The “Great Work” of Africa, the greatest achievements of the peoples of Africa, are the intact wilderness areas that still remain on this wild, primordial continent. Just 200 years ago most of this vast landmass was a never-ending wilderness protected by teeth, claws, tusks, horns and fangs. A patchwork mosaic of forests, lakes, deserts, mountains, deltas, grasslands, rivers, woodlands, swamps, valleys, shorelines and basins that had not yet been explored, mapped or tamed by the controlling hand of man. Africa is the cradle of humankind, the birthplace of our human existence, and should never be taken lightly or exploited.
As those original hunter-gatherers over 100,000 years ago we were all born of the wilderness and died in it. Today, we cannot help but feel drawn in by Africa’s vibrant, somewhat intoxicating, sometimes scary, yet strangely familiar rhythm. Just listen to the “wild heart of Africa” – the heartbeat of the universe – and Africa’s greatest treasure, and you will learn your place on this blue planet. The African wilderness, most especially the Okavango Delta, introduced me to the way the natural world is meant to be and gave me something to dedicate my life to. These experiences moulded my belief system, focussed my ambitions, and taught me to always live in wonder of the wild.
This National Geographic Live presentation shares some of my experiences working with the local baYei people in the Okavango Delta and showcases our work to save Africa’s most endangered parrot by restoring the forests they depend upon with local villages. I did my PhD on Meyer’s parrot in the Okavango Delta, spending 11 months of the year in the bush. These years nurtured an obsession that drives me today. I am obsessed with protecting and, maybe naively, restoring wilderness. Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) put forward that: “Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow… Creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible.” We have destroyed so much that we need to believe that we can fix what we have already done. Our work in the Okavango Delta is a celebration of life, diversity and “wildness”.
Henry David Thoreau’s (1817-1862) had the insight: “In wildness is the preservation of the world”. The wilderness is the birthplace of religion and all science. It is where Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, and Buddha, went to find spiritual enlightenment and learn the secrets that would save humanity. Some of these secrets were lost in translation and we made up our own. Nature is the only place where ego and worldly worries cannot join you. Notice that a person that arrived for a wilderness experience clean and neat, more often than not emerges unwashed and rough at the edges, unaware of their appearance and happier than ever. Outward Bound and the Wilderness Leadership School curate wilderness experiences that connect people with the wilderness and each other. Friendships are made for life in the wilderness. Our expeditions across the Okavango Delta each year are, in effect, pilgrimages that deliver participants to a place physically and mentally that manifests profound personal experiences, leaving them with a new set of priorities, a new way of interacting with the natural world, and a renewed confidence in their abilities.
We are planting South Africa’s national trees, the yellowwoods, to save our national parrot, the Cape Parrot (See: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/06/130615-cape-parrot-endangered-south-africa-science). People and politicians cannot plan decades into the future. Grants and conservation projects have a 2-5 year life expectancy, after which the researcher or conservationist is congratulated on a job well done. Have you ever watched an indigenous tree grow? Things happen very slowly in nature because there is no room for mistakes. We are planting slow-growing trees to restore and establish forest patches that can support Cape parrots and other forest endemics like the Samango monkey, Amatola toad, and Hogsback frog. This has to be a multi-generational effort that installs local communities as the stewards and custodians of the iziKhwenene Project (“iziKhwenene” means “Cape parrots” in isiXhosa“). We work very hard with government to establish new forest reserves and set up effective management systems for these protected areas.
We need to believe that we can rescue the natural world from the damage we have already inflicted. The Cape Parrot Project is our way of doing that. We believe that our work over the the next 25 years and beyond will restore forest ecology and protect important refuges for endemic species that have nowhere else to go. The Cape Parrot project is a story of people and parrots over many generations. We need to invest far more in developing the science of restoration ecology to better enable ourselves to rehabilitate defunct and ruined ecosystems. Society needs to celebrate the true wildernesses we have left and work hard to restore as many of our wild landscapes as is possible. We need to bring the “wild” into our cities, gardens and homes, learning to live for and with nature. We must stop sterilizing, poisoning, sweeping, killing and enclosing everything around us. If the majority of people on earth cannot live with wildlife and human-wildlife conflict continues at current levels, we have no future on this planet. The First Nation peoples of North America understood the human experience in the wilderness and lived in perfect harmony with nature. In 1854, Chief Seattle made this profound statement:
Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.
Technology will help us be more efficient and accommodate a few more billion people, but a deep acceptance by all that the environment and nature are the priority is the only sustainable way forward. We need a “World Environmental Organisation” that gets more funding and power from the United Nations than the World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Food Programme (WFP). The current United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) depends on voluntary support from member nations and gets only 4% of total budget from the United Nations itself. The WHO receives a total annual budget in excess of $4 billion, ten times more than UNEP. We need a massive paradigm shift to happen and it seems on a global cataclysm will bring this about…
The concept of a spherical Earth dates back to ancient Greek philosophy in the 6th century BC over 2,500 years ago, but remained a matter of philosophical speculation until the 3rd century BC when Aristotle and Hellenistic astronomy established the spherical shape of the earth as a physical given. It was, however, not until 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus published in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and later in 1610 when Galileo Galilei published Sidereus Nuncius in support of Copernican astronomy and the heliocentric theory, that the idea became mainstream. Galileo was found guilty by the Roman Catholic Church of being “gravely suspect of heresy” and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. It had taken 1,000 years to accept what we now consider a basic truth. Global warming, widespread environmental pollution, frequent natural disasters, water shortages, global unrest and famine are all signs of the impending collapse. We must heed these warnings and act now as we do not have the luxury of time in the 21st century. Our only hope today is to invest in better, cleaner technologies and find a way of supporting economic growth, development and prosperity without harming the environment and slowly chipping away at our last-remaining wild landscapes.
The wild heart of Africa is weakening…
After centuries of exploitation Africa now faces a tipping point after which we will see the continent change forever. The coastlines of Africa have carried names like the “Slave Coast”, “Ivory Coast” and “Gold Coast” – each named for the resource being pillaged by a foreign power. African leaders are desperate to develop their economies and move away from the model of debilitating humanitarian aid in exchange for trade agreements and resource extraction rights. Like China Africa is prepared to do anything to develop as rapidly as possible. China is Africa’s top trade partner with Sino-African trade volumes now nearing $200 billion per year, and direct investment now exceeding $50 billion, The “Forum on China Africa Cooperation” is a buzz of activity as China establishes a foothold on the continent. If we are to save what we have left… If we are to save the “wild heart of Africa” and some of the planet’s most important wildernesses, China needs to support better quality of life for the desperate and uneducated in Africa, thus building on lessons learnt during their own rapid rise to superpower status. African politicians and the development partners they choose must work within a framework acknowledging that future generations care more about the environment than they do about jobs and economic development. For them the old Cree Prophecy will be a reality:
When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.
We are just about to pull the trigger on the last true wilderness areas in Africa. Wild landscapes with people and wildlife that self-regulate, migrate and live in natural balance and abundance are under threat of disappearing. Communities with verbal histories that span centuries and belief systems built around their interactions with the natural world are vanishing with their languages every year. These 21st century wilderness areas are those last places that, for whatever reason, have remained unchanged by modern man and connected to an eternity of slow, plodding change towards this balance. As soon as we plough the last grassland, burn the last wild woodland, and cut down the last primary forest on the continent, the wild, beating heart of Africa will be dead. Those wild coastlines and inaccessible interiors filled with rich, green “bush”, drum beats, rattles, cries, laughter, thunder and the surreal, unexpected silences that echo in your soul will be gone forever…
Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.
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