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Wild Voices Project: the podcast for nature lovers

Wildlife photographers, authors, film makers, fundraisers and change-makers are all coming together to tell their stories — and they’re definitely worth hearing!

I am endlessly inspired by the people who dedicate their lives to protecting nature and wildlife across the globe, and fascinated by their stories. That’s why I became instantly addicted when I discovered the brilliant podcastWild Voices Project‘ by naturalist Matt Williams!

I am already a fan of podcasts and it seems I’m not alone. Figures from March this year show that 23% of people in the UK have listened to a podcast in the past month, and on average, podcast listeners spend 3.6 hours listening to podcasts in a typical week. I personally fall into the category of around that much a day — hungrily drawing on audio inspiration as I work at my desk.

So, given that I’m a bit of podcast addict, here are five good reasons why Wild Voices Project is certainly one to tune in to for all nature and wildlife lovers and those curious about science comms!

 

5 reasons to listen to Wild Voices Project podcast…

 

1. New and surprising people to discover…

Although I’ve spent a long time working in and around wildlife conservation, and I’ve met many fascinating people along the way, there’s always a desire to cast the net wider and find out about the work, issues and lifestyles of nature lovers far and wide. Or those under our noses that perhaps aren’t given the media attention they deserve.

For example, it was a treat to listen to an interview with Skywalker gibbon researcher Carolyn Thompson, (who previously won a Roots & Shoots award) after learning so much about Dr Jane Goodall‘s Roots & Shoots programme over the last few years.

Click the image above to have a listen

 

2. Real voices in their own words…

It is an incredible honour to tell the stories of the people who change our planet, I know this from my own years of blogging. But there’s something quite special about simply framing those stories and allowing the person at the centre to tell it themselves.

From the first episode I listened to — an interview with the wonderful late Dr Alan Rabinowitz that I discovered while further researching the jaguar hero after writing my blog post about him (which you can read here) — to some of the most recent recordings, including an interview with Racing Extinction Director Louie Psihoyos, I have found every podcast inspiring. The authenticity of hearing these conservation heroes telling their own stories in their own words really helps to connect you with their journey.

Click the image above to have a listen

 

3. Voices from very different fields…

“Volunteers, conservation staff, TV presenters, photographers, surveyers, amateur enthusiasts, moth lovers, butterfly netters, dragonfly illustrators, guano collectors and more. They are the people with amazing stories to tell who help wildlife to flourish,” the Wild Voices Project website states. It’s true that a wonderful and diverse range of conservationists are represented on this podcast. And I’ve certainly learnt a little something new about nature from every single one.

Tiffany Francis‘ interview about her book ‘Food You Can Forage‘ was certainly one of my favourite finds. It’s an area I wouldn’t have necessarily researched myself, but after listening to her talk, I genuinely have a new and unexpected interest in foraging!

Click the image above to have a listen

 

4. Doesn’t shy away from debate…

I must admit, I’m impressed with the way that podcast host Matt Williams encourages open and frank debate. Often in the wildlife and conservation world, controversy sparks heated social media arguments, but moving away from the written word gives us a chance to listen more calmly to those who have less popular views. I’ve enjoyed taking the time to listen to opinions that I don’t often hear voiced — or those which would be lost under a stack of heated opposition on Facebook. I was interested to hear Dr James Borrell‘s recent discussion on whether or not we should be focussing on wildlife within country borders (NB: he believes in looking at the wider ecology) and I respect his view that ‘more healthy disagreement is what’s needed to help secure environmental progress’. You can check that episode out below.

Click the image above to have a listen

 

5. New roving reporter…

Ok, this one’s a little cheeky — but I’m absolutely delighted to acting as a roving reporter for this brilliant podcast from time to time! As much as I absolutely love blogging and writing (for my day job at Nat Geo Kids), I’m excited to try out a different format and put my interview skills to the test. Of course I’m used to chatting to my conservation heroes, but it’s certainly a bit different for me to have people listening in! My first foray into this field; an interview with Dr Jane Goodall is live on the podcast now and can be listened to by clicking the link below.

Click the image above to have a listen

 

Do let me know what you think, and if you’ve found any other recommended nature and wildlife podcasts, by leaving a comment in the box below.

kate on conservation wildlife blog logo

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The Dominant Male: Guest post by young conservationist Bella Lack

This month’s guest blog post comes from 15-year-old wildlife campaigner Bella Lack. Bella describes her unforgettable close encounter with a male orangutan…

orangutan looks on with a solemn expression

The light had waned until the sky was a deep navy-blue.

We stood in the warm twilight of Borneo, in the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah. The orang-utans had made their nests for the night and the piercing wails of the cicadas that started at sunset were slowly abating into a background throb of noise.

