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Cambridge University Science Magazine
By Simon Moore

Last weekend I attended a unique festival at the Royal Geographical Society, London, that presented talks and discussions by conservationists, explorers, travel experts, wildlife documentary presenters and producers. Hosted by Steppes Travel, their first ‘Beyond’ two-day festival aimed to inspire everyone to embark on adventures into the wilderness, whether on safaris to the plains of Africa or rambles getting lost in ones own back garden. The higher end of which is offered by Steppes: from snow leopard tracking in India to Galapagos cruises with Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins as your guide! BlueSci attended day one which focused on conservation and wildlife, while the second day turned to adventure and travel beyond the ordinary.

Despite tourism’s history of causing damage to ecosystems across the world, many prominent conservation figures speaking at Steppes Beyond were optimistic that we can have successful ecotourism models that respect nature while giving great joy to people. Chris Packham acknowledged that there are some particularly bad examples of ecotourism, but that these are outweighed by the many good examples that we should try to focus on replicating. This was echoed by Jonathan Scott, who personally vouched for the quality of wildlife tours that Steppes Travel can offer. However, there was certainly a trace of sadness in Scott’s mind, as he described the common problems he faced in Kenya of numerous Land Rover tours descending on a watering hole, behaving badly and encroaching on the wild animals. So it is clearly not a black and white issue.

Jonathan Scott’s talk provided an excellent showcase of his and his wife Angela’s stunning photographic work in East Africa. His best advice: don’t take photos passively, actively engage to create the situations where you can capture the perfect shot. Jonathan and Angela eventually moved to Kenya as they couldn’t get enough of the adventure and needed to live and work alongside bigger animals than otters, badgers and foxes that we have in the UK. He was particularly praising of Richard Leakey’s conservation work in the country, reducing corruption and illegal wildlife poaching as the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Scott argued that zoos have an important role to play in conservation, as they can help people connect and fall in love with nature. He also highlighted the critical need for the public, and for individuals, to speak out and to push for the changes they wish to see, as each and every one of us can make a difference.

Scott pointed out that not very long ago we had lions, elephants, rhinos and other charismatic megafauna roaming the United Kingdom, but we have lost these species, most likely by driving them to extinction. We now travel to Africa to see these wonderful species, these precious natural treasures, and we therefore have a responsibility to help poorer nations to bear the costs of protecting these species. This was exactly the line of argument that Richard Leakey employed as head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, when he managed to get millions of pounds of funding from the World Bank to support their anti-poaching efforts, but clearly even more is needed today.

Hugh Pearson, documentary producer at Silverback Films gave us a behind-the-scenes run down of what it takes to create a series as stunning as The Hunt. His stories excellently captured the highs and lows of wildlife film-making, and his job as producer in assessing the risks involved with attempting to capture particular animals and particular behaviour that has perhaps never been documented before. I was surely not the only person in the room inspired to this profession, despite the warnings that it is a highly competitive, ever more demanding, and increasingly saturated field.

The final event of the conservation day was a discussion about the key issues facing the conservation community, and potential ways for us to overcome them.

A summary of the panel’s conclusions was neatly provided by Professor David Macdonald, Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Oxford and Director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (aka WildCRU):

– Step 1. ‘Sticking plasters’

A strong, direct action response is needed to tackle the immediate issues of poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking that threaten many species with extinction. Damien Mender founded the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, which helps train and equip park rangers to deal with the highly dangerous poachers driving the extinction of elephants, rhinos and lions, among others.

– Step 2. Local incentives

Wildlife have to be made more valuable alive than dead, through monetary incentives and education efforts with local people, attempts at which Dr. Amy Dickman has been making with her work in Tanzania. If locals are not inspired to protect an endangered species, by experiencing tangible benefits from its existence, its chances of survival are low.

– Step 3. Government strategy

Conservation and the environment must become a priority issue for governments worldwide if we want any chance of tackling these issues. As Chris Packham argued, there must be a switch to decision making that is based on evidence, as this is currently a major stumbling block in environmental policy-making.

In addition to those three steps, the panel argued that we must develop economic systems for our society that incorporate the true environmental costs of our actions. As Dr. Andrew Terry pointed out, the present global economy is utterly screwed – we are led blindly and stupidly into pillaging the planet’s natural resources with no regard for the consequences. And with no regard, we swiftly turn our backs on the problems that we are creating in every corner of the globe.

Damien Mender, along with the rest of the panel, condemned the lack of funding and attention that conservation issues are given. According to Mender, we spend huge amounts on our local security – the police; our national security – the military; and yet almost nothing on natural security – the rangers that protect our immensely valuable areas of wilderness. Mender also gave a pragmatic evaluation of the priorities of many of the people living besides the endangered species we care about: people struggle to put food in their mouths so they do not have chance to care for the protection of wildlife. In order to achieve conservation goals, we must understand and work with people, and ultimately fix the issues of inequality and extreme poverty that are higher up the agenda of the locals whose help and cooperation we require.

Steppes Beyond was certainly an enjoyable festival to experience, despite the depressing state of the natural world which it began to examine. It supplied plenty of opportunities to learn more about the charities and organisations being showcased, including stalls at which visitors could pledge support towards combatting various issues. The day focused on entertaining more than educating, but perhaps this is the model through which both eco-tourism and nature television can thrive, whist doing something positive for the natural world. Its first year was a great success with a fantastic line-up of speakers, so it is definitely one to look out for in future!

For more of Simon’s work follow him on twitter (@Simon_C_Moore) or check out his blog