The start of fieldwork: a first pilot study

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

“Let this be a warning to my future self: one month into the trip and none of this has gone as planned…”

Vichet, Theavy and myself ready to start fieldwork

It’s been a month since I arrived in Cambodia. Before leaving the UK I had prepared as much as I could. Via Skype and email I had arranged for two Cambodian students to meet me and to work as my research assistants. I had also prepared all the survey materials, questionnaires and focus group protocols – at least for the first phase of fieldwork. Well, let this be a warning to my future self – one month into the trip and none of this has gone as planned.

When I arrived in Phnom Penh back in June I took the weekend to acclimate and catch up with colleagues at WCS. On Monday my assistants came to meet me at the office. We signed their contracts, did some preparation and the next day were off to Preah Vihear – the town from which WCS bases it’s operations across the Northern Plains of Cambodia. I planned to use the rest of the week to translate my questionnaires and familiarise everyone with the material, and this was going well until one of my assistants got sick just a few days later. The doctor advised her to go to Phnom Penh to get a treatment at the hospital. Health is of course the most important thing, and going to do fieldwork in remote forest villages when sick is clearly not a good idea, so Vichet (my other assistant) and I resolved to have everything ready for when she returned.

By Sunday we were done, and we heard that she would have to stay away a little longer, so I gave Vichet a week off to go and finish writing his thesis. I myself took the opportunity to see another corner of Cambodia, Koh Kong, and enjoyed walking in the forest. While I was in the remote Tatai valley, with the faintest of mobile signals the news of her resignation reached me, as the doctor advised her not to travel for a month. I must admit I had a mild panic, but Vichet knew of another student who could take on the position. Before agreeing, I wanted to meet her and make sure she’d be up to the task, so I went to Phnom Penh to make the arrangements.

I lost count of the number of times I flooded my exhaust, forcing us to wait while it drained.

And so it was that on the 12th of July, nearly 3 weeks after arriving in country, I had a team ready to start the pilot study – Vichet and Chantheavy my sidekicks. We travelled to a village called Svay Damnak Chas, which is not inside one of our protected areas but has similar characteristics and is also surrounded by forest. I’d payed for the repair of 3 motorbikes that WCS had given up on, so although this was a very cheap option we were driving what might be called ‘pieces of crap’, as we soon found out. After arriving in the village we asked our way to the chief’s house, but he was staying at his rice field for a few days. We managed to get his phone number, and he advised us to speak to his deputy. At the deputies house we found that he too was in the field but would come back in the evening. I was impatient, and asked his son if he could take us to him. We just needed to get his permission to start working in the village, and find somewhere to sleep – and apparently, it wasn’t hard to get to the field. This was a mistake.

To get to the deputy, we drove for almost two hours through the forest, on roads that we found extremely challenging. Half the time was spent skidding over sand and the other half sloshing through deep pools of mud. I lost count of the number of times I flooded my exhaust, forcing us to wait while it drained. Eventually, tired and wet, we met the deputy heading back to the village on his ‘Kor-yun’ a kind of motorised cart. He said he’d have to call the chief when he got back to the village before he could decide, and so we started the aimless return journey. It was when I was waiting at the cusp of a deep pool that Vichet’s moto went wild. He flew through the air just beside me and turned on to his side in the deep pool. Some mud must have gotten into his accelerator cable and he could no longer control his speed. It was getting dark, so we hid the moto in the bush and came back for it the next day with a kor-yun. Of course, when we brought it to the village garage the problem could not be demonstrated and so nothing was done, until I fearfully drove it back to Preah Vihear after we finished our pilot.

Houses in Svay Damnak Chas

The rest of our time in Svay Damnak Chas went fairly well. We hammocked under the deputy’s house and he kindly helped us to arrange our focus groups which we held in his yard. In the meantime we walked the village selecting households to survey. We learned a great deal, both about our protocols and about our research questions, and it was great for Vichet and Chantheavy to get some practice running a focus group before we do the real thing. It certainly wasn’t as scary as they may have thought beforehand. We got a better idea for how to phrase questions so that the villagers could understand them, and we also learned that one of our methods – the single sample count – was simply too complex for them to respond to properly. When the time came for our women’s focus group only a fraction of the invitees turned up, and more than an hour late. In contrast, all the men were early and we were joined by a swelling crowd as went.

We’re here to investigate the deaths of key wildlife species as a result of pesticide poisoning. Whether these were the result of the misuse of pesticides for agricultural purposes, or the intentional use of poison for hunting, was unknown. For the first few days of the pilot study all we were hearing is that pesticides were never used here, and that many people didn’t even know what a pesticide way. It was slightly baffling, but on the 3rd day was got a lucky break. One respondent mentioned that he uses poisons for catching birds and that they sometimes got stomach pains after eating this meat. Once we knew that this was a distinct behaviour, and once we understood the terminology used to describe these behaviours we were able to unlock a wealth of information in the focus groups and interviews. Everybody we asked offered us all the information we wanted about how they use these poisons, what species they catch and all the horrendous health effects that follow and that they seemingly ignore.

