Be Better

In nature, I am just a person. I am as flesh and bone as the birds in the trees, the worms in the soil and the bats in the sky. In nature I am a giant to ground dwellers and a midget to tree dwellers. I am neither too big nor too small for my surroundings, I am neither better nor worse than those around me and I am not judged nor valued within my environment. In nature, I simply just am.

Unfortunately, the constructs of human society do not mirror the laws of nature. The premise of survival of the fittest is contradicted by the presence and use of hospitals and welfare programs and the premise of niches is corrupted by the fact that we seem to thrive everywhere despite what used to live where we wish to establish ourselves. In the world of humans, you can be too small, too big, and you can definitely be judged and valued by those around you. In the human world, it is not just enough to be, but rather you are encouraged to spend your whole life being better.

It was written on the wall of my first job in my field in big blue letters. Those two words haunted me every day reminding me that I was never good enough, I was never all I could be. That evil phrase “BE BETTER” loomed over me as I lit the fire at 5am to make everyone breakfast and when I returned at 9pm from my last data collection walk of the day. No matter how much I did or how hard I tried in my position, I could always be better. Who I was was never enough.

Sitting at the airport on my way back to Australia, before a life of running water, electricity, wifi and a loving harem of family and friends, I wrote a final blog. I told the world that I was stronger, I knew what I was capable of and I was going to try my best to help animals in the tourism industry. I had forgotten about those big blue letters and all I cared about was being good enough and strong enough to continue on my own journey and I believed that I was more than capable. At that moment, I didn’t need to be any better than I was. I found this blog the other day having realized that I had in fact been strong enough and capable enough. I reflected on the organisation I started called “Heroic Tourism” which aims to conserve animals in the tourism industry, I thought back to all the successes that have come from that and all the people who have joined me in my journey. I read my foreshadowing words with a smile, I believed I was good enough and low and behold, I was right.

Years later I found myself in a new job where once again I was never good enough for my bosses. All my values were wrong and I was constantly having to stand up for my rights as a woman, surprisingly this job was not in another country, but in a small town here in Australia. Even more surprisingly, the misogynous person I was battling against was also a woman. I ended up taking responsibility for the whole business, the property, the house, looking after the kids and dealing with correspondence from other businesses who wanted to collaborate while my bosses went overseas. On their return I was exhausted, but as I picked them up from the airport as my final duty from their absence, instead of being greeted with warmth and gratitude, I was greeted with a lecture on how I should have cleaned the bathroom.

A week ago I found myself in a meeting for a job opportunity whereby the interviewer asked me about the situation and how I resolved it. I was granted the opportunity based on the way I handled that situation and my attitude toward conflict resolution. What once was my living nightmare was now a gateway to new exciting opportunities in exactly the field I want to work in. I was no longer a slave to to the anxiety and trauma caused by my stay in that position and more so, I was vindicated by my actions thereby relieving me into a new world of possibilities. Once again I had come out of a bad situation stronger and more equipped to take on whatever I endeavoured to embark on.

On my days off, I often find myself compelled to walk for as long and as far as I can and in this time I spend a moment to reflect on the people I have been. I am not the sum of the values bestowed upon me by people who do not believe in me, but instead I am the sum of all the belief I bestow upon myself. Those big blue letters on the wall are laughable, and only reflect the thoughts and feelings of those who wrote them. I know for sure that all the people who have employed me that don’t treat me with the respect I deserve are not the best versions of themselves and I hope that everyone who works with them in the future doesn’t kill themselves trying to be better, but knows deep in their hearts that they are good enough, at least in natures eyes anyway.

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Women of the Earth

At about 1:30am this morning, I had a profound realization about how powerful, inspirational and character shaping women have been throughout my life. Finding myself in a nightclub despite having avoided them for the past five years, I found myself awkwardly dancing in a very un-clubby outfit which comprised of long black pants, boots and a shirt and feeling a bit too old and a bit too tall for my surroundings. Following my friend into the bathroom, a young girl who was probably half my age and height looked up at me and just blurted out:

“I love your legs! They are so long!”

