Ethical considerations when conservation research involves people

In 2018, I was privileged to participate in the Interdisciplinary Conservation Network – a biennial workshop organised and run by early career researchers. My colleagues Stephanie Brittain and Harriet Ibbett facilitated an excellent discussion on the ethical challenges faced by early career researchers in conservation science. All social research has ethical challenges, but conservation is particularly fraught given it’s colonial history and the huge areas of contested land that conservation aims to manage. I found this to be a therapeutic venue to discuss ethical dilemnas I have encountered in the field, and I’m very proud of the paper we subsequently published in Conservation Biology.


Social science is becoming increasingly important in conservation, with more studies involving methodologies that collect data from and about people. Conservation science is a normative and applied discipline designed to support and inform management and practice. Poor research practice risks harming participants, researchers, and can leave negative legacies. Often, those at the forefront of field‐based research are early‐career researchers, many of whom enter their first research experience ill‐prepared for the ethical conundrums they may face. Here, we draw on our own experiences as early‐career researchers to illuminate how ethical challenges arise during conservation research that involves human participants. Specifically, we discuss ethical review procedures, conflicts of values, and power relations, and provide broad recommendations on how to navigate ethical challenges when they arise during research. We encourage greater engagement with ethical review processes and highlight the pressing need to develop ethical guidelines for conservation research that involves human participants.

Explorer spotlight in Munich

The explorers at the 2019 Munich Sciencetelling bootcamp

As a National Geographic explorer (2018) I was priviliged to participate in a Sciencetelling bootcamp this week. I was put up in a nice hotel with many other young explorers, all passionate people working on fascinating projects, and we received training in media, communications, and public speaking. At the end of the week, we had the chance to showcase our work in a public presentation at an Explorer Spotlight, hosted at a local university. Here is the result:

Integrating models of human behaviour between the individual and population levels to inform conservation interventions


The Open Access text is available here.

Conservation takes place within social–ecological systems, and many conservation interventions aim to influence human behaviour in order to push these systems towards sustainability. Predictive models of human behaviour are potentially powerful tools to support these interventions. This is particularly true if the models can link the attributes and behaviour of individuals with the dynamics of the social and environmental systems within which they operate. Here we explore this potential by showing how combining two modelling approaches (social network analysis, SNA, and agent-based modelling, ABM) could lead to more robust insights into a particular type of conservation intervention. We use our simple model, which simulates knowledge of ranger patrols through a hunting community and is based on empirical data from a Cambodian protected area, to highlight the complex, context-dependent nature of outcomes of information-sharing interventions, depending both on the configuration of the network and the attributes of the agents. We conclude by reflecting that both SNA and ABM, and many other modelling tools, are still too compartmentalized in application, either in ecology or social science, despite the strong methodological and conceptual parallels between their uses in different disciplines. Even a greater sharing of methods between disciplines is insufficient, however; given the impact of conservation on both the social and ecological aspects of systems (and vice versa), a fully integrated approach is needed, combining both the modelling approaches and the disciplinary insights of ecology and social science.

Improving environmental interventions by understanding information flows

I’m very pleased to share our latest publication: a review on the role of information flows in conservation interventions, published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution. The Open Access text is available here.

An animated summary of a figure from our paper


Conservationists are increasingly interested in changing human behaviour. One understudied aspect of such interventions is information flow. Different patterns of interpersonal communica-tion and social structures within communities influence the adoption of behavioural changes through social influence and social reinforcement. Understanding the structure of information flow in a group, using tools such as social network analysis, can therefore offer important insights for interventions. For example, communications may be targeted to highly connected opinion leaders to leverage their influence, or communication may be facilitated between distinct subgroups to promote peer learning. Incorporating these approaches into conservationinterventions can promote more effective behaviour change. This review introduces conservation researchers and practitioners to key concepts underpinning information flows for interventions targeting networks of individuals.

Tackling wildlife poisoning in Cambodia

In parts of Cambodia, wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption. Changing people’s behaviour is a challenge for conservation. This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

If we want to change people’s behaviour to conserve wildlife, we need to understand how and why people think and behave as they do. To do this we can use methods and tools from disciplines that have been dealing with these questions, such as social psychology. But how do we then make use this knowledge to design effective interventions? Once again, we can draw on the accumulated decades of experience and best-practice approaches that have been developed in other fields. One such approach that has become increasingly used in conservation, with positive results is social marketing.

In parts of Cambodia, wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption

In 2017, I conducted fieldwork to try and understand the phenomenon of wildlife poisoning in Preah Vihear province Cambodia. What we learned is that wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption, where pesticides are placed with bait at waterholes in the dry season. This is seen as a very effective and easy method, and it can catch a wide range of species, but it also risks affecting domestic animals, fish, and reduces water availability. Broadly, people in Preah Vihear are aware of and concerned by the risks of eating poisoned meat, but there are also widespread beliefs that removing the internal organs from an animal makes it safe to eat. People are also concerned about damage to the environment, their water, their cattle and dogs, so in some villages the chiefs have tried to act against poisoning, such as by organising meetings. Nevertheless, some groups continue to use poison, predominately younger men, but also kids as young as ten. Read more about this study here.

In 2018, I conducted a three-day workshop with NGO and government staff, and members of local communities. We developed a conceptual model, compiling all our respective knowledge about this problem into a diagram, and then identified possible interventions. Some of these interventions were recommendations for new regulations on the pesticides, or for altering the patrol routes of environment rangers, but some directly targeted the beliefs, attitudes, norms, and behaviours of local communities. We further developed these using the social marketing approach.

We began by selecting three priority behaviours that we aim to change. Obviously, this includes the practice of poisoning itself, but from our conceptual model we also realised that the behaviour of other members of the community would be key to influencing hunters. Specifically, we wanted to encourage community members to report observed poisoning to a hotline, and to be vigilant in refusing poisoned meat. For each of these behaviours, we then tried to characterise the different groups that would be targeted. For example, a key group of hunters is young children aged 10-15, and a key group we’d ask to be vigilant and report poisoning are the parents of these children. For each of these groups we then examined the costs and benefits of the current behaviour, and the costs and benefits of our desired behaviour, and used these to identify potential routes to change. For example, parents might not report poisoning because they are concerned it will upset others or provoke conflict, but doing so would keep their children, community, and animals safe, and could earn them respect from village leaders. Our messaging therefore focused on the idea that by reporting poisoning you are protecting your community, and that rather than be upset, your community will be thankful.

Our messaging focused on the idea that by reporting poisoning you are protecting your community

Earlier this year, in 2019, I supported WCS in implementing a small part of our planned campaign as a pilot. This served as a case study for my own research into how NGO communications influence behaviour, and how this is mediated by local social networks. For this pilot, we targeted parents with children between the ages of 10-15 and organised an event in cooperation with local government. The event started with short talks by government officials from the departments of health, environment, and agriculture, as well as NGO staff. These talks were intended to highlight all the various risks of pesticide misuse and contamination, explain the laws around pesticide use, and to increase the salience of this issue for our audience. We also had a powerful testimony of a farmer from a nearby village who had lost cattle to poisoning.

Next we screened a short film that was produced especially for this campaign, together with a filmmaker Phearun Yin. The film told the story of a boy, Chan, who discovers that his friends have been poisoned after bathing in a waterhole. He learns that Vibol, another boy, is responsible and decides to tell the parents of the sick children. There is much debate about what to do, but eventually the parents decide to speak to Vibol’s parents about the issue. She already knows that Vibol plays with poison but didn’t think to do anything about it. Eventually, the village chief persuades them that they should call the poisoning hotline, following which environment staff come to remove the contamination and poison. They reward the kids with a certificate for their bravery in reporting and thank everyone for their cooperation. Everyone lives happily ever after!

Every aspect of this story is drawn from interviews with community members and reflects our understanding of the situation.

Every aspect of this story is drawn from interviews with community members and reflects our understanding of the situation. The key elements are that kids are playing with pesticides as a fun way to catch wildlife, and that parents aren’t doing anything about it. Yes – we even interviewed some parents who told us about this. Obviously, the risks to both health and the environment are highlighted, and we have a scene showing that illness is keeping the kids from school – something which is very important to parents. Finally, it was important to show the process of discussion and deliberation, the uncertainty about the best course of action, and the potential for conflict. This reflected the real barriers that are faced by the audience. All this is eventually resolved, and their decision to act in the desired way results in a safer environment and a happy community. Working on this film, and shooting on location with the kids, has certainly been one of the most unexpected, but also most enjoyable parts of my PhD!

Working on this film, and shooting on location with the kids, has certainly been one of the most unexpected, but also most enjoyable parts of my PhD!

After the screening, WCS staff took time to give details about the poisoning hotline and explain how it works. For example, the costs of the call would be refunded, and anonymity was assured if requested. A discussion was then held where the audience was asked to reflect on the motivations and actions of the different characters. This way we hoped to come to a shared understanding of the film and forge a public consensus that reporting poisoning is the best course of action. For members of the audience who still felt hesitant, this could show them the rest of the audience was on board. By using an emotive film, we also hoped to help the audience overcome some of the emotional barriers to action, such as apathy, or the fear of conflict. Furthermore, we wanted this to be something the audience could continue to reflect on, and share with their children, so we distributed a coloured children’s book which told the same story. We also handed out attractive stickers, and calendar leaflets, which showed our campaign logo and the hotline phone number, so that it would always be close at hand, and never far from mind.

