Well what a few weeks I have had, I am back after a bit of a whirlwind month.
I was in South Africa taking part in the IFAW Youth Forum for People and Wildlife, this event brought together 34 youth environmental leaders from 25 countries to learn, connect and tackle some the biggest issues facing wildlife today. The event coincided with CITES, the largest wildlife conference on Earth, which was also taking place in South Africa.
Youth in wildlife conservation often struggle to get a voice, the field can be a bit of a old mans club, and whilst this is changing, it was incredibly refreshing to meet with conservationists from all walks of life. Before the Forum I had expected it to be an amazing experience, however I did not know the real positive impact it would have both professionally and personally.
The first few days were designed to introduce us to each other, to learn about the work we are all doing and the country that was hosting us, South Africa. We visited the community of Kliptown within the township Soweto. Here I came face to face with poverty for the first time, I saw children that struggled to go to school, shared squat toilets and had limited access to drinking water. However what really sticks with me is that Kliptown is not a ‘poor African’ stereotype, but rather a vibrant, happy and hopeful community. All through Kliptown you are not faced with a pity party, instead there is music, dancing, laughter, play and life. People here are not sad poor people, they are just people living their lives like everyone else.
We then learnt about the dark history of South Africa in the apartheid museum and finished positively by visiting Nelson Mandela’s house and the towers of Soweto. Johannesburg is not Vancouver, it has a reputation and caution is definitely advised, but don’t write it off, it is a city of surprises with so much culture and history.
We then left the hustle and bustle of the city for Pilanesberg National Park, where we stayed in one of the fanciest places I have ever been! The time in Pilanesberg National Park was a chance for us to continue getting to know each other and discuss how we can work together towards our goals and a successful Forum. We also heard from the rangers of the park on how they risk their lives everyday to try and save wildlife from poaching. Over the 2 days we got to go out on game drives, watching some of the most iconic African species in their natural habitat. We saw a leopard trying to hunt impala and lions laying in the road just a short distance from where we would be eating dinner and a giant crocodile swimming right in front of the hide we were sat in. The list of wildlife is endless so here are some highlights- leopard, lion, elephants (and baby), rhino, wildebeest, giraffe, crocodile, zebra, impala, springbok, hoopoe, roller and African fish eagles.
After leaving Pilanesberg, we returned to Johannesburg and began the Forum. This was 3 days of workshops, debates, discussions, expert panels and guest speakers. The topics ranged from CITES to effective communication and diversity in conservation, as well as learning about the brutal reality of wildlife trade. It was a privilege to hear from and openly speak to experts in the field.
My work in education covers an aspect on wildlife trade, but the Forum gave me a shocking insight on how big and devastating wildlife trade is throughout the world, it is a complex issue that is having a huge impact on wildlife populations. It is so important that we all educate ourselves and others about what wildlife trade looks like, it is not all rhino horn, tiger bone and elephant tusks, it can be as innocent looking as the parrot in the pet shop or the cute slow loris being tickled on Facebook. People in the trade prey on the naivety or apathy of the public and it is so important that we learn to spot the signs, because with no consumers or admirers, the trade becomes worthless.
As the Forum came to a close we had a VIP evening hosted in our honour, which was attended by the CITES Secretary General, government officials from across the world and conservationists from a variety of organisations.
On the final day we went to CITES for the opening ceremony. There I got to chat with a number of people about the upcoming convention, I heard about sharks, African grey parrots, whales, frogs and everything in between. Wildlife conservation is never as clear cut as sometimes it seems, this was definitely a lesson learnt.
The week was intense, action packed and over way too fast. The highlight was of course meeting and getting to know the other 33 delegates and the amazing staff, who worked so hard to put it all together. We represented 25 countries and work in a variety of areas in conservation. The work that they do is unbelievable, It was a privilege, how often do you get the chance to learn first hand about conservation and wildlife in 25 different countries?! As well as this I got the chance to represent where I am from and where I live, talking to delegates and experts about the wildlife and conservation taking place on Vancouver Island, throughout Canada and the UK. The plan is not to stop here, the group will continue to work together with aims to expand and include more young people from around the world, to give youth a voice in wildlife conservation and to tackle the issues impacting wildlife and people.