By Stephanie Rowe
In this blog, I chat with Phil about his journey into conservation, the challenges of setting up an NGO during a global pandemic and the conservation issues facing Panama.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen a host of success stories boasting wildlife recovery and respite. But for many rangers of the world, those who pledge their lives to protect wildlife, it has most definitely been a challenging time. It’s certainly not uncommon for park rangers to be funded by wildlife safari tourism. However, with tourism at a standstill, job security within the sector has plummeted many into an abyss of uncertainty. Without these incredible rangers on the front line, there is of course the worry of increased poaching looming over our already threatened species. In fact, just last week in the UK, a report by the Guardian suggested that 20 jobs at the lake district national park were now at risk due to the effects of the pandemic.
Over in Panama, a country facing a whole host of its own conservation issues, Phil, has been busy setting up the Direct Ranger Fund. I caught up with him over the weekend to find out all about his new venture and to get an insider perspective on the pressing conservation issues facing Panama. Phil appears on video chat surrounded by luscious green Panamanian jungle, brimming I am sure, with biodiversity, at least a lot more than I am graced with in Surrey! I can see majestic mountains peaking through in the background. This is a backdrop Phil has been luckily enough to enjoy since 2009 when he moved there, buying a piece of land with which he says, “I wanted to create a place people could come to without disturbing the wildlife”.
I am intrigued by Phil’s journey to becoming a field guide and setting up his own NGO. Like many conservationists, Phil doesn’t initially come from a traditional conservation background as such. He grew up in Canada and has since worked in various unrelated industries.
Phil tells me he has always been a conservationist at heart. He reflects that perhaps what spurred him to set up his own organisation, was qualifying as a FGASA Field Guide in 2017. While he has always been passionate about wildlife, it was this journey to South Africa and the subsequent connections he made, that allowed him to connect with conservation on a deeper level.
So what is the direct ranger fund?
Based in Malawi, Africa, the direct ranger fund is an NGO that aims to support rangers worldwide. While this project is very much still getting off the ground, Phil has some big goals for the Direct Ranger Fund. Once fully established, the goal is to direct and resource equipment and funds to those who need it most; the rangers, guides, training associates and conservationists on the front line.
Phil emphasises his vision for the organisation to be very much led by those who will receive the funds. He already has, he tells me, rangers on his board of directors and is keen to push for the NGO to be a platform for rangers themselves.
I ask Phil if he has faced any challenges in setting up his project, a question guaranteed to get an eye roll in 2020, year of the curveball.
Of course, the global pandemic has hugely impacted the way in which the project has been set up this year. Not being able to be present in the field has clearly been frustrating, however, it has unlocked some new channels of communication that perhaps wouldn’t have been available pre-Covid. Phil describes how this new expectation of remote working, has in some cases, made it easier to start up connections in new countries. “Whereas before, a trip to the country would have been necessary, it is now far more acceptable for people to push things through from home,” mentions Phil. We also can’t ignore the carbon footprint reduction that remote working has blessed us with.
Setting up a new organisation is not without the further challenges that take place behind the scenes. There are clearly a lot of pieces to fit together in building an all-encompassing, worthwhile conservation project. Phil talks about how he has faced somewhat of a challenge in seeking out the right team for the job; a feat that is never easy when sourcing volunteers.
What about Panama?
Panama is a country rich with diverse ecosystems. It is a country that comprises of a vital corridor connecting North and South America and their subsequent biodiversity. This critical natural corridor allows for wildlife to habituate within their normal range, as well as maintain genetic diversity. This corridor is under constant threat, with deforestation, human-wildlife conflict and corruption being issues that are all too real. There seems to be a price tag on wildlife that is being consistently traded off for profit, mentions Phil.
The Panama Canal has many obvious consequences for wildlife; constant fuel and noise pollution, waste and accidents, being some of the few issues harming marine life in particular.
I ask Phil if he truly believes these issues can be mitigated. He admits that it can feel like a losing battle with the price tag on wildlife being the ultimate decider. It seems that tackling corruption and introducing better policing would certainly be a step in the right direction for Panama.
It is also apparent how imperative it is that we rapidly improve human wildlife relationships. This is something we must master at a rapid pace, as we share our environments with animals at a faster rate and closer proximity than ever before.
What can we do to work towards a sustainable future?
“There are a million things we can all do. We all know the things we should be doing…becoming plant-based, recycling, reducing waste, stop killing...but really we need to change the thinking. We need to either make conservation itself so profitable, exciting and entertaining that people take notice or we need to make the things that are detrimental to conservation so uncomfortable and embarrassing that people simply feel have to make a change”. I have to admit, I agree.
It feels like a sombre note to end my chat with Phil on, however his honesty and passion is refreshing. I asked him what conservation means to him. He says “conservation is doing the right thing.”. You can do the right thing by getting involved with us at Conservation Chat UK and helping us to spread the word.