We were in a small group with one guide. We sat outside the orphan nursery on a damp slope, binoculars being passed round, pressed tightly to eyes and then passed on again. We were watching as the flying squirrels made their ‘leap of faith’. They would come out from their nests and scurry up the tree until, with a sudden thrust, they would launch into the night, their large bodies silhouetted against the darkening sky.

This was when our group would let out a collective sigh of wonderment as we watched these cat-sized creatures elegantly soaring through the tangled canopy. It was then that we first heard it. The sound is unlike any other I had ever heard.

Dr Brigitte Spillmann has described it as ‘a series of long booming pulses and grumbles, which can be heard through more than 1 km of dense jungle.”

However, nothing can compare with the feeling of hearing this call. It reverberates through your body.

“If he had stayed quietly in his throne of leaves, we would have been unaware of the regal presence mere metres above us.”

Upon hearing this, the guide whispered frantically into his walkie talkie. Within moments, swarms of excitable guides were materialising, weaving their way through the trees with the nimbleness and grace that only experienced forest dwellers possess. We knew this was special. In the excitement, we soon interpreted that that the male had never been seen before. He was wild.

It is not unusual for a dominant male to leave his nest if he has been disturbed. Regretfully, he must have obviously felt unsettled by the throng of binocular wielding apes that stood searching for flying squirrels and so he abandoned his nest and began to ‘long call’ in an attempt to dissuade us.

If he had stayed quietly in his throne of leaves, we would have been unaware of the regal presence mere metres above us.

Orangutan anger!

He soon came down, his eyes ablaze with the anger that any human will know if they have been disturbed from deep sleep. His flanges protruded from his cheeks. His body was massive, drenched in thick orange hair. His hands were easily larger than my head and we watched in admiration as this king of the jungle attempted to proceed towards us.

Fortunately, the shoots that he used to try and swing towards were much too delicate for this mighty king. When his anger had heightened into a boiling rage, we were ushered away.

Yet, to this day, I can still see this indomitable being glaring at us through the foliage. It was an experience I could never forget.

Blog post first published on www.callfromthewild.com.

 

Bella Lack born free ambassadorBella Lack is a young conservationist and wildlife campaigner. She has a strong social media presence, which she uses to educate and inspire others concerning global wildlife issues to help educate others on critical problems and encourage them to take action. As well as running her own blog; callfromthewild.com, she is an ambassador for Born Free Foundation and The Pocket Pals AppShe is the youth organiser of the This Is Zero Hour London march, which empowers youth to lead the fight against climate change and will​ be speaking with other young naturalists at Birdfair on the 19th of August.Find her on Twitter: ​@BellaLack

 

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Killer whales in captivity: guest post by Ben Stockwell

My latest Kate on Conservation guest blog post explores the reality of orcas in captivity. Just two weeks after a new film detailing the story of Tokitae (renamed Lolita by Miami Seaquarium) was shared online, this post from Ben Stockwell was inspired by his Geography dissertation, and reminds us all why the issue of orca captivity is one we should still be talking about after the death of SeaWorld’s Tilikum.

Exploitation or Conservation Education?  

sea world tilikum

In 2014 I wrote my undergraduate Geography dissertation, entitled Killer whales in captivity: Exploitation or Conservation and Education?  Since then, public and media attention around the topic has soared as a result of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s incredible Blackfish released in 2013.

The documentary followed the life of SeaWorld’s prized bull orca, Tillikum, and his involvement in the tragic deaths of three people, highlighting the issues with keeping such large, intelligent animals captive along the way.  

Whilst publication of the topic is not in short supply, I couldn’t let this stop me (finally) sharing some of my findings. I have chosen to focus on my favourite section of the project, which looked at the pros and cons of anthropomorphising orcas (assigning them human characteristics). Now this might not seem like a good way of arguing for or against keeping orcas captive, but just bear with me.  

Humans certainly have a desire to label things, especially in ways that we can relate to. Take pets; we give them human names and assign them human characteristics. A good example is the viral sensation ‘Grumpy Cat’, whose underbite and feline dwarfism induced ‘grumpy’ face made her a social media sensation (she even has her own movie, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever!). By identifying animals, such as a (grumpy) cat, as having shared features and even emotions with us, we can empathise and relate to them, forming tighter bonds.    

In the case of SeaWorld, these bonds are developed via the naming of their orcas, say Tilikum, or even ‘Tilly’ for short. Additionally, the orca perform human actions throughout the show, splashing the crowd and blowing raspberries — a playful act that signifies their intelligence and further helps us empathise with them. They reinforce this message by referring to trainers and orcas as being part of ‘one really big family’ and each orca having a ‘unique personality’. 

Sea world, Florida

The shows combine anthropomorphisation of the orca with repeated messaging about our ‘one ocean’ that is under threat, which through ‘conservation and education’, ‘we’ can help to protect. I do actually think that these techniques will inspire many watching about the species and their natural habitats. You only need to look at dogs and cats, animals we have forever anthropomorphised, and look how well we treat them!  

