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Asiatic Lion and cubs Zoological Society London

Dominic Jermey on the Zoological Society of London’s conservation mission

Dominic Jermey CVO OBE, a former diplomat who served as British Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2016 to 2017, is the director-general of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

ZSL Dominic Jermey

Dominic Jermey spoke with Blooloop about the Zoological Society of London, its objectives and conservation initiatives, and its role in addressing the challenges facing the natural world.

A desire to right wrongs has characterised his career. He joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1993, serving in London in the European Union Department, at the Embassy in Islamabad, in East Timor liaising with the United Nations, and in London at the United Nations Department. Following this, Jermey became the interim Chargé d’Affaires at the new British office in Kabul in 2001.

After a period in consular affairs, Jermey moved to work at UK Trade & Investment, first as Deputy Head of Mission in Madrid and UKTI Director there, interrupted by a two-month return to consular work to head the team at the British Embassy in Thailand following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

In 2007, he served as UKTI’s Managing Director for the Sectors Group, including a brief spell in 2008 as head of their Defence and Security Organisation, and as the acting Chief Executive in 2009. In 2010, he was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, based in Abu Dhabi. He was also appointed as a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in November 2010.

Jermey was appointed as the Chief Executive of UK Trade & Investment in 2014, before moving to the Foreign Office to be its new International Counter-Extremism Coordinator. He then returned to Kabul as Ambassador to Afghanistan in 2016.

Making a difference

Dominic Jermey took up his role at Zoological Society of London in 2017. He tells Blooloop a little more about his career choices to date:

“The reason I joined the Foreign Office was because I wanted to influence and change things that I felt were fundamentally wrong. I spent a year out after I left school, and had the privilege of working in several countries, including in South America.”

He wanted to find a way of tackling the imbalances he witnessed there; poverty, and conflicts. He says:

“I had the privilege of getting to the edges of the Amazon and saw the logging camps there. I decided my way to change the world was to try and become a diplomat, which I did.”

Keepers remain on site to look after the animals at ZSL
Keepers remained on-site to look after the animals at ZSL during lockdown

During his foreign office career, Jermey was part of conflict resolution negotiations:

“I was looking for a way of having a positive influence through my professional activity on some of the things I care most about. Most recently, I was doing that in Afghanistan, where I was leading 800 people to stop evil in the UK through terrorism, drug smuggling, and people trafficking.”

Returning from his posting in Afghanistan, he was looking for a way of having an impact on something he cared about.

“I’ve always been an amateur conservationist,” he says. “The opportunity came up through ZSL to approach it professionally, leading a group of 800 people who care passionately about what they do.”

Dominic Jermey & the Zoological Society of London

Talking about his position at ZSL, Jermey says:

“It is very different from Afghanistan. But it is also very similar, in terms of passion and commitment in the people I lead. We work for wildlife. We exist in order to inform, inspire, and empower people to stop wild animals going extinct.”

“ZSL influences behaviour significantly through our zoos. But also through our media, our education, and our community engagement work. We put conservation science into practise by starting with the big picture, looking at the living planet.”

“We produce the Living Planet Index, which monitors the state of wildlife biodiversity over the world since 1970. It’s a graph that goes down; it’s a pretty grisly tale. From that macro picture, we can see where interventions will have a direct impact on a particular place.

“They are modelled to have a systemic impact if they’re replicated by other people. Technologies, for example, that help ranger commanders to track where all the rangers are and to direct them to poaching hotspots, or cures for amphibian diseases that can then be multiplied at scale by others, dealing with the disease in amphibian populations in countries across the world.”

Reasons to be cheerful

The natural world is facing many challenges. However, Jermey finds optimism in the fact that we have the opportunity to effect change.

“Otherwise,” he says: “The outlook is very grim indeed. I see reasons for optimism in the fact we can demonstrate that conservation works. Plus, we can also demonstrate what happens if we screw it up.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a direct result of the relationship with the environment being completely out of kilter. If we can turn the shared dreadful experience that is the pandemic into a realisation that we have got to do something about that relationship, then that is one positive to take from a thoroughly negative experience.”

Keeper Martin Franklin cleans Penguin Beach Zoological Society London
Keeper Martin Franklin cleans Penguin Beach

Is it likely that sufficient people will come to that realisation? Or is there a danger that good zoos and conservation organisations are preaching to the converted?

Dominic Jermey says:

“One of the things that ZSL tries to do is to get out beyond the believers. We want to engage both ordinary folk who may or may not be predisposed to engage conservation subjects, and also policy and decision-makers, and businesses.

“We work with banks, forestry companies, palm oil producers, and a whole range of consumer businesses in the UK. The point of doing that is to stop conservation being a minority sport; to try and help us become mainstream.”

Raising awareness

“I think part of the opportunity around responding to COVID-19 is to get into much more mainstream conversation about what caused this pandemic and what we need to do in the future to stop it being repeated.”

