As the second part of her plenary at The Fynbos Forum in 2019, Odette went on to discuss the challenges for conservation ecologists and the uphill battle that we face on a daily basis. The general public like to believe that we spend our days enjoying the veld and watching flowers – if only this were the case! Conservation is becoming increasingly challenging for our hearts and minds: And the pressure on each of us to make a tangible difference has never been higher. We carry a heavy load.
The Overberg Renosterveld Conservation Trust has now been working tirelessly to conserve our Renosterveld vegetation for more than seven years. As we have travelled on this journey we have been lucky enough to meet a plethora of people from landowners to conservation partners and students who share our passion for conserving what little remains of this Critically Endangered vegetation type. Many lessons have been learnt and wisdom, ideas and enthusiasm shared about why and how we must conserve Renosterveld in perpetuity.
One of the challenges that all conservationists constantly grapple with is how do we go about justifying the importance of what we conserve? We are unfortunately still caught up in the old adage that when something has economic value, it has real value. This has led to the growth of ‘environmental economics’ whereby we try to attach economic value to ecological infrastructure and processes.
Sadly in doing this it is all too easy to lose touch with other more important values of nature and biodiversity, spiralling into a pit of despair because what we do is often never enough. More importantly, if we use economics to motivate for conserving Renosterveld, we will not win over any landowners.
“I have been working to improve my Renosterveld for 50 years. It is now becoming clear that the impact of years of misuse of the earth and the natural resources are being exposed. I hope it is not already too late”. Philip Van Niekerk, Ongegund Easement.
“For many years, the veld was, in our eyes, worth nothing and in the way. You taught me and made me realise how special and unique the veld was. Plants, animals, birds and everything. It is an important mind shift that we all need to make”. Joshua Human, Kykoedie Easement.
“For years I believed my veld had no value when compared to my production lands. I only saw it as a resource to exploit for some limited grazing. I have since understood how unique and special this veld is and I have committed to looking after it, to the point where I am not even sure that I will ever put my sheep in it again”. MG Lötter, Klipfontein Easement.
“I want to help conserve the Renosterveld because it is the only true pieces of Rûens veld left to go for a Sunday picnic or veld-braai and at the same time feel part of Africa”. Matthias Streicher, Uitvlught Easement.
In Aldo Leopold’s ‘A Sandy Country Almanac’ (1949), he writes of ecologists living in a ‘world of wounds’. Much of the damage to Earth’s biodiversity is invisible to those without an ecological education. So either we harden our shells and believe it not to be our responsibility to fix any of these problems or try to be ‘the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and refuses to be told otherwise’. Being that ‘Doctor’ can often come at considerable cost to an ecologist’s mental wellbeing. Facing tragedies such as climate change or ongoing global habitat loss can lead to eco-anxiety.
The psychology of conservationists is not yet considered to be a research field, but perhaps it should be. Ellis and Cunsolo (2018) define Ecological Grief as “the grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipatory ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change”. The question of how to grieve ecological losses well, is currently without an answer. The authors conclude that we should not channel our ecological grief into despair, but instead let it inspire us to act. But how do we keep going? How do we stay motivated when we so often experience more losses than gains and more failure than success?
But is there still hope?
In conclusion, the wise words of Sir David Attenborough can help us to look and to move forward to take action: “It is tempting and understandable to ignore the evidence and carry on as usual or to be filled with doom and gloom. We need to move beyond guilt or blame and get on with the practical tasks at hand”. Odette adds to this: “…never forget why we do what we do”, showing a photograph of her little daughter, reminding us all of the fact that we are working towards ecosystem preservation and resilience for the sake of future generations – and that we cannot give up.