Terra Explore Expeditions (www.TerraExplore.bz) was set to launch this summer, with trips developed to support the work of Terra Conservation partners in Papua New Guinea, Kenya and South Africa. Mother nature had other ideas, and as we contend with the pandemic and its devastating fallout, our focus remains on the needs and concerns of our conservation partners in the field. Stay tuned, as we will continue this discussion with further focus on shaping our 2021 Terra expeditions. In the meantime, Director John Holder sat down for a Q & A to introduce his philosophy, and how Terra Explore sets itself apart as an impactful expeditionary experience.
Terra Team Q & A:
Meet John Holder: Founder/Director Terra Explore Expeditions
Q. Please give us a bit of your background; what drew you to expeditionary exploration?
A. I have been exploring our planet for over 40 years, enjoying locations as far flung as Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Panama, Costa Rica, Tanzania, and Mozambique, to name a few. I founded Oceanic Expeditions (OE) in 1993 as a unique, projective company focusing on travel to remote regions. After over a decade of pushing the envelope and having shared so many unique experiences with clients and providers alike I became aware of an acute void within this elite community—a lack of purposeful mission.
I decided to create a methodology to fill this significant void; this required strategy and tactics which did not exist at the time. As a student of history, I was impressed with the singular focus and purpose of the British Admiralty during the golden era of exploration, and the formula which they applied some 270 years ago. I thought, what would Dampier, Cook, and Fitzroy do now with our technology and associated procedures? I decided to transition OE into completely different and purposeful entity, focused on science. Thus, I developed both a new strategy and supportive tactic, and the FitzWinian and Triphibious process was born in 2001 to fill this void, and further the human exploratory experience.
The inclusion of highly qualified field scientists on expeditions set the stage for a revolution in field exploratory efforts. FitzWinian is a multidisciplined scientific process (geophysics, biology, anthropology, history, etc.). Couple this with what I call Triphibious Tactics (land, sea, air) and you have an effective integrated process which results in discovery. That sense of purpose on our trips brought a next level experience to our participants. This purpose now resides within Terra Explore.
Q. With Terra Explore you tie conservation, backed by science, to each and every expedition. How is this part of the mission?
A. The function of conservation is the action of exploration. To explore is to discover, in discovery knowledge is achieved. When you know something, appreciate its beauty, understand its place in being, you grow to love it. This results in protection, or conservation, which is our mission at Terra Explore, in concert with our Terra Conservation Initiative partners.
When we started Terra Explore, our goal was to make a significant difference in global conservation. With a targeted approach, unique strategies and specialized tactics, The Terra Explore team is singularly capable of mission focused experiential scientific exploration. When I founded Explore my desire was to give back to the planet which has given so much to me. Knowing is loving.
That desire has resulted in specific focus upon three primary regions: The Panamic Region, Melanesia, and East Africa. By taking an immersive and multi-disciplined scientific approach, our exploratory expeditions with mission focus, result in amazingly unique discovery.
It is through these exploratory efforts that we achieve our focused conservation and can contribute not only time and effort, but the monetary component which is essential to effective and lasting conservation.
Q. With travel having been restricted due to COVID 19, when do you see a return to the field with expeditions?
A. We are beginning to plan trips for 2021. We must re-engage. Indigenous people in the prior stated regions of Terra Explore focus, and the flora and fauna which comprise the environment in which these amazing people live is in a state of emerging disaster. Many of these communities are completely interlaced within their beautiful environment, subsistence to commercial.
It is no secret that when systems collapse and attritive processes evolve within a vacuum, that void will be filled, nature abhors a vacuum. At Terra Explore we choose to engage and fill these vacuous bubbles with action and love for the natural world.
The world has come to a literal halt in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, and one of the only silver linings, it seems, is the idea that we are giving the planet a bit of breathing room. Many have noted that Mother Nature is getting a long overdue break from her ill-mannered, self-centered, dirty, and rowdy inhabitants. From some vantage points, the dramatic curtailing of human activity caused by this devastating virus seems almost a godsend to the environment, albeit at a profound cost to human life.
