Mark Carwardine is a zoologist, outspoken conservationist, award-winning writer, TV and radio presenter, wildlife photographer, and Chairman of the Judging Panel of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
He co-presented BBC2’s Last Chance to See, with Stephen Fry in which the unlikely pair travelled the world in search of endangered species. The duo paired up again in October for a one-hour special about the consequences of April’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill – Slick, and Last Chance to See – Return of the Rhino which follows up on the northern white rhino story.
Rohantime caught up with Mark after he returned from filming Slick.
What was the over-riding emotion you felt after you finished filming Slick, Gulf of Mexico’s oil spill?
I was horrified by how much money and effort had been put into damage limitation through a Kafkaesque PR exercise – which, of course, was BP’s primary aim. Solving the environmental damage caused by the spill was quite clearly of secondary importance. What was particularly atrocious was the announcement that three-quarters of the oil had ‘gone’. This simply wasn’t true – it’s either been dispersed or is unaccounted for, which are completely different things. Unfortunately, big oil companies talk clean but act dirty.
What are the implications for wildlife affected? Have any species been lost forever and how long will it take for the shrimp, oysters and other marine life to recover?
To be honest, anyone who claims to know the long-term impact of the spill is either lying or naïve. The real extent of the damage is simply unknowable at this stage and may not be known for many years.
What is the likely impact on the future of oil exploration?
We are likely to see more and more serious oil spills in the years to come. Most of the easily-accessible oil has gone and, with the USA, the UK and many other western countries determined to reduce their reliance on Middle East supplies, technological and environmental boundaries are being pushed to their limits. The situation is already worse than it seems, because we don’t get to hear about most of the environmental havoc being caused by big oil companies elsewhere in the world. While BP smugly agrees to pay for the environmental clean-up and resulting economic losses in the Gulf of Mexico, oil companies elsewhere in the world are causing just as much harm – even more in some cases – and yet they’re getting away scot-free or shelling out minuscule compensation payments. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make headline news if it is happening somewhere like the Niger Delta.
With Russia about to start drilling in the Arctic what are the implications for this pristine environment?
The high Arctic, and of course the Antarctic, are among the last frontiers for oil exploration and drilling. Thank goodness, although the future is still far from certain, signatories to the Antarctic Treaty agreed to a moratorium on drilling for oil for a minimum of 50 years. Meanwhile, the Arctic is not so safe. What happened with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, in Prince William Sound, Alaska, doesn’t bode well for any oil activity in the Arctic. The remote location made an effective response very difficult and, more than two decades later, significant quantities of oil can still be found in the region. I believe there are three main issues here: some parts of the world should, quite simply, be sacrosanct; oil companies need to be forced by law to make environmental concerns top priority; and we consumers need to reduce our demand for oil (by using it more efficiently and by finding alternative energy sources).
Do you think large global commercial organisations will always put profit ahead of ethical and environmental concerns?
For the most part, yes. There are global commercial organizations that make a genuine effort to be ethical and environmentally-friendly. But they are most definitely in the small minority. I think the biggest problem is that politicians do little to encourage big business to take environmental concerns seriously. Even in Britain, where politicians should know better, they have finally grasped the fact that there are votes in green issues – but they still don’t seem to understand that those green issues are vitally important in their own right.
Whilst the full implications of the BP oil spill became apparent it was difficult to see how we the ordinary people could register our horror at all that took place. Do you think there is a need for more platforms for people to express their feeling during these events and give transparency to public scrutiny?
One of the problems is that we all rely on the press to tell us what is happening. And in my experience – certainly at press conferences in Louisiana during the Gulf of Mexico spill – the (mainly American) press believed pretty much everything they were told, without question. Perhaps even worse, as soon as President Obama made the announcement that most of the oil had ‘gone’, the story disappeared from the news altogether. We’ve moved on to other things now – and most of the world is under the impression that everything is back to normal. It’s very hard to know what we can do as individuals. But we do need to keep big oil and its responsibility for the environment on the top of the agenda – which means badgering MPs and MEPs to do just that.
A number of environmental activists embrace social media as a way of achieving public scrutiny to some of the actions of large corporations. Are you a fan of social media, do you see it as an aid to conservationism?
It’s amazing how effective social media can be in getting environmental messages to a big (and wide) audience very quickly. On a small scale, I experienced this myself recently after a clip from Last Chance to See found itself on YouTube. The clip showed a critically endangered kakapo (a flightless nocturnal parrot from New Zealand) trying to mate with my head – and it’s had more than three million hits so far. As a result, the kakapo in question (a male called Sirocco) now has his own website (with an introduction by the Prime Minister of New Zealand, no less) to promote conservation issues. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has been flooded with donations and offers of help, too. Having said that, I’m afraid I have to admit that, from a personal point of view, I don’t twitter and don’t have a Facebook page – I can barely cope with emails and phone calls as it is.
What are the greatest challenges the planet faces at the hand of man?
Such big questions! There are so many ways to answer this one. Population growth is obviously fundamental. Every ill you can think of – whether it be pollution, climate change, poverty, starvation or habitat destruction – has its roots in over-population. No-one can deny that the bigger the population, the thinner the world’s resources are spread. Having said that, climate change will probably have a bigger impact on more species than anything else in the not-too-distant future; and the biggest problem here is that it is so insidious and difficult to predict. But, in the meantime, I would say habitat destruction is the biggest immediate threat to the world’s wildlife. In Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, the conversion of primary rainforest to palm oil plantations may be the single most immediate threat to the greatest number of species.
What is the greatest aid to conservation of species: knowledge and understanding, money, or remoteness from human activity? Is there one country leading the way with conservation?
I think it’s a combination of factors. Gone are the days when we focused entirely on species conservation. Nowadays we have a more wide-ranging and pragmatic approach, protecting biodiversity more than individual species (although special protection for individual species is obviously necessary when they are critically endangered). We’re also involving local communities. Conservation can only succeed if we take this approach – it is absolutely crucial to help local people to benefit from wildlife and wilderness areas. Otherwise, when they are struggling to keep their families alive, why should we expect them to care about endangered species? It is the only way forward. As far as leading countries are concerned, that all depends on the measure. Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Zambia immediately come to mind, though, because they protect exceptionally large proportions of their land. I do know which country I would put at the very bottom of the list – and that’s China. It is directly responsible for a great many of the major wildlife conservation issues in the world today.
Where in the world have you been most shocked by rapid destruction of the natural environment?
Most recently, it would have to be Madagascar. I remember flying down the east coast in 1989, over an almost continuous swathe of rainforest that stretched as far as the eye could see. I returned exactly two decades later – and there was virtually no forest left. Madagascar is destroying its tropical rainforests frighteningly fast and, of course, when the forests go so does all the endemic wildlife. Since the coup last year, the situation has deteriorated further and even the so-called protected areas are being pillaged.
Working with Stephen Fry in Last Chance to See must have been a real treat? Were there similarities to working with the late Douglas Adams?
Working with Stephen was great fun. We’ve had lots of laughs during nearly seven months of travelling together altogether and have become great friends. I think we’ve only had one argument – and that was over a giant jumping rat in Madagascar (long story). In fact, we’re planning many more trips in search of endangered species and conservation stories together. Without him, of course, Last Chance to See would never have got off the ground – and, with him, it attracted a large and varied audience. My big aim in life is to get conservation to more people and the way to do that is by making it entertaining and interesting – there is no need to preach or to talk doom and gloom all the time. Talking of similarities, travelling with Stephen was a little like travelling with Douglas Adams’s spirit: both 6ft 5ins, both with brains the size of planets and both looking at the world from a different angle to most other people.
Is, or was Stephen really interested in conservation?
I don’t think he was particularly interested – at least, no more than most people. But he’s passionate about it now and is actively involved in several conservation projects. The same thing happened to Douglas Adams after our original expedition travelling the world in search of endangered species in the late 1980s.
Did he send a lot of tweets whilst you where filming?
Of course! I think he has over two million followers now (only Lady Gaga has more, as far as I know).
How did you decide where to go – it’s not exactly the same as the original book is it?
The main aim was to retrace the steps I had taken with Douglas Adams exactly 20 years earlier. For various BBC reasons, we had to restrict ourselves to five of the original eight endangered species (kakapo, Amazonian manatee, Komodo dragon, northern white rhino and aye-aye) and we added the blue whale to replace the Yangtze River dolphin, which had become extinct.
Where there any real shocks?
The biggest shock was that two of the original eight species have become extinct in the intervening 20 years: the Yangtze River dolphin in China, which has gone forever, and the northern white rhino in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is now extinct in the wild.
In the manatee episode you say that being involved in conservation can be dangerous at times. Did you have moments of danger?
Stephen Fry broke his arm very badly in three places, while we were in the middle of the Amazon on our very first shoot. That was incredibly bad luck. People always ask me about encounters with dangerous animals, but I’ve very rarely been hurt by animals – and, on the few occasions I have been, it was my fault. To be honest, I’m most concerned about people when I’m travelling and, doing conservation work over the years, I’ve been mugged, shot at, ambushed, beaten up and thrown into jail more times than I can remember.