However, this all needs to be considered in the context of these being wild animals living in unnatural circumstances. Suggesting they are ‘one big family’ is simply not true, as the artificial pods in captivity are often highly dysfunctional, comprised of individuals from sub-species thrown together in a small pool. The result is often raised levels of aggression towards each other (and humans), high levels of stress and abnormal behaviours.  

Similarly, applying human characteristics to animals, like names and human behaviours, hardly educates the public about orcas in the wild (or even the issues they face). Yes, being able to blow bubbles on command is impressive, but it’s not a natural behaviour that would occur without our interference. I think this provides very little educational value to the shows and whilst they do attempt to inspire the audience to relate to the orca, I would be very interested to know how many people go on to donate to conservation efforts as a result.  

In fact, it is highly likely that this form of consumptive tourism attributes to some of the issues orca face in the wild anyways. Think about the number of single-use plastics sold at SeaWorld – how many of those end up in in the marine environment? Even SeaWorld’s own orca have a legacy of damaging wild populations – the Southern Resident population is now Endangered, largely as a result of the 47 individuals killed or captured by the industry in the 60s and 70s. I suppose there is a strange irony that this staged spectacle is sold as a conservation and education tool, whilst it may well have contributed or is still contributing to the plight of wild killer whales (but this is a whole other section of my project, which I won’t bore you with!).

Ben Stockwell, Galapagos Conservation TrustBen Stockwell completed a degree in physical geography, focussing his dissertation on keeping killer whales in captivity, before going on to complete a Masters in Conservation Ecology. Working for Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, he gained experience in community engagement and urban conservation and is now working for the Galapagos Conservation Trust as the Communications and Membership Assistant.

 

Find out more about whale and dolphin conservation here: http://uk.whales.org/

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Gorillas in the wild; and how to help them stay that way! — Guest post by Dan Richardson

Last month saw the exciting announcement that the Remembering Wildlife book series, responsible for the highly acclaimed Remembering Elephants and Remembering Rhinos titles, will be dedicating this year’s follow up book to Great apes. To date, the Remembering Wildlife series has raised more than £275,000 for the conservation of its highlighted species. Here, Ambassador to the book series, Dan Richardson, talks about his recent trip to Africa with Remembering Wildlife Founder Margot Raggett; his thoughts on the profound experience of seeing great apes in the wild and shares some of his incredible photographs from the encounters.

Gorilla eyes, Rwanda, photo by Dan Richardson

Rwanda and her people are truly astounding. Apart from the incredible wildlife, particularly the gorillas — which were the primary reason for being there — it’s a country that’s utterly unique in Africa.

The progressiveness would be quite an achievement for any country anywhere in the world, but for one with a recent history as dark as Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, it’s absolutely remarkable.

There’s a lot I need to learn about the Rwanda and how they’ve come from such tragedy to where they are today, but it’s certainly a fascinating country, and one I’ll definitely be visiting again.

Great ape species are in terrible trouble in many places, but they aren’t perhaps as iconic or immediately obvious as the likes of elephant, rhino and lion.

I travelled to Africa with Margot Raggett, Founder of Remembering Wildlife to close the loop on some rhino conservation projects that had been funded through the Remembering Rhinos book, via the Born Free Foundation.

That was the retrospective part of the trip, and then looking ahead, we made plans to encounter some great apes, including gorillas, in the wild.

I’m an ambassador for Margot’s wonderful series of books. Great apes being the next in the series (following Remembering Rhinos and Remembering Elephants. It’s a really fantastic idea and it emphasises Margot’s determination to put attention where it’s needed, where it might not automatically go.

What Margot achieves with her books, in terms of raising both funds and awareness, is exemplary and invaluable. The prestigiousness of the campaign and the traction it has already gained in the conservation world is indicative of that.

My role is basically to use whatever platform I have to shine a little more light on Margot’s extraordinary work and it is such a great honour to do that and to be involved with the Remembering Wildlife series in any way.

Remembering Great Apes - cover photo by Nelis Wolmarans

Remembering Great Apes – Cover photo by Nelis Wolmarans

The first time I saw great apes in the wild was in Tanzania, just a few days before going to Rwanda. Specifically, I was at an unimaginably beautiful lodge called Greystoke Mahale in the Mahale Mountains National Park to see chimpanzees. This is a genuinely wild and completely isolated place on the edge of Lake Tanganyika. It’s like going back in time. No roads, no people, nothing but pure, unadulterated nature.

The trek to get to see chimps was a fairly arduous one — apparently about two hours or so of steep incline — but I was so gripped by the surroundings that it went pretty quickly. There’s no guarantee of actually reaching or seeing them, and that’s exactly as it should be. But the feeling upon first setting sight, and as it turned out, hearing, them was sheer elation.

There’s something surreally beautiful about being so far out there in totally unspoiled nature and coming across a family of these incredible, sentient creatures living wild and free. It’s all added to massively by the fact that they look right back, I mean really look at you. It’s quite extraordinary.

With the chimpanzees all visitors are required to wear a surgical mask, to protect the chimps from our illnesses as opposed to the other way around.

There are also rules relating to the distance that must be maintained. This varies from place to place and species to species but whatever it is, the guides keep a close eye on that and instruct you to move back if necessary.

Of course the apes don’t know or care about the rules so every once in a while a very close encounter can happen…as was the case with me with both chimps and gorillas.

They are free to roam far and wide, and they do. Unsurprisingly they can move significantly faster and more efficiently than we humans, so it’s good to know any encounter is always on their terms to that extent.

Observing these wonderful animals is done very respectfully by keeping groups small and limiting time with the animals to a maximum of one hour a day — that’s if you even find them in the first place.

Even at the required distance though, seeing these creatures in their natural habitat and having the privilege of spending a little time with them is absolutely unforgettable. I was moved to tears by it more than once.

*****

Great apes in captivity

I’m vehemently against any captivity and have been since long before seeing gorillas, or any other species, in the wild. Despite what some establishments claim about creating an environment as close to natural as possible, this is simply never achieved.

Not that it should be necessary, but when you spend a bit of time in the mountain forests and experience the vastness first-hand, seeing the ability these animals have to move freely over such huge distances, you understand in no uncertain terms just how far off the mark captivity really is, how cruel it is. It’s not comparable. Not remotely.

Gorilla mother and baby photographed in the wild in Rwanda, how it should be.

There are a very limited number of exceptions where, for example, a certain animal may be in some form of captivity for genuinely unavoidable reasons. Animals born into and rescued from a ‘life’ in the circus, for instance. An animal like that will either end up in a sanctuary or be put to sleep because release into the wild simply isn’t an option for an animal that has no idea how to be wild.

In those instances it has to be about the welfare of the animal before anything else, and it’s easy to tell the difference. A true sanctuary doesn’t involve a stream of gawping tourists with flash cameras.

In the case of gorillas, it’s glaringly obvious that zoos in cities around the world don’t hold gorillas captive in the name of sanctuary or conservation. They do so because they draw a crowd and help the zoo to turn a profit.

The outdated ‘education’ argument also falls flat.

We live in a world of high definition TV’s and award-winning, ground-breaking documentaries, any of which will teach you more about the natural behaviour of an animal than any zoo could ever do, just as you wouldn’t learn much about natural human behaviour by observing a person confined to a prison cell.

Whether it’s gorillas we’re talking about or any other species, it seems to me that at some point in history we humans got so caught up with what we could do that we stopped asking ourselves whether we should.

I just hope with all my heart, for the sake of the countless animals suffering such a miserable fate, that humans evolve beyond the unthinkable selfishness of captivity.

Similarly to the other titles in the series, the production of the Remembering Great Apes book will be funded by a Kickstarter campaign: Click here to make a pledge

 

Dan Richardson

Dan Richardson is an actor, wildlife activist and proud vegan. A Patron of Born Free Foundation and Voices For Asian Elephants Society and an Ambassador for International Aid for the Protection & Welfare of Animals (IAPWA), Angels For The Innocent and Remembering Wildlife; Dan is a prolific animal advocate and passionate fundraiser for charities supporting animals both wild and domestic. Follow his incredible work online here.

Uniting some of the world’s best wildlife photographers to raise funds for the protection of these species in the wild; this book will represent chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos and will be guest edited by great ape expert Ian Redmond OBE

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Reflecting on a gentle nature

Lately, I have found myself in a reflective state of mind. Reflecting on my work, my goals, the small successes of the campaigns I’ve joined (Sea World agreeing to end the breeding of its captive whales); the near misses (the slow progress of the UK government in deciding whether to close the domestic trade in ivory); and the complete misses (never getting to see Tilikum free of his Sea World enclosure, CITES not delivering lions with Appendix I protection, etc.).

I suppose it can weigh heavy.

In need of a little pick-me-up, my thoughts went to the beginning —in fact, before the beginning —to the chain of events which began the ripple that would eventually flow into the creation of this sea of words; articles; posts.

It begins with the memory of murdered photographer Julie Ward, whose book, ‘A Gentle Nature’, I won in a raffle many years ago.

Below is a vlog I made a few years back, explaining who Julie Ward is and a little bit about her tragic story.

 

This is the book mentioned, which captured my interest in the Born Free Foundation and wildlife photography and was one of the inspiring factors which made me travel to South Africa to volunteer.

gentle nature

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I had chosen to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve because it is home to two Born Free Foundation sanctuaries for rescued big cats, and one of these rescue centres was opened in Julie Ward’s memory.

Shamwari friends with Kate

Celebrating a job well done with my fellow Shamwari volunteers at the Born Free Foundation”s Julie Ward Education Centre.

