The Covid pandemic has made one thing abundantly clear – the health of humanity depends on the health of our wildlife and living planet. In this interview, Dr Max Graham discusses the evolving landscape of conservation since founding Space for Giants in 2011. He talks to us about the growing global awareness around these environmental emergencies, how we as individuals can contribute to conservation efforts, and what is at stake if we fail to act.
How did you come to found Space for Giants and what was your vision for it when you did?
I founded Space for Giants in response to a particular challenge that I focused on during my PhD; the relationship between human land-use and elephant ecology within a shared landscape. During my research, it became very obvious how difficult it is to accommodate these large animals, not just elephants but megafauna in general.
As a first priority, we focused on the issue of human-elephant conflict. For example, looking at ways of providing recourse to these farmers who have no idea what to do when a six-ton animal comes onto their one-acre plot and threatens their crop; this crop being their entire livelihood.
Once our small team started to get quite good at addressing that problem (by building smart fences and managing the elephants that broke them), we then shifted our focus onto an entirely new challenge which was the issue of the illegal ivory trade.
I had GPS collars on these elephants that I knew very well and overnight many of them had been killed for their ivory. So we then pivoted to respond to that challenge, while keeping up the focus on human-elephant conflict.
And finally, there is the whole issue of land being lost and the habitats of these animals being at stake. For example, recently there was this big chunk of land that was for up for sale by an individual and so we worked out how to buy that land and put it into a community conservation trust. Others who might have bought it might not have kept it undeveloped or wild.
So, the organisation has developed in relation to those three particular challenges: human-wildlife conflict, the illegal wildlife trade and this loss of habitat.
Have these challenges changed since you founded Space for Giants back in 2011?
Well, I think the organisation has evolved hugely but the challenges still very much remain the same. What has changed is that there is now a growing global awareness that confronting these issues is important for our collective benefit. That’s probably been the biggest shift; this recognition. And of course, the other major change is that this has all become more urgent. Habitat loss has accelerated dramatically over the last ten years and people are becoming increasingly aware of the fragility of our biosphere and are now desperate to see action.
“Everyone is so focused on the consequences of the pandemic but the source of the pandemic is the unregulated wildlife trade and when you look at what’s happening to the interface between people and wildlife, it’s clear that this is just one pandemic of many others which could be just around the corner.”
Do you think COVID has been eye-opening in terms of the awareness of the relationship between the health of our environment and the health of humanity?
Everyone is so focused on the consequences of the pandemic but the source of the pandemic is the unregulated wildlife trade and when you look at what’s happening to the interface between people and wildlife, it’s clear that this is just one pandemic of many others which could be just around the corner. People forget that a natural habitat is a living organism. It’s got a whole series of interrelated relationships that keep it healthy. So when you fragment a habitat, the wildlife within it become more vulnerable to picking up diseases because there isn’t connectivity, there isn’t the genetic durability and the population gets stressed. So you’ve got the combination of the actual animals themselves becoming more vulnerable to disease and then the increased contact with humans who are in these wild spaces because they’re logging, poaching, mining or whatever activity it may be. It’s becoming abundantly clear that our health is entirely dependent on how we treat the natural world and if we don’t recognise that and start changing, we’re going to be facing many more of these pandemics in the future.
It does certainly feel like there is a growing awareness around the urgency of these issues. Have you seen this translate to meaningful action or funding?
In reality, I don’t think there’s been much shift in funding. There’s been more rhetoric about these issues amongst global political leaders but that still hasn’t translated into effective action on the ground.
For example, we had this engagement with G20 last week where I pulled together some of the largest conservation organisations in the world and we created the WC20 (Wildlife Conservation 20), a joint declaration calling for urgent action to invest in nature to protect biodiversity and reduce the risk of future pandemics. We submitted that to the G20 and while they were interested in it, it wasn’t treated as a main agenda item. Everyone is talking about dealing with the current pandemic, which is costing us globally around $26 trillion. There’s another $26 trillion at stake a few years from now if we don’t tackle the root cause of the problem, which will only cost one-fortieth of the economic fallout the current pandemic has already caused.
What do you think is that mental block that stops people from converting their awareness and concern into real action?
Well, I think the truth is that people respond to what they can feel directly and this still seems a bit academic, a bit remote. It’s wild animals in wild places and for most people, drawing the links between themselves and these issues on a daily basis is quite hard. So it’s actually a question of information and ensuring that policy and decision-makers, as well as the general population, are constantly informed about the linkages.
Conservationists tend to be hippies like me; people who for some reason fell in love with elephant dung and wander around the bushes studying wild animals. We’re scientists and we’re not built as communicators or politicians, so within the conservation sector where this knowledge exists, there’s a serious lack of skillsets that enable the translation of the risk to people outside of conservation. And that’s starting to change now but that’s a big part of the challenge – communication.
