Following the 11th Oppenheimer Research Conference, which took place between 5 and 7 October this year, I had the privilege of talking to Jonathan Oppenheimer about a mutual interest: Conservation.
The Oppenheimer Research Conference
The conference was originally launched in 2010 and this year’s theme was all about changing the conversation around conservation. It’s always been a unique event on the annual calendar, showcasing diverse research across various environmental and natural science fields. According to Jonathan Oppenheimer, the one thing that makes this conference so unique is the fact that it doesn’t necessarily specialise in one field of conservation, but rather numerous fields which all work together in the broader picture of conservation.
While it’s good to be a specialist – an expert – in a field, you lose sight of other fields. The challenge is to see the bigger picture. For years, Jonathan Oppenheimer’s mother has been championing the idea of getting people in different disciplines to hear others so that they are engaged, excited and triggered by new content that isn’t in their narrow field of view. “These things all interact. We live in a society where the ripple effect of your actions are felt across different domains,” says Jonathan. The conference has a way of shedding light on difficult, but also rather interesting conservation topics.
Talks held at the conference were mainly identified to showcase how one could preserve ecosystems and truly have a deep and meaningful impact on the bigger picture of conservation. The bias this year was to tilt the conference toward more broadly impactful research – those with bigger ripples.
Conservation travel can be done anywhere
Oppenheimer says you can explore and think about conservation anywhere. You can do it in Sandton City and in your own backyard. And yes, you can visit the extraordinary parks in South Africa. “Kruger is amazing, some of the parks down in the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape, our own at Tswalu in the Northern Cape – truly extraordinary,” says Oppenheimer.
It’s an attitude
Whilst these parks are extraordinary, he says that in the end there is just one thing that matters, though and that is the attitude you bring. An attitude of going to the zoo won’t see you learning much and it won’t have much of an impact on what you do the next day. By contrast, if you go to parks and reserves like the abovementioned, or even your garden with a curious mind, it’s a whole different experience. Rather than just looking, your mind asks:
“How does this work?”
“How does this sustain itself?”
“What am I seeing?”
By having a curious attitude, you can have experiences and learn lessons that can have an impact and reflect in how you live your life from that day forward.
Oppenheimer says: “The art of understanding is the art that you need to bring to the party. Not particularly how you do it. You really have to have your mind in the game to understand the why. Why is it working? Why is it not working? How is this happening? What interaction am I seeing, rather than just saying, ‘O, there’s a lion!’”
“It’s all in the mind. It’s got very little to do with where you are,” says Jonathan.
Choosing the right kind of conservation destination
The one thing that was clear from the get-go is that Jonathan Oppenheimer believes that no human is a fool. In fact, when we started speaking about how travellers can have a smaller impact on the environment, travel more sustainably and truly adapt to kind(er) travel, he merely said that it comes down to your attitude.
When it comes to destinations that encourage kind travel, he says one should do some research. A good place to start is the Oppenheimers’ platform called Weeva. It seeks to work with destinations to rank how they engage with their environment and it’s a perfect research tool to use. While the platform is evolving and still testing phase, it is live already.
If you want to be an ecologically minded traveller, Weeva’s list of ranked destinations which are ecologically sustainable and mindful about the communities they operate in, might just be your very first destination when planning a kind travel trip.
Zoos aren’t all bad
Oppenheimer says globally, zoos have been an incredible store of really important genetic diversity. In fact, over the years, they have enabled the reintroduction of animals into certain jurisdictions and into the wild, which would otherwise not have been possible. “So, zoos aren’t all bad,” he says. A petting zoo, is worse than a zoo that looks after, is much more aware of, and does good science, means Oppenheimer.
He refers to Durrell, who has a zoo in Jersey and says that they have been instrumental in some really good science. By contrast, a petting zoo where fake safari experiences are offered on a drive-through basis, and meat is put out for six lions beside the road, is not very useful at all.
That said, Oppenheimer says human beings are incredibly smart. If they are curious and interested, and want to think about what it means to be ecologically sustainable, how to preserve biodiversity, consider how the experience interacts and contributes (or doesn’t contribute) to the community, they can be their own judges. They are no fools.
He says if people go into an environment – curious about how it works, what it’s doing – they can be their own judges and they can be very good judges.
“Check your brain at the door” is an expression his family often uses. With your brain checked at the door, it doesn’t matter which environment you enter into.
How can you contribute to conservation?
Guests at Tswalu can contribute to numerous research projects in conservation. Likewise, a contribution or grant toward the University of Pretoria’s very successful ecology department, or other universities’ conservation-related departments would also be very sensible.
Look for products and brands that partner with conservation-led businesses like the Oppenheimer family and Tswalu, like the collaboration between Tswalu and the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg. 10% of the art sales at the Oppenheimers’ facility at OR Tambo International Airport, called Fireblade goes to the Tswalu Foundation. Everard Read sponsored a resident artist at Tswalu too and a significant part of the work they do there, goes to the Tswalu Foundation, for both conservation research and societal research and support.
In the end, when it comes to conservation, Jonathan Oppenheimer says it like it is: “Think. Be a human. Don’t just be told how to behave.”