Category Archives: Wildlife Conservation

To Sustainability and Beyond!

On Friday 27 September 2019 I had the opportunity to participate in the Schools Strike 4 Climate Change in Auckland, New Zealand. As a conservation educator it was a thrilling moment to be able to march alongside my colleagues and the youth of the world as we speak up to secure our World’s future.  To continue to walk my talk of many years.

Image from Bitmoji App

Now not everyone agrees with Greta Thunberg’s or Severn Suzuki’s type of action.  But this is just one approach that supports countless others as we each work or fight for change in our own way.  The future of our planet really does rely on every individual, mindful action as well as policy change at the highest levels of government.

I was sixteen years old when 12-year-old Severn Suzuki gave her moving call to action at the UN Earth Summit in Rio 1992.  The South Africa I grew up in was only just emerging from the evil, tragic grip of apartheid.  Rio’s Earth Summit certainly did not play out widely in my troubled environment.  I didn’t even hear about Severn and the Rio Summit at the time.  I only got to hear about her and the Earth Charter at university a few years later while completing a degree in Environmental Science.

There was no such thing as recycling of rubbish while I was growing up.  But I did have an inspiring Geography teacher who talked about CFCs and the hole in the ozone layer, rising sea levels and global warming.

An immense amount of Good Work has been done since then.  Voices for action can derive hope from that, I think.  I know I do.

My personal journey with Sustainability started as a child, privileged to be surrounded by the magic of prolific wildlife.  Though back then I would not have described my passion as ‘in aid of Sustainability’. 

Wildlife conservation is my original passion.  For me, the heart of my desire to make a difference in the World has always been derived from my intense love of all things wild in Africa – wild, pure, open spaces and all the marvellous creatures that are so precious, deserving of their right to life and their perfect role in a thriving ecosystem – simply because they are, like I am! 

As I hit my tweens, I started to realise that the human world I had been born into was messy.    I became aware of the concept of Ubuntu.  In light of this ancient truth I could see that South Africa was in a dark place.  I am because we are – for me “we” is all aspects of Mama Africa, and by extension, Mother Earth.

The ‘wildlife’ concept of conservation had to be expanded to include human communities.  Some decades later I guess we would now refer to this more holistic approach as ‘Social Sustainability’.

My degree focused on Environmental Science and Conservation Biology.  I began to understand sustainability – the complexity of unsustainable human practices that focus on technological advancement, convenience and to some degree simply because we can…. pushing the human brain to its creative limits.  This level of advancement and focus on economics, profits and convenience is energy-intensive, to say the least, and the highest cost has been to Mother Earth.

Even to people whose compassion doesn’t extend beyond their own family it must be becoming alarmingly obvious that the outcomes of unsustainable practices, particularly since the start of the Industrial Revolution, will affect their future – health, ability to generate wealth, perhaps even their whole way of life.

You would think that I would be a sustainable living Champion, with all the information I have gleaned in my education and in the course of my professional life as an environmental scientist and conservation educator!  But it has been a journey of years to put  the picture puzzle pieces together and genuinely start living sustainably.

To be honest, my practical buy-in started really simply with the 3RsReduce, Reuse, Recycle.  What’s possible in terms of recycling looks different in diverse parts of the world, depending on infrastructure and resourcing.  It varies greatly between urban and rural areas in New Zealand, where I am currently living.  And it will continue to change over time, hopefully rapidly and for the better.  Even just getting the 3Rs right can be confusing, frustrating and certainly inconvenient, depending where you live.

Image from Bitmoji App

So here’s what I’ve learned … being mindful of how I tread on this planet, and making environmentally conscious decisions, has to supersede convenience.  I recognise that it is not my right to live conveniently at the cost of All around me.

These days I work with the 7Rs in mind – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rehome, Replant, Rot.  Here is an image of what that looks like, taken from ubuntunomad.com.

The 7Rs of waste-free living – ubuntunomad.com

I also like this image (below), with RETHINK at the centre, taken from a Google image search – Be mindful of your consumption, your relationship with “things” and your relationship with the Earth.

Google image search – difficult to trace the source of this image.

