Interview with Charlotte Uhlenbroek
If you had to choose a destination that you feel is an important natural world location, where would it be?
The Serengeti in Tanzania. As a child I travelled through it frequently with my family and it always felt like an amazing adventure. In those days there were very few tourists and you really felt alone in true wilderness. Our visits sometimes coincided with the wildebeest migration – a truly remarkable spectacle of vast numbers of wildebeest, as well as zebra, impala, eland and gazelles moving across the landscape as far as the eye can see, driven on relentlessly by the need to find fresh grazing and water. At night we would camp and hear lions roaring close by. If our vehicle broke down or we needed to change a tyre (which happened a lot) we were acutely aware of our vulnerability but also had a strong sense of self-reliance that was very liberating. Its size alone makes Serengeti incredibly important as an ecosystem. The name comes from the Masai “serengit” which means the land that runs on forever. It is nearly 15,000 square miles (and in fact contiguous with Kenya’s Masai Mara) - a truly vast and remarkable area encompassing the Ngorongoro crater, the rift escarpment and Lake Manyara.
What has been your best natural world experience to date?
For pure exhilaration I would say snorkelling with humpback whales off the east coast of Australia and meeting a silverback gorilla for the first time in Rwanda. But the most powerful and moving experience was gaining the trust of wild chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania. When I first went to Gombe I was working to habituate the northern, Mitumba, community of chimpanzees. It took years to gain their trust but when eventually a young female called Rafiki came and trustingly sat down a few metres away from me and quietly groomed her infant son I was so touched I nearly cried for joy.
What high priority conservation challenges do you feel the natural world is facing at the moment?
One of the urgent challenges we face is to fight wildlife crime; illegal wildlife trade, poaching, mining, logging and habitat destruction are responsible for rapidly declining wildlife populations worldwide. Education programmes and proper funding are urgently needed to develop adequate policing and enforcement structures.
Creating wildlife corridors is also a very high priority. As natural habitats are increasingly fragmented, a large proportion of remaining wildlife exists in ecosystems that are too small and isolated to be sustainable in the long term (even in those areas that are formally and properly protected).
I also think there must be more effort focused on enabling local people to benefit directly from the wildlife on their doorstep, together with financial incentives for governments, especially in the developing world, to actively protect their remaining natural habitat and wildlife. I am not an economist but it seems to me that one way of doing this is to develop economic systems where value is added to resources/raw materials in the country of origin rather than on the other side of the world.
Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely help preserve the natural world?
I am a great believer in the power of ordinary people to effect change. Sustainable wildlife tourism is vital to protecting many wild places – a great many of the places I’ve visited to film wildlife are largely dependent on revenue from tourism. But tourism can be a fickle source of income - civil unrest, terrorism, changing exchange rates can bring tourism to an abrupt halt in some parts of the world, so people need to aid wildlife protection in other ways too, such as by supporting charities or buying fairly traded goods that encourage the sustainable use of natural resources. Educating ourselves about what the pressures are on wildlife and the environment makes us much more effective at campaigning and supporting conservation projects. We must also individually ensure that we use our purchasing power to protect rather than damage the environment.
Do you have a single defining moment when you knew that you would develop your passion into a career? What would you say to people looking to do the same?
My childhood in Nepal, and especially the holidays spent trekking in the Himalaya, certainly encouraged my love of the natural world. Some time, around the age of eight, I discovered that the musk deer in Nepal were being poached for musk oil and I was horrified. I had been happily oblivious to the threats that face wildlife up until then, but from that time onwards I was a committed conservationist who knew that in some capacity I was going to work with wildlife. I wholeheartedly encourage people to follow their dreams – with the right determination there is always a way.
Who is your Natural World Hero and why?
If I am allowed ‘heroes’ rather than just one hero I think I would like to nominate the Baka people, hunter-gatherers of the Central African rainforest. I’ve met many people all over the world who are making a real difference to conservation and they all deserve recognition, and many indigenous peoples who still live in balance with nature but the Baka are special. I’ve never come across people who seemed so joyfully at home in the natural world. It appears that the forest provides them not only with everything they need, but also with everything they want.
Who is doing important work ‘on-the-ground’? Who are the next generation of Natural World Heroes?
Fauna and Flora International (FFI) are very effective in finding sustainable solutions to protecting wildlife by taking into account the needs of local people. I have also seen the success of both the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) projects in the field. The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) has had great success with its Roots & Shoots programme in many countries, which involves local children and young people in conservation initiatives – a future generation who’s work to date gives me real optimism. The Ape Alliance is a coalition of some 80 organizations involved in great ape conservation in the field. It’s a great model that extends the reach and magnifies the voice of its member organizations enabling coordination of projects, exchange of information and collective lobbying. I am also a big fan of the Whitley Fund for Nature. Although WFN itself does not have projects in the field it gives awards and funding directly to grassroots conservationists in developing countries who are effecting real change by developing innovative projects. Last year for example one winner was Shivani Bhalla and her ‘Warrior Watch’ programme that reduces human-lion conflict in Kenya by enabling previously marginalized young Samburu warriors to become directly involved in monitoring lions, educating communities and protecting livestock. Another winner was Stoycho Stoychev who has brought Imperial Eagles back from the brink of extinction in Bulgaria by helping farmers to apply for grants and implement agri-environmental measures that conserve eagle habitat and boost their own income. I hope the new generations of wildlife heroes will increasingly come from this crop of committed and dynamic people working on the frontline.
Rainforest, desert, savannah and mountains – where do you feel most at home?
Savannah and mountains - both places that I spent a lot of time as a child. I love big skies – I’m a very keen star gazer.
How can travellers best experience the natural world in a way that helps to protect it?
By travelling in a responsible way that has minimum impact on the wildlife and environment, and by ensuring that significant proportion of the money you spend goes directly to benefitting local people.
What is your dream natural world destination, somewhere you haven't yet travelled to?
There are many places I still dream of visiting. For real adventure I would love to go on an expedition to Irian Jaya (Western Papua) where there are thousands of kilometres of jungle, ice capped mountains and swamps to be explored and species still to be discovered. Namibia is also high on the list, especially the dramatic untamed wilderness of Etosha National Park and the Naukluff Mountains. I would also like to travel more extensively in South America, particularly down to Patagonia. Another dream destination, shared by every wildlife enthusiast, is the Galapagos Islands.
What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?
Think positive. We can be terribly destructive and short sighted, but we are also extraordinarily innovative and good at problem solving if we have the right motivation. The key is that conservation is not seen in negative terms i.e. pitting people against nature, but a way of promoting the health and prosperity of both. After all the fate of nature and people are inextricably intertwined.