Since that vlog was filmed, a further development arose in the Julie Ward murder case, where new DNA evidence brought detectives a step closer to finding her killers.

The following video shows a news report from BBC News in the East of England. I must apologise for the quality of the video and give pre-warning that to get the most from the video, it will require viewers to turn the volume to full. It was recorded on simple digital camera by my ever-supportive parents, and emailed to me during my year in Australia, so that I could watch it online from overseas.

 

Back in 2013 I even designed my own mini Go Go Gorilla to send out to Born Free‘s Julie Ward Education Centre at Shamwari.

The basic elements of my design were my Shamwari work t’shirt from my time as a volunteer there, the Born Free Foundation logo, and an image of Julie ward herself. Such were the reaches of their influence.

photo(9)

It’s wonderful to reflect on my own locality, and how where I grew up ultimately had an influence on ‘how’ I grew up. There are so many wonderful figures who have inspired my path into gentle nature and compassion conservation.

Those that I’ve followed throughout my life are: the late Joy Adamson (writer of the Born Free autobiographical tale of Elsa the lioness, and its sequels) and George Adamson (Joy’s husband, who had a lifetime of incredible conservation work in his own right, rehabilitating captive lions, such as Boy and Christian back into the wild) and the late Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (who founded the Born Free Foundation with their son Will Travers, and whom played the roles of Joy and George Adamson in the Born Free movie).

I would also, like many people, have to cite David Attenborough in my list of conservation heroes whose footprints I would love to walk in. I am so grateful that, in blogging, I have found a way to honour those idols and to continue to grow in the shared goals; in all their triumphs, near misses, and total knock-outs.

 

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UK Blog Awards 2016 — Kate on Conservation, Highly Commended!

Energy. Energy was flowing (even more so than the free Prosecco) as some of the best storytellers, communicators and leaders of trends gathered together in Westminster for the UK Blog Awards 2016 on Friday.

The UK Blog Awards provide a unique opportunity for individuals to be recognised for their social media achievements through blogging; they provide recognition with a chance to network and be inspired by other industry bloggers, as well as connect with new audiences.

blog awards screen

What a surreal honour it was to find myself among such a high calibre of writers — not to attend lecture or panel talk, as I often do, to hear the words of those more wise and worldly thank myself — but as an equal; myself a Finalist in this prestigious competition.

This year’s Finals were particularly special, as the UK Blog Awards introduced a new section, expanding beyond its fashion, beauty, lifestyle, marketing and PR norms to include Green & Eco (under which conservation falls), so even this in itself feels like positive progression in my eyes.

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 00.31.10

For me, this was the most important part of the evening — that so many important issues had the opportunity to be showcased. There were so many fantastic and meaningful blogs to discover!

I’m an avid follower of blogger Wildlife Kate, who blogs about her Staffordshire garden and the wildlife that visits there, so I was honoured to find myself in the Finalist list alongside her. Kate also keeps a blog for Michael Drayton Junior School about using wildlife to learn, which was Highly Commended in the Education Category! Well done Kate!

Meeting fellow blogger Wildlife Kate

Meeting fellow blogger Wildlife Kate

***

My aim has never been to be a ‘blogger’, the goal when I started this was to be a campaigner and educator, spreading the word on things I felt weren’t receiving the coverage they should have been, and to inspire younger people to take an interest in the need for conservation.

By admitting my own misconceptions and ignorance at times (I’ve visited SeaWorld, petted a lion, seen elephants perform in Indonesia…), I have hopefully struck a different note, a passive voice who speaks from experience, but has now become knowledgeable enough to trust: and my blog follows that journey into knowledge and education.

I began my blogging as part of a university course, which required that I create four different types of post during the semester. I was asked, when I pitched my idea to the class, whether there would be enough to write about on the topic of conservation to fill the semester. Five years later, I continue to write regular updates on the site, have met some of my biggest idols and inspirations to discuss world-changing issues, and have done my best to spread the word on compassionate conservation; that is, to use cases and examples of individuals to promote a bigger conservation message.

Even so, the surprise that this one-time reluctant blogger felt when UK Blog Awards’ host for the evening, Kate Russell, announced I’d been Highly Commended by judges Miranda Johnson (Environmental Correspondent for The Economist) and Iain Patton (Founder and Director of Ethical Team) was tremendous! Especially to be recognised alongside the incredible work of Wildlife Gadget Man Jason Alexander, and category Winner: Make Wealth History!

Highly commended

What an honour! This truly is a one-woman site, with posts being constructed in my spare time around busy working hours. It’s entirely not for profit, no sponsors or advertising revenue, so to go so far in this competition sincerely means a lot to me, and gives a further purpose to all those hours dedicated to bringing important conservation and wildlife issues to light.

award certifcate 2

Thank you so much to all those who voted for me in the earlier stages of this competition, and to all those who’ve enjoyed being on this journey with me —who’ve found information, comfort, or even challenge in some of the posts I’ve written (I try to blog from the heart, with honesty and integrity — I understand that people may not always agree with my views, and as with many issues and solutions, there are various schools of thought as to ‘best practice’ when it comes to conservation).

