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Planet Earth, the Pandemic, and the Power of One

Humans are not the only species suffering from COVID-19. If we are wise, we also won’t be the only ones to benefit when the pandemic ends.

Out There iconOut There
By Corey S. Powell
Apr 23, 2020 1:00 AMApr 24, 2020 6:09 PM
The virus that changed the world. (Credit: CDC, NASA EPIC Team)
The virus that changed the world. (Credit: CDC, NASA EPIC Team)


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“I’ll say this to anybody who thinks they can’t as a single voice make a difference: Some guy who ate a bat that had been in a cage with a pangolin in China sure made a difference.” It was a shockingly stark thing to hear in the middle of an interview with two wildlife filmmakers talking about Born Wild: The Next Generation, their beautiful new documentary series about baby animals.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. The filmmakers behind the series, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, have been passionate environmentalists and conservationists throughout their careers. They created Great Plains Conservation, an ecotourism-funded organization that manages extensive wildlife reserves in Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe; they also founded two African animal-protection organizations, the Big Cats Initiative and Rhinos Without Borders. The Jouberts specialize in looking at our planet through a micro and macro lens at the same time.

The release of Born Wild was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and that anniversary inevitably framed much of the Jouberts’ comments. But the tidiness of the calendar has been completely overwhelmed by the chaos resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The spread of the virus has brutally exposed many hidden vulnerabilities and interconnections: between people, between species, and between humans and the world they inhabit. An edited version of my conversation with Dereck and Beverly Joubert follows.

The COVID-19 pandemic is obviously a health crisis and an economic crisis, but you also regard it as a conservation crisis. How so?

Dereck: What we’ve been seeing over the past 50 years, in many ways, is a breakdown of harmony and balance between humans and the wild. Climate change coming out of excessive use of resources around the world, damage to the atmosphere — it has been snapping back and hurting us. It would be wrong to ascribe a human characteristic to nature, as if it’s coming for us. It is our excesses that have snapped back, whether we’re dealing with the global environment or killing and eating wildlife.

Beverly: We humans are responsible for what’s going on now. We’ve pretty much created this disease ourselves through all our abuses to wildlife. There were 54 different species being consumed in wet markets [where people can buy the meat from wild animals]. Those species are being killed in an inhumane way and in an unhygienic way. It’s no wonder that diseases come out of wet markets.

We need to pull back. We need to be very aware that climate change is also going to harm us. Whether it harms the planet is one thing, but it’s definitely going to harm us. I look at COVID-19 an example of what can happen. We might think we are godly and in charge, and yet this very small virus is affecting humankind in various areas, in all cultures, across the globe.

Many people, including the two of you, have been voicing similar environmental concerns for decades. Do you see a difference in how people are responding now?

Dereck: For the first time in history, we can directly link damage to the environment to economic collapse. This is a foreshadowing of what can happen in other forms down the line. It’s brought this [environmental] issue front and center to everyone’s consciousness. It’s hard going back from that, picking up and saying, “All right, back to business as usual.” I think this experiment has been very humbling. It’s a grand social experiment as well. It is bringing out the best in us and the worse in us. There’s no turning our backs on this moment and the profoundness of it.

How is the pandemic affecting your own conservation efforts?

Dereck: A number of years ago, we were doing a film about leopards, which segued into the Big Cats Initiative. Then we realized we could be saving one cat at a time, or maybe groups of 10 to 15, but unless we were saving the land and protecting the land we wouldn’t be working fast enough. So we started Great Plains Conservation to buy up and lease land. Today, that’s 1.5 million acres of some of the wildest land in Africa. Some of it is former hunting land that we converted back into pristine habitats. Then we laid an ecotourism model on top of that to pay for all of it.

Which brings us to this moment. For many, many decades, tourism was a reliable source of income to look after these areas. That income just went away in a heartbeat.  

Dereck and Beverly Joubert, caught in their native habitat. (Credit: Wildlife Films)

What happens to a conservation organization that depends on ecotourism dollars when the entire tourism industry comes to a screeching halt?

Dereck: This is a massive problem. The airlines in the U.S. are going to get bailout packages, and they’ll be back in business shortly. In our case, there is no bailout. We’re out here on our own, and we have 14 properties making up 1.5 million acres. Our revenue has gone to zero, but we still have the burn. We still have to do antipoaching, we still have to look after these areas, we have to protect these rhinos. I determined that I wasn’t going to let anyone go, so I’m still paying 660 people.

Sometime soon we’re going to run out of money. That could be in two to three months, it’s certainly going to be well inside of a year. We have to reach out to our supporters and ask for help. Without that, when tourism does open again, there won’t be anything left. Many other organizations in Africa are laying off people, and there’s going to be massive unemployment. When people are unemployed, they struggle to find their next meal — and just across the fence there’s all this wildlife, all this meat. That’s the obvious next target.

