Those people for whom Africa got in their blood 30, 40 years ago and are still there – do you think that’ll be you?
Yeah. Yeah, don’t ask my wife. That’s a really tricky question. I think I will always be involved. I think we might have to do some stints elsewhere as the kids grow up. I don’t want to send the kids to boarding school, although I keep threatening that. I want to be there, I want to kick a footy around with them. I want to see my wife help them with their maths, not me [laughs]. I want to be in their life because I … My old man passing away was really sad and I thought I missed out on so much because he and my mum worked hard to put me and my three older brothers through school. You don’t have to do that; life’s changed; as long as you can have a comfortable living somewhere …
I think we might have to leave these fair shores for a little while, but there’s no doubt that, if not yearly, I will be back doing something. I just can’t let go, and giraffe need someone to stand up for them. That’s the bottom line; they need someone who’s flying the flag for them.
Absolutely. Do you think your dad would have been proud of you?
Yeah, I think he would have loved to have had a few beers over here in this part of the world. He and I played a lot of sport together when I was a kid and that was my passion. I had a run down with the old St Kilda Under 19s, and then I played state touch rugby and things like that, so it is definitely a part of my life. Sport, I think, gives you balance and for me, running around and being part of a team sport gives a sense of camaraderie. Last year here I was helping to coach one of the top rugby sides in Kenya and it’s just a great feeling to do something outside of what you do day-to-day. I think my old man would have loved that. I’m actually just doing what I want and I’m not being silly, I’m not being frivolous, I’m basically following my dream, for want of less corny words.
So if some fairy godmother or father swooped down and gave you unlimited funding, what’s one of the first things that you’d do?
Oh I’d love to buy a Porsche or a Ferrari.
Ha ha, for the giraffe!
Oh sorry. I think to be honest, what would be amazing would be to be able to dedicate time to sit down and pull a lot of information together. It’d be like trying to create a bit of a secretariat. There’s a lot of boffins out there and a lot of different giraffe information, so how do we pull that together and present it to the world properly? Once we better understand each little pocket of giraffe out there, how can we then tap on the doors of those governments and say, “How can we help you manage your giraffe better?” I’m trying to do that a little bit; I’ve just started a brand new foundation in the UK called the Giraffe Conservation Foundation [www.giraffeconservation.org]. It’s the first giraffe organisation of its kind, ever. In economic crisis time it’s not great, but it’s a start. We’re trying to pull a few dollars in from friends and family and we’ll try to host the odd ball and event, when we get around to it. It’s trying to get the name out there and to explain that we’ve got some really important giraffe projects, could we even just get them $1000? Everyone gets funding to do the sexy stuff on the ground, but the development world and the funding world have got things wrong. They have to show they’re doing something to the people who are paying them money, but they need to take a leap of faith and say, ok, if I invest something in someone, something greater is going to come out of it in the longer term, rather than just what’s going to happen in a six-month contract.
This might be a really stupid question, but giraffe aren’t anywhere except in Africa, right?
Yeah, the modern giraffe came down from Europe about seven million years ago, the pre-giraffe. Today you only find what we know as the giraffe in Africa.
Are the major threats to them loss of habitat … Is poaching a problem?
Yeah, poaching’s a big one. Their tail is used especially for people as fly swats.
Oh you’re kidding?
It would be an amazing fly swat, of course, because it’s got this long tail and is a sign of distinguishment, a sign of wealth. Their skin is used for shoes; it’s used for mats and there’s a lot of meat on them. In countries where there’s been a lot of civil unrest or civil war, they call it ‘war fodder’ because giraffe just stand and look at you.
They don’t run so you just put a bullet in them, they fall down and there’s some tucker for the next few days. So their numbers really have plummeted.We think in Northern Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia – and this is a great example – about ten years ago there were about 30,000 of these reticulated giraffe which really are quite stunning, probably the typical giraffe you see out there in the world, but there’s less than 5000 now. People just don’t know that. We need to get the plight of them out there somehow.
In terms of saving them, is it a matter of creating greater conservation areas, or is it breeding programmes … ?
No, to me the traditional way of lock ‘em up and throw away the key is not going to work in Africa. It’s all about people; it’s all about community conservation. Most of these giraffe live outside of national parks.
Why is that?
While some of the national parks are perfect habitat, most of them are not, or, and this is probably more common, the park itself is too small to support large numbers so they have to go outside of the park for more food. In West Africa there are 200 giraffe and none of them are in a National Park. They all live amongst communities only 60 km from the capital in Niger. In Zambia, where there are at least 1000 left, half of them live outside the South Luangwa National Park because the park’s not big enough. It’s a mix of all these things combined and it’s a cumulative effect. It’s not just poaching, it’s not just habitat loss, it’s not just human population increasing, it’s what happens when you add all of them together. It’s exactly the same thing in Australia, to be honest.
If you really thought about it, you could get pretty depressed about the whole state of affairs, but thankfully there are people like you out there doing what you do.
If you sat back and thought about it too much, you’d think you were wasting your time.
Do you have any heroes; people whose work or life you admire and think have done great things?
My wife and I have been talking lately about how amazing it would be to have a mentor. I don’t think they exist much anymore, to be honest. I think the world is moving too fast, people are too busy and, to be honest, I have not found anyone in conservation circles … I’ve found people that I’m attracted to, to talk things through with, to learn from, but really I try to stay away from people in conservation because they all have preconceived ideas. I really try to talk with friends who are working in totally different industries. I can’t talk conservation with them, but I can talk life. So I don’t have any heroes and that’s a sad thing. I wish I did have a hero. I always wanted a hero. What I want to do now is be happy that my family is happy with what I’m doing; to me that’s the most important thing. I don’t want to be a hero to them, but I want them to be comfortable and happy with who I am and what I’m doing.