Robi Watkinson

Robi was born in London, moving as a child to New Delhi, where his earliest recorded ambition took root: to become a binman. It was only a chance encounter with an old dinosaur encyclopaedia that directed him away from the world of rubbish removal and towards the world of palaeontology. The extinct world dominated his life for the rest of his adolescence, both back in London and when living in Washington, D.C. He doesn’t remember the strange moment when he realised that you couldn’t study living dinosaurs because they were extinct, but he knows it aligned with an epiphany when he realised that to avoid working with people, he should study animals instead.

And so began an obsession with the natural world that has endured his entire life. Robi could reliably be found exploring the local woodland, chasing glimpses of badgers, foxes, deer and birds from an early age, but when it came to deciding on a university course, there was a real risk that geography might trump zoology. His first encounter with a leopard, in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, changed everything. Any doubts about taking his passion professional disappeared.

To that end, Robi graduated from the University of Leeds with a BSc in Zoology. As with many people, university fundamentally altered his outlook, especially on nature. Much to his surprise, he came to the begrudging conclusion that when it comes to conservation, humans are much more important than animals. Now, it is the interface between humans and wildlife that most fascinates him. This manifests in three key interests: movement ecology, conservation ethics, and rewilding. Movement ecology because you need to know both where animals are and where people are (and where both may be in the future), in order to protect them. Conservation ethics because a history of forced human exclosure from “wild” land haunts nearly all conservation areas and must be rectified. And rewilding because so much has been lost, and so much must be restored.

Robi’s interest in prehistory has not gone away, and his understanding of recently vanished species only highlights the scale of biodiversity loss the world has suffered. All these interests are linked by his love of wildlife filmmaking. During the Covid-19 lockdowns he co-founded The Biome Project – an online educational wildlife filmmaking venture and podcast series. He has filmed documentaries on rewilding in Britain and the Netherlands, and has filmed human–wildlife conflict-mitigation efforts in his favourite place, Zambia’s Luangwa Valley.

A field course in the Eastern Cape and a recommendation from a mutual friend led to his application to UCT. Robi hopes that studying alongside a diverse group of MSc students from a wide array of backgrounds will further broaden his understanding of conservation issues, and he cannot wait to learn from his UCT course mates and professors.

Thesis: Crouching leopard, hidden camera: Comparing methods for estimating leopard density in a small reserve (Supervisors: Justin O'Riain, Zoe Woodgate, David Cumming).