Explorer of the Week: Brendan Buzzard

Where do we all belong? How do we as individuals and species fit into the spaces of the world? These are questions that fascinate conservationist Brendan Buzzard, whether he’s following a herd of elephants in the desert or simply sitting at his desk writing an essay. Growing up in Southern and East Africa set Buzzard up for a lifetime of interest in wildlife, and he uses this passion to work on their behalf as a conservationist and storyteller.

What project are you working on now?

Right now I am working on two things. The first is a book based around a number of walks I have done over the years in the northern rangelands of Kenya, which includes the expedition supported by the NG Young Explorers grant. Sometimes I was following wildlife, sometimes moving with pastoralists as they shifted grazing areas, sometimes alone. The book is a story of time and place, of a changing landscape, its people, and its wildlife.

The other thing I am doing is putting together a walking expedition for 2013 that will follow elephant movement routes for about 600 kilometers through Kenya’s Rift Valley.  Given increases in poaching as well as rapid habitat fragmentation, elephant ranges in many parts of Africa are shrinking as they (and other wildlife) become confined to core protected areas. In Kenya, there are many good conservationists already engaging these issues, but there is still much to be done, and the reason for this walk is to bring attention to the need for connectivity. I will be adding updates to my blog as I move forward with the planning process.

Picture of an elephant
Photograph courtesy Brendan Buzzard

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I grew up amid the wildlife landscapes of Southern and East Africa and all I have ever wanted to do is be in the bush around wildlife. When I wasn’t in school, I’d be out exploring. As I spent more time around wildlife and saw the threats that they face, I decided that I had to work on their behalf as a conservationist and storyteller.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?

I am most fascinated by the question of belonging, how we as individuals and as a species fit into the spaces of the world. We all have origins and labels, things that we carry and that claim us, like our cultures, our languages, our skins, our beliefs, and our ideas.  Because the world isn’t neat, many of us blur these lines even while we are defined by them, and being both social and ecological creatures we occupy and shape various historical and geographical niches. It is in this context that I want to understand belonging, so whether I am out following a herd of elephants on foot in the desert of northern Kenya or sitting at my desk writing an essay and digging into memory, I am trying to understand how to be human in a human world, while also a member of just one species in a more diverse and complex system of life. I have not discovered an answer yet, but I feel like the questioning is just as important, a turning over of ideas, an asking if that is really the way you see things, if that is truly what you believe, and as you ask these things you evolve in a way, you move forward, and this always astonishes me—the ability to exceed ourselves.

Have you ever been lost? How’d you get found?

I was lost once, when I was a little kid. I was in Berlin with my family and something caught my eye—I don’t remember now what it was—and I simply walked off to explore. After a while I realized I was alone in a big city. It was a rainy day. Somehow I managed to get back to the place where I was last with my family, and my mother was there. It was very scary.   

What are you reading right now?

One Day I Will Write About This Place, by Binyavanga Wainaina. It is an incredible memoir. Wainaina’s narrative is a story of time and place, of puzzles and mosaics, of the world processed by one Kenyan man that has found his way toward writing. His story of Kenya and Africa is one account of place, but through his grace with words and his ability to see, his account is one to be trusted and admired.

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?

For as long as I can remember, National Geographic explorers have been an inspiration.  When I was growing up and developed a love for wild animals and places, I was fascinated by the work and energy of people like Jane Goodall, Michael Fay, and the Jouberts. Because we all have our own ways of approaching the world, I could not trade places with any of them, but they remain important figures for me that I continue to turn to for inspiration.

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in 100 years?

Explorers seem intent on ordering space, if not for a scientific reason, then to understand something of themselves. These spaces are ever changing, and as our world becomes more globalized and technological, I can understand how some explorers describe the Earth as becoming a smaller place. But I don’t always feel that way. Great geographical puzzles remain. There is so much we don’t know about the intricacies of ecological systems or the patterns of the deep sea, the inner workings of the human body and the arrangement of the universe beyond our planet, the evolutionary history of our own species and the need to develop a language—a way of speaking—that includes us as ecological members. So, to be honest, in a hundred years exploration will not be that different than it is now. The scale of inquiry will change, as will the tools to do it with, but the desire to answer questions, to see and know, to understand ourselves in spatial and temporal contexts, will remain constant. It is this curiosity that is at the heart of exploration.

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?  

Keep imagining. Follow your dream. And don’t listen to anyone who tells you it is not possible.