Sir David Attenborough, patron of World Land Trust (WLT), talks about his history in conservation, the threats facing wildlife today and what we can all do to support the natural world
"I first became involved in this conservation business rather a long time ago, getting on for 60 years. Then there was a minority of a few far-sighted people who saw what was coming. It was a case of the 'canary in the coal mine', where some species were about to disappear for good.
"The conservation effort focused on these species, like the Oryx and the Giant Panda, which are remarkable, rare, endangered animals. We focused on them and it was comparatively easy to get the publics' attention on these charismatic species. Who would wish them to disappear forever?
"But slowly we began to realise that this may be a good selling mechanism but it was miss-representing the situation. Saving a single species is of course important but it is only important as it is an indication of something; a Giant Panda, or a Javan Rhinoceros, or a Mountain Gorilla that only lives in a concrete pit in a zoo is not really a Mountain Gorilla or a Giant Panda anymore. It is a terrible prisoner, with doom staring it in the face. It is not just about a single species.
Saving whole ecosystems
"We continued along those lines for quite some time. Then we realised slowly, perhaps too slowly, that what we need to be talk about is not a Mountain Gorilla but the whole ecosystem; the complex community of plants and animals, all of which interlock. If you damage one you can never tell how far the damage will spread or what it will affect. What we should be talking about is saving ecosystems.
"What you need, if you are going to save the wildlife of the world, is land. That penny took a remarkably long time to drop – but drop it did. Then the emphasis changed and we realised it was ecosystems and it was land. Sometimes it was land of no consequence (mangrove swamps, bogs, high mountain peaks) and sometimes it was land of a lot of consequence (meadows and coastal plains), but it was always land.
Rich man's land grab
"The emphasis had changed and a lot of the wealthier countries in the world set about buying that land. This caused another problem: neo-imperialism. Who are these people who think that they can go across to remote parts of the world and tell the local people that they aren't allowed to stay on their land because it belongs to some rare antelope? Who are these neo-imperialists?
"It caused a big problem because when dealing with under developed countries and people living on a very low level of material existence, having wealthy people coming along and telling them what to do is not welcome. It is, after all, their land.
Empowering local people
"So now you move to the third phase. The third phase is represented, I’m proud to say, by the World Land Trust. The World Land Trust knows that if that land, in that remote part of the world, is to be saved then the people who can save it are the people who live there. The people who understand the treasure that is in their possession. That is what is so important about the World land Trust.
"The World Land Trust is not a large organisation, with a great number of people sitting in offices in London or anywhere else; the World Land Trust has a minimal number of people who, when they see a problem, identify the people living there who know what the problem is. The people who have the enterprise and conviction to do something about it. This empowers them, it empowers them with money.
"The money that is given to the World Land Trust, in my estimation, has more effect on the wild world than almost anything I can think of.
Population increase and conservation
"Is the problem important? It is crucially important. From when I started 60 years ago there has been an enormous change; the population of the world has tripled – not just doubled but tripled. There is nothing that we can do to stop it; we may be able slow it, but stop it – in our lifetimes – we cannot.
"Do we have the right to say: 'Well in that case, forget about the natural world, what about babies and children?' I put it to you that without the natural world mankind is doomed. We are dependent upon the natural world for the very air we breathe, for every particle of food that we eat and many – including me – would say that we dependent upon it for our very sanity.
"We are part of the natural world and we have a responsibility to it. Even with the gross increase in population which we contemplate now, we can accommodate that by looking after the natural world and making sure mankind doesn't spread willy-nilly over every square yard of the globe.
How World Land Trust helps
"The support that is given to the World Land Trust is support that goes directly to the place where it’s needed; to the people – not here or to any other capital city of the western world – but to the people who live on that land, who will care for that land in the way that only they can and in the way only they understand.
"I count it a privilege to have met John and Viv Burton who are the World Land Trust; who started it, who head it, and who still make sure that the money it raises goes to the sort of people, the sort of organisations, and the sort of land that I have described.
"So if you do care about the natural world and want to support it, I would like to suggest that there is no better way of doing so then helping the World Land Trust."
(Full transcript of the lecture given by Sir David Attenborough, entitled Biodiversity and Business: The Cost of Life on Earth, on 17 January 2012.)
More Attenborough quotes
- Why I support World Land Trust
- Rainforest at Chelsea Flower Show
- Four reasons to support World Land Trust
- Conservation network breeds success
- Wildlife webcams: rainforest life online
- Discovering species new to science
- Climate change and habitat loss
- Extinction rates and halting destruction
- Carbon Balanced: offset your emissions
- Attenborough’s history with WLT