I blushed because she was the perfect example of what I thought the ideal clubite was, and she was the one who was envious of the long legs I was so ashamed of just moments before. This flooded my brain with a wealth of recent examples of when women have allowed me to grow and blossom in my industry as well during everyday life.

As a child, it was my mother who handed me a toy gorilla that sparked my passion for animals and it was her that pointed out every bird and flower and critter, calling it by its real name and allowing my curiosity to grow. Growing up, my conservation heroes were Leaky’s Trimates; Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas, who were all young women who were sent out into the field with nothing but a notebook and a sense of observation. Little did they know at the time, all three women would return from the forest as icons for their respective species, the chimpanzee, gorilla and the orangutan alike.

In my first long stint as a professional conservationist on a Madagascan island it was my good friend Lou, who despite everything that happened to us during those six months, was always there at the bench looking out over the ocean ready to talk about life, or to dress up and party down or just to laugh about inventing new names for groups of gorillas with. After all the emotions, tears and smiles, she was always there. Years later, it was Shermin, from Trunks and Leaves that discovered me at a dinner table at a conference in Singapore. Just from overhearing me talk about my forest fairy elephants over dinner, she offered me the chance to work with her team in Sri Lanka and to get to know a whole other race of elephant.

It was a woman that recommended me to get into community programs which allowed me to get funding for Heroic Tourism, women that helped me form my first team and women that came together to give me help and advice on my endeavours. Throughout all the time I spent working hard to impress the standards of male workers and failing time and time again, it has been the women of the conservation world that have carried me through and have given me something to believe in.

As I sit here planning to accompany an old friend, who also shares my passion for conservation, on her field work next week, I now have all the faith in the world that women are a great and indestructible force within our planet. Maybe that is why they call her Mother Earth, but now I can see that compassion and building communities is what we are best at. Instead of working harder and longer to surpass the male expectations around me, I will now aim to work smarter with amazing people who provide support and encouragement. Done are the days of disappointment and defeat, for this is a new era for being empowered and encouraged by other amazing women in science.

Being labelled as an honourary man used to be a reward, but now I feel that I deserve more. I deserve to be who I am, and represented as who I am while allowing my achievements and personality to be able to stand for what it is. This is the time where I am going to allow myself to thrive despite my age, appearance or gender and let my true skills shine through. I was not put on this planet to be anybody else, so today and from now on, I am going to be proud of the powerful woman that I believe I am and I am going to harness the inner Jane, Dian and Birute that lives inside of me. Yes my legs are too long for their own good, but damn, they are powerful vessels of transportation and sometimes all it takes is a young girl in a dark bathroom to remind me of their value, and in extension, my own value as well.

 

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If a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it

Throughout my life, there have been extended periods of solitude and extended periods of constant companionship, both which don’t sit with me too well on their own. Isolation can become torturous over extended periods of time, or conversely, sweet relief from the business and sometimes suffocating tendencies of day to day life. In the same stroke, company can be both comforting and joyous when spending time with the people you love or smothering and unbearable if you never manage to get a second to yourself. Both states, in their extremes can be both heaven and hell.

Maintaining a balance of both extremities has been something I have not yet been able to achieve as I tend to go through waves of isolation, remedied with waves of constant companionship until I need some time to myself again. The natural world has always provided the solution to my constant see-sawing of social exhaustion and loneliness and has always provided a safe haven of stillness and friends that live their lives passively around me without the expectation of interaction.

Wildlife photography has become an important factor in maintaining this balance in my life, as it allows me to enter a meditative state of pure concentration on the subject at hand, watching the movements and behaviours of my subject, waiting to get a shot that captures the essence of the moment. From the second I heard a whipbird in the backyard of the new location I would be stationed for three months at the end of last year, I knew I needed a camera to be able to identify all the creatures that shared the property with me. As the obsession developed, I researched cameras and purchased one the very next weekend ready to discover the world around me.

As soon as this magical device touched my hands, I knew I had stumbled across a window into another world, and my behaviours changed as a result of it. I couldn’t wait to spend every evening in the garden sitting still and watching the different birds interact and show their different personalities. I got to know each species as if they were long lost friends, studying their interactions, feeding and vigilant behaviours. My photos became less about identification and more about capturing their personalities, colours and individual styles. What drew me in was the capability to learn, meditate and see self growth at the same time as showing people the world around them through my images. Sometimes rare birds would come and I would be able to savour the moment before sharing the moment with others. Sometimes I would watch water skinks, knowing that if I became as still as a rock, they would bask with me in the sunshine without slithering away.

Being back in a city again, away from the peacefulness of the country, I deeply miss the birds, the lizards and my meditation time behind the lens every night, however now I have human friends, memories and laughs to have. Nature has provided me the only form of meditation I know whilst allowing me to experience the profound impact of stillness and fading back into an environment. I know now that during times of both social exhaustion and loneliness, I can turn to the natural world for both stillness and companionship and know that I will feel rejuvenated, relaxed and humbled after sheer minutes. I don’t know any other medicine or remedy otherwise that harbours such immediate results as the power of the natural world around us.

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Can you keep the lorikeet?

Walking through the Adelaide Zoo, I spotted two wild lorikeets in the hollow of a tree which I watched quite closely as I felt they must be used to humans in such a frequented environment. I chuckled as they played and went about their natural behaviours and found it incredible that the only animals I had fully enjoyed observing within the zoo were there on their own terms and were free to leave at any time. Later on, I strolled past an aviary which I saw housed rainbow lorikeets and it struck me as surreal that this zoo housed animals that you could frequently see in their wild state in the exact same venture. This thought felt potent in my brain, and raised some big ethical red flags.

Having read the history of zoos in Nigel Rothfels’ book “Savages and Beasts“, I understand that a huge transition has taken place from the birth of the first menagerie where animals were shown off to the western world in more of a display sense in order to parade the beasts around to show off one’s wealth and stature to one’s peers. The more exotic your animals were, and the vastness of your collection, the more prestigious you stood in your community.

Menageries then turned into travelling shows where human zoos became very popular. Native Homo sapian tribes from all corners of the world were gathered to go about their lives in front of dapper Englishmen in their top hats and coats as they gawked and laughed at the villager’s primitive ways.

Following the travelling shows, came the evolution of the modern day zoo as we know it today. Exotic animals were housed in enclosures which replicated their native homelands and were provided more suitable diets. Guests were able to gain more of an insight into how these animals lived in the wild and in what microcosm they used to do so.

What is the common theme within these three examples of displaying creatures to the public? The common theme is that in each of these instances, people are coming from far and wide and paying good money to see exotic animals that they couldn’t see otherwise in their hometowns. The unreachable beasts of Africa were suddenly at the public’s  fingertips and native tribes of people from deep within forest recesses were suddenly living their lives right in front of crowds and crowds of paying people. Zoos have always worked as a concept because you are making these foreign animals accessible where they weren’t accessible before and as a result, showcasing parts of the world that tourists may not have been able to travel to on their own.

So now, with all of this in mind, do you think that a zoo should be holding an animal that is commonly found in the area, albeit, an animal that is so common that it frequents the zoo on its own terms? Doesn’t that just push the concept of zoos to the next level to assume that people will be willing to pay to see an animal that they can see every day in their own back yard? By doing this aren’t zoos holding creatures captive for the sole sake of holding creatures captive? What are the benefits to the public of seeing captive rainbow lorikeets?

Zoos have become a powerful tool in conservation, being able to inspire children from a young age to form a connection and a respect for animals, not just native, but beasts found all over our planet. Even I can admit that visiting zoos as a child myself, fed an urge to see what our planet held and to learn more about the way animals have evolved. Zoos may have created more conservationists than we know, and zoos have definitely supported many conservation programs on a global scale. But I think its time to re-evaluate the way we run zoos once again, to add a new step in the evolution of holding captive animals.