As humans though, it is our responsibility and indeed duty to maintain and protect our planet’s wildlife and its environment. It is our duty to sustain the areas of nature that we, as a species, have largely caused the decline and endangerment of. Although putting our efforts into conservation sadly cannot reverse the destruction that our planet has already undergone, we can however, preserve and repair that which we are left with.

Imagine a world where a lion’s roar can never be heard rumbling across the plains of Africa.

Imagine that those plains once filled with colourful birds, galloping antelope and chattering monkeys will one day lie quiet and desolate.

Imagine that the only way our children or grandchildren may see those animals is from pictures in a book. Only we can make the choice of whether we continue to have these beautiful animals in our world, or whether we will stand back and watch them disappear. I want my blog to become a source material for documenting all the positive ways we are making change, and to become a diary of the turning points in conservation during my lifetime.

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What’s it like to work at a game reserve in South Africa?

Volunteering report: Shamwari Game Reserve & Born Free Foundation’s big cat sanctuaries

Before there was blogging…

Or perhaps at least before sites such as WordPress made the platform available to all (blogging was regarded as something more like a social media site, anyone remember BEBO? – Blog Early, Blog Often), I look a gap year after completing my A-Levels, and headed off to South Africa alone, a mere two weeks after my 18th birthday.

There were no ‘insta feeds’, photo filter apps; iPhones were for the extremely well off, and camera phones were such poor quality and required such a hard to come by blu-tooth connection before you could download your snaps that it made far more sense to own a stand alone digital camera. I don’t know whether they were better or simpler times, but I do know you had to be a lot more selective over the photos you felt were worth editing, and a lot more determined if you were going to find a platform for your work.

Naturally, a journal-keeper and documenter of things; I had to write about the experience.

I kept a diary of every day spent travelling and working, and wrote a summary report on the benefits of volunteering abroad, for my local education authority as a means to inspire others from my not-so-privileged hometown to aspire to such an adventure themselves, after I successfully applied for a £250 grant towards the otherwise self-funded £5,000 trip. (Mostly achieved through part time work in retail, and the unspent funds gained from the sale of an extremely rare ‘beanie baby’ card about 9 years prior).

The report was part of my grant agreement and I poured over it for days after I got home; carefully cutting borders from print-outs of my own photography at the reserve (before blogs, borders and ‘WordArt’ meant you were serious about your work and its presentation…) and painfully minding my handwriting, so as not to screw up the clarity of a word, and have to cross it out which would have certainly spoiled the piece!

Although I do not hold exactly the same views as I did back then (I read the report now and look at the photographs with a much wiser, more informed understanding), I thought it would be quite nice to share the little-seen, rarely read, ramblings of a just-returned from the adventure of a lifetime, determined to change the world 18-year-old version of myself. Enjoy!

Shamwari Report page 1

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In the spirit of Elsa, Christian and Cecil

‘Animal activist’ is never a title I’ve given myself, but it’s one that’s been applied to me on a few occasions recently and suppose in many senses of the word, it’s true.

I never intended to caught up in the world of politics – governmental nor organisational, but I’m beginning to understand that the deeper you delve, the harder it is to bury your head in the sand.

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Saturday night I attended ‘An evening for the lions’ at St Pancras Church, held by the wonderful charity Lion Aid. The event was a mixture of music, poetry and celebrity speeches, interspersed with video messages from prominent conservation figures, including the likes of BBC Wildlife Magazine’s number 1 conservation hero; and star of the late producer; Bill Travers’ documentary series The World of Animal Behaviour: Dr Jane Goodall.

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Understandably the story of Cecil was a driving force of the evening; a vehicle for raising the issues of trophy hunting and canned lion hunting — practises that have long been happening, and equally long been protested against (I campaigned against this very issue in April this year) — and Cecil’s story provided a great introduction to rousing speeches from the likes of Game of Thrones star James Cosmo and Born Free Foundation’s very own Dominic Dyer; a regular voice in the ‘animal activism’ world.

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Cecil is, of course, not the first lion to capture the world’s imagination, but such individuals that play so wonderfully into the hands of ‘compassionate conservation’ approaches, like that adopted by Born Free Foundation (focussing on the individual cases to highlight population need) only come around once in a blue moon, and in a bittersweet way, they provide a brilliant means by which to help children understand some of the things that are happening in the world — something I am very proud to be a part of in my job.

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There are two other such individual lions who spring to mind for having captured the world’s imagination and driven the conservation message in ways most animal campaigners pray for: Elsa, of Born Free fame — her famous rehabilitation from hand-reared cub to Joy and George Adamson’s global beacon of hope that once-captive animals can learn how to be wild —and Christian, ‘the Harrods lion’; famous for his wild reunion with former owners Ace Bourke and John Rendall.