We closed our event with a ceremony and a small party. Mimicking the final scene of our film, we asked the audience to make a public pledge of ‘good citizenship’, promising to use pesticides responsibly, and to report contamination. Pledgees received a certificate (identical to that shown in the film) signed by the commune chief, and a big poster so they can proudly show their neighbours and friends that they are a good citizen. This is based on the idea that making a commitment publicly increases the likelihood that you’ll stick to it.

This event wasn’t perfect, but represents a start in getting conservationists to think beyond awareness raising, and to be a bit more nuanced in their engagement with communities. We didn’t have a great budget for the finishing party, and maybe weren’t able to create the buzz we would have liked for the pledging ceremony. We also abandoned earlier plans to work together with the local school and make it a real parent-pupil-teacher event. Instead, it was a sort of fancier version of the kinds of community meetings that NGOs call all the time. I’m convinced that those small details can make a world of difference, but time will tell whether this little pilot will have any impact. Walking through the village several weeks later I was encouraged to see several of our posters up on people’s front doors. Doing applied research in collaboration with a conservation NGO has meant opportunities but also obligations, and this was a particularly stressful field trip trying to bring all parties together, and design all our materials in a very short timeframe, But it has also been an immensely rich experience from which I have learned a lot. Let’s hope our evaluation data will be equally illuminating.

Dteu srok Khmer veng (Back to Cambodia)

An update on Emiel’s PhD research as he heads back out to Cambodia. This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

I’m on my way to Cambodia once again so it’s time to give an update! After I arrived back last November it took me a while to get back into the swing of things. I’d had a little accident driving my motorbike in Vietnam which left me with scars down one leg, and a foot that was swelling. I moved into a new flat, with new flatmates, and by the time I’d recovered, settled, and caught up with everyone and all my other hobbies, it was Christmas.

The New Year started on the right foot (no pun intended). My first act after returning to work was to make a pre-submission to a journal, hoping to persuade them to consider publishing the first paper of my PhD. The paper itself still needed some polishing so I spent quite a bit of time getting it into shape over the following months. Unfortunately, we still don’t know whether they want to take it, so the paper is just sat on my desktop waiting for a home. If you want to know what it’s about I’m afraid you’ll have to be as patient as I am trying to be!

In the meantime, I started talks with WCS about what comes next. When I left, I’d given them a brief presentation about what I was finding as I investigated poisoning in Preah Vihear. They then asked me to start thinking about interventions to reduce wildlife poisoning. Of course, this isn’t something I could do without significant input from WCS, but, as they were going through some staff changes, it took a while before we could seriously talk and start to make plans. As the plans did start to materialise, the amount of work I would have to do to ready those plans became clearer, and kicked me out of my post-Christmas complacency.

We’ll think about the different types of people that engage in wildlife poisoning, the behavioural change we want them to make, and the strategies or messages that could get them there.

So, what are the plans? Firstly, we’ll be organising a three-day intervention-planning workshop involving WCS staff, and facilitated by me. This will take a social marketing approach, and I’ve been fortunate to receive guidance from experienced social marketers like Diogo Verissimo, a colleague in Oxford. We’ll start by clearly identifying the problem of wildlife poisoning, the behaviours, motivations and other factors that contribute to this issue. Then, we’ll think about the different types of people that engage in wildlife poisoning, the behavioural change we want them to make, and the strategies or messages that could get them there. Of course, for this to work we need to have a clear understanding of wildlife poisoning, who does it, and why, as well as the social norms surrounding its use. This is where the data I collected last year comes in, and I’ve been working hard to write up a report to share with my WCS colleagues.

I want to know whether the villagers care about this information, whether they pass it on to their friends and family, and whether they can remember it after a while.

I’ll also be conducting another study while I’m in Preah Vihear. WCS runs awareness-raising workshops in villages across Preah Vihear, informing villagers about the endangered species that live around them, their importance, and the laws that protect them. I want to know whether the villagers care about this information, whether they pass it on to their friends and family, and whether they can remember it after a while. These things would all be necessary for awareness-raising workshops like this to have a conservation impact, but they’ve never been tested. WCS have kindly agreed to modify the workshop that they’ll run in my study village. Instead of inviting the whole village, we’ll just invite a few select individuals, on the basis of the social network data I collected last year. We’ll also simplify it and include a few key messages that we’ll be able to track, and test knowledge on.

