Getting back to Africa...

2012-09-17 07:44

Hamish Currie, the founder and director of Back to Africa, talks about how he and a small band of idealists have adopted an alternative approach to species conservation.

What inspired Back to Africa?

I suppose a classic success story of a wild animal being rehabilitated back to the wild is the one about Christian the lion as retold in the Coronation Group TV ad. But about 12 years ago, at a time of intense rhino poaching, my partner Dr Peter Morkel was delivering rhinos to zoos around the world and he realised that the precious genetic material of many rare and endangered African animals was in captivity abroad. We realised that these animals could play a part in species conservation and the idea of Back to Africa was born.

What has been your greatest success to date?

We relocated four northern white rhino from a Czech zoo, where experts had tried in vain to get a breeding programme off the ground, to a sanctuary in Kenya and already their behaviour has changed dramatically, so there is a very real hope that they may reproduce. To put it in context, the northern white rhino is the rarest animal on the planet; not only is it extinct in the wild but there are only seven left in captivity, including these four. So the future of the species depends on them being returned to the wild.

What are the main differences between a sanctuary and a zoo?

Zoos exist for education and entertainment and so often a large portion of their budget is for displaying animals. Education comes into it but conservation is often forgotten. Charismatic species such as elephants are needed to attract visitors but keeping species in zoos often has little or no conservation value. Most of our projects utilise intensive protected areas (IPAs). We take animals from zoos and contain them in areas where they can be managed. In a sense these IPAs are a step between a zoo and the wild. In these areas animals are kept under intense scrutiny and nutrition and disease are managed; they are also protected from predators and poachers.
A good definition of conservation is ‘activities that enhance the persistence of natural habitats and populations', and so Back to Africa is involved in the enhancement of wild-animal populations in Africa using the genes that exist in zoos.

What would you say to those who believe that zoos should be banned outright so that captive breeding takes place only in places controlled by scientists and experts?

Not all zoos are bad; we do support the existence of zoos on condition that they are correctly managed. If you consider the millions of visitors that zoos attract, they should play an important role in educating people about conservation. In fact, the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria published a conservation strategy in 2005 which states that zoos should play a role in conservation in the wild. Some zoos believe they are fulfilling these obligations by donating money. Noble, but not enough. Zoos should breed animals with a clear conservation objective.

The trade of wildlife internationally is a huge business that is both legal and illegal; does this affect your work at all?

We distance ourselves from traders as our projects involve animals that have been donated or still belong to the participating institution. We have a policy of not buying or selling animals.

You support the Quagga Project, which tries to revive this animal through selective breeding with zebras. Why is it worth trying to resurrect an extinct animal, Is that money well spent?

The Quagga Project may not be conservation in its truest sense but it highlights extinction and in this way stimulates understanding about the evolution of species and subspecies.

Does the media hamper conservation work by focusing on the more appealing endangered species such as pandas and tigers?

We should spend more time creating awareness about biodiversity and explaining the crucial relationships that exist between all creatures. Charismatic species are good ambassadors and stir emotions but they can be used as tools to raise money for the conservation of entire ecosystems and biodiversity as a whole.

How can we improve the ways in which humankind and animals coexist?

Countries and governments have a moral responsibility to put aside a certain percentage of land for conservation. The current quotas are not enough. Our natural areas are the substance of life and without them life is nothing.

How can our readers contribute to your work?

Become a friend or sponsor of Back to Africa. Our most recent sponsorship from Coronation Asset Managers came as a result of employees having a genuine concern for the environment and our beautiful creatures.

Do you agree that as nature's bounty diminishes, the price of her rarest works escalates?

‘Price' is money and the value thereof is determined by our greed. Wealth is not always about money. The capacity to enjoy our wild places and beautiful creatures is priceless and adds inestimable value to our lives and the future of the planet.

Read more on:    travel south africa

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