Do you have a favourite animal?
So many! Kakapo, aye-aye, manatee and great white shark immediately come to mind. Then there’s blue whale… oh, and humpback whale… and grey whale, of course. Rhinos, too. And badgers here in the UK. Actually, come to think of it, no I don’t have a single favourite animal!
Do you think the animals would be better off without us?
Probably. Tony Banks, MP, once said: ‘I am one of those people who, in their darker moments, can’t wait for an asteroid to smash into the Earth so that nature can start all over again’.
Do you think humans are ultimately doomed to extinction?
All species become extinct eventually – it’s just that we’re rapidly speeding up the process. I doubt very much if we are the end point of evolution. In fact, there’s an intriguing theory that we will never make contact with intelligent life on other planets, simply because when civilizations such as ours reach a point at which they might be able to communicate across the universe, they self-destruct.
Are you a pessimist or optimist?
I range from optimistic to don’t know to desperately pessimistic, depending on what I had for breakfast. To be honest, I think we’re barely holding against the tide – but we can’t possibly give up.
What could we all do to make a difference?
If I had to pick just one thing, I would say choose a subject, or an endangered species, or a habitat that you feel passionately about – whether it be global warming, mountain gorillas or oceans – then identify a conservation group that is working in that field, and support them in any way you can. Support their campaigns, help to raise urgently-needed funds and offer your time. Personally, I would pick one of the smaller, specialist groups, because they tend to spend their money more efficiently, know what they are doing, and get more done. If everyone did that, the world would be a much better place.
What would be your advice to anyone seeking a career in conservation?
The best advice is to volunteer. A great many people now working in paid jobs in this field – even directors of prominent international charities – started their careers as volunteers. Volunteers have four major advantages over people who do not volunteer: they are demonstrating that they are seriously committed (many people have the right degrees, but far fewer can demonstrate that they want to work in conservation with every bone in their body); they are gaining practical experience; they are getting a foot in the door (the best way to be in the right place at the right time when a vacancy for paid work arises); and they are developing a much clearer picture of the kind of work they really want to do.
Where do you go on holiday and where’s your favourite place in the world and the British Isles?
My favourite place in the world is my bed, because I don’t get to spend much time in it. My ideal holiday involves being maximum distance from airports and airplanes. And I particularly love the quieter parts of Cornwall and Scotland. I have been known to go to places like New York for a holiday, which is about as far removed as possible from my usual wilderness haunts.
What changes to the travel industry in the areas you’ve returned to have you seen and have any changes had a positive or negative impact?
Wildlife tourism has changed beyond all recognition in the 25 years I have been travelling. Returning to places I first visited decades ago can be a shock, because there are nearly always fewer animals and more people. Of course, there are exceptions, but usually where once there was only camping now there is a small hotel, and where once there was a small hotel now there is a big hotel. It’s good that so many people are interested in wildlife these days, and that so much wildlife is accessible these days, but it’s crucially important that it’s managed properly and that both the wildlife and local people benefit too.
What piece of kit or equipment would you never leave home without on your travels?
I rarely go anywhere without at least 30 kilos of camera equipment. Photography is my passion and I’d rather leave home without my trousers than without my camera.
Have you used Rohan clothing on any of your trips?
Of course! I particularly love the Rohan shirts. They don’t need ironing (I throw them into my bag, unfolded, and when I pull them out they look as good as new) and they dry in an instant. They’re perfect for the kind of travelling I do – in fairly tough conditions far from the nearest washing machine. And, I must admit, I hate ironing so much that I wear them a lot at home too.
Have the big changes in outdoor clothing over the years made you more comfortable on your travels?
Yes, definitely. I wasn’t around in the days when Ernest Shackleton and his crew wore such inadequate gabardine and woollen clothes, of course, but the changes have been phenomenal over the past 25 years. Now we have everything from waterproof and breathable Barricade to non-iron, quick-dry shirts that protect you from UV radiation. It does make travel easier and more comfortable.
What are the top 5 items on your kit list?
You mean apart from camera equipment and Rohan gear?! Well, I would say: binoculars (no naturalist should leave home without a pair), powerful torch (so much wildlife is nocturnal), book (for all those long waits in airports and hides), notebook and pen (my memory is so bad I have to write everything down) and satellite phone (it has saved my life on two occasions and is often the only way to keep in touch with home).
BBC Two Sunday 20.00 Stephen Fry and the Great American Oil Spill