From a place of Rethink anything is possible.  This is motivation to mindfully, actively, continuously pursue the 7Rs strategy.  For example, we can find out about composting in our area.  For me a recent delightful discovery has been that my hair salon belongs to the Sustainable Salons initiative – I’m very happy to support ingenious organisations like this. 

There are so many amazing examples like this now.  Yes, it does take a little extra time and energy to do the research, but I believe it is worth it in the long run. Spending money with local businesses that have sound sustainability initiatives is a simple and practical contribution everyone can make.  I have found social media to be an invaluable tool in connecting with environmentally conscious groups and organisations I can support.

So that’s it in the daily micro-moments of my life. Turning off lights and electronics on standby, separating out the soft plastics for recycling, refusing disposable cups or straws or single use plastic bags, thinking about water use and saving where I can, being a mindful consumer as much as possible for everything from clothing to cosmetics, being aware of the palm oil predicament and only purchasing products containing certified sustainable palm oil.

The list goes on and I will make it longer as I learn to tread as lightly as I can.  I have to believe that each of our small mindful actions will make the necessary difference in the end.

In my bigger picture, I try to make my mark by taking my conservation education career very seriously – and I never forget about the beleaguered African wildlife that planted this seed in me that lead to greater knowledge of the plight of life everywhere . 

This year my focus has been to look at conservation and sustainability when travelling, which is another great love of mine.

I spent a number of years working in high end ecotourism lodges in Botswana.  Such an incredible time in my life!  What particularly stands out for me is the environmentally sensitive architecture used to construct these lodges –  the temporary footprint they are able to create, completely off the grid and very sustainable.  If this can be achieved in extremely isolated areas of the Okavango Delta, I think there is little excuse for organisations based in areas of the world which are better resourced!

I finally managed to get back to Mama Africa this year.  Previous blog posts cover this absolutely amazing Journey with Purpose.  I chose that particular trip because it ticked so many of the environmental and social sustainability boxes that I am trying to be mindful of in my travel choices.

On my bucket list, since always, is to visit East Africa, the birthplace of safari, so I constantly search in hopes that a perfect option and opportunity will arise.  I am looking for tourism organisations that focus on wildlife conservation, community conservation and sustainable practices in their delivery to guests.  My experience in Botswana tells me exactly what to look out for.

I have been following Asilia Africa on Instagram for a while now, and I find their authentic community conservation initiatives utterly inspiring.  Of course, their tourism offering looks stunning, too!  And Yellow Zebra Safaris appears to be a good bet to organise a truly caring, conservation-conscious safari in Kenya!  Their concern for solo travellers backs that up.

And so my journey dreams continue … next on my agenda is how to tackle the carbon footprint of air travel, especially from this part of the world?  For such a vast distance,  I’ll have to look further than contributing to the planting of thousands of trees.

I will finish off this rather long post with a thought-provoking excerpt from The Infinite Game – How to Live Well Together by Niki Harré:

“Well, changing the behaviour of other adults has always seemed to me both patronising and misguided. What we need, if we are going to promote human and ecological flourishing, is people working together on creative solutions, not experts training others like circus animals. The enormous beauty and power of our species lies in our capacity for collective innovation. It is an endless, uncertain task, improving this world of ours and trying to do so with love and joy. It takes both big, powerful players and small, discrete players each working within their sphere of influence – experimenting, adapting, and negotiating new practices; and the policies, laws and technological innovations that help hold these practices in place. We need to ignite that creative capacity in each other – not smother it with assumptions that ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ may be) know best.”

Image by Bitmoji App

 

What Breaks My Heart

I have been pondering this question over the week.  It is the first task in my Awakened Woman journal.

What breaks my heart is humanity’s disconnect with Mother Nature.  It seems to me that we could solve so many of our social and environmental ills if we could find this connection again.

What breaks my heart is how we cannot seem to live in harmony with wildlife in wild places as we once did.  What happened to being open to learning from Mother Nature?  For She has much to share with us about how we tread in this life.

In June we had World Giraffe Day.  In August it was World Elephant and World Lion Day.  September is World Rhino Month. And so it goes, on and on, each new day dedicated to another species in peril. 

