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…