But all that’s for later… stay tuned! The first thing I’ll do when I arrive is travel to Kampong Thom to take part in the wedding of a good friend of mine. We both started our work with WCS as young graduates back in 2016, and I’m honoured to be a groomsman. Photos to follow!

Life lessons from the field

This post originally published on the ICCS website.

Conservation happens all over the world and, by partnering with local organisations, ICCS researchers get to work in many different places. Conservation also often occurs in remote areas with sparse populations and poor infrastructure, which can make working there very challenging. But getting to the places where conservation happens, collecting data, and understanding what is going on is an essential part of conservation science. For my PhD, I’m working in Cambodia to understand the issue of wildlife poisoning, and working with the Wildlife Conservation Society to develop strategies for persuading local communities to stop doing it. Having just returned from a five-month stint in the woods, I thought I’d share five thoughts I have about making fieldwork a success.

1. Plan ahead – Having a plan reduces risk and provides peace of mind. It is especially important to have an idea of where you’ll eat and sleep each night! Take risk assessments seriously, make sure you know how to access emergency services, and make sure you have a first aid kit and that you know how to use it. Similarly, if you’re using vehicles, make sure you have the knowledge and tools to do basic maintenance if you won’t be able to access a garage. Finally, think about a small bottle of hand sanitizer for those bush toilets!

My research assistants – Vichet and Theavy, and myself before commencing fieldwork.

2. Go with the flow – Nothing ever goes perfectly to plan: there are always things that no amount of planning can prepare you for. The only way to deal with that is to keep calm and have a sense of humour. Remember: it’s very difficult to die. Solutions almost always present themselves, especially in the developing world where people are incredibly resourceful. One dark rainy night each of our three motorbikes had a breakdown and each time a kind passer-by rescued us!

Pushing motorbikes through the mud is hard work!

3. Use local knowledge – Local help isn’t just important in emergencies but in every stage of fieldwork from planning to execution. Local collaborators can give you the best planning information and guide you through bureaucracy, I wouldn’t attempt any sort of work without one. Learning the local language is invaluable as talking to locals will give you the most up to date and detailed information. Even just taking a moment to ask about the road ahead can save you hours of headache. 

The village chief helping us invite people to a meeting to talk about pesticide practices.

4. Manage your stress – Even if you are a zen-master and follow all of the above, fieldwork is bound to cause you stress at times. Often there is a lot of time and money invested and, especially as a PhD student, it can feel like you’re in it on your own. Make sure you find time and opportunities to do the things you usually love like sport, reading, or listening to music. Keep in touch with your loved ones, and those that can give you moral support – you’ll be surprised where you can get mobile coverage these days!

The rice paddies and palm trees close to Choamsrae village

5. Enjoy yourself –Despite the stress and shock, working in such a different environment and culture is a rare privilege and an amazing adventure. Remember to live in the moment, enjoy the food, take pictures, be curious and learn from the people around you, enjoy each sunrise and sunset and keep a journal. Soon you’ll be back home with a treasure-trove of stories to tell, and maybe feeling just a little wiser.

One of the lovely families that hosted us at their house.

Fieldwork: deeper into the forest

Emiel’s latest update about his fieldwork and all the challenges of surveying households in rural Cambodia. This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

I’m writing from Phnom Penh, fieldwork is done and I feel a great sense of relief. Everything worked out in the end, and within the time available, and it didn’t always seem like it would. Since I last wrote to you, the challenges of working in the Northern Plains of Cambodia only seemed to grow, the toughest times were still ahead. So let me start where we left off.

Everything worked out in the end, and within the time available, and it didn’t always seem like it would.

After about a week of limbo waiting and clearing some administrative hurdles, we finally got our letter of permission from the governor. We wasted no time and set off to the field the very next morning. A few days later, returning from the first village after a morning of heavy rains, we found ourselves cut off by water pouring across an otherwise good gravel road, and the bridges that had recently been installed to cope with flooding were underwater. I walked ahead along the sunken road and felt my way across the bridge step by step and, although the knee-high water was flowing fast, I wasn’t swept away, nor did the bridge collapse underneath me. Having completed this short pilot study, we pushed our baggage-laden motorbikes through slowly, staying well away from the edges.

Flooded roads

No disaster then, but as the rains didn’t stop in the following days I began to imagine Atlantean villages accessible only by propeller-powered motorbikes and specialist diving equipment. These worries weren’t completely unjustified, for although the villages were unlikely to have been built on land susceptible to that level of flooding, those remaining on my list were among the hardest to access, and required water crossings even in the dustiest of dry seasons. I consulted with colleagues at WCS and they agreed a different plan was needed, especially, they were sure to add, given our lack of skill in forest-riding, which they had all noticed. The plan was to take a boat to the first of three villages and walk the four or five kilometres between each of the remaining two. When we were done, the boat would come back for us.