Indeed, the accidental effect of the human population’s response to COVID-19 is so pronounced that seismologists around the world have registered sharp decreases in the vibrations of the earth. Our planet is literally a quieter, stiller place. Ambient noise from cruise ships and other maritime traffic has produced an unprecedented pause in ocean noise. One can only imagine the delight of the whales and orca as they swim in quieter, calmer, waters. And, for the first time in a long time, in many major cities, one can hear the birds above the din of the traffic, and the air around the world is clearing of smog. Highways are empty. Planes are grounded. And it is likely that the elephants and predators in the savannahs of Africa don’t miss the hundreds of safari vehicles jostling for position to get the best selfies for high paying tourists on vacation. In fact, we have managed to decrease our activity so much that there has been an estimated drop in global carbon emission of six percent—something unimaginable just a few months ago. If these changes had occurred for any other reason, many of us might be celebrating.
Sadly, despite the temporary quieting of our earth, this is not an “eco-utopian” moment.
First, the positive impacts of improved air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions are fleeting, a result of the cataclysmic economic slowdown and human hardship, not sustainable change. No one that I know in the conservation and environmental sector would sacrifice so many human lives and livelihoods to decrease the anthropogenic causes of climate change or give the wildlife much-needed relief from human voyeurism. And when this crisis has passed, ships will return to the waters. Planes will return to the skies. Life will begin again and we will likely go back to our old ways, patterns of consumption that impact the planet negatively.
But there is another side to how this pandemic is impacting the environment and ecosystems around the world. The complete disruption of the normal patterns of human activity—this accidental pause—is also, ironically, having a devastating effect on conservation across the globe. As a result, much of the conservation progress that has been seen in recent years will not only be completely reversed but emblematic and irreplaceable ecosystems and wild places, even species, may be lost forever.
The reason is simple. Conservation funding in many corners of the world is directly tied to the tourism industry and the wholesale shutdown of travel is having an immediate and crippling effect on conservation efforts. First, many poor, rural communities surrounding conservation areas rely on tourism to feed their families—and they are losing their jobs. Without the flow of tourism benefits, these communities will almost certainly see wildlife as competing with their agricultural activities and existence.
As a result, people will not value and protect conservation areas or wildlife as much, and without income from salaries, will be forced to provide for their families in other ways. In addition, many of the world’s conservation programs, such as wildlife monitoring, anti-poaching efforts, illegal wildlife trade enforcement, science, and education programs, rely on funding from park fees, donations, and bed nights at lodges and camps—all of which have dried up as a result of the pandemic.
The Covid-19 crisis is also curtailing access to critical landscapes and supply chains for monitoring, equipment, and supplies. With no rangers on the ground, poachers have easier access to rhino, elephant, pangolin, and thousands of endangered species, whose parts fetch high prices on the black market. There is already evidence of criminal networks beginning to exploit opportunities arising from closed parks, reduced patrols, and the diversion of law enforcement personnel now focused on Covid-19 issues.
Take Kenya as an example. As a country, Kenya hosts some of the most extraordinary, diverse and fragile ecosystems and wildlife species on the planet with many of its protected areas and wetlands internationally recognized and protected as World Heritage sites, and biosphere reserves. Kenya’s tremendous biodiversity includes some 25,000 animal species and it is home to 1,137 different types of birds. It boasts 10 marine national parks and reserves which are critical breeding areas for delicate sea life. The Greater Mara Ecosystem (GME), “The Maasai Mara” which is part of the wider Serengeti-Mara ecosystem totaling 100,000 km2 is globally emblematic for biodiversity conservation and the annual migration of over a million wildebeest from the Serengeti plains to the Mara is one of the most awe-inspiring natural spectacles on earth, drawing visitors from around the globe. The enormous diversity and abundance of Kenya’s wildlife and natural beauty—from tropical beaches to savannahs teeming with wildlife—means that millions of people travel there every year to take part in the magic, to see the Big Five, come face to face with an elephant, experience the pristine beaches, perhaps glimpse a turtle meticulously digging a hole to lay her eggs in the coastal seascape of Lamu, home to five of the seven known marine turtle species: green, hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley, and leatherback.
Given its natural bounty, it is no surprise that tourism is the second largest sector of Kenya’s economy accounting for 8-10% of the gross domestic product (GDP) per year—the third largest contributor to the economy after agriculture and manufacturing. In 2019, over 2 million international visitors traveled to Kenya as tourists contributing approximately $1.6 billion to the country’s economy. And it is money from the tourism industry that supports conservation directly—paying for the government budget for the Kenya Wildlife Service, and providing thousands of jobs in private conservation areas. Tourism revenue and park fees supply the funds to pay salaries for the anti-poaching forces that protect endangered species such as elephants and rhino.