“There’s actually quite a lot that people can do and you start off by making it a part of your everyday conversations and behaviours.”
What would you say to people around the world who want to help with conservation efforts, but aren’t sure how best to?
The first thing is to become informed. Learn about these issues; learn about One Health and the linkages between the illegal and unregulated wildlife trade and pandemics; learn about habitat loss and the associated endangered species and extinction crisis and what implications that will have for our living planet. And then, of course, learn about climate change. Get to know these really clear overwhelming issues that present an existential threat to our future and our children’s future.
And then, communicate about it. Even if it’s just a conversation with a relative or friend, and even if they don’t necessarily feel comfortable or seem to take everything you say on board, the fact that you’re having those conversations and making it a part of your everyday narrative is a sign of things changing. That’s a big deal.
Then, of course, get involved. Look into what you can actively participate in. Is there a group or organisation that you can volunteer for or a petition you can sign? There are so many conservation organisations out there that you can not only learn from but also get involved in.
And then finally there’s the step of getting financially involved, even at the smallest level whether that’s planting a tree or donating to conservation efforts to protect a species or a habitat.
There’s actually quite a lot that people can do and you start off by making it a part of your everyday conversations and behaviours.
When did you first come face to face with an elephant? Did this experience influence your decision to become a conservationist?
I was sixteen years old and there was a pretty girl at school who invited me out to Kenya to join her – I wasn’t interested in Kenya, but I was interested in the girl so I took up the offer! We went down to a place called Taita Ranch and I was sitting on top of this car when suddenly, this elephant popped out. And “popped” is not the right description. This elephant tore through the fabric of reality and any known law that made any sense to me. It stood there for what seemed like a lifetime just towering in front of the car, this impossible giant and then disappeared so silently that it was really hard to believe that that experience had actually just happened.
That was the first time I’d had this visceral experience of what nature could look like if it was allowed to flourish and just being confronted with intact populations of wildlife had a huge impact on me.
“Well, this is the perpetual curse of a conservationist; we are just forever hopeful. You have to be optimistic to be a conservationist otherwise you’d just give up.”
Do you feel hopeful for the future of wildlife and our planet?
Well, this is the perpetual curse of a conservationist; we are just forever hopeful. You have to be optimistic to be a conservationist otherwise you’d just give up. Optimism and hope are what gets us up in the morning and keeps us going. But there are examples of actions that have really given me hope, things that happen at a very local level especially. For example, seeing a community committing to conservation and land-use planning or seeing black rhinos appearing on community-owned land and parks that were once depleted of much wildlife being restocked and rehabilitated – these are all significant steps in the right direction that give me great hope. And when you start seeing political leaders, particularly in developing countries where conservation seems like a luxury, standing up and saying “you know what, this is a really big deal for us, we need to commit our political energy into conserving landscapes”, that’s really promising.
Rwanda is a very good example of this. They have a naming ceremony for newborn gorillas and this is a national event; everyone in the country participates, everyone in the country knows the name of those baby gorillas. There’s an understanding that the wildlife economy is the bedrock of their economy. And you see this in other countries. Costa Rica is another example. People there have to ask permission from the national government to cut a tree down in their own plot. It goes to show how important conservation is to the fabric of that society.
On a wider scale, one big change that I’m starting to see that gives me hope is in consumerism.
“If we can start linking our everyday consumption with conservation and start turning a unit of consumption into a unit of conservation then we’re getting closer to achieving sustainability on this earth.”
How do you see patterns of consumerism changing for the better?
Firstly, I think one of the biggest contributors to these problems is everyday consumerism; there’s a lot of blame attributed to population growth but I think we need to be quite cautious of that. What we really need to see is people, all over the world but particularly in developed economies being much more conscious about the value chain when they buy something. Value chains are very dirty and it’s really hard for a consumer to know what they are doing when they make a decision to buy something. Whether it’s a mobile phone, a pen, a pair of sunglasses, an item of clothing or food – it’s such an uninformed choice. There is a real lack of understanding of what that footprint is. And I think it’s up to consumers now to put more pressure on companies to be transparent and clean up their value chain or at least offset it while they do clean it up. And we’re definitely moving in that direction; there’s a growth in ethical consumerism. And it’s not perfect but if we can start linking our everyday consumption with conservation and start turning a unit of consumption into a unit of conservation then we’re getting closer to achieving sustainability on this earth.
Is Kenya now home for you?
I’ve been living here for twenty years now and my wife and I have two small children. They’re three and five and the roots that they’re laying down here definitely reinforce this as home.
Can you help?
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