The plan was to take a boat to the first of three villages and walk the four or five kilometres between the remaining two.

Walking for me means packing light. I cut the non-essentials and managed to fit everything needed, including my hammock, the tablets and solar panels, into my 40L backpack. I had clothes for a few days and soap to wash them. The only extra weight I would have to carry by hand were the boxes of soap that we give to our respondents as thanks. On the morning of departure, I met Vichet and Theavy each heaving two bulging backpacks which they insisted couldn’t be cut down further. We met our boatsman at his village and from there walked 2km in the rain to where he kept his boat in a canal – a steely taste of what was to come. The boat was a narrow wooden curve, filled with murky water that glistened with oil. Using cut plastic containers we began scooping the water out and didn’t stop until we got to our destination.

Pushing a boat through the flooded grasslands

The journey itself was fascinating and gave us a glimpse of many different landscapes. First, we passed through vast flooded grasslands, the boat sticking to deeper channels and occasionally cutting through thick clusters of bushes and bamboo along passages marked by plastic bags tied onto branches requiring us to duck for cover. After about four hours we heaved the boat onto a shallow mound of earth and dragged it across to a channel on the other side. We had reached the Stung Sen, one of the largest rivers in Cambodia that drains the forests of the Northern Plains into the vast Tonle Sap lake. The Stung Sen made for a more pleasant journey as we wound our way through the deep forest with tall trees towering along the banks. As we got deeper into the forest the banks gave way until it seemed like we were within a flooded forest, dodging trees, the water stretching into the murky undergrowth. We saw snakes floating on the water, giant monitor lizards resting on branches, and scores of birds overhead.

Boating through the main channel of the Stung Sen

Earlier in the day our boatman had sprung us with the news that we wouldn’t be able to make it in one day and that we’d have to find somewhere to sleep in the forest. Not keen on a hungry night in the rain, we reached a compromise to try and reach one of the small, illegal settlements that are cropping up along the river together with the economic land concessions and enabled by the road access that they bring. It was close to darkness by the time we scrambled onto the riverbank and emerged between a small cluster of wooden houses, where we were gratefully fed, and allowed to wash and sleep. We completed our journey early the next morning, said goodbye to our boatman at the shore and began lugging our boxes down the narrow path passing the occasional boy herding cows. As the path widened houses began to appear and it started to rain. When we arrived at the main dirt road leading into the village we were greeted by a slightly intimidating group of about two dozen men standing around a broken bridge, but as we approached a couple of them came towards us, smiling, and carried our bags across for us.

My assistants asked around and found a ‘kor-yun’, a motorised ox-cart, to carry us to the next village for a small fee.

The next few days proceeded as they usually do, walking through the village surveying households, and inviting people to focus groups with the chief’s help. Khmer villages are laid out along roads so this involved a lot of walking, and without our motorbikes, reaching the farthest households took some time. It was also very wet, and, as I discovered one agonising and wakeful night, the constant squelch of mud between the toes eventually inflicted a cost in the form of trench-foot (maybe jungle-rot is more accurate): the skin between my toes dissolving away, leaving inflamed and infected openings. With this on our minds my assistants asked around and found a ‘kor-yun’, a motorised ox-cart, to carry us to the next village for a small fee. Along the way we got stuck multiple times and the wheels churned the mud and grass roots, making the roads even more treacherous for those that followed. We were warned that reaching the final village would be even more difficult and that walking was our only option, but luckily the village sub-chief volunteered to take us half of the way and show us a shorter route through the rice fields. He rested with us a short while in one of the thatch shelters that farmers use when they work their fields, and miraculously for such a remote place started streaming youtube on his phone.

Riding a Kor-yun through the village
The rice fields with sugar palms

We survived this saga and made it safely back to town just in time for the Pchum Ben national holidays. It was an important chance for Vichet and Theavy to return home, and for me to catch up on some writing and relaxation after more than two continuous months of fieldwork. I even found the time to hop the border to Ho Chi Minh city and explore a little bit of Vietnam. Having planned ahead and piloted the next survey in the last couple of villages, we returned well rested and prepared to enter phase two of our work.

