ExplorersBio

Stephen Blake

Biologist

Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee

Photo: Tortoise

Photograph by Stephen Blake

Photo: Stephen Blake

Photograph by Christian Ziegler

Birthplace: Dartford, England

Current City: Clayton, Missouri

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I always wanted to be a vet, but the careers officer at my school laughed when I told him, and said, "Don't bother, you are not clever enough!" Unfortunately in those days I listened to adults, and thought he must be right (he probably was) and so I didn't try. As I grew older, the only thing that was clear to me was that I did not want a proper job. I flirted with horse racing as a stable lad in the hope of making it as a jockey, but didn't like whipping horses. I finally decided that something to do with wildlife would be rewarding and potentially good for the planet, and still would not be a "proper" job.

How did you get started in your field of work?

It has all been totally by chance. I was working as a gorilla keeper at Howletts Zoo in the U.K., and was just about to leave for a trip to Australia when the zoo director asked whether I would like to work in the Congo with orphan gorillas. I jumped at the chance! Then, after a couple of years working in Brazzaville with baby gorillas, I met a guy called Mike Fay who worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society. His team was doing amazing things for conservation in the northern Congo, and at some point we cobbled a job together for me in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. One thing led to another and I ended up doing a Ph.D. on the movement ecology of forest elephants. Congo was home for over a decade, and a place of work for about 17 years. Then another chance event happened: My wife, who is a wildlife vet, got a job on the Galápagos Islands, and we moved there in 2007. In mid-2008, I met a guy called Martin Wikelski in Amsterdam at a workshop aimed at setting up an online animal-tracking database called Movebank.org. After some good Dutch beer he offered me a post doc with the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology working on Galápagos tortoise migrations. Despite knowing next to nothing about Galápagos ecology, and even less about tortoises, I readily accepted. It's a funny old world!!

What inspires you to dedicate your life to conservation?

I am always uncomfortable when people say that I have dedicated my life to my subject. Certainly I have spent a lot of years working very hard for conservation, but this work has given me an amazingly rich and fulfilling life, and has taken me to some of the most remote and beautiful locations on Earth. Unlike many people on Earth, I have never been really hungry. We often take that for granted, yet in reality it is a privilege. I think the dedicated people are the poorly paid park rangers or the under-appreciated mechanic who fixes up the wildlife department's vehicles and never gets a pat on the back for dedicating his life. No one takes photos of them, writes articles on their work, or calls them conservation heroes. Yet without people like them, people like me could not function, and conservation would be in even deeper trouble.

What's a normal day like for you?

There are no normal days!

Do you have a hero?

My granddads and my Uncle Bert. My grandfathers, as teenagers and young men, were both in the First World War, shooting people and being shot at from the trenches and experiencing something like hell on earth. My Uncle Bert lost his right arm and right leg at Dunkirk when he was about 20. When people tell me that I deserve the good things that have happened to me because I have worked hard, I always think of these people and others like them, who saw and felt horrors that I could never even imagine. Here I sit typing this on the beautiful Galápagos Islands, with all my limbs and no shell shock, a wonderful job, and a happy family. How do I "deserve" this? My heroes never had a chance to even dream of things I take for granted.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

In terms of sheer exhilaration, putting GPS collars onto forest elephants must rate as the high point and the most challenging. A deeply rewarding experience has been many hundreds of nights around the campfire in the forest with my pygmy tracker friends, telling stories, and learning from them. Now on Galápagos, the thrill of downloading data from GPS-tagged tortoises and seeing how they have moved in the months since last time we met, is right up there.

What are your other passions?

My wife, Sharon, and son Charlie.

What do you do in your free time?

Play with and enjoy my family. I also like to run, bike, and swim, camp, hike, and whatever else the outdoors has to offer.

If you could have people do one thing to help save our Earth, what would it be?

Do not be greedy.

News

Related Features

  • Photo: An endangered Galápagos tortoise with neck outstretched

    Galápagos Tortoise

    Head to the Galápagos Islands to learn about this record-holding creature. It's the world's largest tortoise and the longest living of all vertebrates.

In Their Words

Certainly I have spent a lot of years working very hard for conservation, but this work has given me an amazingly rich and fulfilling life, and has taken me to some of the most remote and beautiful locations on Earth.

—Stephen Blake

Our Explorers in Action

See Photos »

Meet All Our Explorers

  • NationalGeographic_1289095-flag.jpg

    Explorers A-Z

    At the heart of our explorers program is the quest for knowledge through exploration and the people who make it possible.

  • Photo: Michael Lombardi diving

    Explorers by Category

    Browse our different areas of exploration and discover the fascinating people behind the projects.