More stories from the World Parks Congress

Published 16 Nov 2014 
Masai man talking about his efforts to protect the top predator in his lands, the lion.<br/> Masai man talking about his efforts to protect the top predator in his lands, the lion.

(co-written by Kate Fitzherbert)

At a time when so many of us in Australia are feeling despondent about our government's approach to the environment, it is extraordinary to meet people from the world's islands, plains, mountains and valleys who are working with such passion and dedication to protect their piece of nature.  Many are from the poorest nations on earth and yet they understand and value the natural world and realise that their future is inexplicably linked to the health of the planet.

They are sharing their stories of success and struggle, innovation and experimentation as they strive to save their natural world - and often their way of life - from the stresses of rising sea levels, exploitation, corruption and population expansion. It certainly puts things in perspective when you talk to people whose homeland is about to disappear beneath the sea because of the arrogance and self-interest of developed nations like our own.  Our efforts to save species and ecosystems are urgently needed but seem to be in a completely different paradigm to those peoples struggling to convince the world that their entire population, nation, history and culture is worth saving.

We are hearing remarkable stories of determination, courage, success and innovation, and the creative solutions used to solve environmental issues.  Here are just a few of these stories from the people that we have listened to in presentations or met at and around our stall.

The Komoros Islands, a tiny cluster of islands between the Seychelles and Mauritius, which has been in conflict with itself for 25 years and has no functional government or administration, has just declared protected area status over 22% of its land area to protect nature and support a fledgling tourism industry. Put this tiny country on your bucket list!

The president of Gabon in Southern Africa, who was the co-patron of this World Parks Congress, has also set aside 21% of the country's land for national parks, protected their remaining forest cover (88% of the country) and 33% of their coastline, and created marine national parks over 23% of their territorial waters to the limits of their exclusive economic zone.  

President Ali BONGO Ondimba is also trying to create a federation of national parks agencies in central Africa, together with Botswana, Tanzania and Ethiopia, to coordinate the battle against wildlife poaching and trafficking. Gabon has also built its national development plan around low carbon emission technologies and included the protection of biodiversity into their national land-use plan. Gabon is a nation of just 1.64 million people and it lies in central Africa. It borders the Atlantic Ocean between the Congo and Equatorial Guinea.  Another one to add to your bucket list.

The Prime Minister of the Cook Islands tells his nation's school children that their place in the world is not just a speck that you can hardly see on a map, but a huge area of the ocean. He has recently declared a marine protected area covering over 1 million square kilometres, which is more than twice the size of Papua New Guinea. He is instructing them that they need to look after it and protect their nation. He supported the flotilla of Vaka canoes, along with the presidents of Palau and Kiribati, that had left for Australia two months earlier to raise awareness of the plight of the Pacific Island nations in the face of climate change. These outstanding people came with no hype, no entourage, no affectation. They just spoke from the heart and told their stories.

A Masai man described the very practical steps his organisation has taken to protect the top predator in his lands - the lion. His group was worried that lions were being killed at an alarming rate, so they investigated the reasons and took steps to address them. One key reason was that farmers would kill a lion for taking one of their cows. Now there's a network of people throughout the community who farmers can contact to verify a cow kill, and they then get paid the market price for the cow.  No big regulations or bureaucracy, just local people, backed by a foundation, taking direct and effective action.  

The other reason for lions being killed was as a traditional rite of passage for young men - to become a man they had to kill a lion. Their creative answer was to set up the 'Masia Olympics' - they got a renowned Kenyan marathon runner to come into the communities and speak to the young men, saying 'don’t kill lions, be a marathon runner like me and become a millionaire'. So now they have cross-country races each year, with great community recognition to the winners and a ticket to the New York Marathon. The kudos that once came from killing a lion now comes from a completely different source.  

At a more concerning level, delegates from countries with ineffective or corrupt governments talked of the very real difficulties of being an NGO and trying to protect nature. Their commitment and dedication was inspiring, and makes us realise how lucky we are.   

Beyond the formal presentations, our stall is acting as a magnet and constantly pulling in people from partner organisations, the broader Bush Heritage family, and other conservation practitioners from around the world, curious to hear about what we do. Today's visitors included folks from Warddeken, Gondwanalink, Cape York Institute, Wet Tropics Authority, Birdlife Australia, VNPA, Flora and Fauna International, Conservation International, and Fiona Smith from Trust for Nature, amongst others.

Here are a few of the stories of people we met today:

  • A delegate from Manitoba in Canada, who is currently involved in establishing a large protected area in the north, particularly to help protect habitat for polar bears, wanted to know what was happening about the Great Barrier Reef, what was causing the threats, and why wasn't the Australian community doing more to protect it. Good questions. Difficult answers.
  • A temperate grasslands expert from South Africa was keen to hear about our properties containing such vegetation. He is about to visit Tasmania, primarily to see its grasslands, and was very interested to hear about the Tasmanian Midlands project.  
  • Closer to home a delegate from the Department of Conservation in New Zealand chatted with us about feral animal management. We shared stories about our foxes and cats, and their stoats, rats and possums. They're having some success in targeting their feral control activities around the feral population booms that occur after seeding events in the nothofagus beech forests, which occur about every 3 years.
  • The folks at our neighbouring stall for Pakistan’s Central Karakorum National Park provide a warm greeting each morning, and regular banter throughout the day. Their park protects over 10,000 square km of mountainous terrain. A common theme is lamenting that fact that the wifi connection at the top camp on K2 mountain is far more reliable than here at the Congress!  
  • The new Ranger Co-ordinator at Groote Eylandt, dropped by to meet us and is interested in hearing more about the conversations that we have had with the local mob about opportunities for some Healthy County Planning to help them manage their lands.

We have been visited by a number of students doing post-graduate studies at various universities, very interested in what Bush Heritage is doing, and wanting to volunteer to build their skills. One young Chinese person is looking to bring a group of Chinese students to Australia to try to engage them with nature. And there are young Australians also looking for opportunities to get some of their smart-phone addicted friends to think about something more meaningful.

And thanks to Connie’s presence, we receive a lot of visitors from Kenya and Africa more broadly, including the former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service and folks working for the African Wildlife Foundation. Amongst other things, this group aims to protect land for Africa’s migrating animals, which means establishing protected areas not just across communities but also across countries. They work with communities to establish zones for different land-uses - conservation, grazing, etc - and leverage an endowment fund to help establish tourism operations. They are now establishing schools as well, so that the community members have not just jobs and an income, but also an education for their kids, all while they protect wildlife.     

Apart from the stall and general networking, Bush Heritage’s formal involvement is through presentations of digital posters. You can find them here by using search terms of Kate, Annette and Philippa.  

The Congress continues through to Wednesday. You can see get some live streams here.

Masai man talking about his efforts to protect the top predator in his lands, the lion.<br/> Masai man talking about his efforts to protect the top predator in his lands, the lion.