In just my life time, and my parent’s life time I have seen inappropriate animals being erased from zoos. Polar bears, elephants and many other animals have been removed from local zoos because the climate and conditions have not been ideal for their health and lifestyle. I have seen envirodomes being built and conservation centres being established. I have seen higher levels of education being provided to both the public and schools and I have seen a change in how zoos run from being display centres to being conservation hubs. But why, tell me why do we need to house native birds in cages for the public eye?

Next time you go to your local zoo, wherever it may be, have a look out for natives and ask yourself, do we really need to showcase our own animals for our own people? Do we really need that rainbow lorikeet or that laughing kookaburra in a cage? Or do we need to show people and explain to people that it is truly wonderful that they can find everything they are looking for and more, just by stepping outside and seeing the gifts nature has to offer.

Food for thought.

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We must kill them before we can save them

Everyone makes mistakes- even our well loved and widely regarded conservation heroes. Jane Goodall spent the better part of her time out with the chimpanzees in Camp Leaky tempting the animals with tasty banana treats which we now know are loaded with sugar and can lead to issues such as obesity and diabetes in mammals if consumed in high frequencies. On top of this, animals and humans are most often best kept apart in order to preserve natural behaviours.

Our British documentary idol, David Attenborough could be found capturing wild animals for their new lives in captivity for his hit show- Zoo Quest, back in the early days of his career. Family groups split up, stressful transportation situations and solitary isolation were just a few consequences of his actions for wild animals.

In fact, every animal you see in a zoo or a tourist park most likely has an ancestor who was poached in the wild for a life in captivity. If you think that this process of obtaining animals was a short and painless experience, I am sorry to inform you that often whole family groups of animals were mass slaughtered just to obtain one individual for captivity. Imagine trying to pry a baby elephant away from its mother without getting killed yourself, it is a near impossible task. To obtain a baby elephant, you must kill the mother and any other elephants that wish to avenge the mothers death or claim new motherly duties of the infant- which is everyone in the herd. That’s right, to capture one single baby elephant, you must slaughter an entire herd. I wish that we could say our ancestors were tasteful about this slaughter and paid their humble respects to the herd on their death beds, however unfortunately the English captors used to capture ridiculous portraits of themselves posing on top of the elephants with penny farthings and the like. If only Facebook and Instagram were around back then so they could share their outrageous portraits with other nations.

But alas, we must not poo poo these people with upturned noses, as without Jane, you would not have the conservation idol who created a multinational conservation initiative- Roots & Shoots which has been a leading organisation in inspiring young people all over the globe to become involved in conserving nature. On top of this, we would be without the discovery that humans were not the only tool users on the planet which lead to redefining our whole species.

David Attenborough told me himself that he has no regrets of his past life in Zoo Quest as zoos are a main driving force in inspiring people to see wildlife in person and draw inspiration for conserving them from their experiences. I don’t know a single person who is not interested in watching Sir David’s documentaries even if they are not interested  in wildlife or conservation at all. He has single-handedly brought the savannas of Africa, depths of the oceans and the impenetrable South American rainforests into the homes hundreds of thousands of humans around the world and sparked a conversation regarding how incredible our planet really is.

As for the blood shed that lead to the modern zoo- was it worth it? In some instances you can have an amazing conservation based facility that supports field projects and does not keep animals which would be unreasonably kept in the climate within the zoo. These places are responsible for re-vegetation projects, often support conservation based research and are responsible for educating a large chunk of the public about global wildlife. But on the other hand, there are zoos that are still killing the animals that lie within them as they wither away with inadequate diets, enclosures and social interaction with others of its species.

Being in the field of conservation, I have come to understand that imperfections can often lead to amazing and brand new innovations. Rick O’Barry introduced flipper and captive dolphins to us all, but now is spending his life trying to tare the industry down just as Jane has built her conservation empire and David has shown the whole world how beautiful our planet could be if we just let it flourish without taring it down.

