I spend quite a bit of my time flying through the Indonesian archipelago. On-board entertainment consists mostly of reruns of a hidden camera program called “Just for Laughs,” where practical jokes are played on innocent passers-by.
Although the jokes can be pretty lame, it provides a perfect source of silent fun. Sometimes the whole plane bursts out laughing. But what makes me smile are the faces of those that were tricked, once they find out that it was all a joke filmed for TV. These people always take the jokes light-heartedly, and appear genuinely amused.
What we never get to see, however, are the people who couldn’t see the funny side of it. Those that got angry, or beat up the camera men. Our limited view of reality suggests that it is all happy, innocent play of tricks and laughs.
I probably shouldn’t be saying this on a nature conservation website, but how much of what we show about our conservation actually represents reality?
Browsing through the websites of different conservation organizations, life as a conservation practitioner seems seriously exciting. Stunning places to work in, fascinating wildlife, and intriguing cultures all seem to be on the daily working menu of someone like me. Like modern day Dr. Livingstones, we travel the planet’s remote places in search of nature to save.
And indeed that does happen — not often, but it does. But in reality, much of our time is spent in offices and meeting rooms, where we work out conservation strategies, develop plans and budgets, and negotiate agreements with companies and government partners.
“Why is that?” you ask. Because in places like Indonesia, nature conservation has little to do with nature, but a lot to do with people. Studying the behavior of an orangutan will do much less for orangutan conservation than studying and changing the behavior of a timber concessionaire who runs a forestry concession in which the orangutan lives, or the behavior of a government official who initially gave out the concession.
The result may be a less glamorous life, but it is the most important route to effective conservation here. So next time you see a photo of me in jungle gear on a tropical river, remember that the previous day I was likely sitting in an air-conditioned meeting room with a tie around my neck.
(Image: Erik Meijaard (in front of boat.))