Naturally, these insights meant we had to change the focus of our questionnaire quite drastically to make sure we got this kind of information in future, but now knowing more about the behaviour of interest we are able to measure psychological constructs related to this much more effectively. Another issue is we’re not sure whether villages inside protected areas might be a little more sensitive about discussing this topic. So, tomorrow we’ll go to Kandak village to do a second pilot of our new survey instrument. Watch this space.

A sunset over the rice fields by Svay Damnak Chas village

Preparing for Fieldwork

Emiel writes about the preparations for his trip. This post was originall published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

I last wrote having just returned from Cambodia, and I write now as I’m preparing to return there. A lot has happened in the meantime.


Before I go, there is one formal hurdle I need to clear – the confirmation process. This is a sort of checkpoint I need to complete approximately 9 months into my PhD, in order to be ‘confirmed’ by the university. The process has three steps: Last week I gave a short presentation to my peers and academics in our department at an internal conference. It was the first real chance to explain to colleagues what I’ve been doing and what I want to do in the course of my PhD, and to hear about what others are doing. It was also a useful chance to get some feedback from everyone. I then expanded on this in my ‘confirmation report’ – a 26 page document (excluding appendices) giving more details about the background and reasoning for my research, setting out my research aims and describing how I’m going to answer these questions. I submitted the report to my advisor earlier this week and next will be my ‘confirmation panel’, where a small group of academics will question me about the report and provide feedback. Not only does the university use this to make sure us students are on the right track and capable of completing a PhD, but it should also be an invaluable opportunity to get some input from experts who aren’t directly involved with my project.

Writing a paper

Before focusing on the confirmation report I took some time to draft what will hopefully be the first paper of my PhD. What I’m studying – information flows – is quite a new concept in conservation, although other fields, such as public health, have been looking at it for a while. One of my objectives is to say why we need to think about this and try some of the methods from other disciplines in a conservation context. To start this off I’m writing a sort of ‘opinion piece’ describing what it’s all about and why it’s important, and suggesting some of the ways that the issue could be addressed and why it might be different in conservation than elsewhere. This is a really fun exercise (in a nerdy sort of way) because it’s let me read widely and take time to really think about the concepts involved and how they relate.


In the background to all of this I have been thinking ahead to my first data-collection campaign. The past few months have been fascinating, and I feel like I’ve made progress, but fieldwork will produce the first tangible results. It will also be a significant investment. As such, I’m excited to get into the action, but I also feel a responsibility to make the right decisions. Through discussions with my supervisors and the team at WCS the plans have slowly been evolving and taking shape. At the same time there is a lot of practical/logistical stuff to think about – money, timing, transport. Most tricky of all is finding the right people, Cambodian students, to work with me as assistants.

I expect the next time I write will be from Phnom Penh

Conservation Optimism and Politics

People from all over the world came to London to share in positivity, optimism and creativity at a 3-day Conservation Optimism summit.

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

Photo credit:

One really cool thing I’ve been involved with is the Conservation Optimism movement, which I’ve mentioned in previous blogs. This culminated in a 3-day summit at the end of April and I was very privileged to be part of the organising team through my supervisor EJ and the ICCS group at Oxford. Part of my job was to organise a panel of politicians with an interest in the environment. Unfortunately, although I’d secured commitments from very interesting speakers from all parties, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election led to all of them withdrawing. This was disappointing, and it was easy to despair at the lack of political engagement with environmental issues suggested, but the rest of the summit provided an antidote.

People from all over the world came to London to share in positivity, optimism and creativity

I haven’t been to many conferences, but I’m sure there aren’t many like this. For three days, people from all over the world came to London to share in positivity, optimism and creativity. As well as politicians from other countries, we heard from psychologists about the importance of optimism for completing challenging tasks. We heard from businesses about how they are trying to do better. And we heard from many conservationists who have achieved real victories for the environment. It was a celebration of successes, a moment to learn from past efforts and the opportunity to think about taking conservation into the future. Realistically, not enough is being done for the environment, but the tide may be turning.

Social media, the internet, are incredible avenues for spreading messages and building support

Two of the plenaries really inspired me in particular. The first, Anna Oposa from Save Philippine Seas, because she was a young person that I could relate to. In fact, we’d even done our Masters courses in the same place, just a few years apart. But despite being young, she has achieved a lot in her home country. Using social media and smart slogans, she showed how she has built public campaigns and put pressure on politicians and businesses to think about the impacts of their activities on the oceans. Before she’d finished her speech, my head was spinning with ideas for issues in my local area and how I could try to address them. Social media, the internet, are incredible avenues for spreading messages and building support. The second speaker that impressed me was Lisel Alamilla, an environmental activist who then became a minister in Belize. It was fascinating to hear from someone who had both been a vocal and effective critic of the government, and then had a chance to join the government and implement those policies. I was interested to hear how she navigated the messy world of politics while trying to do good, and she seemed like a very resourceful, tactful and strong person.