Phase two was us returning to one village and doing a full Social Network Analysis. This meant we had to (try to) interview every adult in the village – so we settled in for a long-term stay at the house of the bemused village chief, bringing vegetables and meat from the distant market. After a few days we reverted back to the village standard of rice and fried fish which were in great abundance after the heavy rains. Each day we would visit new households and explain what we were doing, and after receiving their consent we would take down a list of the members of that household. We would then interview each of the adults separately, asking them to tell us who they go to talk to in the village, who they go to for advice, and who they interact with in a number of different ways. Very often not everyone was home so we would either arrange a good time to come back, having left a packet of soaps as a thank you and incentive, or visit again each morning until we found them. We continued this pattern for close to three weeks of hard work, starting at 7am and finishing after dark, with a short siesta in the middle. The evenings are when the men return home from the rice fields so we would try to take advantage of that time. By the end we knew everyone in the village and they knew us, and we had friendly people letting us know who was home in their neighbourhood, or waving us over to interview a neighbour that we’d been hoping to meet. With almost 400 interviews done, I think only two people refusing to be interviewed says a lot about the character of the people here!

Domestic life – feeding the animals

Having finished slightly ahead of schedule, we had some valuable time left for my assistants to check through the thousands of names that we had recorded. Using a list provided by the village chief, we checked each of them and made sure the spelling was consistent. Names aren’t used in Cambodia as frequently as we use them and it’s quite common for people not to know the full names of even their close friends. Instead, people address each other as ‘brother’, ‘aunty’, and so forth, or use nicknames. This made the job more difficult than it could have been, but diligent questioning and time spent cross-checking meant we now have a really excellent dataset. I cant imagine if I’d had to check all those names myself in a script I can barely even read! Luckily, the hard work of Vichet and Theavy enabled me to focus on writing reports and preparing for my presentations to the Ministry of Environment.

A colleague asked me why I wasn’t having a going-away party.

A colleague asked me why I wasn’t having a going-away party. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about it. Knowing that I will be back here soon means I haven’t let myself get too sentimental, and it feels like I’ll hardly be gone at all – so I’ve kept working right up to departure. On my last evening in Preah Vihear I became aware of this, and tore myself away from the computer for a short time. I took my motorbike and rode the loop around town, a route that I often run in the cooler evenings. The town quickly falls away, leaving swampy lagoons on either side, filled with lotus, and as you follow its’ circular bend, the massive ridge of Tbeng mountain dominates your view, silhouetted below a blazing sky. The town lies sprawled out in front beyond the water, with stilted houses lining up along the road. I’ve spent so much of the past four months speeding my moto down these roads, and now, as I felt the familiar blast of air from a passing truck, a bit of nostalgia began to creep in. It felt like I was seeing things for the first time, it all seemed unfamiliar and new. I saw the families and groups of friends making the same evening ride, three or four to a bike. Every evening they park up along the water and watch the sunset, now turning purple, peeking through the lotus leaves. I felt I was riding into that sunset, a character who has survived to the end of an adventure movie. The hundreds of days spent facing new challenges in new environments were receding into the twilight of memory, too vast to for me to grasp. I turned back into town along the chaotic boulevard where the citizens of Preah Vihear gather to stroll, throw balls, and eat barbecue – the humming of life goes on.

The market in Preah Vihear

Fieldwork: Getting stuck in

This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

Emiel describes the first phase of his PhD fieldwork: a survey of ten villages, spread across two protected areas in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province.

Theavy conducting an interview while the respondent weaves a basket

The Fieldwork

I’m writing this from the provincial town as we take a short break. After surveying six villages across three districts without any issue, we were turned back from the most recent village we attempted to survey. We had already spent the night at the chief’s house, but in the morning the news came from the district that we didn’t have permission to work there. The letters of support we carried from the Ministry of Environment and frantic phone calls with WCS were unfortunately not sufficient to resolve the issue, and we were forced to make the long and difficult trip back through the forest, empty handed. Waiting in town for bureaucratic reasons is a good excuse to write a blog post!

Photo with the chief’s family

My two assistants, Vichet and Chantheavy, and I have now surveyed six of the ten villages. As we gain experience, things seem to be going more smoothly and, for me at least, are becoming more enjoyable. Those two have become real professionals which makes life easy for me. When we arrive in a village they know what needs to be done and what needs to be organised and I can take a step back while they sort it out. While we administer the questionnaire, my job is just to keep an eye on things and select the households to sample. It’s only in the interviews and focus groups that I take a more active role – directing the discussions while Vichet translates for me.

The pattern of activity in each village is, by now, predictable and familiar. We usually arrive some time in the afternoon, after a journey that has been unexpectedly challenging in some way (more on that later), and ask our way to the house of the village chief. Sometimes we then have to wait for him to return home, but otherwise we can introduce ourselves and ask his permission to do our work in his village. In addition to granting permission, they also generously allow us to make ourselves at home underneath their house (Khmer houses are raised on stilts) so that we can put up our hammocks, and, most importantly, feed us for the duration of our stay. Although it is never requested, we always give them a small payment for this when we leave.

