He dodges sharks, fends off charging elephants, and parries David Letterman with relaxed aplomb. Meet scientist and pitchman M. Sanjayan, coming soon to a channel near you.
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M. SANJAYAN WALKED NORTH, following two guides, Samburu tribesmen with holes the size of nickels in their earlobes. One wore a blood-red robe. The other carried a rifle and wore faded military fatigues and combat boots that shone brightly in the constant sun. Around them, the Kenyan bush rattled and brayed, one lazy, sentient being at rest on a hot February day at the end of a long dry season.
M.SanjayanSanjayan scouts TNC’s new foothold in Africa: Kenya’s Lewa Conservancy
M.SanjayanOn a game drive with Lewa owner Ian Craig
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, KenyaA 62,000-acre former cattle ranch, Lewa has hired Masai rangers and built Masai-run lodges and schools.
Sanjayan, lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy, the wealthiest environmental organization on earth, had left behind some of the least modest accommodations in East Africa, the Sarara Camp, a $600-per-night lodge where rawboned Samburu served an unrelenting feast of crepes, mango, and sauvignon blanc to soft-fleshed British couples in safari kit. A 43-year-old biologist who was born in Sri Lanka but lives in Montana, Sanjayan was here to help finalize the Nature Conservancy’s largest deal in Africa to date, a $30 million partnership with the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a luxurious, 62,000-acre preserve 100 miles north of Nairobi. His responsibilities included scouting Sarara—a satellite of Lewa, which lies 62 miles south—to be sure its open-air lodges and bottomless meals would suffice when hosting TNC’s top brass and a group of deep-pocketed donors. As far as occupational obligations went, it wasn’t bad. But Sanjayan needed a break from the steady caloric feed.
He walked toward the untenanted northern half of Kenya. Ahead, the Matthews Range, an unexplored series of 8,000-foot peaks, rose up in a blue ring. Beyond that lay a road freshly paved by Chinese contractors, a 300-mile scar, stretching to the Ethiopian border, funneling medical supplies, charcoal, and contraband ivory. Beyond that, millions of acres of arid bush populated by nomadic tribes, outsize wildlife, and, according to local rumor, Somali Al Qaeda trainees.
Five feet eleven, with an athletic build and large eyes, Sanjayan peered through his binoculars, searching for birds. He owns a dog-eared copy of Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania and has spotted and checked off about half the book’s 1,114 listed species.
“When you’ve lived in Africa, you don’t need to see any more elephants,” he said. He lived in Sri Lanka until age five, when his family fled a burgeoning civil war. His childhood was spent in Sierra Leone, where he first fell for the wilderness near the colonial-style forest camp he called home.
As Sanjayan walked, he told stories, which is what he does best. His job description, to simplify a bit, is this: Skip around the globe on TNC’s dime and tell crowds bewitching tales about exotic places in need of protection. In his downtime, he preaches the conservation gospel on the Today show, Letterman, PBS, and the Discovery Channel, where he has hosted Shark Week, Planet Earth, and the series Powering the Future. In the past year he’s scuba-dived in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, visited wind-turbine production plants in China, and torn his meniscus trekking in the Namibian desert.
When Sanjayan tells stories, his British accent, picked up in African public schools, amplifies slightly and his hands grab the air. He had just finished telling me the one about the python that bit his palm in Australia and the one about the tiger shark he swam with in the Coral Sea. Then he started in on the time he’d roused a sleeping elephant when traveling with NPR reporters in Sri Lanka.
“I said to our team, ‘Don’t run,'” he was saying. “Sure enough, I hear the pitter-patter of feet, and the elephant charges.”
But then Sanjayan stopped talking, froze, and snapped his fingers. Our lead guide, Mark Lenanyankera, froze. I froze. The trees 50 yards to our left unfroze, animating from soft yellow bush to hard gray leather. The acacias yawned, revealing six ivory question marks and three trunks. Mark scampered up a cliff. Sanjayan and I took his cue. Three bull elephants the size of U-Hauls rumbled over the sun-cracked ground 100 feet from where we’d stood.
“Holy shit,” said Sanjayan. “Dude.”
With that we proceeded back to the feast.
SANJAYAN’S PRESENCE at Sarara was something of a personal triumph: He helped kickstart the Lewa deal three years ago, after launching TNC’s Africa program. It was also a sign of great change at the world’s most powerful conservation entity, a change that Sanjayan personifies more than anyone.
