By: Nick McCallum
Occasionally, when celebrity gossip, political scandal, and natural or manmade disasters have yielded little in the way of newsworthy ore, wildlife conservation takes centre stage in Western consciousness. Take Cecil the lion, for example, the latest martyred mascot to bring illegal poaching to the forefront of public discussion once again. However, poaching in Africa is a much bigger and complicated issue than a single sensationalized event, and indeed, Cecil and the plight of his species has already passed into the ether of media obscurity. Canadian documentary filmmaker and photographer, Martin Buzora, views this as “perhaps due to our disconnect with actual wildlife. Our culture seems to retain a childlike love for animals into adulthood, and we generally keep a very sentimental, anthropomorphic view of them that other cultures may not share to the extent that we do.”
From an early age, Buzora first remembers being inspired by photography after his brother took a series of pictures in rural Hungary. In the forested ruins of an old mill and an ancient road built by the Romans, time seemed to stand still, and it was the ability to immortalize these moments that Buzora felt the power of photography. Despite having spent many summers there, growing familiar and developing a certain bond with the land, it wasn't until his brother took those photos that Buzora realized how a camera could replicate a feeling so closely akin to the soul. His desire to prevent time’s deteriorative effects combined with his love of wildlife, made documenting animal conservation a somewhat easy decision—an endeavor that has taken him across Africa: from Namibia, South Africa, and Tanzania, to name just a few.
Most recently, Buzora visited Northern Kenya, where he was able to work alongside such admirable organizations as the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and its sister organization, the Northern Rangelands Trust. By involving the local population through education and helping to fund growing infrastructure, Lewa and the NRT have virtually reinvented the model for wildlife conservation, creating communities that “are now ambassadors for their wildlife and [who] will not only refrain from poaching, but will actually provide inside information to our anti-poaching teams regarding any potential outsiders…with the intent to poach.” As people begin to recognize and experience the long-term benefits of maintaining a healthy ecosystem, there becomes less of a need to poach for temporary gain.
Although, this is not to say that poaching does not still occur. As Buzora points out, "Many of the underground syndicates involved in poaching are outsiders from nearby countries who look to exploit Kenya's resources. They will hire young tribesmen who are familiar with the land to do the actual killing for them for comparatively little pay while incurring most of the risk." But there is an important distinction that Western culture sometimes fails to understand, and that is the difference between poaching for survival, and poaching for profit. Both are illegal, but as Buzora states, “When your livelihood depends on the cattle that are being eaten by lions and hyenas on a nightly basis, your view on wildlife will be very different from a person watching David Attenborough documentaries in a condo downtown Toronto.” In fact, illegal poaching in Kenya will land you life in prison.
The problem, again, boils down to education, because unfortunately, a good portion of the poaching that takes place may be carried out by young men with little to no concept of the ecological damage they are inflicting by killing a rhinoceros or elephant. This is where the educational work of conservancies like Lewa play such a crucial role. Even today, many Asian cultures still cling onto superstition as a link to their past, believing that rhinoceros horn contains curative properties regardless of the fact that modern medicine has debunked this theory. Elephant tusk, on the other hand, is merely a symbol of power or prestige, similar to buying a Porsche or a Ferrari in the West. But in both cases, it is the wealthiest that tend to drive the demand forward, perpetuating a cycle whereby gangsters and poaching syndicates continue to supply them by any means necessary.
There is a greater force threatening wildlife throughout the world though, making the jobs of organizations like Lewa that much more difficult: overpopulation. With an increase of our planet’s human population sitting at a steady 135 million per year as of 2011, conservancy efforts are essentially “in a race to fight human overpopulation that is sweeping the globe and results in the disappearance of wild places and animals everywhere.” And while this appears a daunting hurdle to overcome, by continuously supporting and educating communities on the value of the creatures they share the land with, hope for environmental harmony remains.
Currently, Buzora is in the process of directing “Kenya Wildlife Diaries,” a six-part documentary series to be featured on the channels Love Nature, and Smithsonian later this year, which follows the ongoing conservancy efforts taking place in Northern Kenya. He hopes to spread awareness on the exemplary work of the dedicated and passionate individuals who make groundbreaking organizations like Lewa and the NRT possible. Buzora’s tireless commitment to making wildlife conservation a global responsibility can be seen to extend all the way back to a boy who wanted to freeze time, and share all its beauty with the world.
You can follow Martin's adventures on Instagram: @martinbuzora