A typical house in Preah Vihear province

Staying with these families has been a real pleasure and has offered me a great insight into their daily lives. Some of the chiefs are elderly and spend most of the day resting while their grandchildren run about, others have young families and shy teenagers. It’s the wives that are really in charge though, running the household and taking care of us. Some take a backseat after providing the meals, and others sit with us and chat and tell stories late into the evening. The last village was like this, and the young children gathered round to listen. In the day we had a little dance party where the kids taught me how to dance the Khmer way, and in the evening the two boys took us to the ancient temples, lying in ruins, smothered by the forest that surrounds the village. Pushing aside lianas to admire the beautiful stone carvings with our young guides was a unique privilege.

Two young guides showing us a local ancient temple

We spend most of the day walking the village and administering our survey, starting from around seven in the morning. As we walk I draw a little map in my notebook and check off the houses that we visit. We’ve now visited almost 300 households and this has also been a wonderful experience. As we approach and give the traditional greeting, hands together in front of our face, the villagers often smile and immediately begin to sweep their tables so that we have a clean place to sit – before they even know what we’re coming for! Certainly, the nature of our questions might be a bit sensitive for some of them, but on the whole everyone has been so gracious and patient. Seeing such a huge variety of households has also been fascinating in itself – I’d almost like to visit 300 households in the UK just to see the way that people differ in producing the space called ‘home’. I guess my inner anthropologist is emerging.

Cooking rice

We’ve devoted considerable time and attention to one of the most important aspects of preparing for these meetings – the purchasing of snacks

In the evening, when the chief is free, we ask him to help us invite people to the focus group discussions. We’ve found that early in the morning is a good time for the men to join us as they are free before they go to work the farms, and the women find the early afternoon a good time after they’ve prepared lunch. We explain to the chief what sort of mix of families we would like to have in our discussion, and then we ride around the village together selecting the households at his advice. The chief will often, playfully, warn the villagers not to forget! When the time comes to start our discussion there is usually some waiting involved. We gather at a comfortable place, perhaps a village meeting house if there is one, or if the chief’s house has a table and some chairs we can meet there. Beforehand we’ve devoted considerable time and attention to one of the most important aspects of preparing for these meetings – the purchasing of snacks. In some villages there are little shops that may sell a few fried bananas in the morning, or perhaps a family that occasionally sells some fried doughballs with coconut or palm-sugar glazed doughnuts. Once our participants arrive, sometimes more than we expected and sometimes fewer, we start our discussions.

Village chief helping us invite participants to a focus group discussion

About those roads. I should mention that we drive three old moto’s (125cc mopeds), that require constant attention. The first set of four villages we visited are all in Chheb Wildlife Sanctuary, which is some distance from town, towards the Laos border. We visited all four in one large circular tour that took us two weeks. The roads were wide gravel, which makes for smooth driving, but that didn’t stop us from having various issues. We set off to the second village in the afternoon, but didn’t get there till the next morning. Don’t worry, we had a safe place to sleep, but not before a dramatic and stressful evening. To sum up our evening: all three of the motorbikes had an issue, one after the other, and each time we were rescued miraculously by a kind stranger who happened to be coming by. The night ended with us abandoning hope of reaching the village that day, and loading our motorbikes into an empty ice truck that was heading back towards the main road, where we were graciously invited to sleep underneath a local house.

The key lessons here were to brush up on some basic vehicle repair skills before undertaking such a voyage, and to always check the fuel tank before leaving. More importantly, I also learned about the huge generosity that people are capable of, and I will never forget the three people who helped us escape a dark night spent in the wilderness. After unloading our moto, the ice-truck driver scrawled his name in the mud on the side of his truck, so that we might find him on Facebook. It was really unfortunate then, that, the next morning after realising we’d left a set of keys in his truck, we were unable to find any trace of him. I left my phone number with the house we’d stayed at, and miraculously a day later we got a call that the keys had been returned.

Resting in the shade on the road through Chheb wildlife sanctuary

The remainder of our time in Chheb went more smoothly as we’d learnt our lesson. Driving down the wide roads for hours at a time and passing nothing but the forests and grasslands on either side, gave a great sense of freedom and adventure! A recent camera trap survey showed that the area is still inhabited by wild cattle, elephants, leopards and wild dogs. Although we never saw any of these, it definitely felt like a very wild place.