A decade ago, the Nature Conservancy, known mostly for preserving the nicer parts of North America, would not have considered working in Africa. But conservation’s heavy hitters—TNC, the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Conservation International—have begun to rethink their strategies, focusing less on cordoning off wilderness and more on accounting for human well-being while preserving land. The result is partnerships like the one at Lewa, where the locals aren’t fenced out but rather gain an economic stake in land stewardship. Sarara may feel colonial, but, technically speaking, the Samburu own the joint.
“In the glossies we put out to donors, we say, ‘This is a spectacular piece of African Eden,'” says Sanjayan. “But there’s another story. This is about bringing security to nomadic communities and thus protecting vast amounts of land. Just wait. Before long, everything we do in Africa will look like this.”
It’s a sweeping statement, but, then, Sanjayan trades in sweeping statements. He is not the most powerful person at TNC—that would be its president, Mark Tercek—nor is he the most accomplished scientist. But no one has been as visible in the effort to connect wildlife protection and the welfare of local people. As lead scientist, his job is to launch startup programs, court donors, and, most important, tell TNC’s story. He takes the ambassador role seriously, studying the speeches of Tony Blair, Barack Obama, and even Sarah Palin, and has used his immense soapbox—the Nature Conservancy has more than a million members—to carve a niche as the smiling face of modern conservation.
Sanjayan is a surprising messenger. For many, the word conservationist conjures the image of an older man possessed of quiet daring and moneyed strength, someone like the wildlife ecologist Alan Rabinowitz or elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Sanjayan is a clear outlier: telegenic, occasionally brash, and not white. “Most of us look like we’re cut out of marble,” says Kent Redford, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Institute. “Sanjayan dresses better, too.”
But the difference is more than cosmetic. Sanjayan’s background gives him a credibility few can match and has uniquely prepared him to push conservation to a more progressive place. His parents, Appa and Ranji Muttulingam, were prosperous Tamils who left Sri Lanka when riots broke out in 1972, the early stirrings of what would become a bloody 26-year war between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. The family sewed all the cash they had into two-year-old daughter Vaithi’s pants and carried five pounds of cake flour in the pockets of a coat. The flour was for their son, Sanjayan, who was about to celebrate his sixth birthday. They flew to Sierra Leone, where Appa had lined up a job managing finances for a timber company in the jungled interior. Cobras slunk under the house, which was raised on stilts; monkeys played in the backyard.
Sanjayan grew up playing in the jungle, fishing in agricultural canals, and inhaling the wildlife films and books of naturalists Gerald Durrell and David Attenborough. After an unpleasant stint at an English boarding school in Surrey (“I was that classic colonial kid,” he says: “long hair, skinny, Coke-bottle glasses, and I got beat up”), he enrolled at the University of Oregon, getting a B.S. in biology and then a master’s in ecology before heading to the University of California at Santa Cruz for his Ph.D. There, he studied under Michael Soulé, the co-founder of the Society for Conservation Biology and one of the first people to promote the notion of wildlife corridors, the links between habitats that are key to species survival. Soulé fostered a stridently pro-wilderness philosophy in his students—an ethic Sanjayan would later leave behind. (“It’s no secret I’m not as optimistic as he is,” Soulé says.)
But Sanjayan’s summers were not spent in your standard field-study internships. In 1981 his father took a job with the World Bank and then later with the United Nations, managing finances for refugee programs in places like Pakistan and Kenya. If you were trying to draw up the ideal education for a roving scientist, you could do worse than this: apprenticing with the father of conservation biology during the school year and flying to Peshawar and Nairobi in your downtime. In Sudan, Sanjayan floated the Nile; in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, he learned to fish for trout and fire an AK-47.
Sanjayan knows how to use these experiences to his advantage. He has seen civil wars destroy wildlife in the countries he grew up in, and he has seen that wildlife rebound. As a result, he has supreme faith in nature’s resiliency. When the TV lights shine, he is doggedly optimistic about mankind’s ability to solve the world’s intractable problems. He is the rarest sort of environmentalist: a happy and credible one. “Depression never sold anything,” he says.
Last year, when he appeared on Letterman, the host asked, dourly, whether humans had any chance of beating climate change. “I would bet all my money on us solving it,” Sanjayan snapped, “and I’ll tell you why. Because if we don’t, there won’t be anyone left to collect.”
“There are a lot of great scientists,” says Steven McCormick, the former Nature Conservancy president who appointed Sanjayan lead scientist in 2001 and now runs the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, conservation’s largest funder. “What we have precious few of are influential connectors who can elevate public understanding. Sanjayan is very persuasive.”
He is also, without a doubt, the only person on earth with both a Ph.D. in gopher genetics and an agent at the celebrity-talent powerhouse IMG.
