compassionate towards wildlife and that inspired me.

Tim Plowden at 5,000m in the Langtang Valley, Nepal.
Tim Plowden admiring the stunning panorama from the peak of Tsergo Ri at 4,985m (16,356ft) in the Langtang Valley, Nepal. Tim has completed 5 expeditions to the Himalayas, three in Yunnan and two in Nepal.

The idea to be a wildlife photographer took root when I was in Norfolk volunteering as a reserve warden. I met a professional wildlife photographer, which inspired me. It gave me the idea that you could make a living out of conservation photography, if you took it seriously. And when the Wensum Valley Project paid me to use some of my wildlife images in a brochure, I knew what I wanted to do.

I took the long-term view – I knew it was going to take time. I developed my photography skills and techniques, and my business skills. I focused on developing a photographic style that was saleable. After my sabbatical in wildlife conservation volunteering, I returned to the private sector. But my heart was always elsewhere.

In Search Of Wolves

In the winter of 2011 when I was working in Munich, I spent most weekends in the Bavarian mountains, just to photograph a captive wolf pack. The 5 hour train journey on a Friday afternoon, followed by waking up the next morning at 5AM to trudge through snow, in the dark, to get to the forest where I had to wait around for hours in the freezing cold, made perfect sense to me then. If I would go to those lengths to observe and photograph the social behaviour of captive wolves, I knew I would need to go to greater lengths for wild animals.

Eurasian wolf, Bavarian Forest National Park, Germany
Eurasian wolf, Bavarian Forest National Park, Germany.

It was one of a series of turning points, which in 2012 led me to take on the challenge of becoming a full time wildlife photographer. It’s not easy, but when you’re on assignment and hear someone say, “I want to do what he’s doing”, you know you have a privilege, and a responsibility. In the early years I travelled a fair amount, and came face to face with conservation problems, both in Africa and in Asia. The reality is that it’s almost impossible to avoid these problems when you go in search of wildlife to photograph. So I was keen to help the conservationists with visual storytelling that would help to raise awareness for their cause. Chris Shepherd, now Executive Director of Monitor, gave me my first opportunity when he was Southeast Asia Director of TRAFFIC.

Conservation Assignments

I’ve had many memorable assignments, including a trip to Vietnam that led to a close and dangerous encounter with poachers. I was with an undercover agent from TRAFFIC, but even he was shaken by the incident. My work means I see many of the worst aspects of human nature – how greed can lead to illegal trapping, unlawful wildlife trading and deforestation. But I also see the other side. The local conservationists working in these areas are inspiring. They have so much passion, energy and love for the animals they are trying to save.

A Vietnamese worker at the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre in Cuc Phuong National Park, grooms 3 Douc babies on her lap.
A Vietnamese worker at the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre in Cuc Phuong National Park, grooms 3 Douc babies on her lap.

Conservation Research

I’ve conducted parrot surveys in Singapore for Nature Society (Singapore) and I am a contributing author to two research papers by Mandai Nature, Nature Society (Singapore) and BirdLife International: parrot hobbyist groups in Singapore and nest predation behaviour of Oriental Pied Hornbills in Singapore.

Nest predation by Oriental Pied Hornbills in urban Singapore
Nest predation by Oriental Pied Hornbills in urban Singapore.

Social & Behaviour Change

I have successfully completed certified courses in Social Marketing, Behaviour Change for Conservation, Conservation Project Management and the Illegal Wildlife Trade. This helped me to develop a framework for parrot conservation in Southeast Asia for Birdlife International. I also developed a research approach with Mandai Nature for a social marketing campaign on the exotic pet trade and contributed to a government briefing by Nature Society (Singapore) on the role of Singapore in the parrot trade.

Singapore Parrot Trade Ecosytem
Singapore Parrot Trade.

Conservation Volunteering In Singapore

Over the past five years I’ve lived near the coast in Singapore, where three mangrove rivers flow through a park out to sea. Human activity is relatively intense in the area, not all of it is legal. Despite potential fines of SGD5,000, people fish the rivers, leaving lines, nets, and traps behind. Discarded nets and traps are lethal to wildlife. So together with local friends and family, I’ve cleared traps and trash, as well as reported poaching activity to local authorities. The circle is complete now that my daughter is an ardent conservationist and animal lover.

A red-whiskerer bulbul in a birdtrap in suburban Singapore.
A red-whiskerer bulbul in a birdtrap in suburban Singapore.

Conservation Volunteer Opportunities

I recommend everyone to get involved in wildlife conservation and volunteer for a conservation organisation near you. I’ve enjoyed so many amazing experiences, plus I’ve met some brilliant people. It doesn’t matter what you can contribute, the important thing is to participate in a positive way. Personally speaking, it’s been a privilege to work with so many inspiring conservationists and I hope to continue doing so for as long as possible.

National Geographic Society workshop, Kuala Lumpur
National Geographic Society workshop, Kuala Lumpur.

Explore My Conservation Projects

Take a closer look at our conservation films, photography, and articles with these recommended project portfolios.

Article for BBC Wildlife on hornbills in Singapore

Singapore King

Main feature article for BBC Wildlife Magazine on oriental pied hornbills in Singapore.

Photography Exhibition at BirdLife International World Congress

BirdLife International World Congress Photography Exhibition

Wildlife photography exhibition to raise funds for BirdLife International.

Grey Heron, Urban Wildlife Portfolio Thumbnail

Urban Wildlife

Photography project to document urban biodiversity in Singapore and promote conservation work in cities.

Singapore Parrot Trade Photography by Tim Plowden

Singapore Parrot Trade

Photography of pet parrots and their owners at hobbyist group gatherings and of feral parrots in wild and urban Singapore.

Singapore Parrot Trade Ecosytem Research Article

Understanding Singapore’s Dynamic Parrot Trade Ecosystem

A conservation science research article about Singapore’s parrot trade for Oryx.

The Circle of Life by Tim Plowden

The Circle of Life

Multi-award winning natural history documentary about nest predation behaviour by Oriental Pied Hornbills.

wildlife trade

Wildlife Trade

Photography of conservation issues and solutions to the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia.

International Year of the Salmon

International Year of the Salmon

International Year of the Salmon partner and contributing videographer for outreach work.

Rainforest Biodiversity Photography Exhibition by Tim Plowden

BirdLife International Gala Photography Exhibition

Exhibition at National Gallery Singapore to raise funds for BirdLife International.

Helmeted Hornbill Wildlife conservation video by Tim Plowde

Helmeted Hornbill Video

Wildlife conservation video production for BirdLife International about the critically endangered Helmeted Hornbill.

Mangroves: Reducing The Risk Of Disasters Through Nature-Based Solutions

Mangroves: Reducing The Risk Of Disasters Through Nature-Based Solutions

Conservation videography and photography for IUCN and Mangrove Action Project.

Tailing the World's Rarest Monkeys by Tim Plowden

On The Trail Of Some Of The World’s Rarest Monkeys

A cover story for New Scientist magazine on primate conservation in Vietnam.

Red-shanked Douc: Primates On The Edge

Red-shanked Douc: Primates On The Edge

Wildlife conservation video aimed to raise awareness about the endangered Red-shanked Douc.

Asian Primates by Tim Plowden

Asian Primates

Photography of the natural history and behaviour of Asian primates to promote ecotourism and wildlife conservation work.

rewilding

Rewilding

Photography of wildlife to promote wildlife conservation work and further the species reintroduction debate.

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