The CITES CoP18 meeting took place in Geneva recently. The results of this conference of the parties was mixed.  While we can take some hopeful moments away for some species after this year’s conference, there is definitely still too much of a focus on wildlife as a commodity for my liking.

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater” JRR Tolkien

The climate crisis continues.  The Amazon is burning.  In a world where we are bombarded with what seem utterly hopeless and insurmountable odds, I want to share some examples that I know of – examples of what is still fair and where there is still love. 

The following are links to messages of hope that fill my inbox, make up the social media threads I follow and come from personal experience having met some of the individuals at the heart of these organisations and collectives.

Elephants Alive

Giraffe Conservation Foundation

Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation

Greta Thunberg

Council of Contributors

Sumatran Ranger Project

Rhino Conservation Botswana

Peace Parks Foundation

Earth Awareness

Blue Sky Society Trust

Dr Trang Nguyen

Last Wild Places

And many more… so I need to amend the statement I started with… not all humanity has lost that vital connection we have with Mother Earth.  There are still many of us who will continue to use our voices for the voiceless.

And even more than the above examples we need to be encouraged that every single individual action we take counts… we can make a difference for good at an individual level.  It is about the second thought you spare in your daily journey through life, being mindful of how your tread, what and how much you consume, how you dispose of waste.

It’s about how we need to rethink education and empower the next generations to make better choices than we have.

And please understand even if you don’t care about animals and wild places, the changes all these people of are working for are in our own best interests too – the survival of humanity!

And so what breaks my heart is what we’ve lost but in the same breath what shores up my heart and gives me hope is the countless daily actions of compassionate individuals.  It is this conservation collective that will keep the worst case scenarios at bay. Or so I choose to believe…

Extraordinary Voices: The Platter Project

Today is Nelson Mandela’s birthday – 18 July.  I chose today to share the story of this incredible woman, Di Wilkinson, because she has chosen to commemorate his birthday in her own amazing way.

Image from The Platter Project Facebook page

I stumbled upon Di Wilkinson’s story on social media.

Hoedspruit, South Africa holds a special place in my heart.  I spent many happy school holidays in that area as a kid.  The Drakensberg Escarpment provides a dramatic backdrop to the mixed bushveld plains that stretch eastwards.  The scenic Blyde River winds its way through the area bringing the waters from the escarpment down to these lowlands.  Interesting rock formations abound.  This unique mix of habitats supports a wide variety of flora and fauna.  It is a place of orchards – citrus, mango and macadamia.  It is also a place of game reserves and over the years has become a hub for conservation research and wildlife rehabilitation.  There are a number of wildlife rehabilitation centres and orphanages in this area.  I follow one of them, the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, on social media.  And this brings me back to Di Wilkinson of The Platter Project.

She is a wonderfully talented artist who produces these beautiful drawings.  Most are inspired by the wildlife of Southern Africa but as I mentioned at the start, she is currently sharing a special print with a portrait of the great Madiba.

I absolutely love her depictions of these three gorgeous southern African bird species – the Lilac-breasted Roller, the Carmine Beeater and the Masked Weaver … these hang in my home and bring my joy.

She “sells” these beautiful pieces – started on platters and is now mostly A3 prints.  All the money you pay for her art goes to charity.  Specifically charities focused on wildlife conservation, like the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, and organ donation.  A strange combination of causes to support, perhaps, but there is more to her story.

In June 2013 Di was diagnosed with kidney disease.  Serious kidney disease requiring dialysis five hours a day, three days a week.  Miraculously, in May 2018 she found a compatible donor and underwent a life-saving kidney transplant.

To think of all she has gone through during this time but not she has not given up on life, on her family, on her creativity, on her passion, on community.  In fact to still have that generosity of spirit that shares her talent with the world and using it to support lives outside of her own…. Di is a truly an extraordinary woman!

And there will be more to her story too.  She will be a partner, a mother, a daughter, maybe a sister, a friend – all those things that make us who we are.  But I suspect if we asked her she would simply say she was an ordinary woman just trying her ordinary best in space she finds herself.

I find her creativity spectacular.  I find her resilience inspiring.  I find her care and generosity moving.  I find her “voice” extraordinary.