We’re all sitting on the same blue planet. We’re all connected. Is that what you mean?

Dereck: It’s this big cycle: The wet markets and the consumption of bat feet and pangolins in China have created quite a lot of this problem, this worldwide problem that’s causing shutdowns, that’s causing businesses to close in Africa, that’s sending people back into the bushmeat and feeding off the environment again.

Now’s the time for all of us to be leaning forward, figuring out that we’ve all got to be taking care of the people first. Then we’ve got to make sure there are jobs and that ecosystems have integrity and remain intact.

Many people don’t see those connections, or think of wildlife conservation as a remote, almost theoretical concern. How do you respond?

Beverly: We can’t live in a sterile environment, so protecting the last pristine areas is vital. Four percent of the biomass on this planet is wildlife. That is pretty scary! Just 4 percent. How are we going to protect that? At the same time, we’ve got to protect the oceans, stop the pollution of the oceans, stop the pollution in the rivers running down to the oceans, protect the forests. What we can learn from COVID-19 is that the world can stop. We can save ourselves, selfishly. All of a sudden, the Himalayas can be seen from towns and villages in India where they couldn’t be seen because of pollution. While we’re doing it selfishly for ourselves, let’s take the actions and steps needed to stop climate change before it’s too late.

A charismatic koala joey featured in Born Wild. Even the cute animals come with a serious environmental message. (Credit: John Palacio/ABC)

Your new documentary series, Born Wild, centers on cute baby animals. Ecotourism similarly celebrates the charismatic aspects of the wild. Does that undercut the urgent aspects of your environmentalist message?

Dereck: The more you drill down on it, the more they clarify each other. Ecotourism is an $80 billion business model in Africa. A big chunk of that money goes into the communities that surround the national parks, and that protect these fantastic resources [seen in Born Wild]. If we snap that away, those communities and so will those resources. 

Travel also collapses xenophobia in a way. One of the negative consequences of staying in your apartment [during the COVID-19 pandemic] is that you become disassociated with your neighbor, and most certainly with your neighbor in another country. It’s only when you sit down around the campfire with somebody from Africa and listen to his stories from his village, that you can put yourself in his shoes — if he has shoes. And then you go back home changed. I think that helps put the world in harmony and in balance.

From your vantage, how has Earth Day changed over its 50 years?

Beverly: When Earth Day started 50 years ago, it didn’t start to celebrate our planet. It started because people already saw the issues — and, yet, we’re probably in a more negative place now than when it started. We should be looking at every single day as Earth Day. Sure, there is hope, but it’s going to take every individual on this planet to create that hope.

It takes a profound moment like this to shake us all to the core so we say, “What do we need to do?” I’m hoping, if and when we do come out of COVID-19, we’re not going to forget it, and we are going to take those steps to move forward.

Dereck: It’s almost fitting that the 50th Earth Day occurs while the world is in lockdown, which gives us time to reflect on this. I would urge everybody to reflect on what Earth Day is and to use this almost meditative self-isolation to consider what role we will play in the future of this planet.

People often feel that they have little influence as individuals; I often feel that way myself. How do you push back against that attitude?

Dereck: I’ll say this to anybody who thinks they can’t as a single voice make a difference: Some guy who ate a bat that had been in a cage with a pangolin in China sure made a difference. [This is the most likely scenario for the origin of COVID-19.] But we can make a positive difference.

Thats an intense way to put it.

Dereck: I would also encourage people to take a moment and think about this. About three years ago, we had a run-in with a buffalo. It smashed me to pieces and it impaled Beverly on its horn. The horn went under her arm, through her chest, through the back of her throat and up into her face. She died twice in my arms. I struggled to keep her alive for 18 hours in the field, but she survived.

When we were coming out of that, while she was still struggling with lots of problems, Beverly said to me, “I can’t wait to get back to normal.” And I said to her, “I don’t think normal is good enough anymore. You have to grow from this. You have to take that experience, absorb it, own it, and become different and better form it.”

We will survive this pandemic as a species. I hope that people will pause and ask, “How do we become better from this moment?” Not just how do we get back to normal — normal isn’t good enough anymore. We’ve got to get better.

In this moment of COVID-19 isolation, how can people be better?

Dereck: Choose something you’re passionate about and find the people who match your passion and your obsession, and support that.

The voices for conservation are gentle voices. They often don’t get heard in the cacophony of other lobbyists. I don’t think we should give up that politeness and introspection, but this is important. Without serious support now, everything collapses.

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