Four and a half decades later, the moment captured by Born Free actor — and Born Free Foundation co-founder, Bill Travers, for his documentary: Christian: The Lion at World’s End, went viral on social media.

Having met John Rendall at Pride in the Park last year, it was fantastic to see him again at the inspiring Lion Aid event last weekend, for which he shared memories of his time with Christian and the formidable force that was George Adamson’s life and spirit.

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Hearing the heartfelt calls for action, teamed with the beautiful ‘Draw out the lion in you’ artwork on display, created by children and the odd celebrity, I found myself reconnecting with the roots of why conservation is so important to me, and forgetting all the about the ‘politics’ of animal activisim.

I’ve really enjoyed exploring the link between a love for wildlife and creating ‘animal art’ recently, having visited a long admired artist, Pollyanna Pickering’s, Summer exhibition earlier in the year and holding my own World of Wildlife exhibition in July, which contained artwork created over the last 10 years (pictured below).

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Going back to these roots and thinking about spreading conservation messages creatively, rather than politically, has been an exciting experience and one that definitely seems to inspire me.

Entries to the children's art competition, held as part of my exhibition

One of the young visitors to my exhibition last month, submitted a wonderful ‘zentangle’ lion drawing (shown above) to the 10 – 16 year old category art competition, judged by Will Travers. Following the exhibition she also created a zentangle re-imaging of the Born Free logo.

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Katie Parfett’s work and new interest in Born Free Foundation really touched me, and I decided to do an ‘artwork exchange’; sending her one of my original drawings in exchange for permission to hang copies of her (featured) pieces in my house; as my way of celebrating World Lion Day.

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The satisfaction of such a pure way of exchanging interests; away from internet logins and NGO (non-governmental organisations) disputes, has also seen me return to a former project I worked on in my mid-teens — a Big Cat study inspired by BBC’s Big Cat Week that turned from a simple after school project into a 200-odd page study complete with hand-drawn diagrams and eagerly collected photography and illustrations.

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Inevitably, with about five-planned pages to go, my GCSEs took over and the project got shelved. Ten years later, I feel both compelled (thanks to Lion Aid’s evening for lions) and inspired (thanks to a renewed interest in artwork) to finally finish it. And if the politics of being an ‘animal activist’ become distracting, I can always turn to the words of Virginia Mckenna in her autobiography, The Life in My Years:

“I have a second family, many of whom I have travelled with the past quarter of a century. My Born Free family. Elsa, the lioness, is the true mother of this family. We are her children, her descendents, her messengers, carrying her story and her spirit with us into people’s minds and hearts. Or trying to. Some people welcome us. Some are confused. Others stare, uncomprehending. Others show their contempt. Or laugh. It is of no consequence.”

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World of Wildlife Art Exhibition: In support of elephants

Shifting its weight from one foot to another, the beautiful, gentle giant is like the bulkiest, heaviest dancer you’ve ever seen. But it’s not dancing.

“That’s how it takes some of the weight off of its feet”
“That’s how it cools down in the summer”
“That’s what they do when they’re waiting to be fed”
keepers chorus. They’re all lying.

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Her eyes tell the truth. Her name is Mali and she’s rocked and swayed alone in her cell for almost 40 years.

Maternal creatures, social creatures, beings that love and grieve and not only remember their dead existed, but also when they died; where they died.

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When the Nazis used solitary confinement to send their prisoners slowly mad is was called barbaric. When it happens in zoos we call it entertainment, amusement, an attraction…

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When Born Free Foundation announced their ambitious plans to build an elephant sanctuary in Europe, I cheered a little inside!

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My response on the outside?

On 3rd July I held my first ever independently planned, organised and executed art exhibition – to raise funds for the cause – hosted at the Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford, which was formerly my high school building.

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It took six weeks for the entire thing to materialise from start to finish, and in the end included a launch event with live music from Nick Stephenson, a charity raffle, a tombola stand, a cake stall and a children’s art competition with two categories (under 10s and 10-16 years old) and prizes provided by local organisation ZEBRA TM, who work closely with a number of charities. They also provided refreshments on the launch night, with their Managing Director Warren Short delivering a speech, and their ZEBRA mascot handing out the prizes to the lucky winners.

Although it was brilliant to sell art work, exhibit works by Thetford Sketch Club’s Kevin Moore and Thetford Cartoon Club’s Danielle Adams, and hand out great raffle prizes (provided by: Charles Burrell Centre, Centre Stage Dance School, Zak’s diner, Chilterns, Pruce Newman Pipework, Discovery Education, Nick Stephenson Music, Carol Petch, Mary Matthews, Rosemary and Christopher Snowdon and myself); the most fulfilling part of the exhibition, for me, was collecting and displaying the young people’s art work.