Local people surrounding conservation areas work as rangers, guides, cooks, cleaners, educators, and hospitality personnel in safari lodges, hotels, and restaurants. Additional revenue for conservation comes into the country through donations from visitors to NGOs and conservation programs—providing critical resources needed to maintain healthy ecosystems, and support social service and community programs. There are thousands of local entrepreneurial businesses that create jobs in the handicraft sector selling high-end beadwork to visitors, or honey, soap, and leather products at lodges.
And now, in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism to Kenya has come to a complete stop, removing the largest single financial contributor to conservation efforts in the country and cutting off livelihoods for thousands of Kenyans employed in this sector of the economy. The sudden and unprecedented disappearance of wage income from tourism and related industries, tax revenue for local and national government, and income for landowners who rent their land back for conservation efforts, is placing enormous pressure on the ecosystems and surrounding communities. Facing massive unemployment, people whose livelihoods rely on tourism may themselves turn to poaching to feed their families or be forced to resort to illegal logging and charcoal making—further degrading habitat previously preserved for wildlife. Habitat will likely be further fragmented by fencing and agriculture as people plant more crops to feed empty mouths.
Conservative estimates are that revenue from the tourism industry that funds conservation in Kenya will likely not recover for 12 to 18 months, jeopardizing the future of Kenyan conservation and unraveling the significant conservation progress that’s been achieved in the past decade.
The problem isn’t confined to Kenya, or the African continent. Just last week, the philanthropic arm of Yellowstone National Park in the USA, Yellowstone Forever, a nonprofit that raises money for park projects, announced that it was deferring most of its grant funding to Yellowstone for the remainder of the year and furloughing most of its employees as its bookstores and programs are inside the national park. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest has increased to its “fastest pace in years” as a result of hundreds of environmental enforcement agents being sidelined by the pandemic.
For the moment, the quiet of the planet may seem like a reprieve for wildlife and the environment, but in reality, our global conservation efforts are linked to thriving economies, tourism, and travel. If those sources of funding and our ability to monitor ecosystems and wildlife are no longer viable, we could see a complete collapse of some of the most emblematic and important places on earth.
As we work to maintain the conservation progress we have seen in the past decade and plan our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, we can and should take this moment—this pause in human activity—to envision a world that can be.
A crisis of this intensity inspires reflection, and hopefully action.
When we emerge from this moment of darkness, it is my hope that beyond the human tragedy we will turn our attention to our relationship with the natural world and reassess our impact on the earth by engaging clean technologies and looking for ways to support the diversification of revenue for conservation interventions, so that local communities near critical ecosystems have alternative livelihoods, allowing them to weather the inevitable downturns in tourism.
The idea that technology has a role to play in making our planet a place for humans to live in better balance with nature is not new. Nor is community conservation. But advancement in technology, a virtual technological innovation boom, is coinciding with this devastating pandemic. And the pandemic is exposing structural issues in how we support conservation globally.
Looking forward, I can only hope that this moment leads to the adaption of more sustainable solutions, whether they be wind turbines for the production of cost-effective, clean energy, electric vehicles, or waste to energy solutions that transform discarded waste while reducing harmful emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels. With heightened awareness of a shared connection to the natural world; I hope that this crisis leads to a push towards sustainable funding for conservation efforts around the globe.
I was first greeted by Happy Sanga at a village meeting in Makifu, Tanzania in March 2019. She was a petite woman with large intelligent eyes that expressed an eagerness to make something of herself, for her family and her village. Today she stands in her doorway holding a basket of eggs, eyes brightened by a wide smile, and surrounded by over fifty chickens. Happy illustrates a tale of how wildlife conservation may become successful through the economic prosperity of the villagers.
Muddy Ruaha River in Central Tanzania hugs sleepy Makifu village as it meanders into the northern ridgeline of Ruaha National Park. A horseshoe shaped dirt road stretches for five miles, speckled with makeshift mud, block, or wood houses. Tall grasses border rice fields behind them, and streams of water flow down from the hills and through the village, towards the river. There are 3 leopards who call the hillside home; the odd family of giraffe may be found wandering along the riverbank—and on my last visit, I was cautioned against walking between the main road and the Hodi Hodi Safari Camp as I would likely come across a male and female lion who were quickly earning a reputation for harassing passing motorcyclists.
For years, we have heard despairing comments from Park Rangers, Safari Operators and Conservationists, that all their efforts to protect the wildlife are challenged by rampant poaching and the poverty that inclines the local natives to turn a blind eye. Subsistence hunting persists. How does one tell a villager that they cannot kill a wild animal when they need to feed their family?
Our approach: a business solution to conservation. Not your ordinary initiative to address wildlife conservation through economic development.
