• Ayan Mehra

The Conservation Conversation

Serene mountains, lively plains, dense wildlife. These are some of the things that rendered me speechless when I visited Kenya, the cradle of mankind. Lions roaring in the distance, behemoth elephants wallowing in mud baths, wakes of vultures feeding on carcasses. Though I had never been to Africa before, I felt a connection that almost resembled nostalgia. Perhaps it was because the very founding fathers of mankind had called this majestic environment home. I wonder if our ancestors, ever imagined that their life would change so dramatically.

Elephant In Mud bath

In the past decade alone nearly 500 species of animals have disappeared from the earth. We are at very real risk of losing the few, rich pockets of dense wildlife that remain in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Wouldn't it be a shame, if the place that cradled mankind in its infancy is lost forever? Wouldn't it be a shame if our origins are recklessly decimated by the prioritization of industrial advancement at any cost vs. balanced growth? Wouldn't it be a shame if the large ego of Homo sapiens ignores the cries of Nature? The truth is, Nature is more powerful than anything we imagine. The longer we ignore its pleas, the harsher its punishment will be.

Conservation & Habitat Loss

The protection of our planet is in our hands. Though it seems simple, preserving our planet's now rare places of abundant wildlife has proven to be a Sisyphean task. At first glance, it is hard to imagine why it is such a big challenge to just let our many diverse animal and plant species survive. But in truth, it is complex because of the sheer number of stakeholders in conservation - from local landowners, to large corporations to farmers and Governments. Finding a solution that works for everybody, while still protecting our animal population is challenging.

To get a professional perspective on the matter, I interviewed Nirmalaya Banerjee, the Owner and Manager of Porini Cheetah Camp in Kenya. Mr. Banerjee believes that habitat loss and poaching are the biggest risks to wildlife conservation in Africa. For some animals, like the rhino or elephant, poaching has decimated their populations because rhino horn and elephant tusk are valued for their supposed medicinal properties or aesthetic appeal. But for the vast majority of the other African wildlife, it is a competition with humans for living space.

Nirmalya Banerjee @ Porini Cheetah Camp

The reason that habitat loss is so prevalent, is because there is a real tension between humans who want the land for economic development vs. leaving it wild for animals to flourish. "Agriculture, logging, and mining are among the major causes of habitat destruction." Says the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance. When then territory of wildlife shrinks, the population shrinks.

In a report by WWF, they concur that "Habitat loss is probably the greatest threat to the variety of life on this planet today. It is identified as a main threat to 85% of all species described in the IUCN's Red List (those species officially classified as "Threatened" and "Endangered"). Increasing food production is a major agent for the conversion of natural habitat into agricultural land."

The obvious solution would be to stop encroachment into wildlife territory. However, as Mr. Banerjee notes, it would be difficult to convince people in Africa to give up their land that if developed for other purposes like agriculture, mining, logging or even pure industrialization, would represent much better economic gain, than leaving it for wildlife. Indeed, many developed countries that push for conservation in Africa, have themselves long depleted their own natural resources as they industrialized for economic gain. In the 1500s, North America was home to 60 million bison. Today there are only 500,000 left. The Tasmanian Tiger is extinct in Australia. And the list goes on.

A possible solution to this issue of habitat encroachment, could be to compensate the locals for the use of their land in protected reserves. Though this sounds simple, it may not be viable, as there is no clear source of funding to pay the millions of dollars needed to compensate people for the preservation of wild terrain. Therefore, perhaps a more practical approach is to convert the land into game parks that offer tourism.

Mr. Banerjee's own camp - Porini Cheetah Camp in Ol Kinyei Conservancy, Kenya - is a great example of eco-tourism, where the camp is in a conservancy rich with wildlife. The camp itself is designed to blend in as unobtrusively as possible with nature. The accommodation comprises of luxury, mobile tents that leave as little of a footprint on the environment as possible. They also use solar power for their electrical needs, and support water conservation by limiting the indiscriminate use of water in facilities like the shower. Most importantly the employment of knowledgeable Masai from the locality who are trained chefs, rangers and camp guides, make the experience both enjoyable and highly educational for anyone who visits; while providing important employment to the locals, giving them the first right to the wealth from their land. By paying conservancy fees to the local Government and by employing locals in the camp, the native population of the Ol KInyei area reaps the economic benefits from tourism, and starts to see protection of wildlife and their habitat as an attractive option from which to earn a livelihood. To learn more about the Porini Cheerah Camp, click here.

Conservation & Covid-19

During my interview with Mr. Banerjee, we also discussed the impact of Covid-19 on conservation. He says that Covid-19 and conservation will have love-hate relationship. In the short term, conservation has suffered, as tourism worldwide dried up. Tourism is the main source of income for game parks and reserves in Africa, which are the key engines of wildlife conservation. According to the UN, as of January 2021, tourism has declined by 74%. Charitable donations, another source of funding for wildlife conservation, is also suffering because people's discretionary income has taken a hit post Covid-19. On the other hand, "Covid-19 has reinforced the message that nature is far more powerful than humans.", says Mr. Banerjee. In the long run, he hopes that this message will help people realize how important wildlife is on our planet, and make some fundamental policy and lifestyle changes to protect our natural heritage.

In Conclusion

As a species, we need to find creative and innovative solutions to help clean up after the mess we have made on our planet. Covid-19 has been a reminder than we our in the hands of nature, not the other way around. The Earth has existed long before humans. But humans cannot exist, but on our one Earth.

Wildlife Sightings @ Porini Cheetah Camp

Enjoy some stunning wildlife photography by Nirmalaya Bannerjee @ Porini Cheetah Camp: