Nature Works

Nature Works

One of the highlights of my life was spending four days of 1989 in a canoe on the Zambezi River with my son.    The Zambezi Valley, one of the last unspoiled wild life areas in the world, is closed for all but four months of the year because of the heat and humidity.   Access in winter is strictly controlled and the guides go through a rigorous training. We got really close to buffalo and elephant in the water and on the land (one evening, a small herd of elephants walked silently through our camp site while we were sitting around the fire,) the crocodiles were some of the largest imaginable, the bird life was spectacular, and we had one alarmingly close encounter with a hippo.


It works the other way round as well.  In 1991 Mary and I were in the Mkuzi Game Reserve in Natal, South Africa, and signed up for an early morning game walk with the specific intention of seeing some of the park’s featured animal - the black rhino.  Shortly before sunrise we drove to pick up our guide - an elderly, traditional Zulu man, upstanding and proper, with an immaculately starched uniform and polished boots, armed with no more than an old 303 rifle, and who sat bolt upright on the passenger seat as he directed us to the starting point of our trek.  He led, I followed and Mary brought up the rear as we walked through the bush.  He didn’t speak English and I used my limited Zulu to ask questions.  Nothing escaped or seemed to perturb him.  I would ask about some spoor we had just crossed, and without looking back he would say, ndhdlulamithi (giraffe,) ingulule (warthog) or phuti (duiker.) 


After four hours we approached the car and, without thinking, I reached into my pocket and pushed the clicker to unlock the doors.  The dignified man in front of me, hitherto phlegmatic and unflappable, literally leapt several inches into the air. He was willing to face a charging rhino with a vintage weapon, but the prospect of a car that blinked its lights apparently of its own accord, terrified him.  


He was so inured in the traditional rural lifestyle of the Natal National Parks that a glimpse of the modern world was beyond his ken. 


Game reserves offer a romantic experience of wild creatures in unspoiled land, often leaving us with the feeling of being intruders in a landscape where the normal destructive rules of engagement between people and nature no longer seem to apply. Such places, however,  are much more than a romantic idea or a saccharine necessity.  As  humankind becomes the dominant ecological force across the planet, so does biodiversity continue to decline, with consequences that were dramatically spelled out in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,  published in October 2018 and titled Global Warming of 1.5oC


One of the unspoken messages of the report is that  parks and protected areas like the Zambezi Valley or Mkuzi Game Park cannot save the world’s biodiversity, in part because they are ecological islands. Small protected areas, covering 12 per cent of the earth’s surface in 2005,  surrounded by land without suitable habitat, cannot by themselves protect global biodiversity. And they don’t address the question of the larger mammals species, like elephants, whose enormous ranges cannot be contained even in the greatest of parks.  


Dr. Bill Adams, Moran Professor of Conservation and Development at Downing College, Cambridge, has described in detail the history of the conservation movement, starting with the colonial imperative of the 17th century which exerted a powerful attraction on naturalists. By the 19th century, museum and zoo collectors and big-game hunters were undertaking expeditions to bring back exotic plants and animals as specimens and trophies, which in turn led to the foundation of many of the world’s biggest environmental organisations, some as zoos, others as conservation or preservation societies.  A number of high-profile conservationists such as Theodore Roosevelt, provided publicity for the needs for preservation both home and abroad, even if large numbers of animal trophies were acquired in the process. 


After the Second World War, conservation became internationalised through the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the United Nations and an increasing number of non-governmental organisations, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Nature Conservancy in the US.  At the same time, the number of protected areas grew. The land area officially protected as nature reserves of one sort or another doubled in successive decades, But, Bill Adams emphasizes, they had forgotten something.  The places we think of as intact wilderness were invariably someone else’s home., whether in Africa, Asia, or native America. 

The displaced people lost access to land for hunting or grazing; some lost homes and farms and 

 they had no right of redress when it was taken away.


There is a certain false comfort in the idea that biodiversity is something in distant parts of the world for us to visit and enjoy, protected from an ever-expanding human population and an invasive global economy.  Much of it so far away that we experience it only virtually, through videos or webcams or gaming simulations.  But there is an alternative, which is quieter and more local. Once, nature conservation began at home. Indeed, that is the root of the word ecology, from the Greek for oikos, or home. As  the impact of industrialisation and urbanisation began to bite, conservation was seen as vital not just for the sake of non-human nature but also for the quality of human health and wellbeing in issues such as air and water pollution and urban design.

Nature was important for its beauty or rarity but also for its significance to human society at a time of rapid change.


Of course, local nature is still important. Many organisations focus on local wild places and their importance to ordinary people. Nature reserves are promoted as ‘green gyms’ for their health-giving potential as much as their ecology. Projects abound to get children out of the house to inoculate them against ‘nature deficit disorder’, inspired by books such as Richard Louv’s Lost Child in the Woods (2005). But despite the efforts put into camps and trails, mini-beast safaris, fungus forays, observation hives and bat walks, local nature has undoubtedly lost some of its public appeal.  It’s almost something to do with the kids on Saturday rather than an on-going commitment as a family. 


Once again we have to recognize  that our fate and that of the natural world are bound up with each other.   For the sake of both people and nature, we need to develop spaces where wild species can thrive, clean watercourses where children can play and that absorb floods, novel environments such as green roofs or linear parks, and a culture of celebration of untamed nature, from migrant birds overflying skyscrapers to butterflies on window boxes to feral bees that are not exposed to toxic substances.  The future of most species depends on what happens outside strictly protected areas, to the places where we live and work, and to link them to our consumption habits, to the honey and iPhones we buy, the water we drink and the fertilizers we put on our lawns. And we need to remember that one culture’s ‘wilderness’ is another’s ‘home’.


And it is the world’s very connectivity that makes this daunting task possible. It is now possible via a website and track an elephant across the African landscape as its radio collar sends locations through the mobile phone network. That gives a very different picture of the daily life of elephants from what the average tourist gets: one starts to see it from the point of view of the elephants and the farmers who live with them. In places such as the Laikipia Plateau in Kenya, elephants and people compete for space. Corn fields provide perfect jumbo feeding stations and the costs, in lost livelihoods and sometimes lost lives, is huge. Here, the conservation challenge faced by charities such as Space for Giants is not about creating areas that are protected like fortresses against people, but about building hybrid landscapes where people and elephants can co-exist, to the point of using bee hives connected by wires to protect crops - the beasts push against the wires, the bees are agitated and the elephants retreat. 


Nature is not a consumer good or a rare resource, to be chased down in some remote tourist destination. Rather it is home. How we live in nature, with nature, and as part of nature, matters, and one of the attractions of beekeeping is that we not only get to bring that intriguing part of the natural world into our homes,  but we get to interact with these fascinating insects rather than impose our will on them.  


We cannot fence off nature and expect it to survive.  Nature works, rather than simply exists, and we have to work with and within it.  This, for me, is Tom Seeley’s message of Darwinian Beekeeping, and more of that in the next column.





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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my