Leading Change: Freedom as the birthright of all living beings
Posted on September 11, 2017 by 0 comments 0 likes
Almost everyone knows the iconic book and film, Born Free (1966), based on the true story of wildlife warden, George Adamson, and his wife Joy’s successful struggle to return an orphan lion cub, Elsa, to the wilds of Kenya.
What might be less well-known is that as a result of the film, its stars, husband and wife actors Bill Travers MBE and Virginia McKenna OBE, began an organization called Zoo Check, with their son Will Travers. They were deeply concerned about the welfare of animals locked up in zoos for entertainment purpose but promoted as ‘education’.
Profoundly affected by the story of Born Free, the family became very passionate about the freedom, letting go and selfless love. Over time Zoo Check evolved into the Born Free Foundation.
Born Free President, Will Travers OBE, has been deeply committed to the Foundation now for 33 years. Here, he shares his vision and the critical part we all play in building the interconnected future of our world.
When I consider what ‘freedom’ means to me, it’s, in fact, the denial of freedom which I find so profoundly disturbing. We, as human beings, don’t want to be characterized as numbers. We want to be regarded as individuals, with some degree of free will, the ability to choose and the opportunity to determine our own future. We appreciate and value our ability to make life choices, perhaps based on cultural circumstances, the changing world around us, or on received wisdom passed down through generations.
But consider what it means when freedom of choice is removed from animals. In a captive environment with set sleeping and eating times, life is predetermined. Without the daily changes and challenges found in nature, without the ability to manipulate, modify or adapt to the world around them, animals develop stereotypical behaviour patterns indicative of high stress levels and boredom. The same would apply to any living being forced to endure a sterile and monotonous existence, such as being locked away in an institution or prison, for example.
Freedom is profoundly valued the world over. Some of the most memorable speeches, symbols and sayings speak to this life-affirming notion. What must immigrants have felt when they arrived in New York and saw the Statue of Liberty beckoning to them for the first time? Martin Luther King and the civil right movement fought for freedom. So did Nelson Mandela. America proclaims itself to be ‘the Land of the Free’ – France likewise. We protect freedom of speech against all-comers.
In fact, the greatest punishment we apply to those who transgress human norms is to take away their freedom by putting them in prison. The denial of choice and the removal of freedom are the greatest sanctions – apart from execution – that society can impose on our own kind. And yet we do it to other species for entertainment purposes.
Certainly the world seems a much more complicated and frenetic place than it was when Zoo Check started over 30 years ago.
We have a massively increased human population which puts enormous pressures on wild places and wild animals. Currently there are 7 billion of us but there will probably be more than 11 billion by the end of the century. In Africa, specifically, the human population will rise from 1.1 billion to 4 billion over the next 80 years. Imagine: In the lifetime of a child born in 2017 there will be 4 people in Africa for every person alive today.
The single biggest question for me is this: Can we manage our solitary, fragile, precious world in such a way to allow there to be space and opportunity for people and wild animals? Or will we dominate our planet to virtual exclusion of almost all other life?
I find it very hard to imagine a world without wild animals. But as things stand, we might soon lose much of what is left of the wild. Witness the negative impact humans are having on the planet and the volatility we are bringing about as a result of climate change. We are the most adaptable species on the planet. We can live in environments which are nearly always sub-zero, or in places where 40 degrees is often the norm, because we can manipulate the world around us. Most wild species do not have that level of adaptability. As climate change moves forward or as more and more often marginal land becomes modified for human use we’ll see more and more species pushed to the brink.
I wish people would spend more time in the natural world, working out how they can preserve and protect it from its single greatest threat – us.
The resources available for wildlife protection are pitifully small. The Global Environment Facility (GEF), a global fund established to help protect nature is a billion dollars a year – a goodly sum. But consider this: In the UK £55 billion, or $70 billion is going to be spent on an enhanced high speed rail line which will shave 20 mins off the 120 mile journey between London and our second biggest city, Birmingham. That puts the £1 billion for the GEF in context.
In Kenya, a country that I love, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has 4,000 employees and protects 35,000 wild elephants, 2,000 wild lions, 1,000 rhino, thousands of other species and literally millions of other wild animals. It is also responsible for six million acres of land. It has an annual budget of $60 million.
By way of contrast, the Los Angeles Zoo, in California, has just 3 elephants – 2 post-reproductive females and a single male, Billy, with physical and mental issues. Yet the zoo recently spent over $40 million on a new 2.2 acre enclosure, which, in my view, contributes little or nothing to real conservation or education. We have surely got our priority-setting terribly wrong.
To be clear, animals are not more important than people. It’s not an either-or choice but an everyone-together choice. And it starts with the individual. We can all do something. Whether it’s in a small window box, the local park or on piece of wasteland, we can help protect and nurture nature, not just for wildlife but also for our enjoyment – some would say sanity – as well.
I recently visited one of the poorest communities in Kenya. Nearly 500 kids in a school with no water, no electricity, just pit latrines. Yet they are massively excited by the world around them and eager to learn more. They have a Wildlife Club of 30 students planting a small forest in the school compound as their contribution to the protection of nature. There isn’t a scrap of litter. If they can care, then we can all do something individually or together, as a movement.
The common values that we share must be harnessed. We must come together as a movement that committed to meaningful, lasting change.
The abolition of slavery didn’t come about as a matter of political choice but because it became abhorrent to the majority of people and therefore, untenable. The abuse of our fellow human beings; the emancipation of women; the adoption of civil rights – were (in some cases still are) movements supported by the mass of humanity. Once that critical mass decides that a particular behaviour – like climate change – is intolerable, then society is compelled to change the rules, to reflect its values.
That’s what we seek here. If we want to protect the natural world, we need to translate our desire into a movement – a movement that will not rest until there is a change in our behaviour.
Humans are part of the natural system, and the more we believe that we’re not, the more deluded we become. We cannot continue to think that we can control all aspects of life on earth to serve our own selfish needs and desires. Some people say humans have become so far removed from their natural instincts and the natural world that they have lost the ability to engage and to empathise. This is completely untrue. In moments of crisis or danger, humans are far less cerebral and intellectual than we would like to believe. We almost instantaneously adopt self-defense flight-or-fight survival strategies. We can and do revert back to basic, evolved, animal instincts, within a few seconds. Our wish to see ourselves as an uber species that sits above nature is a veneer that we accord ourselves at our own peril.
Freedom is an intrinsic value to everyone who supports Born Free. But clearly it’s a value that is shared by almost everyone. Most people don’t ask for much, but some people take a lot. As they say, there is enough in the world for the needs of all but not the greed of some. There’s the great imbalance in our society. We must find a way to get back into balance, and I believe that, collectively, a movement is arising which will achieve that goal. The result will be a fairer, kinder, more compassionate world, one that has room for all life on earth.
Leading Change is a series of conversations with Rainmakers on topics closest to their hearts, sharing the ways in which they create positive change in the world. Have something you’d like to share? Email [email protected]