Back in 2015, I published a reader guest post called 10 Years Out of The Camp in which “Billy Bow” shared his story and what it had been like to have been financially independent for 10 years.
Billy Bow (aka Ian) is a friend and amateur photographer. I follow him on Instagram and was blown away by the quality of his wildlife photos. These were just too good not to share with you so I got him back to update his story on how he got into wildlife conservation. All the photos were taken by him.
As I may have mentioned before, one of the reasons I write this blog is for the environmental benefits. I see potential for a massive win:win. If people bought less crap with debt then, not only would they be richer, the economy would be more sustainable. Imagine a world with fewer (but much richer and happier) people, able to release land back to nature…
The Escape Artist
Barney kindly invited me to share some of my wildlife photography taken during my travels and to share my thoughts on nature conservation.
I will say up front that I’m no Swampy-style, tree hugging soap-dodger. I’m just a bloke with a camera who is curious about the world. My wildlife photography started from a combination of travel plus camera plus wildlife. My curiosity has evolved into a desire to understand ecology, conservation and sustainability.
I photographed this leopard in South Africa’s Kruger National Park last year.
The first point I want to share is the importance of tourism for the local economy in South Africa.
Not only does the National Park protect and conserve the animals and habitat, it provides valuable jobs and income. The guides, trackers, chefs, cleaners and many others all live in local villages, which in turn benefit from their spending.
This local scale capitalism is a force for good because its based on people co-operating with each other in a way that values (and therefore ultimately protects) the wildlife.
Somehow we have to ensure that the wildlife is worth more to the local people alive than dead. It also strikes me as a wonderful (voluntary) redistribution of wealth from the rich (tourists) into the hands of some of the poorest (local people).
A prime example was the passionate and knowledge local guide Laz. He works most days, driving an hour from his home in the local village to wake guests at 5:00am for a four hour drive and then returning in the late afternoon for a dusk drive that finishes at 8pm. I spent a week in his company: his enthusiasm seemed boundless and he remained eagle-eyed throughout. When he isn’t working as a guide he is a pastor at his local church. Here is a man who is putting in the hours and using his hard earned wages to send his son to college, bootstrapping the next generation.
The Kruger National Park stretches beyond the border of South Africa into neighbouring (and impoverished) Mozambique.
Nature does not recognise borders and there is no fence preventing access from Mozambique, where poachers enter the reserve in order to snare or kill Rhino for their horn and Elephant for their tusks. There is a lucrative market for ivory and rhino horn thanks to the demand from SE Asia.
The scarcity of the Rhino in particular drives the prices higher which makes the poacher’s risk/reward equation a no brainer. Thankfully, the South African government is funding armed park rangers to patrol the area on the ground and helicopters are used to spot the poachers. But they still keep poaching, pushing species like the Rhino closer to extinction.
During this trip to South Africa there was one of those moments of serendipity. The Wild Shots Wildlife Photography Symposium was running in Cape Town. My curiosity was in overdrive. The conference was broken into a series of presentations by top wildlife photographers, each of whom presented their own personal experiences of the state of different species of wildlife. At the close, I left the lecture theatre utterly drained by the beautiful but sometimes sad images and the perilous status of so many creatures.
The keynote speaker was Brent Stirton, whose award winning photography encapsulates many of the issues far better than words I could ever write. Specifically, the loudest message from his work is the devastating impact China is having.
Fuelled by ever increasing Chinese wealth, many of the endangered animals I have been fortunate to see in the wild (such as Rhino, Elephant and Tiger) are being destroyed in the name of traditional medicine. Rhino horn is claimed to treat fever, rheumatism, gout and other disorders.
In 2018 the Chinese government lifted the ban on using these items for medical purposes [TEA : WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK??], thus explaining why the black market value of Rhino horn is alleged to be $60,000 per kilo. The work of organisations like Wild Shots, WWF etc and individuals such as Brent Stirton is essential in raising the awareness of these issues and saving these magnificent creatures. A powerfully striking photograph might just help nudge the needle of change a fraction further in the right direction.
China has its own conservation challenges, the most famous being to save the Giant Panda. Three years ago I visited the Giant Panda Research Centre in Chengdu. The centre’s modern facilities provide outstanding public education in addition to its main focus of a Panda breeding programme and repopulation in the wild.
The Chinese government’s commitment to saving this beautiful creature is commendable. China is also recognising the need to protect specific habitats where the country’s indigenous species come under threat. Protection of it’s own animals is one thing but China seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the overseas effects of its so-called medical demand. Perhaps we will soon see an episode of activism where a Chinese Panda is kidnapped and the kidnappers demands are “Stop using the Rhino horn or the Panda gets it”?
