Have you been kicked out of anywhere?
Ummmm, no. I’ve had to leave. Not kicked out, no, no. But when the situation gets very tense, and stuff, there’s no point in staying, really.
Can you give me an example of one of those scenarios?
Burundi, when the genocide was starting between Hutu and Tutsi. We had a program there, and we had three of our people killed. So we just airlifted the orphan chimpanzees to Kenya. Ghana, there was a lot of political infighting between the different conservation groups, and so it seemed a waste of my time to stay there. So I left there. North Korea, I shall return to, but I stayed away last year when they set off their bomb or whatever it was, so I didn’t go back then ─ it wouldn’t have been sensible.
What would you identify as the greatest threat to our endangered species?
Underlying everything, really, is human population growth. If there were just 10% of the humans on the planet, none of these other things would be that significant. But, as for the rest of it, it depends where you are. If you are somewhere like Sub-Saharan Africa or most of Australia, then climate change is enormously important, and water shrinkage ─ getting fresh water. In some parts of the world, like Eastern Europe, it’s pollution, which is absolutely devastating to the environment. Everywhere, it’s loss of habitat, of course.
The primary one that you mentioned is, to any logical mind, inarguable. But does that ever put you at odds with people who find that very logical thought threatening to them?
Actually, I was expecting it. And I was talking about population sizes long before it was politically correct. But it wasn’t for a long time ─ none of the major environmental organizations were prepared to address it head on. But it’s pretty plain to talk about it. If you lay it out as a simple fact, certainly out in the villages, you show a little chart of a farmer with four cows and two children and everybody has enough, and there’s plenty and they’re rich, and then another farmer who has, say 10 children and 40 cattle, and his one little place is now barren, and everybody is starving ─ they get it, they understand it.
And sometimes I say to them, like in a poor part of Africa, “You’re so lucky. You don’t have lots of wealth, but you have clean air and you have clean water ─ if you look after that, you’ll be better off than the people living in a wealthy country, where the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat is making them sick.”
Does that line usually sit well?
Yes it does, and because of our youth program, Roots & Shoots, we’ve got the youth saying it to each other. I’ve had kids in the Bronx, in the inner city in New York, who thought that their lives were worse than anybody else’s. And then when they hear about some of the peasant kids in Tanzania, and how they’re living ─ well, they say “We’re better off than that.” Whereas the peasant kids, hearing about the guns and the knives and all the other horrors of inner-city life, they feel, well, suddenly that their lives are better. And they share these experiences, and somehow, as kids do, they come out somewhere in the middle.