A wilder, healthier, more colourful world

Dr Lesley Dickie

CEO, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Winner of the Chair's Award at the IoD Director of the Year Awards 2018

Growing up in Glasgow, in the early 70’s, what nurtured your passion for conservation and zoology?

Contrary to people’s expectations of Glasgow, it’s a very green city with lots of public parks, so, despite being a ‘city kid’, I lived a 5 minute walk from the 50 acre Victoria Park - home to ponds with sticklebacks to collect and plants with ladybirds to observe - alongside countless other species. It is also home to the Fossil Grove, a stand of fossilised trees, over 300 million years old. That was a constant early lesson, about the age of our Earth and the wonder it has to offer. Additionally, as a ‘70’s kid’ I had a huge amount of freedom to roam, compared to most young children today. From a very young age, during weekends and summer holidays, I could go out, not come back for hours, not be tracked on a mobile phone and basically just get into scrapes. I cannot count of the number of times I had to climb over the gates of the locked park because I lost track of time. Combine the access to green space, the freedom to roam, and a family that had numerous pets from cats to fish to terrapins, it cemented that I always wanted to work with animals in some way. I thought that it would be as a vet, but that was before I found out that I had the option of being a zoologist!

You were first employed as a Primate Keeper at The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and went on to become a Zoo Conservation Manager at The Zoological Society of London, whilst raising over 600,000 Euros to fund numerous conservation projects in Madagascar. Your passion is clear but what is it that motivates you?

From a young age I wanted to have a career with clear purpose and I wanted my life to have meaning beyond me. We have to spend an awful lot of our lives in the workplace so the wonder of having a job that you enjoy and that gives you that purpose is, to me, priceless. I also appreciate that not everyone gets to fulfil their ambitions or even figures out when they are young what it is that will give their life that purpose and we all find it in different ways. Every day I am reading and hearing about things going very badly for our planet, but I also get to work to try and do my bit to help. It’s the ability to act for this greater good that motivates me.

Why did the CEO role at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust appeal to you?

Durrell is a ‘doing’ organisation. It’s not a policy maker, it’s not a funding body, it’s a boots on the ground practitioner organisation and that’s what I like. Actually getting on and doing conservation, not just talking about it. My job has many facets in leading the Trust, but largely it’s about the health of the whole Trust, the direction of travel and making sure the specialists across the Trust have the resources they need to get on and do the job. We talk internally that there are two sub-teams to Team Durrell, those enabling the mission and those delivering the mission, all working together, and I am largely there as the ultimate mission enabler.

From a young age, I wanted to have a career with clear purpose and I wanted my life to have meaning beyond me. We have to spend an awful lot of our lives in the workplace, so the wonder of having a job that you would enjoy and that gives you that purpose, is to me, priceless.

You were instrumental in changing the name of Jersey Zoo from Durrell Wildlife Park. What was the reasoning behind this decision?

For most of our 61 year history we have always been Jersey Zoo, it was only ever a few short years when our physical headquarters was called Durrell Wildlife Park. The name change I think reflected the leadership at the time not being entirely comfortable with part of our delivery of mission being via a zoo, a tentativeness and pandering about animal rights extremists. For me arriving on Jersey it seemed short-sighted and, dare I say it, even a little rude to have removed the word Jersey from our names. We went from being the Jersey Preservation Trust headquartered at Jersey Zoo, to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust at Durrell Wildlife Park. I think it also created a sense that coming for a visit was not as much a joyful thing to do, more a lesson that was serious. I don’t believe having fun precludes you from learning about serious issues! We can do both. So our global brand remains the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust but our headquarters are Jersey Zoo. I know there are poor standard zoos in the world, but that does not make me ashamed of the word zoo itself, and neither do I pay attention to anti-zoo activists who make a lot of noise but do nothing to help save species from extinction.

What advice would you give to your 20 year-old self and what is the best piece of advise you have ever been given?

