By: Jennifer Cook Issue: Transformation Section: Community
Taking Steps to Reconnect Humans and Nature
For most of us, the word “connectivity” conjures images of various electronic devices dangling from ear to ear, keeping us plugged into the vast info-scape of the wired world. For a smaller but growing few, connectivity refers to the interconnection of the wild world—large ecosystems such as the sea, landscapes, tropical rainforests, the arctic poles, wetlands and migration routes—which, if protected, will continue to sustain our planet’s biodiversity, environment, climate and us.
“It’s a conundrum,” says Vance Martin, president of The WILD Foundation, an international wilderness conservation organization based in Boulder, Colorado. “On one hand, it’s well accepted that our planet’s large ecosystems are capable of producing all the natural life-supporting services we need. On the other hand, if these systems are reduced to less than half their original size, the human race will be dangerously close to needing the type of life support one would receive at a hospital if critically ill or injured.”
Referring to the works of renowned ecologists and conservation biologists such as Reed Noss, Michael Soulé, Sylvia Earle and E.O. Wilson, Martin further explains that while exact percentages vary according to the specific natural area, there is sound science to support that large ecosystems—both land and water—need to maintain an average minimum threshold of 50 percent of their mass. Otherwise a tipping point, one with global impacts, could be reached.
Martin is well versed on this issue and advocates the point frequently through WILD’s Nature Needs Half initiative—a movement urging for the protection and interconnection of at least half the planet’s land and water to sustain the health, function and diversity of all life.
“It seems like many don’t care, but I think it’s a lack of understanding and motivation. While science is important, it’s secondary to the more important relationship-based motivators,” Martin asserts. “I believe the two most important relationships are our connection to the world of nature and to our own human nature.”
Martin correlates his thoughts on the significance of relationships to human behavior with society’s current progress—or lack thereof—legislating whole systems-thinking environmental practices. He argues that one reason the environmental movement hasn’t been as successful as it could be is because it’s been a science-based and often fear-based movement, rather than a positive social one.
Seeking to reinvigorate people’s connection to nature and the value of protecting large wilderness corridors, Martin recently joined a group of conservationists in Namibia to kick off a five-month, six-country journey following an ancient migratory route of elephants across Southern Africa. The Tracks of Giants expedition departed on May 1, 2012, from Rocky Point on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and will continue traveling east across the continent toward South Africa, where it’s expected to conclude by the end of September.
The main purpose of Tracks, a collaborative initiative spearheaded by WILD and Wilderness Foundation South Africa is to gain further insight into the successes and failures of human-animal interaction across Southern Africa, and to draw global attention to the importance of keeping wilderness areas intact—even across national boundaries. McCallum’s idea for Tracks was conceived as the result of three things: an interest in keeping alive the tradition of tracking, his dedication to figuring out ways to heal the divide between nature and people, and his commitment to WILD’s Nature Needs Half initiative.
While Martin and others linked up with the expedition at the start, Tracks’s core team includes expedition leaders Ian McCallum, director of the Wilderness Foundation, a medical doctor, Jungian analyst, author, wilderness guide and former rugby player; and Ian Michler, an “African Geographic” photojournalist and a highly experienced wilderness guide and naturalist. The two “Ians” will travel for most of the journey with two other wilderness rangers from the Wilderness Leadership School in South Africa—Lihle Mbokazi and Mandla Mbekezeli Buthelezi. By the end of September, this small, multigenerational, multiracial and gender-diverse group of trackers, conservationists and media will have covered a total of 5,000 kilometers, mostly on foot.
“We will be traveling on foot, using mountain bikes (outside of conservation areas and wildlife parks), mekoros—traditional dugout canoes—and kayaks in the Okavango Delta and Zambezi,” said McCallum, as he prepared for the journey. “This will emphasize the connection and interdependency that man has with nature. The route that we are taking follows ancient elephant clusters and migration routes through six countries including Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa.”
