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PhD student adventurer and budding TV star

Niall McCann, explorer, adventurer and PhD student at the School of Biosciences and star of 'Biggest & Baddest' - a global wildlife adventure series in search of the world’s largest and most dangerous animals, answers our questions on his PhD, his time at Cardiff University and on his incredible adventures.

Man standing in a field with his hands on his hips and smiling into the camera.

Can you tell us the title of your research project and a little bit about it?

The Conservation of Baird’s tapir in Honduras.

My thesis presents an account of the ever-worsening conservation status of Baird’s tapir, one of Central America’s rarest mammals, in its stronghold of Honduras. I have used a combination of genetics and occupancy modelling to describe how human activity including habitat destruction and poaching is changing the distribution of tapir across Honduras, and driving the species to the brink of extinction.

You’re a big star on TV and travel all over the world, how did you end up choosing to study in Cardiff?

I have been working in endangered species research since I was 17 years old, and the most important criterion for me, when looking for a PhD project, was that the study must contribute to the conservation of an endangered species. I wanted my study to combine field work in a remote location with cutting-edge genetics work in the lab back in the UK.

"Cardiff University employ some truly world-leading researchers."

I did a lot of research into the best supervisors for such a PhD, and one name kept on cropping up: Mike Bruford. I contacted Mike in April 2008 to propose a project on western lowland gorillas, which somehow morphed into Baird’s tapir by the time I was awarded the studentship in May 2009. Cardiff University employ some truly world-leading researchers, and Mike Bruford was simply the best person I could think of to supervise my PhD.

How did you manage your studies alongside all the other exciting things you seem to have been doing during your time as a PhD student?

Time management has been hugely important throughout my PhD. In my four and a half years at Cardiff University I have spent over 11 months in the field on research and six months filming, plus many other trips away both at home and abroad. In addition to my TV and research careers, I am also actively involved in conservation as a Trustee for a conservation charity, and founder of a conservation-oriented NGO, both of which take up considerable amounts of my time. I have found that I can be most productive when working on several projects simultaneously; as they say: "If you want something done, give it to a busy person!"

How many different places have you visited during your time as a PhD student - what was the most breath-taking and what was the most dangerous place?

Man in the jungle holding the neck of a snake.

Since starting my PhD I have worked or travelled in 16 countries across six continents.

In terms of danger, Honduras, where I’ve spent 11 months conducting field research for my PhD, is hard to beat! It has the highest murder rate in the world (nearly one person per thousand of the population per year), something I have witnessed first-hand. 

I never felt threatened once while in the field though, remarkably, even though many of the people I met in remote places were very shady characters. Everyone was just so bemused that I wanted to go walking in the forests to find tapir dung that they assumed I must be completely insane, and definitely not worth messing with!

It’s hard to think of the most breath-taking place I’ve seen over this period, but Virunga National Park in the DRC must be right up there. It has one of the highest levels of biodiversity anywhere on earth, and is set against a backdrop of volcanic instability and constant social upheaval as a result of incursions from the numerous militia that roam the jungles of Central Africa. 

I was fortunate enough to trek into the forests to perform routine health checks on two families of mountain gorillas in the shadow of six volcanoes, while staying in a hut that only three months before was occupied by the M23 rebels. That whole experience was pretty breath-taking!

How does your experience as a TV presenter compare with your experience of being a PhD student at Cardiff?

One thing I always find interesting is how people respond to me depending on how much they know about my background. Many people are slightly cagey when talking to TV folk, but as soon as they discover I’m a biologist in ‘real life’ all barriers are brought down! When I travel as a PhD student I never have to go through the initial awkwardness that sometimes accompanies life on location.

"The University is a tremendous institution to further your education."

In terms of my day-to-day work in TV and in the field as a biologist, to be honest they are pretty similar. I spend my time running around the jungles looking for animals and trying to make my findings understandable to the widest audience possible!

The thing that has made the PhD all the more satisfying than TV work is the level of detail I’ve been able to go into in my study, which is never possible on a short film shoot. I’m a scientist after all, and I’m barely satisfied by skin-deep explanations!

What would you tell a prospective student contemplating Cardiff for their PhD?

Cardiff is a fantastic city in which to live and study, and the University is a tremendous institution to further your education. Cardiff Uni have been incredibly supportive of me through my PhD, they have been flexible where I’ve needed flexibility, but have a framework in place to provide structure to your PhD programme, so you never fall behind at any stage. 

The city has everything a student could want, including great access to a plethora of other interesting places if you want to escape! I couldn’t recommend Cardiff more highly, both the University and the City have been excellent to me, and I now proudly call Cardiff home.

What’s in store next for Niall McCann?

Three days after I submit, I’ll be flying to eastern Greenland with my brother for three weeks of mountaineering and speed riding (paragliding with a tiny parachute, while wearing skis….) Our original plan had been to climb Everest this year, but with my filming schedule we realised we wouldn’t have time, so we decided to set our sights on something unique instead. 

We are going to be camped on a glacier, just the two of us, over a day and a half by ski away from the nearest person, climbing mountains that have never been climbed before, and flying off them! What better way to celebrate?