There were also hundreds of smaller sessions; from conservationists sharing their successes and lessons, to innovative new ideas being developed. I took part in a workshop for the ‘Green list’ – an optimistic and forward-thinking counterpart to the famous IUCN red list. The red list is a central tool in conservation for classifying endangered species and keeping tabs on how close they are to extinction. But how do we keep tabs on species that are moving away from extinction thanks to conservation efforts? How do we communicate this and how can we measure the success of conservation in a standardized way. Those were some of the questions we brainstormed in the workshop, and no doubt the ‘Green list’ may be an equally important tool as we move from a problem-focused to a solutions-focused conservation.

Check #conservationoptimism on twitter, which has gained a life of its own with good news stories being shared every day.

Back from Cambodia

An update after Emiel’s first PhD field trip to Cambodia. This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

I’ve just arrived back in the UK where, mercifully, the sun is shining. The past 5 weeks were spent in Cambodia. Already it feels like an alternate reality; the two sides to the coin that will be my life for the next 3 years. Each has its own daily rhythms, friendships, and all the innumerable details that make up and distinguish places separated by thousands of miles, and yet bridged by just a day’s travel. Building on 4 months working there last year, Cambodia is starting to feel familiar and as my language skills improve I feel increasingly at home. This is a blog about academia and work so perhaps I should just get all my feelings and impressions out now: I find Cambodia absolutely enchanting. Its people, language, music, food, landscape, everything and I cannot wait to return.

As attentive readers will remember, the purpose of my trip was to “scope”. To visit the field sites and connect with my partners at WCS in order to gain a better understanding of the situation and be able to plan my research. I am happy to report that it was a very successful trip. WCS are very supportive and engaged partners and I look forward to joining their team. They were very open to my ideas for designing interventions in an experimental way, so this will be an exciting challenge for the next few years.

Cambodia is starting to feel familiar and as my language skills improve I feel increasingly at home

After some time spent in Phnom Penh meeting people and taking Khmer lessons, I moved on to the town of Preah Vihear. WCS bases their operations in the “northern plains” from here and I stayed in their ‘technical-advisor house’. From here I met more of the WCS teams working in the area and made a number of trips into the field. Some of these were directly to sites related to my prospective research, but on others I took the opportunity to join trips that weren’t directly related. These were often exciting camping trips to very remote areas and gave me the chance to see what was going on in the area and to spend some quality time with the WCS team. I felt very privileged to have such access to these spectacular forests, which are not visited by many foreigners, even if it wasn’t without risks! (see the photo below with the knowledge that nobody was hurt)

This isn’t a travel blog so I wont overload you with details on where I went and what I ate. If you are interested in seeing a bit more of Cambodia and the places I went I’ll be working on some short ‘video diaries’. I’ve already made 2 of these (let me know what you think!) so check them out and watch this space.

Now that I’m back in the UK I will be working hard to plan and prepare my next trip. I will be looking for some Cambodian students to join me as field assistants and developing the research instruments that I will take to collect data. This trip may be sooner than expected, in just a few months, so there isn’t much time! In addition I’m helping to organise a summit on Conservation Optimism which is going to be fantastic and a very important event for conservation – do join if you have an interest in conservation.

Standing in front of Koh Ker temple
Standing in front of Koh Ker temple. (Photo credit: Rours Vann)
The unfortunate aftermath - nobody was hurt.
The aftermath. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

Approaches Used to Evaluate the Social Impacts of Protected Areas

The Open Access text is available here. This paper is a version of my undergraduate thesis at Imperial College London.


Protected areas are a key strategy in conserving biodiversity, and there is a pressing need to evaluate their social impacts. Though the social impacts of development interventions are widely assessed, the conservation literature is limited and methodological guidance is lacking. Using a systematic literature search, which found 95 relevant studies, we assessed the methods used to evaluate the social impacts of protected areas. Mixed methods were used by more than half of the studies. Almost all studies reported material aspects of wellbeing, particularly income; other aspects were included in around half of studies. The majority of studies provided a snapshot, with only one employing a before‐after‐control‐intervention design. Half of studies reported respondent perceptions of impacts, while impact was attributed from researcher inference in 1/3 of cases. Although the number of such studies is increasing rapidly, there has been little change in the approaches used over the last 15 years, or in the authorship of studies, which is predominantly academics. Recent improvements in understanding of best practice in social impact evaluation need to be translated into practice if a true picture of the effects of conservation on local people is to be obtained.