THE LEWA WILDLIFE CONSERVANCY is, literally, an oasis, a 62,000-acre former cattle ranch on the eastern edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, centered around a large, spring-fed marsh just north of Mount Kenya. The land is all tawny valleys and blue hills, the Africa of Karen Blixen. The mountain keeps the area cool, and the marsh supports an astounding menagerie: genets, jackals, giraffes, about 20 lions, a dozen leopards, five cheetahs, a couple hundred elephants, 350-plus endangered Grevy’s zebras, 114 of Kenya’s 800 black rhinos, and hundreds of bird species, from songbirds to eagles large enough to take down antelope.
Lewa has been owned by a family of Scottish ranchers, the Craigs, since 1922. In 1989, 57-year-old Ian Craig, who holds the majority ownership share along with his brother William, was camping in Samburu territory near the current site of the Sarara Camp when he witnessed Somali poachers machine-gunning six elephants. Horrified, Craig turned his family’s own ranch into a wildlife sanctuary and started tourism operations. The place thrived, and over the years Craig hired Masai rangers, started Masai-run lodges, and built schools.
In 1995, Craig built Sarara with funds raised from Lewa donors; nine years later, he launched the Northern Rangelands Trust, one of the most progressive conservation projects in Africa. He enlisted tribal communities in the remote north—Samburu, Masai, Rendille, Pokot, Borana—and formed a coalition of nine wildlife preserves, owned by the tribes and managed by Lewa. Lewa supports the Northern Rangelands with rangers and equipment, while tourists and donors—including Prince William, a friend of Craig’s daughter, Jecca—supply cash. But the more Craig focused on the Northern Rangelands, the more unsettled he felt about Lewa itself.
In 2007, Sanjayan and Craig, a soft-spoken, rangy man with deep crow’s-feet around his eyes, sat on the hood of a Land Cruiser, drinking beer. The evening was warm, the beer was cold, a rhino strolled by. Craig began telling Sanjayan that some of Lewa’s wealthier donors had recently built sprawling houses near the preserve. The development concerned him, and he unloaded his worries. His own family was a good one, he said, but a family nonetheless, with too many siblings, too many egos, too many bank accounts. What might happen to Lewa when his children and their children took over?
There was a pause. Then Sanjayan said, “Wouldn’t it be great if somebody could buy all this?”
Three years later, the deal, negotiated by current Africa Program director David Banks, is almost done: TNC will offer staff support, help raise $30 million over three years, and earn a presence on the board of the Northern Rangelands Trust, a potential model for its future work in Africa.
As the final details were ironed out, I joined Sanjayan and Craig for a game drive with Masai ranger Naisotu Kinyaga. Craig and Sanjayan discussed Kenya’s political mess. The president, Mwai Kibaki, and the prime minister, Raila Odinga, members of different tribes, were not speaking, and the situation was reminiscent of the standoff that surrounded elections in December 2007, when sectarian violence killed some 1,000 people and crushed tourism for a year.
“We have to be prepared to run without tourism money,” said Craig.
To make matters worse, the influx of Chinese companies contracted to build new roads has coincided with an uptick in poaching of ivory destined for Asian markets—232 elephants in 2009, according to Kenya Wildlife Service, the most since the international ban on ivory sales, in 1989.
Eventually Kinyaga spotted five black rhinos walking down a road a mile uphill from us. But by the time we crested the hill, we found ourselves distracted by a herd of elephants scratching their sides on the thorns of acacia trees. A juvenile rumbled after a nearby zebra. We turned to zebra spotting and soon found an endangered Grevy’s, one of the last 2,600 of its species on the planet. The rhinos walked back in our direction, gray tanks in procession. We approached until we could see the lines of dirt on their horns, and when we looked up we found ourselves on a south-facing hillside a couple of thousand feet above a valley marked with crooked red roads; acacia trees broken by elephants and hanging like drunken scarecrows; and, in the distance, the volcanic hump of Mount Kenya.
“It’s worth looking after,” said Craig, “isn’t it?”
AND WHO BETTER to do it? The Nature Conservancy has dominated the conservation business since 1955, four years after its founding, when a group of New York lawyers, angered by a proposed development along that state’s Mianus River Gorge, took a stand the only way they knew how: by buying the place. The transaction introduced a key tool of modern conservation, wherein a wealthy NGO purchases an oasis and erects a few talismanic signs: Preserved! For decades, TNC was happy to be seen as a gentle if stodgy giant, nobly fencing off land.
