Saving threatened habitats worldwide

The Cost of Life on Earth

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.

Sir David Attenborough believes WLT is leading the way in habitat and wildlife conservation

Sir David Attenborough explains why he believes the World Land Trust (WLT) is leading the way in habitat and wildlife conservation © David Bebber

"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

Sir David Attenborough at a fundraising event with WLT staff

Sir David Attenborough at a fundraising event with a few World Land Trust (WLT) staff, including the charity's CEO and founder John Burton, far right © David Bebber

"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.

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