Describe your connection with the wild or the African ‘bush’ as you call it? I think it’s a hard thing to explain, growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe the bush was just part of everyday life, it was where you lived and you realized how special it was. I think it’s something that grounds me and connects me to something bigger. When I’m in the bush, I feel as if I am part of nature and it’s a very special place for me.
Do you miss it? I miss it often. I think there’s nowhere else where I feel as at home and relaxed. It’s a place where I can’t help but be mindful. When I am in the bush I’m not thinking about other things, I’m taking it all in, the sounds of birds or the wind through the trees. It helps me to feel grounded in a sense of time and place.
What emotions do you feel being out in the bush? There are a huge variety of emotions I feel, specifically in the African bush. Being out there on foot, you realize just how vulnerable you are. When you are walking along and there’s an elephant, you realize that we are a pretty small part of this ecosystem. It can be exhilarating. You feel that real flight or fight response to danger and you probably feel what humans have felt for two million years being part of a landscape.
Do you think people that live in cities get to experience that enough? I don’t think so. Having grown up on a farm, I don’t feel at home in cities and I just look forward to getting out of them to be honest. I do think exposure to wilder places, should be an option that everyone gets at some point in their lives. It does really connect us to the world we live in and we get a sense that we are just a small part of this world. The sooner we realize that and allow more people to experience that, the better because we are faced with some pretty dire environmental outcomes in the future if we don’t change pretty quickly.
Was there a moment in your life that made you want to put your name behind protecting the environment? I think for me, a big part of it is acknowledging that we are part of the earth, so I don’t see standing up for wild places as this side issue. To me it’s actually standing up for myself because in the bigger picture I’m part of the earth, we all are. So when we do stand up for the earth, we are standing up for ourselves, and a host of other human and non-human beings out there.
How do we convince people who haven’t experienced the wild, or a particular wild animal to care about our environment? We’ve got a culture where our value comes down to what are we worth financially. We haven’t really got our heads around the whole ecosystem services or all the intangible stuff that we don’t see or think about, which makes it much harder to argue. Until you take someone’s hand and say ‘let me show you’, ‘let me try and show you what it means to me’, that experience of the wild or some connection to it is the in, the way we can get people to connect to it.
What appeals to you about Wild Ark? The thing that excites me is Wild Ark’s bigger vision of trying to connect people to wilderness areas and to wildlife, as well as to provide a platform and vehicle to get people involved. I grew up wanting to identify every bird I saw and know what all the animals were. To provide a platform for people to do that and feel like they are contributing to other people learning and to the bigger story, that’s pretty exciting to me.
Anything particular you want to achieve with Wild Ark? I think it’s the kind of thing that can transcend cultural lines. We are living in a world that is so connected now; the people in rural areas in Zimbabwe have access to mobile phones and mobile networks. That’s a great opportunity to allow people there to interact with people around the world and become part of a network. On the bigger picture stuff, the environmental crisis we are facing is huge and we have to find ways to engage people in a way that isn’t doom and gloom. Wild Ark is actually proving avenues for people to get involved, to be interested, to participate in creating this new world we have to create. If we keep going the way we are going, it’s not a great future so this is one small way people can get involved in something bigger.
The issue of poverty and conservation often comes face to face in Africa. Describe some of those challenges in places like Zimbabwe? To people living in poverty, there has to be some sort of benefit to conserving animals. There have been a huge number of programs and changes in legislation to implement that in Zimbabwe but there are still huge challenges. It’s going to take the next generation to pick things up from where they were left off and try and rebuild something and work within the system to hopefully leave a legacy for future Zimbabweans.
Does it feel like the clock is ticking? I think if you look around, it does feel really urgent. It feels like there is a need for some immediate action. On the other hand, in the grand scheme of things it’s probably a small thing, but I don’t think that should stop you wanting to get involved and seeing where that leads.
How big is it an issue in your life? Is it something you want to do more of post your sporting career? It’s something I always wanted to be involved in wherever I’ve lived and hopefully after rugby there will be opportunity to be more involved. There are so many exciting things happening and people trying to work to change things and improve the lives of people in rural areas, so that’s exciting. Hopefully at some point I’ll get a chance to meet those people and learn from them.
Do you think being environmentally minded is lifestyle choice, is it something that anyone can do and incorporate into their daily life? I think it has to be. Yes, I think in the western world we have a way of living where our food comes from the supermarket and our water comes from the tap. We don’t see the farmers and the farms producing our food and we don’t see the catchments collecting our water. So it’s easy to be disconnected and just assume food comes from the supermarket. But I think there is a growing movement of people becoming more concerned about where their food is coming from, how it’s been grown and what this concept of sustainability is. We probably need a new a new word though because we’ve trashed it. We are on a planet with finite resources, there is definitely a growing awareness and more people wanting to live in a way that allow future generation get to experience what we’ve been able to experience.
What would you want to show your children one day? I think I would just want to take them walking through the bush where you have to be aware of where you step and of every sound. The sounds of birds, sitting round a campfire at night. When you are out there you really have to begin to face not necessarily the wilderness out there but the wilderness within, something that we can avoid to a large extent in the world we live in because we are so busy and there is always something going on. If you are not busy, you grab your phone; you have instagram, twitter, emails and all the rest. It’s never ending. But to just be, you really have to think who am I? What am I? What am I doing here? What makes me come alive? What am I excited about? That’s definitely been my experience and something that if I had kids, I’d love to share with them.
Tell us about the Sable Project? I’m really interested in conservation and animal that has been hammered in Zimbabwe is the Sable, because of loss of habitat, poaching and the land reform program. Their numbers have gone from 24 000 in 1994 to 450 at the moment, so we are looking to try and buy a breeding herd with a longer term view reintroducing them to areas where communities want them and can utilize them and get some tourism dollars. It’s a small start but see what it leads. Zimbabwe is having serious trouble, there is no cash in the country at the moment, but the environment and animals don’t run in cash so we will see what happens.
Do you think conservation is about animals or people? I think conservation is all about people and what they value and the way they view the world. We have seven billon people on the planet. In Zimbabwe for example, its about creating a way people can benefit from conservation and in the west creating new myths where the environment is part of it, and we are no longer the conquering humans who can make whatever we want. So to me there are two vastly different approaches.
Do you think we can leave it governments? We cant leave it to government, they have proved that and its certainly been my experience that the only way for change to happen is for people to act and to begin to tell different stories and get involved in a really meaningful way that inspires others to follow. That was certainly my experience in the projects in the Leard State forest. It got to the point where the NSW government was approving a coalmine in the middle of a critically endangered White Box-gum woodland. How can you just stand by? You have to do something. It’s only when we begin to act, that change can happen. The mine went ahead but for me as human, I felt it was something I had to do along with 350 others who were arrested. I think we are starting to see people take responsibility and say ‘not on my watch’. I have to do something about it.