That began to change when McCormick took over, in 2001. One of his first moves was to appoint three lead scientists: Peter Kareiva, now the chief scientist and TNC’s top academic; John Wiens, a leading ornithologist who has since left; and Sanjayan, who had been hired as director of science for the California program in 1999, at age 32.
Meanwhile, a new school of thought was emerging in conservation circles. The harshest critics posited that traditional conservation was merely a new form of colonialism that bred new forms of anticolonial revolt—overfishing, poaching, and chopping down forests for fuel. In 2002, TNC’s top staff attended the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, where indigenous speakers angrily argued that environmentalists didn’t pay enough attention to human communities. Around the same time, the United Nations hired 1,300 scientists to conduct a research program called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. In March 2005, it released a statement declaring that “everyone in the world depends on nature and ecosystem services to provide the systems for a decent, healthy, and secure life.”
In 2004, Sanjayan took a trip that launched him as the spokesman for this brand of New Conservation: He returned home. Sierra Leone’s civil war had recently ended, and Sanjayan decided to visit, to see what was left of the wildlife. He pitched the idea to the BBC and arrived in Freetown with a small crew to film a documentary, Wildlife in a War Zone, the first of many television gigs to come.
At the time, he still held to the wilderness ethos taught by his mentor, Soulé. Then, in a small village, he came across a boy roasting a monkey. The kid fanned his fire with a signboard that read WORLD FOOD PROGRAM.
“It was that lightbulb moment,” he says. “Nature provided what we couldn’t. When the NGOs left, all the kid had was the jungle.”
Soon after the Sierra Leone trip, Sanjayan convinced McCormick to visit Namibia, in hopes of launching an Africa program. There they discussed changing TNC’s guiding mantra. At the time its motto was “Saving the Last Great Places.” The logo now reads, “Protecting Nature. Preserving Life.”
But the philosophical wiggling paled in comparison with another, more pressing identity crisis. In 2003, The Washington Post published a series titled “Big Green,” investigating the Conservancy’s finances. One article pilloried the NGO for drilling oil wells in the Texas breeding grounds of endangered prairie chickens; another reported that its practice of purchasing conservation easements—which grant landowners tax breaks in exchange for prohibiting development—greatly favored the rich. Then there was McCormick’s $1.55 million home loan, provided by TNC. The series led to an IRS audit and a Senate Finance Committee investigation.
Neither inquiry turned up any illegal activity, but the series sundered TNC’s carefully primped image. The place began to look like the Goldman Sachs of conservation, a juggernaut with questionable priorities when it came to monetizing the natural world. (The Sachs comparison has been enabled in part by personnel overlap. Henry M. Paulson Jr., former secretary of the Treasury and Goldman CEO, served as chairman of TNC’s board from 2004 to 2006, and CEO Mark Tercek is a former Goldman managing director.)
When the Post dropped its hammer, Sanjayan was seen within TNC as a good scientist but a better motivator. Following the series, he took that skill set out of the office, pitching stories to TV networks and magazines. “After getting smacked, we became incredibly risk averse,” he says. “You can’t operate like that. If we had been telling our story, maybe people wouldn’t have told it for us.”
“We needed a dynamic, younger, credible voice,” says McCormick. “Sanjayan was all those things. It’s trite to say everything’s global and we’re all connected, but Sanjayan is a reflection of where the world is going.”
Sanjayan took to his new role, finding that he could surprise people. “I get up there at the World Bank in my suit and people expect me to speak with a heavy Indian accent about processes,” he says. “They think, ‘This is going to be the most boring fucking talk I’ve ever heard in my life.’ Then you say something smart and there’s immediate laughter. It’s relief. You can feel them say, ‘Thank you, God.’ I don’t think it happens with white speakers.”
ONE OF TNC’S MISSION statements reads, “We pursue nonconfrontational, pragmatic solutions to conservation challenges.”
Being pragmatic is not Sanjayan’s forte. “I hate that word,” he says. He proposes big ideas quickly and often, and people usually bite. Over a Vietnamese lunch in Manhattan, I saw him nearly convince a television executive with Animal Planet to send him to Sri Lanka to search for an animal that may well not exist. The conversation went like this:
Sanjayan: I’d like to do a show in Sri Lanka. It’s got the richest wildlife in South Asia, no one’s seen it in 30 years because of the civil war, and I’ve got a unique personal history. I can show you bear, leopard, and dugong within three days of landing.
TV guy [forking noodles, wearing an expression of polite reticence]: It sounds interesting, but I’m not sure I’d be satisfied as a viewer. We can’t really do Attenborough-style shows anymore. We need a mission.
Sanjayan: Well, I know a warden who says he’s seen pygmy elephants.