Be well, Di Wilkinson 💚

Check out her beautiful work on Facebook – The Platter Project or on Instagram @theplatterproject.

Journey with Purpose: The Bigger Picture

What is the significance of finding your tribe?  You are in your element, time stands still leaving your open heart to soak up all you are experiencing, really seeing the people in front of you and really hearing their stories.  There might be no other purpose to this than for those people to be seen, to be heard.  But it could be that in this flow you are being given access to knowledge and understanding which moves you forward on your path.  For me those 14 days on our Journey with Purpose was the latter.  I feel compelled by all I have seen and heard to champion these stories, to spread the word about the incredible work of these passionate individuals working for wildlife and community.

Now I love nothing better than seeing the “bigger picture” and some of you reading will know how I love a good map!  And I didn’t see this straight away as we progressed through our itinerary, but I think I see it now…. What connects all our conservation and community stories from this expedition together is the increasing collaboration and building towards recognising the increasing value of Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCAs).

The Dream! Map source: https://www.peaceparks.org/about/the-dream/

Here is where I mention the Peace Parks Foundation.  Their single purpose is “to restore a tomorrow for life on Earth”.  Their dream – “to reconnect Africa’s wild spaces to create a future for man in harmony with nature.”  What does that look like in action?  Helping, guiding, supporting, facilitating TFCAs.  Creating a hub for a conservation collective in a particular region.  This hub transcends national borders and helps take these seemingly small, individual actions and bringing them together – the dragonfly effect

Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith are a husband and wife team who have applied what they term the dragonfly effect to using social media to affect social change.  Their book – The Dragonfly Effect: quick, effective and powerful ways to use social media to drive social change –  is an interesting read.  They talk about the dragonfly being the only insect to move deftly in any direction when all four wings work in unison.  This effect is similar to the ripple effect and is used in sociology, psychology and economic circles to show how small actions can create significant change.  While their focus is the use of social media, I think the effect applies to the situation I am describing here.

Greater Limpopo TFCA. Map source: https://www.peaceparks.org/tfcas/great-limpopo/

Our JWP01 South expedition took us into two significant TFCA areas – the Greater Limpopo TFCA and the Lubombo TFCA.  The people we got to meet and spend time with, the projects we got a little glimpse of on our journey were some of these small pieces working to their strengths and their passions.  Placed in the bigger picture of the TFCA landscape there is more than a little hope of significant, lasting change both for wildlife and wild spaces as well as the human communities coexisting here.

Lubombo TFCA. Map source: https://www.peaceparks.org/tfcas/lubombo/

For me this sort of hope is especially inspiring as I am on my own journey where I am currently planted to demonstrate how this dragonfly effect can work for conservation and community upliftment anywhere in the world.

The conservationist

Very introspective at the moment…. a middle age thing perhaps? Today I have been thinking about the label “conservationist”. I have thought of myself as a wildlife conservationist since I was probably 10 or 11 years old.

At 3 maybe 4 years old, sitting on the back steps by the kitchen door looking out over this part of the Highveld that would one day soon be taken over by the southern suburbs of Johannesburg.  Our house was one of the first in the new subdivision, still surrounded by the grassland and mixed acacia bushveld typical of this area.

It’s May on the Highveld and everything is tinder dry.  A black patchwork shows where the veld fires have been this season in the Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve just across the road from our house.  Walking through one of these patches bits of burnt grass crackling underfoot.  Then the dull thud of footsteps on dry, baked red earth.  But always life – the titter of a group of red-faced mousebirds in the acacia, the screech of the fiscal shrike, the various species of dove cooing, the flash of red from the black collared barbet darting by, a rustle in the grass maybe a snake or the flash of a tail as a mongoose disappears deeper into the bush and, of course, the black-shouldered kite sitting on the powerline surveying all.

As I got older we ventured further afield, driving during family holidays to protected spaces to witness this life, to immerse ourselves in it temporarily.  The most natural thing in the world, where else would you want to just BE? Kruger National Park, the Soutpansberg, the Drakensberg, Umfolozi, Mkuze, Karoo National Park, Tsitsikama National Park to name a few.