That you can have the career you want if you keep saying ‘yes’ to opportunities and stretch yourself outside your comfort zone. Its understanding the concept that success isn’t forever, but conversely that failure isn’t fatal. Just keep going and do your best, it usually works. From a management perspective when I first became a CEO I was in my 30’s and actually had never line managed a team before (I spent a lot of time in higher education in my 20’s), so it was a big stepping up point, a sink or swim moment. I was based in Amsterdam and in the first few months I had an incredibly difficult member of staff who constantly disrupted the work of the office and created a hostile atmosphere. So I went off and booked a one hour session with a management coach, someone who didn’t know any of the people involved or what I did for a living. She said to me the most freeing thing possible, which instantly changed me. ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s wrong or right, it’s what you want’. That one conversation gave me the ability to be a decision maker. Now of course the next thing she said was, ‘but if you are wrong then you have the full responsibility of fixing it’! It doesn’t give me the right to abdicate from the consequences but it does mean I can be an efficient decision maker, crucial as a CEO as teams need certainty and they need to know their leader will take responsibility for those decisions.

The bushfires of Australia in 2019, the oil spills around Mauritius in 2020, the use of plastic in todays’ society, climate change; the obstacles we face seem insurmountable. How can we as a society, help in averting the biodiversity crisis?

I think the main thing we can do immediately is accept how serious the issue is, that it’s not a nice to have but our future on Earth that is at stake. That means viewing everything through the lens of sustainability and then putting the appropriate resources into fighting the problem. Look at COVID-19.

We have addressed this as a serious issue and thrown money and expertise at the problem. I am confident we can win this battle but we are going to have to do the same for climate change and biodiversity loss. That means advocating for economics not to be based on 100 year old concepts like GDP and simplistic growth being a measure of ‘success’. It’s far from it. It’s building circular economies where we try and avert as much waste as possible. It’s about addressing the growing numbers of humans on Earth and realising that the planet has limits of tolerance. It’s about voting for politicians who take the issues seriously and dumping the ones who don’t. Additionally it’s about supporting organisations like Durrell who do something about it. In an ideal world we shouldn’t need to exist but we are far from that time.

You can have the career you want if you keep saying 'yes' to opportunities and stretch yourself outside your comfort zone. It's understanding the concept that success isn't forever, but conversely that failure isn't fatal. Just keep going and do your best, it usually works.

Was it your passion for Art that brought about the idea of producing 40 life-size gorilla structures, strategically dotted around the Island to celebrate Durrell’s 60th Anniversary?

Yes, I really wanted to bring more art into the zoo as its one more way to engage people in talking about conservation. Not everyone is science oriented and there should be no single way to connect to nature, just lots of opportunities. I had seen these types of art trail before and a number of both UK and international zoos have taken part but we really thought we could make this special. I think our island location actually helped as it set clear physical boundaries of where the trail could be but not be so large that people couldn’t get out into nature and find every single one. Indeed we think this was the most successful of its type for any zoo globally. I know we, the Durrell Team, miss the gorillas and I think a large part of the island does as well. They were so joyful. So watch this space for the future!

Congratulations for winning the Chairman’s Award in the IoD Director of the Year Awards 2018. What was your initial reaction to the news?

Having only arrived on the island in 2016 I was very honoured to receive this award and it was great to see that the third sector is recognised so publicly by the IoD. Sometimes it’s perhaps not appreciated that charities have to also demonstrate the same drive to deliver, that the same standards of professionalism as in the private sector have to be applied to our work, therefore the IoD explicitly recognising this very particular part of the business ecosystem is important. It also spoke volumes that Durrell is appreciated as an island organisation and a true Jersey brand.

With the Durrell mission statement; ‘Saving Species From Extinction’ and the ‘Rewild Our Wild’ strategy, do you think your new vision statement of a ‘wilder, healthier, more colourful world’ is achievable?

It would be foolish to think that it’s a certainty. There is no doubt that the odds against the natural world are getting higher, but we have to keep hope alive that we can make things better. We know that we have saved species from extinction, that we have made the lives of some of the poorest peoples on Earth better. But we also know that we have to keep pace with the pressures and set hard targets and aim high. There is no point making a half-hearted effort, we need to go all in. Robert Kennedy said, ‘Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly’. We are going to keeping setting those hard targets and see what we can achieve. That’s the only way we know how to do things………..