Another of the speakers at Wild Shots was the African Pangolin Working Group, an organisation that is working to preserve and protect an animal that I have previously been unaware of. The Pangolin is a small nocturnal animal and the world’s only mammal with scales. It is also threatened with extinction and two species are critically endangered. In parts of SE Asia, Pangolin meat is a highly prized delicacy and the scales on its body are used as a traditional Asian medicine.
Roll forward six months from the Wild Shots symposium to a trip I took to the rainforests of Borneo. Walking along a track in the middle of the afternoon and there, sitting in a tree, is a Pangolin.
To say this is a rare sighting is an understatement. The guide told me it was only his third sighting in six years. Given that we had been in that area of Borneo for just over 24 hours this was not just lucky, it was an absolute privilege.
Another issue for the wildlife in Borneo is the erosion of their natural habitat.
In Borneo, I wanted to get a greater understanding of the Palm Oil industry and its impact on the Orangutans which are endangered as a result of destruction of the rainforest in order to establish vast Palm Oil plantations. On the long drives between the different regions of Borneo or when flying across the island, you see the vast scale of this industry.
Whenever I travel, I make a point of talking to as many locals as possible to get an unvarnished view of a country’s challenges. With only one exception, the people I spoke to were positive about this relatively new found income for their country. Bear in mind, most of the people I asked were guides who relied on income from the very habitat that is being destroyed.
Many environmental problems require large scale government intervention. The message from the locals was that the current Malaysian Government has recognised historic problems and is now protecting large tracts of primary rainforest. It’s a positive move and hopefully will be upheld and built upon by future governments.
Malaysia benefits economically from Palm Oil. To date, it has been the food and cosmetics industries that appear to be the biggest beneficiaries, using Palm Oil in many of their products such as margarine, chocolate, bread, ice cream and many others. For example, adding it to chocolate makes it look shiny and keeps it from being unstable in warmer climates. It gives biscuits a creamier taste and texture.
But whatever the economic benefits of Palm Oil, we have to hope that it is not at the cost of endangering the existence of the likes of the Orangutan.
A note of hope: during a visit to the Orangutan sanctuary in Sepilok, I spoke with a UK volunteer. During her stay of 6 months, she had witnessed the success the centre has had with the rehabilitation and release of orphaned Orangutans.
More importantly, she spoke about the reduction in numbers of animals taken into the centre due to deforestation.
Before I left Borneo there was a chance meeting that introduced me to yet another angle of nature conservation; albeit a more radical one. I chatted with a professional photographer who works closely with Sea Shepherd (think Greenpeace with attitude).
This lady, who dives with sharks and takes no shit from Icelandic whalers, presented the long list of challenges that Sea Shepherd is fighting across the world’s oceans. From saving whales to stopping plastic pollution, preventing over-fishing and so much more. Here is an organisation that is confronting the issues head on. It made me wonder if a more direct approach is required in other conservation campaigns whilst making me appreciate how much dedication some people have.
You may be thinking, ‘what more can I do?’ After all, you have your Sainsbury’s bag for life and put your shit in the recycling bin. So I would like to bring things back to a fundamental principle of FI that is equally relevant to conservation; The Aggregation of Marginal Gains.
For financial independence, every little improvement we make to our finances takes us a tiny bit closer to achieving independence. As time goes by and as we keep finding more improvements or savings, the sum of all the tweaks means that we are MUCH better off, despite each individual change being small.
I believe the same is true for conservation. The aggregation of many small changes to things such as using sustainable products or reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will grow into a benefit to nature. My marginal gain this week was finding an alternative to plastic plant pots for growing this year’s seeds. I have saved money and reduced the level of plastic that will find itself in landfill or worse, floating in an ocean.
Writing this article is another action that I can take to help. Donating to wildlife charities is another. I ask myself whether these small steps are “enough” and of course the answer is, by itself, no. But all that we can do as individuals is take responsibility for our own choices (especially our spending and voting choices) and allow the benefits to add up to major positive change on a macro-level.
Want to help? : The premier league charity for wildlife conservation is the WWF (The World Wildlife Fund, not the wrestling federation). They have done a terrific job of raising the profile of wildlife issues throughout the world.
However big organisations are often unwieldy and bureaucratic. As great alternatives, please consider:
1) Wild Shots Outreach a South African organisation run by a British guy called Mike Kendrick that engages disadvantaged South Africans youngsters with wildlife through photography.
2) The Orangutan Appeal UK, a registered charity dedicated to the rehabilitation and preservation of orangutans and the conservation of their habitat. The Appeal strives to protect remaining wild populations of orangutans by providing support and funding for projects across Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.