There were 18 entries to the upper age group category, many from Thetford Grammar School and the Thetford Sketch Club, and seven entries to the younger ones’ competition, so hopefully there are now 25 children that are now aware of the Born Free Foundation and thinking about animals!

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Will Travers and Cher Chevalier of Animals Actually ltd., were on hand to judge the competition, with Cher even sending over special treats for each of the younger category entrants!

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I’ve included their judges’ comments below:

Will Travers, Born Free Foundation President and 10-16s art competition judge:

I have gone for Charlotte Ogilvie as the winner. “There is something other-worldly about Charlotte’s artistic vision. It captures the fragile nature of the Arctic and the sense that its Polar bears may not survive for much longer unless we reverse global warming. Thought-provoking. Congratulations Charlotte.”

The runner up is Charlie Trowel. “This is a sophisticated work of art with a ghostly feel. Charlie uses colour in a different and original way with great attention to texture that delivers a real sense of wild nature. Well done Charlie.”

Katie Parfett was chosen as 2nd runner for the style and detail of her drawing of a lion.

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Cher Chevalier, Animals Actually Founder and Under 10s art competition judge:

Well done to all of you who entered the Under 10s Art Competition!! We love all of your pictures, and we had a tough job selecting our favourite! But here goes ….. drum roll …. the Winner of the Under 10s Competition is: Maisy aged 3. CONGRATULATIONS MAISY!! Your picture of a Pig is fabulous!!” HOORAY

With the competition winners announced, live music complete and raffle prizes drawn, I finished the evening off with a screening of the incredible short documentary; The Elephant in the room, with the permission of Producer Amanda Gardner.

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Watching the powerful film projected up onto the wall amongst the artworks really brought home the motivation for holding the exhibition.

With that message in mind, the works remained in place for a further week, until the 10th July.

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Over £250 was raised, but perhaps more importantly, the work of Born Free was highlighted and the plight of the beautiful Mali, and other elephants like her, has touched a few more hearts.

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A wonderful success all round!

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‘Wild Neighbours’ with Sir David Attenborough and Gordon Buchanan

In hushed awe, the crowd at the Rose Theatre in Kingston listened attentively as Sir David Attenborough, legendary TV naturalist, led the way at the Environment Trust for Richmond’s annual lecture.

Titled ‘Wild Neighbours’, the event examined what happens when animals living wild in the UK collide head first with busy, urban environments. IMG_8398Sir David examined the issue of non-native species being introduced… and flourishing… on our shores (such as the now firmly established Canadian goose, the green parakeet and grey squirrel) and how they can impact the native species that claimed the land first. IMG_8401I was surprised to learn the long-accepted wives’ tale that red squirrels and grey squirrels are competing for food, is in fact incorrect. Instead, the red squirrel actually faces bigger threat from the pine martin (incidentally a nemesis of its grey counterpart, too) than the grey squirrel.

Often what happens when a non-native species is introduced to Britain (nearly always by the deliberate decision of humans) is that when its numbers climb too high, we take it upon ourselves to ‘control population’… through culling.

This is a fate that the afore mentioned green parakeet has faced on more than one occasion. When pressed, Attenborough conceded that he actually welcomes the parakeet to the UK.

Next to take the stand was renowned wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan.

Through real life anecdotes and humorous videos, Gordon relayed the plight of the urban fox. IMG_8409 As well as talking the audience through the life cycle of a fox (born in March; first emerges from the den in April; weaned in May; leaves den in June; before being kicked out of the family unit in November), Buchanan spoke of why they find themselves living amongst our cities and towns: we ate into their habitat after WWII.

The two admissions that intrigued me most from Gordon, however, were slight tangents from his talk about foxes; his opinions on reintroduction and intervention. IMG_8412 These two concepts seem to leave the nature world divided as to just how much we should ‘interfere’.

Given that people pay no mind to introducing non-native species to the UK, such as the parakeet (and then culling them for crisis control purposes), or taking away habitats, such as that of the fox; it intrigues me that whether or not we should reintroduce lynx and wolves to Scotland sparks such discussion (though for the record, it didn’t spark to much discussion at all from Gordon himself, who quickly declared himself as believing it will ‘pay off economically’).

The area that Buchanan did seem to struggle with having a definitive opinion on, however, was whether or not a wildlife filmmaker should ‘just let nature take its course’.

I’m sure we’ve all seen those heart-wrenching moments on BBC wildlife series’ where an animal becomes separated from its family unit and is left stranded/lost/alone with no food and no hope for survival – and have shouted at the screen: “help him! Why can’t you help him?!”

But when should a filmmaker intervene?

“I used to think; never” Gordon admits, ‘but over time my view has changed and softened a bit.”

“Now I think it sometimes can be ok. If you’re looking at something that is a direct results of humans (such as the clip he shows up of a fox cub with its head stuck in a Pringles can), I think it’s fine. I just wouldn’t go as far as stroking a wild animal, or treating it like a pet.”

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