By the time I was a teenager being back at home in the big smoggy city felt strained.  I felt cut off from the natural world where I belonged.  Even in a city like Johannesburg where the wildness of Africa still finds its way in to the urban space, I still felt uneasy. And so I came to understand the fragmentation of wild spaces and how I would want to spend the rest of my life speaking for the voiceless.

What a strange journey it has been and continues to be… my conservationist journey.  It certainly hasn’t been a linear career path and there have been many times when I thought I had lost my way completely.  Thinking how could where I am and what I am doing right now possibly be about following my passion.  But what I have realised recently is that every apparent detour I have had along the way has equipped me with a rather unique world view.

It quickly became clear that my work was not going to be that of the traditional conservation ecologist.  I have had to come to terms with the educator within.  To work through the discomfort I feel as an introvert to relate to people of all ages and stages in the course of sharing one all important message – wild lives and wild spaces matter.

The upshot of all this is that the model of conservation I was immersed in as a child is no longer valid, if it ever was.  We cannot hope to make a difference for wildlife and wild spaces by putting fences up and keeping human communities out of the picture.  Wildlife conservation should be an everyday practice for all of us wherever we find ourselves on this planet.  We need to learn to live in harmony with the other living beings we share this planet with.

Sometimes in my more selfish moments I think over the incredible moments I have had in wild spaces and those magical close encounters with elephant, hippo, leopard, and cheetah – wild ones in wild habitat.  Not ones that I had to pay an awful lot of money for in a contrived 5 star luxury safari setting.

But more often I want people to have these sorts of magical encounters with wildlife in their own backyards so to speak.  Let it be a normal, everyday occurrence – reconnecting humanity back with nature.

These days my original passion for wildlife conservation feels closer, my course more true…. My journey as a conservationist continues…

Part of the journey – no entry road, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 2007

Ubuntu

A Zulu proverb referencing our humanity and connection to others

I have always loved this word – Ubuntu – the philosophy and the worldview behind it.

Here is a little reflection one month out from my upcoming African adventure.

I am not sure of a lot of things but one thing I am definitely sure of is that we are all connected. We impact each other every day for good or ill.

What I find particularly profound about Ubuntu is there is still room for individuality within this human story. To me this means that my actions count. Who I am and what I do makes a difference and is significant in the greater scheme of things. How empowering! This gives me hope in the face of all the tragedy and heart ache I see every day.

Taking this idea one step further I like to think of “we” as all the other living beings we share the planet with. I believe we are connected also. And while some groups of humans have not figured this out yet, I can be a voice for the voiceless. That tends to be what gets me out of bed in the morning, heading to work to teach conservation education to the next generation. A very urbanised, disconnected next generation.

And so I have been led to connect with people like Carla Geyser, founder of the Blue Sky Society Trust and organiser of the Journey with Purpose expedition I am embarking on in a month’s time. Here is woman who by her actions and what she has chosen to do believes in the power of Ubuntu. Definitely a kindred spirit!

Due to the ongoing effects of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, our itinerary has had to change. We will head further south. The original collaring project in Gile National Reserve will hopefully go ahead later in the year.

I also follow Dr Michelle Henley on social media through the work she does with Elephants Alive. Here is another individual dedicated to wildlife conservation but not leaving humanity out of the picture.

Obviously much of the focus in my news feed will be about my beloved corner of Mama Africa and the amazing individuals dedicating their lives to helping wildlife as well as communities of humans in this part of the world.

But I also work with passionate conservationists everyday. Check out this link to an amazing wildlife experience in Sumatra. The incredible woman who put this together is also a wife, mom, team leader, field conservationist and all round inspirational human being!

And I could go on and on with examples of humans who work everyday on the assumption of Ubuntu… our individual actions bringing us together, uniting us in our efforts to make the world a better place.

What I love about this is that conservation of wildlife and wild places can no longer be seen to separate humanity from the picture. We have to take this journey together, learn to live in harmony not just with each other but with all the species we share the planet with. It is a huge responsibility and we cannot see the kindness and compassion it takes as a weakness.

I will finish off with a mention that the fundraising efforts continue, even though the itinerary has changed. And again, I do know that we are all saturated with requests for money for a million different good causes… but maybe this one speaks to you? A bit of Ubuntu