Recently I was informed by my publisher, Island Press, of a report stating that 2015 was deadliest year on record for environmental activists. Given that over the last three decades I have worked on protected areas and corridors for jaguars and tigers in 11 of the top 15 countries listed in the report, I was asked if I would like to comment on the issue. My first thought was that there was no proper response to such an egregious fact. That anyone should be martyred trying to protect the environment through non-violent means seems a blatant travesty. But then I found myself reflecting on my own career in conservation, recalling dozens of incidences when violence or potential violence threatened my life or well-being simply because I was trying to study and protect wildlife.
In all my years in the jungles of the world, it was never the forest or the wildlife that scared me – never the poisonous snakes with their quick acting toxins, the elephants protecting their young, the hair raising roar of a tiger at night, or the groups of peccaries clacking their long tusks warning me to back off. There was potential danger in the forest, to be sure, but it was always the people that worried me the most – people who feared I was trying to change their way of life or had no understanding of why I was there, soldiers and rangers who didn’t want me to see their abuses of power, drug growers, and wildlife poachers.
I had my first taste of the less “congenial” side of the conservation world while majoring in wildlife ecology in graduate school. After writing an op-ed in the local paper about how the construction of a controversial dam might cause the extinction of a tiny fish, I received a letter threatening my life along with an obscene caricature depicting myself with the fish. Not long afterwards, while surveying a river for an endangered bat species as part of an Environmental Impact Assessment for another dam project, I was physically attacked by a local farmer who was certain I was out to stop the dam.
In the years that followed, as I traveled to more distant and exotic places to pursue research and conservation, some of my encounters became stranger and more violent than anything I imagined I might experience. While surveying rhinos in the forests of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, I was charged by a local villager wielding a machete because he thought I was there to remove him from his land. While studying jaguars in Belize, I was cursed by an Obeah man (a form of sorcery), threatened at gunpoint by a hunter from Belize City, and nearly shot while tracking a collared jaguar into a marijuana field. Years later in Thailand, while researching tigers, I had to wrestle and shoot crossbows with indigenous Karen villagers along the Burmese border if I wanted to traverse their lands.
In another part of the protected area I was working, while driving a trailbike to check my tiger traps, I landed in a pit trap filled with punji sticks (sharpened bamboo stakes) set by poachers. My left foot was pierced through, fortunately resulting in only minor nerve damage after surgery at a Bangkok hospital. In Myanmar, while setting up what was to become the world’s largest tiger reserve, I narrowly avoided a shotgun trap set along an opium plantation that I didn’t know was there. In Columbia, while putting cameras out to photograph jaguar movements, my team had to consult maps of known minefields that had been placed by FARC rebels.
Suffice it to say, it didn’t take long in the field to learn that the world of wildlife conservation was not the calm, joyous escape from human life that I once imagined it would be. And with the ensuing years of my career, as I continued to preserve large wild landscapes with intact populations of apex predators (such as big cats), conservation became harder rather than easier. Loss of habitat and illegal poaching became more rampart and poachers were often more sophisticated and outfitted with better weapons than the forest guards charged with protecting wildlife. Finding lands to protect became more difficult, certain animal parts increased in value, and human rights seemed to always trump any right animals might have to even a tiny piece of the earth. I could see the world becoming more difficult and more dangerous for those who tried to protect what was left.
But despite these stories, the violence I encountered were outliers, while the norm was meeting and living with good people who simply wanted better lives for themselves and their children. From these people, I learned an important lesson: To have a truly wild world as part of the heritage we wish to pass to future generations, wildlife and people have to find ways of living together, both inside and outside the forest. Just as the human world does not stop at the forest edge, neither does the animal world for large, wide-ranging carnivores. These animals need not only inviolate protected areas as their homes, but they need to share the landscape with humans via wildlife corridors. Human behavior is not simply the problem, but also part of the solution. And in the end it is the humans that will determine the fate of most of the other species on earth.