“What we do in childhood can reflect who we really are. As a boy I was always looking under rocks or had my nose to the ground. I was fascinated by nature.”
For Paul Ramos, becoming a zoologist was only the first step on the path to a career in conservation. And as a young American scientist travelling the world he wound up in Australia. With the intention of embarking on a PhD to study marine turtles, Ramos instead found himself enrolled to study veterinary science at Melbourne University.
“The avenues to work in conservation at that time were limited but I wanted to contribute more,” he said. “Becoming a wildlife vet was a means to an end.”
Twenty years later, Ramos’ change in career has enabled him to have a greater impact than he could have imagined. As a wildlife vet on Nat Geo Wild’s Jungle Heroes documentary series he has brought the plight of India’s wildlife into people’s homes. In the UK, where he lives, he is currently working on a BBC documentary about British wildlife rescues.
Documentaries tell stories and Ramos believes story-telling is an essential element in conservation awareness.
“Storytelling is showing and sharing the truth of our connections to nature,” he explains. “We’ve lost our way in the last 50 to 100 years but now more than ever we need to acknowledge that we are a part of nature.”
Ramos believes vets and, in particular, wildlife vets are uniquely positioned to understand the connections between the environment, humans and animals and how these connections have a profound impact on global issues. “As a wildlife vet, I know that when an injured animal comes through the door, the problem is usually about what is happening in the environment. You have to look at the bigger picture to see how you can ‘prevent and manage’ rather than just treat individual cases.”
It was this desire to see and understand the bigger picture that inspired Ramos to make a documentary about the impact of palm oil plantations on Borneo’s ecosystem, and especially on the orangutan population. “Palm oil is in every kitchen cupboard. I wanted to see for myself what that actually meant, and share it with the world on a personal level.”
While exploring the impact of the destruction of Borneo’s rainforests to make way for palm oil plantations, the story that unfolded became more pressing and poignant. Ramos was involved in the rescue and care of a young orangutan that had been shot, attacked with a machete, and nearly drowned but the animal was too debilitated to survive an anaesthetic. The orangutan’s death was a moment that touched Ramos deeply. “It was a tragedy. And it was just one story out of countless many.”
It was clips of this documentary, posted on his social media page that brought Ramos to the attention of Nat Geo Wild. As a wildlife vet on Jungle Heroes, Ramos has a greater platform from which to spread his conservation message.
“The greatest threat to wildlife globally is our lack of acknowledgement that we are connected to nature. This translates into habitat destruction and fragmentation, the wildlife trade and climate change. Although habitat destruction is more prevalent in the developing world it is driven by the developed world’s demand for resources such as palm oil, timber and mining resources.”
While filming with Nat Geo Wild in India, Ramos was continually confronted with the issue of animal-human conflict. In a country where a massive and growing human population encroaches on traditional wild spaces, people and animals compete for the same resources and the outcome is often deadly.
Like many conservationists, Ramos believes “we need a paradigm shift in our mindset”.
Earlier this year, before COVID-19 affected travel, Ramos flew to Australia to assist with the aftermath of the devastating bushfires that raged through south-east Australia in late 2019 and early 2020. Over one billion animals (some estimates quote figures three times this number) and 11 million hectares of land were destroyed in the disaster. As the former Project Manager for the Bushfire Response Plan at Lort Smith Animal Hospital in Melbourne, Ramos was uniquely placed to lend assistance. The project, which Ramos helped develop, planned for the care of injured animals and wildlife in the response phase after a fire. Joining vet teams from IFAW and Vets for Compassion, Ramos scoured burnt-out bushland and worked in field clinics on search-and-rescue, triage and treatment of bushfire-affected wildlife. Footage he took of an orphaned koala clutching a stuffed bear went viral in the news and on social media.
The importance of social media as a means of communicating a global message is not lost on Ramos. His love of story-telling has inspired a substantial following of 185,000 on the social media platform of TikTok. Ramos considers Generation Z (people born 1995-2010, and TikTok’s main demographic) to be a wave of change for the future. This younger generation are digital natives, born into the age of social media. “It’s how they communicate,” Ramos explains.
Generation Z are considered to have more social and cultural awareness than preceding generations and Ramos looks forwards to the changes they will make.
Considering his social media presence and visible profile on Nat Geo Wild, Ramos is a vet with a voice that speaks to multiple generations about the importance of conservation.
But he believes we don’t need a grand platform to spread the message. “As vets we are in a special position at this moment in time to show how the connections we have with each other and animals and nature have a real impact on issues in our society,” he said. “And we should be more vocal and active in getting this message across.”
His advice for any vet wanting to travel a similar path? “If there is something you want to do, just start. Just move. Don’t worry about figuring it all out. Too much planning and pondering will cause you to lose momentum.”
Ramos credits his extraordinary career to a combination of preparation and opportunity. “When I made the decision to go to Borneo I took film-making classes. I bought a plane ticket, gave myself a deadline and decided to figure it out along the way.”
The courage to take that first step is often the defining difference between an unrealized dream and an undreamed-of opportunity. For Paul Ramos, wildlife vet and story-teller, first steps have led him on an incredible journey.
“Be optimistic but have no expectations,” he said. “And if you fail, who cares? It will still have been an amazing adventure.”