“The Zoological Society of London’s campaign for the fundraising during the pandemic was kicked off by Sir David Attenborough. A year ago, we saw Sir David and the Queen doing a little gig together. They were talking in the gardens at Buckingham Palace. I think it is possible to engage the broad spectrum of society on conservation if you get the right narrative.”

The role of conservation organisations in raising awareness about conservation and tackling the problems of the environment is key.

“The Living Planet Index shows what is threatening wildlife populations around the world,” says Jermey.

“The biggest threat to wildlife is people: through land-use changes, human-caused climate change, the illegal exploitation of wildlife; the wildlife trade. Good zoos, like London Zoo, like Whipsnade Zoo, have got to have outstanding animal husbandry. They protect endangered species through specialist care, conservation and breeding programs.”

Reintroduction programmes

Reintroduction programmes are part of the conservation strategy at the Zoological Society of London, says Dominic Jermey.

“For example, the reintroduction of the scimitar-horned oryx in Chad, extinct in the wild. We reintroduced it from populations held by us, and by other zoos in the UK and the United Arab Emirates.”


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“Then, because we deal with all creatures great and small, there are the Partula snails. These were reintroduced to French Polynesia. And there is the mountain chicken frog, one of the largest species of frog in the world. This has been reintroduced to Montserrat and the other islands nearby, where they had been pretty much wiped out.”

Safeguarding lions at the Zoological Society of London

The Zoological Society of London works with the Gujarat Forest Department to safeguard a population of lions.

“Asiatic lions used to extend from East Turkey, right across China,” says Jermey. “Now they live only in one forest, the Gir Forest, and its surrounding area, in Gujarat.”

There are around 600 left in the wild. London and Whipsnade Zoos also have Asiatic lions.

Asiatic Lion - Dominic Jermey talks to blooloop about conservation at ZSL
Asiatic Lion, image copyright Daniel Sprawson

“We maintain their genetic diversity with other Asiatic lions held. If canine distemper or another disease hits that community in Gujurat, they will be wiped out.

“Now, there is also an option for a genetically diverse reintroduction of Asiatic lions into the wild, from those that we hold. Because we are managing them effectively, from a genetics perspective.

“The same is true of Sumatran tigers; there are more now in collections like ours than there are in the wild in Sumatra. It gives us options, as we look at the devastation that humanity is causing, about how we can approach reintroduction and rebreeding.”

Connecting with people

Rob Deaville carrying out a postmortem on a porpoise at Zoological Society London
Rob Deaville carrying out a postmortem on a porpoise

Connecting people with conservation in numerous ways is crucial, says Dominic Jermey.

“We work at a local level, which could up and down the Thames, for instance, engaging people on the seal count. It’s citizen science, and people feel part of that.

“The Zoological Society of London also works with poor and marginalized communities. We have a rhino reserve in Southern Kenya. There, we work with the communities to ensure they have alternative livelihoods. Ones that either depend on or run parallel to the richly diverse species that they live alongside.

“This is so that they don’t need to encroach into the forest, or to support the poachers.”

For over thirty years, the Zoological Society of London has collaborated with the Kenya Wildlife Service. It provides technical support and training to establish and support wildlife health programmes, patrol-based and camera-trap monitoring, habitat assessments, rhino translocation, intensive protection zones, and strategic planning for protected areas and critically endangered species.

Increasingly, ZSL has also been engaging Kenyan communities in conservation. It has established new partnerships with local organisations that support and represent local communities around the Tsavo national parks. ZSL works to find sustainable ways of generating income and investing in livelihoods. And it also works to engage local people as community guardians, protecting wildlife and crops.

Conservation must improve life for people, as well as for wildlife.

Making informed choices

Finally, Dominic Jermey says, in terms of choices:

“There are the one and a half, 2 million zoo visitors who come and see us every year. Some of them just want to have a fabulous day out; it could be any other visitor attraction. Most of them, though, are coming for that ‘wow’ factor with wildlife. That experience that you don’t get from watching Netflix and National Geographic.”

That emotional connection also makes visitors receptive to suggestions about the part they can play in conservation:

“There is an opportunity then to engage in dialogue about the choices they make as a consumer. Whether they are buying a ready-made meal in the supermarket and looking for sustainable ingredients, or filling up their reusable water bottle instead of buying a single-use plastic one.”

“Or, as a voter, questioning their politicians about policies on the rainforest or recycling. Or as a shareholder, if they are lucky enough to have shares, looking at the behaviours of the company, and their involvement.”

Working to conserve individual species is vital. However, Jermey says, if there is to be any chance of reversing humanity’s devastating impact on the natural environment,

“It is the decisions that people take in their everyday lives that are fundamentally the biggest swing factor.”

All images kind courtesy of the Zoological Society of London. Background image, Asiatic lion and cups, copyright Daniel Sprawson.

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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