“The ancient migration routes of elephants were chosen as the general route indicators since elephants are a keystone species and play a vital ecological, social and economic role in many Southern African countries,” describes Brit Hosmer Peterson, who is Tracks U.S. outreach manager and works with Rock Environmental, an associate of WILD. “Elephants anchor conservation initiatives and attract tourists to protected areas. They also address the question: If we can’t effectively coexist with and protect something this important, how can we effectively protect and promote the sustainability of other wildlife and wild places?”
Along the way, the team will stop at dozens of communities and will be joined by many local conservation “giants” who do this work at the ground level. Together the group will engage local people involved in conversation to come to a better understanding of human-animal interface issues and to identify key conflict areas and possible solutions. Activities will also include youth leadership programs on environmental issues, highlighting the importance of preserving endangered indigenous knowledge and skills such as wildlife tracking, natural resource use and oral histories.
In addition, the team will work with partners to survey and document animal movements and conservation issues focused on climate change and its potential impact on biodiversity and natural habitats; the vital role of wild natural areas in supplying water to human communities; habitat fragmentation and the resulting loss of traditional animal migration routes; and binational collaboration preserving designated wilderness regions and conservation sites across official boundaries.
Halfway along the route, on the border of Victoria Falls between Zimbabwe and Zambia, the team will facilitate a larger gathering where business and political leaders will weigh in on the conversation. During the rendezvous, Tracks leaders, organizers and supporters hope to influence future policy decisions and community engagement.
Based in South Africa, McCallum has forever championed facilitating connectivity between humans and nature. Longtime colleagues and friends, Martin and McCallum share the same mentor, Ian Player, who was the original founder of WILD and the Wilderness Foundation. The two organizations were both founded during apartheid and are steeped in more than 50 years of fostering racial, cultural and gender-diverse relationships between people and nature.
In November 2009, McCallum announced his intention for Tracks at WILD’s Ninth World Wilderness Congress, which took place in Merída, the capital city of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. As he stood before an audience of international conservationists, McCallum committed that he would complete this epic journey—regardless if he raised the estimated bare-bones budget of $300,000—and would report back his findings and observations at the Tenth World Wilderness Congress (WILD 10) to take place from October 4–10, 2013, in Salamanca, Spain.
Perhaps reading the following excerpt from McCallum’s award-winning book Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature, one can see the early germination of the seeds planted for Tracks: “I think we need to look behind us from time to time, to read the tracks of our evolutionary history, and to remember where we have come from,” he writes in the 2005 publication.
“There’s a metaphoric aspect to tracking,” explains Martin. “This journey follows the tracks of an ancient migratory route across the cradle of humankind. It’s just as much an internal journey as well as an external one—it’s a track across the inner landscape. One of WILD’s core values is to take people into the wilderness because there’s a power of transformation that occurs out of experiencing the landscape.” Why focus on Africa?
“Southern Africa is an emerging success story,” Martin explains. “Most national conservation targets for protecting wilderness areas are between 12 and 15 percent. In Namibia the total landmass under protection is 42 percent. In Botswana it’s approximately 40 percent. Through Tracks we want to show that the concept of Nature Needs Half is not only necessary, it’s possible.”
According to Martin, Nature Needs Half is not about separating half from half, it’s about creating a successful relationship between oneself and nature, humankind and nature, starting at the individual level.
“Think about a human relationship model,” Martin illustrates. “It’s about meeting your partner halfway, about helping your partner realize their full potential, in a mutually respectful relationship. Our approach is unique. It’s focused on the human connection to nature as well as the science, culture, management and policy needed to keep wild areas healthy and functioning. We believe that intact wilderness areas are an essential element of healthy human societies.”
Additional Tracks partners include other nongovernmental organizations; wildlife management authorities; parks and reserves management; and government, community and corporate partners. For more information about Tracks, visit www.tracksofgiants.org. For more information about WILD and Nature Needs Half, as well as other conservation initiatives around the world, visit www.wild.org. The group will frequently blog and tweet about their findings and experiences along the route, and welcomes people to join in on the conversation from afar.