Kulen Promtep, the other protected area we are surveying, is a different story. Rather than wide gravel roads, the villages are reached by ox-cart tracks which wind through the forest. At this time of year they are frequently flooded, prompting dozens of narrow moto tracks carved into the mud to scatter through the bushes, bypassing the flood. The trick must be to know which of these tracks is the right one to take, but as first-time visitors we clearly lack this knowledge. Often we’d get stuck, and have to push our motos through one at a time. While doing so, as the mud sprayed onto our clothes and the sweat soaked our shirts, a local youth might happily skirt around us and whizz off into the distance.

The roads in Kulen Promtep Wildlfe Sanctuary
Where did the road go?

The Science

The first phase of my fieldwork is a survey of ten villages, spread across two protected areas in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province. We’re trying to understand the ways that people learn about and make use of pesticides, and how this varies from village to village. In particular, we’re interested in the misuse of these poisons as a tool for killing and eating wildlife – a practice with obvious conservation and public health implications. Much of the conservation work here is focussed on a handful of critically endangered species, so the poisoning of just a few individuals (as has been documented in the past) could be catastrophic. In each village, we administer a structured survey to a sample of households, and hold focus group discussions for both men and women. We also interview and talk to anyone who might know something more about these issues in their village.

The second pilot village was very different to the first, so a lot of the things we thought we’d learned were thrown into question once again.

As you will know if you read my previous blog post, we had the opportunity to pilot our instruments in two villages before starting out – this was incredibly valuable. The second pilot village was very different to the first, so a lot of the things we thought we’d learned were thrown into question once again. To recap – the first village was quite isolated, and the villagers (belonging to the Khoy ethnic minority) were largely subsistence farmers. Our data suggested that pesticides were not commonly used for agricultural purposes, but there was a common practice of using poisons to hunt wildlife in the forest, especially in the dry season. The second village was bigger, more connected, and generally more developed. The villagers had large farms, and used modern tools such as tractors, as well as pesticides and fertilisers, and produced crops for sale to middlemen. Our data suggested that there was very little use of wild meats, let alone use of poisons for hunting – a practice that shocked the villagers due to its obvious health risks. On the other hand, we learned that poisons can also be used to defend against the flocks of birds that raid the rice fields.

The key lesson, I think, was the need for some flexibility in our questioning. The nature of the focus group discussion or the unstructured interview means that these methods can easily adapt to the kinds of information they generate. If new behaviours come up in the discussion, we can flexibly ask and get more information about that new behaviour. So, rather than have a set protocol for the discussion, I decided to generate a bank of questions covering all foreseeable avenues of inquiry, which we could refer to during the discussion. This has worked really well, and to date most discussions haven’t strayed too far from those avenues. The structured questionnaire was trickier to adapt. Naturally, if a respondent tells us he engages in behaviour ‘X’ we can still ask him specific questions about this behaviour that we couldn’t ask another respondent, but if we want to get some quantitative data that we can use to make comparisons between villages, we need to have a fixed set of questions that will make sense when asked in all villages, and to all people.

The final questionnaire we’ve been using contains a number of sections. We begin with some basic demographic questions, asking about the respondents age, gender, position in the household, and whether they participate in any conservation activities. Next is a simple set of wealth indicators, adapted from a Basic Necessities Survey dataset carried out previously in these villages. We ask respondents whether they own a number of objects, all of which are considered necessities by most people in the village, but some of which are easily acquired by most people and others which only the wealthy can acquire. Our first questions about poisoning practices are asked indirectly, using a technique called the Unmatched Count Technique. As some of these practices are illegal and sensitive, respondents may not be truthful when we ask directly, so instead we show half of them a list of five activities, including the poisoning practice, and ask them how many of the activities they do. The other half of respondents see a list of four activities, without the poisoning practice, so that we can estimate the prevalence of the behaviour from the difference between these two groups. Just in case some people are willing to talk, we then have three sections – one for each of the poisoning practices we know of, where we ask them directly and can get more details about the practice. We start innocently, for example by asking them what pest issues they face and what methods they have for dealing with them, before asking whether they use pesticides. As I think the use of poison for hunting in the dry season is probably the behaviour that is most concerning from a conservation perspective, we also have a set of Likert-style questions to assess respondent’s attitudes and perceptions of social norms around this behaviour, before the direct question itself.

As some of these practices are illegal and sensitive, respondents may not be truthful when we ask directly

We’re administering these questionnaires using the Open Data Kit – an open source bundle of software that allows you to design surveys and collect the data through an app on an android tablet. This makes it very easy to enter the data and collect it all into spreadsheets afterwards. It’s a bit of a learning curve to design the XLM forms used to produce the survey, but this is more than compensated by not having to carry hundreds of paper forms and typing these manually into a computer. I also carry a portable set of solar panels so we can recharge these tablets during long stints in the forest.

Maintaing my mud-splattered zen despite the stress of riding in the forest