Alasdair Davies is the co-Director of Handshake Productions and the Great Primate Handshake, combining this with his full-time role as Technical Advisor for Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Here, he explains how he first became interested in using his skills for conservation, and how the Handshake came to be.
Though Alasdair had always had an interest in the natural world, it wasn’t until he took an Inter-rail trip across Europe in the summer of 2000 that he became interested in environmental issues. ‘My journey across Europe brought with it new experiences, places and people – I had tasted adventure, and the freedom of camping on beautiful beaches, walking through sprawling forests and gazing at breathtaking views drove me to “get involved”, volunteer and help conservation initiatives protect the places I had encountered that summer.’
The following few years saw Alasdair, true to his ambition, travel to Costa Rica, South Africa and Botswana, realising as time went on that conservation, both as a career and a passion, was going to be a long-term interest.
Fascinated by computers, gadgets and electronics from an early age, he had begun to play around at college with Macromedia Flash (now Adobe Flash), simply finding it enjoyable to create animations and manipulate graphics. Outside college, he found little bits of work from friends who needed Flash developers, and this led to his first forays into website creation. With his continuing involvement in the conservation world through various volunteer placements, Alasdair first combined his two passions by producing a website for the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre, in return for free time on their research boats, observing the marine life of Cardigan Bay. The website he created gave him the opportunity to produce his first piece of work for ZSL, also building a website for them.
Through his conservation volunteering experiences, Alasdair noticed that it was rare to find volunteers with media and design skills supporting conservation progammes and initiatives. This became especially clear when he volunteered at the Vervet Monkey Foundation (VMF) in South Africa, where he was producing a website to raise awareness of the sanctuary’s work. While there, he met Laurence Hall, his now-business partner and co-Director. Laurence was there to produce a video, also with the aim of raising awareness of the VMF. From this encounter, the seed of the Great Primate Handshake idea was sown, as Alasdair and Laurence realized the benefits a mobile team of skilled volunteers could bring, supporting not only the VMF, but countless other African primate sanctuaries, conservation initiatives and environmental projects.
The first Handshake expedition, which took place in South Africa in 2008, was both exciting and nerve-wracking for Alasdair; it was the first time he had undertaken such a specialised project, and was his first foray into unknown territory in that respect. However, the enthusiasm of the volunteers, coupled with the drive of the small team of staff, created a great atmosphere and community spirit amongst the group. The following year, when the second round of Handshake expeditions were launched, Alasdair and the other staff were delighted to find that half of the 2008 volunteers re-applied, showing their commitment to the aims of the trips.
For Alasdair, always excited to see technology used for the good of conservation, the Handshake’s use of both satellite and 3G internet on the 2008 expedition, complete with “flashing blue lights” on the satellite modem, were a delight. “There is nothing better than seeing 16 people sitting around a camp fire in Swaziland overlooking sweeping plains below, able to produce content and conduct Skype calls with school children back in the UK. I sometimes think back to my favourite moments on the expeditions I have participated in, and like many others, the community spirit of living and working on a vehicle as we traveled along long dusty roads bonds you together as a team in quite a unique way. You always go away from an expedition with fond memories of the places you visited, the people you met and the fun you had along the way.”
There is a quote from Robert Swan OBE: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it”. As a Technical Advisor at ZSL, Alasdair is tasked with looking at how technology can be used to solve conservation challenges, answer questions, and drive forward research – ways in which greater numbers of people can be involved in saving the planet; not leaving it to someone else. Knowledge and raw data are vital to affect conservation policy, inform debates and initiate conservation actions, and it is through advancements in technology that we know that ocean acidification causes coral bleaching; that one of the greatest threats to primates is the loss of habitat, and that the illegal trade in endangered species can be tackled through ground-breaking techniques in DNA tracing. Asked what he believes is the biggest issue facing conservation, and how it can be addressed, Alasdair answered: “I believe that to conserve the planet we need to drive forward policy changes, provide good, reliable data showing how the world is changing around us, and use this to inform governments – helping us all to make wise, informed decisions as to how we can live in harmony with the planet, both now and into the future.”
Finally, for the volunteers embarking on their first Handshake expeditions this summer, Alasdair has the following advice: take a look through the existing content of the Great Primate Handshake website to see what others before you got out of their expeditions; don’t be afraid to ask questions; think what it is you want to get out of the experience, and don’t be afraid to think big.