Inside wildlife storytelling: An interview with Wildlife Blogger of the Year winner Gianluca Cerullo

On 31 December 2018, Gianluca Cerullo’s story The rare jungle cat that thrives in degraded rainforests, featuring a bag of his own poo-for-research, won the 2018 Wildlife Blogger of the Year competition based on judges’ votes.

Just before he jets off for his next project in Colombia, we caught up with Gianluca to ask about his uncensored accounts of field research, why rainforests are more resilient than we think and what he hopes this story will achieve.

What prompted you to include such an honest account of the realities of fieldwork using one’s own poo?

When I first told my Grandad I was off to poo in a Tupperware to catch dung beetles in the Bornean rainforest, it’s fair to say I got a strange look. Most people have no idea that there are scientists mad enough to do such things on a regular basis (a glance at my Twitter feed would show you it’s not as uncommon as you might think!)  

Dung beetles. Credit: Gianluca Cerullo.

In reality, if you work on dung beetles, you have two choices. You can be all shy about it. Or else you can embrace it and admit that yes, now and again a bearded pig does snout its way into your Tupperware and make an explosive mess right outside the front of your hut! That does happen.

I think a good rule of thumb is that if you do something weird or gross in the name of conservation, then you should write about it. Today, there’s a greater appetite than ever to know the stories behind science. And people involved in conservation fieldwork have some of the strangest stories out there!

My bowels and I are heading off to Colombia next week to find out what happens to dung beetles when cattle pasture is left to regrow into rainforest. I’m sure I’ll come back from there with a few stories up my sleeve — just as long as I have access to plenty of fibre…

Gianluca’s trusted Aldi bag. We won’t ask if it’s empty or full…

How did you develop your writing style?

Mainly by reading and making mistakes. Really good environmental journalism can be more captivating than going to a cinema. Series by Mongabay, including Jeremy Hance’s four-part Rhino Debacle – about the fight to save the Sumatran Rhino from extinction – are just breathtakingly good. So too is pretty much anything written on Mongabay, which is why I’m stoked to start writing for them in January!  

I’ve been a big fan of James Borrell’s blog for a number of years and I also read a number of other environmental blogs and websites, mostly out of interest but also, I suppose, to improve my writing by osmosis. Although not at all to do with the environment, every episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History is a masterclass in storytelling!

After reading, it’s just a case of putting things down on a page until you don’t hate what you’ve got in front of you too much. And then hopefully, eventually, and after pages and pages and pages of utter piffle, some kind of writing style starts to emerge!

Gianluca taking a break during field work.

What role can storytelling/communication play in supporting rainforest regeneration and conservation?

People respond to stories. It’s primal. The way I see it, science can help uncover our impact on the environment, and help test possible solutions to environmental problems. But for people to truly connect with nature on an emotional level and be mobilised to act, we need to deploy the power of storytelling in all its forms.

One of the coolest recent storytelling projects I’ve come across is Terrastories, an offline-compatible app developed by the Amazon Conservation Team to allow remote communities in Suriname, Brazil and Colombia to map their oral histories about sites of environmental or cultural significance. By keeping indigenous stories alive, the hope is that the traditional values associated with these areas will keep them safeguarded into the future.

The amazing thing about being alive today is that it’s never been easier to use your own storytelling to make a difference in rainforest conservation – or whatever subject you are passionate about. You can start a podcast or a blog. You can create a photography book. You can even make a film about a tract of destroyed rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon that is thriving once again, even supporting endangered spider monkeys involved in rare behaviours on the forest floor. How about that for a way of capturing the resilience of rainforests?

Why is rainforest regeneration so important and what can it achieve for conservation?

Rainforest regeneration and restoration – more than any other processes I can think of – offer an antidote to despair. We have this perception of tropical rainforests as fragile ecosystems that are collapsing and dwindling. And all that’s true. But when freed from human pressures, given a chance to recover, or sometimes offered a bit of a helping hand, the resilience of rainforests and their capacity to rebound is an amazing thing to witness.

More and more people are realising that conservation can no longer simply be the job of protecting what’s left. We can and indeed have to do better than that. It’s time to go beyond simply staunching further declines and get started on the wholesale recovery of degraded habitats.

Logged forest in Borneo. Credit: Gianluca Cerullo.

Fortunately, rainforest regeneration is one of those rare actions that can deliver on multiple fronts. By reconnecting and expanding forest fragments, it allows wildlife to recolonise former habitat and then populations to recover steadily. By sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, re-growing forests help combat climate change. And when done in collaboration with locals, there can be huge benefits to people too — from reductions in flooding and soil erosion to even improvements in local climate conditions!    

What do you most hope that readers will take away from your story?

Terra Incognita’s Wildlife Blogger of the Year competition was all about amazing wildlife encounters, and it’s really cool to have had the opportunity to write as part of a community of wildlife lovers and conservationists. I hope to stay in contact with you all into the future!

From my story, I hope people come away with a sense of hope. When I first visited the logged forests of Borneo, I was expecting them to be trashed and pretty much devoid of wildlife. And some small areas of logged forest are like that. But mostly, this is not the case.

A logged forest is still a forest and an emerging scientific consensus is showing just how valuable these forests remain for biodiversity. It’s a nice surprise to say the least!

I chose to write about an encounter with a Bornean clouded leopard, a species whose numbers are dwindling and whose threats are not so different from those of many other species found on the island. If protected from hunting, leopards too can thrive in logged forests, as these forests continue to provide valuable habitat and prey sources for leopards and can also link together better-quality areas of forest as they regenerate.

We have an obsession with pristine wildernesses, untouched environments, virgin forests. That’s understandable: these areas really are irreplaceable. But insofar as this obsession causes us to side-line and relegate in importance human-impacted forests, I think this is a mistake.

When degraded forests still thrum with life even as they are cut down, it serves as a powerful reminder of both the resilience of nature and the need for us all to take responsibility and action in supporting ecosystems. I hope that comes across in my story.

Oh, and if just one person fleetingly considers pooing in a tub to sample rainforest dung beetles after reading my piece, I would consider that a bonus too 😉.

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If you’re curious to know exactly how Gianluca catches dung beetles…check out this video…