Over the years, we have seen countless noble endeavors to improve the livelihoods of people throughout the developing world. International donor organizations, non-governmental organizations, church groups, government programs and others provided training, supplied equipment, and built capacities with limited sustainable results. The beneficiaries seldom had to invest anything other than their labor, and thus lacked ownership and responsibility.
Our process: to bring a market opportunity and provide mentorship. In this instance, the farmers themselves would have to invest in their education, materials and all the inputs necessary to create a product for the marketplace.
We identified the Ruaha National Park as our location to prove the concept. Makifu lands establish the Wildlife Management Area (WMA) bordering the Park. This connection binds the villagers, the park, and the safari camps together in conservation and wildlife protection.
An initial meeting with safari camps and lodges in the WMA and Park quickly led to the identification of supply chain challenges in the delivery of foods for the lodges. Unbelievably, much of the foods to feed the tourists are flown-in from Dar es Salaam which is almost as far as the length of Italy or by truck for a 6 to 8 hour go-and-return drive to the city of Iringa on a road that is only such in name. The list of items that could be supplied from a neighboring village was ultimately quite long, but what could the local villages produce that would also offer them opportunities outside of direct lodge supply? We settled on poultry and to be more precise, initially eggs.
Why eggs? Eggs are first and foremost an excellent form of improved nutrition that would be welcome within the local community. Raising chickens is an easily adaptable process to include in an already farming community; there would be local demand for eggs; and they may be produced year-round. Also, eggs are not zucchini. If everyone decides to grow zucchini, there’s one season; there’s evidently going to be an over-supply; there is no ability to store and/or process; and the people will quickly lose their appetite to eat an over-abundance of this green delicacy. Eggs are tradeable and may be used to produce any number of tasty dishes or baked goods.
Our meeting with the village chairman of Makifu, an elegant Masai woman, immediately led to a call for a community meeting whereby we presented our proposal to the villagers to produce eggs that the Safari Camps all agreed to purchase. However, we did not offer to fund the initiative.
The villagers all looked at each other in confusion. Who were these “muzungu” (Swahili for white people who endlessly roam around) who came to tell them that they had an opportunity but weren’t bringing any money? We explained that we would provide mentorship but that they had to own the business and the responsibility. The initial 234 participants quickly dropped to 50 and then ultimately to 20. From this 20, the business was to be built. Over the next year, they would pay for their “poultry school,” development of a business plan and business trainings. They would also invest in the materials to construct their own hen houses and purchase their own chickens and feeds.
Nine months into the new egg business, they delivered their first tray of 30 eggs to a local lodge, followed by more eggs and to more lodges. Eggs and chickens for meat began to show up in the local market and the economy began to grow. The results were astounding and sent a clear message of success to the community. The knock-on effect from a few villagers selling eggs to lodges was quite surprising and unexpected; however, welcomed.
As I arrived at Happy Sanga’s home in March 2020 for a visit on the anniversary of our meeting, she greeted me with a smile and introduced me to her 50 chickens (100 more to arrive soon). Her daughter informed me that she and her siblings were now eating 2 eggs a week, when in the past they were lucky to eat 4 within a year.
Unfortunately, my arrival was not just to say hello. I had also arrived to plan. Makifu had faced severe flooding, the rice crop had predominately been destroyed, bridges washed-out and the village cut off from any roads leading back to larger towns. Additionally, the coronavirus was sweeping through Europe and the impact was expected to cancel the entire safari season. That would mean no tourists and thus no egg sales to the safari camps.
The deluge of heavy rains persisted as we met under the eave of the village community center, competing for dry space with the tsetse flies. We were joined by Happy, the producer group secretary Atuleyte Msigwa; Aberney Mkuye the market coordinator; and the village business leader Hawad Kalinga. They all encouraged me to walk through the village to see how the community had changed. Village kiosks had sprung-up offering fried potatoes with eggs, chicken soup, and grilled chicken.
These were newly established businesses in addition to a local demand for eggs that far surpassed the current supply. I was told that for the first time, the loss of the primary cash crop from the flooding didn’t wipe the farmers out and create food insecurity. Because of the chickens, they had the money to replant and to purchase food.
All was not lost.
What had started out as a dual-purpose initiative, to create economic opportunity in a village bordering a national park in an effort to secure the conservation effort, had led to a much greater impact. Coronavirus may shut down all the tourist safaris, but there continues to be local economic growth; improved nutrition and ultimately improved protection for the wildlife.