If our zoos are built on a foundation of bloodshed, lets make them worth it shall we. Lets use them to educate the public and show them first hand what these animals look and feel and smell like and why they are important to the running of the world we live in. Lets show people the tree kangaroos and the hairy sponge crabs and prove to people that nature has miraculous inventions and that we could be a part in celebrating them. Lets show people how animals are too interesting to be killed and lets continue to breed captive animals so that no more wild species need to die on our behalf.

Conservation taught me that mistakes, even big horrible ones are okay if you are willing to devote your time to righting your wrongs. There is always a second chance. There is always room to make amends.

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Anteresting…

Typically on Sunday mornings, my partner and I love to indulge in watching AntsCanada who is a youtuber who lives in the Philippines who is insanely passionate about ….well you guessed it- ants! It may not come as a surprise to you that I enjoy a good ant documentary however it is unusual that my technology and “inside” boyfriend is arguably more into these ant docos than I am. Watching a clip today, the question of “do ants live on tropical islands?” was asked and with that one question, my mind trailed back to all the times that I have been on tropical islands with ants playing very memorable roles in my stay.

Waking up from a nap in my comfortable wooden bed on Phi Phi Island in Thailand, I found my friend lying belly first on the tiled floor. On a second glance, she was not sleeping but rather totally engrossed in these four ants carrying crumbs along the tiles. When I crouched down next to her to investigate, it seemed as if she had been watching them for a while, hours even, as the ants tried to figure out the complex problem of getting the crumbs through the hole in the tiles to get to where they needed to go, probably back to the nest. Soon I found myself joining her, belly first, wondering how the ants were going to solve this problem as if it was a live reality TV show unfolding in front of us.

In Tzaneen, South Africa, not so much an island but tropical none the less, I was supposed to be watching Vervet monkeys integrate with their new families. As I sat cross legged on the ground, I watched as a line of ants came marching in front of my feet carrying a meal for the nest…a huge cockroach. The cockroach however was not having a good day as it still wiggled and squirmed while it was being devoured alive in some kind of morbid marching ceremony. I was transfixed as this perfect latitudinal rope of ants marched across the ground as if a permanent line was drawn and then- all of a sudden- came to life.

Nosy Be, Madagascar was temporarily home to a French man who lived for ants. While we were out researching lemurs, frogs and lizards, he decided he was going to devote his time to the little soldiers of the island. Leading the volunteers into the forest, they groaned knowing the digging they would have to do to set the hundreds of ant traps and then all the siphoning through the ant traps they would have to do to find and identify all the ants that fell in. If you saw a dirty, sore and worn out volunteer that was looking more worse for ware than usual, they would just utter one single word.

“Ants.”

I think it is easier than you think to become addicted to ants, as all of those bedraggled volunteers somehow began to appreciate the complex lives that are ants despite all the pain they caused them. I also had this one lecturer during my undergraduate that always gave very passionate lectures about ants and their colonies, and even super colonies that only had one queen but still managed to span across continents.  When my sister was younger and had to sit in on one of my mum’s uni lectures it must have been delivered by the same man because she came home telling the family that university was boring because all they do is talk about ants- she obviously didn’t get the memo that ants are interesting.

Ants are farmers, team players, they have a monarchy and a factory lifestyle with every individual having a purpose within the nest. There are so many good relationships other animals form with ants to make their lives easier or to get protection from other predators. Conversely, ants can themselves be fierce predators by taking out thousands of red crabs on Christmas Island each year. There are spiders that mimic ants, appealing to their way of life and there are ants that look like other creatures…so fantastical are ants that they are shape-shifters, powerful individuals and strong team players.

Watching the ant documentary, I reflected on all the lessons I have learnt from ants. They have taught me to be fiercely independent as well as to make myself an indispensable part of a team. They have taught me to branch out and establish good relations within my community and to not be afraid to make good connections. There is no wonder I have seen so many people in my life sit in awe over such small creatures, because they are hugely interesting and big in personality.

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