TV guy: Pygmy elephants?
Sanjayan: Well, not the elephants themselves. But tiny elephant tracks.
TV guy: Could they be a signal species?
Sanjayan: That’s the thing. Elephants are revered in Sri Lanka. There’s a festival in the capital. It’s wild: Fire throwers line the streets as elephants parade down. And the president, whom I’ve met, is very into elephant conservation!
TV guy: So if you find the elephants—
Sanjayan: Exactly. I guarantee… I’m confident we’ll find them. And on the way we’ll see all kinds of animals: bear and dugong.
TV guy: Dugong are extremely hard to film.
Sanjayan: No, that’s the thing: They congregate in this one lagoon. Besides, we can use military drones!
TV guy: Military drones?
Sanjayan: Sure! The military has all this equipment and no war. We’ll use it for conservation!
This sort of savvy media courting serves Sanjayan well, furthering both TNC’s agenda and his own career. (He has an agreement that allows him to take time off for television projects.) But his drive has taken a toll on his personal life. In 2001, when he moved from California to D.C. to take the lead-scientist job, his wife, Kitty O’Doherty, a social worker he met in college, stayed behind. They divorced in 2005. Sanjayan, an avid fly-fisherman, moved to Missoula, Montana, in 2007, after reading Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. (He teaches at the University of Montana occasionally.)
His freewheeling M.O.—jumping between TV shoots and TNC’s most exotic programs—doesn’t always sit well within the organization. Every year, the company’s employees are evaluated by a peer group. One year somebody wrote, “I know of no one less beholden to rules and procedures than Sanjayan.”
The self-promotion can also raise questions within the larger field. “Getting conservation higher on the list of humankind’s priorities is crucial,” says the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Kent Redford, who counts Sanjayan as a friend. “But an appearance on TV is not the same as a measurable outcome. Sanjayan is one of the pioneers in terms of measuring the efficacy of conservation programs. I want to know what difference it makes to be on David Letterman.”
It made a difference for Sanjayan’s career—calls flooded in following the Late Show appearance. In July, Discovery aired Powering the Future, which features Sanjayan racing Corvettes and, in a deleted scene, helicoptering to Shell oil rigs—a sequence filmed before BP, one of the Conservancy’s corporate partners, unleashed its mess. Sometime soon, he wants to find time to write a book based on Dispatches, his column in the Nature Conservancy’s magazine. The proposed show in Sri Lanka is on hold, partly because he’s being considered to host a 26-part series on oceans for a major network.
Still, he vacillates between supreme confidence and insecurity. He carries the air of a young actor who has won early success and thinks he’ll never land another role. “Sometimes I worry it will all come crashing down,” he told me. “We have a culture of environmental icons who are in media because they’re in media. In some cases, when you start peeling the onion, you realize it’s onion all the way. I don’t want that to happen to me. I need to stick to the science.”
But Sanjayan, who is nothing if not aware of the image he projects to reporters, knows that if you can be both the expert and the communicator, opportunities abound.
“Sometimes, as I’m speaking, I know where I’m headed, and I know it’s out of the ballpark,” he told me. When I asked him whom he’d like to model his public career on, he mentioned Sanjay Gupta, the CNN personality and neurosurgeon who was under consideration to become Obama’s surgeon general until he withdrew his name.
“It’s hard to refuse being the surgeon general of the United States,” says Sanjayan, who is occasionally mistaken for Gupta. “But he might actually make a bigger impact globally by being this unique medical host on CNN. Television is hard work, but think of it this way: Not many people can translate science into something people appreciate. For the longest time, the conservation movement has been about saving animals. And what you do when you go on television is convince people it’s about saving themselves.”
AT THE END OF OUR TRIP, the rains came: downpours that filled the arid African days with mosquitoes and turned the red roads to black mud capable of swallowing tires. After the roads became passable, Sanjayan, Masai guide William Kipsoi, and I drove one last time through long yellow valleys, listening for the plaintive yelps of cheetahs.
“William, who are the conservationists you look up to?” Sanjayan asked.
“Ian Craig is like a father,” said Kipsoi, who was educated at a Lewa-funded school and has a diploma in tourism from the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya, a Nairobi college. “Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Anna Merz.” He also named three other prominent local conservationists.
“You just listed six white people!” yelled Sanjayan. “Why?”
“If it weren’t for white people, we wouldn’t need conservation.”
They both laughed. Sanjayan said, “If we don’t make a real effort developing black African conservationists in the next ten years, we’re in real trouble.”
If Sanjayan, Craig, and TNC’s David Banks have their way, Lewa will become the base for a massive network of community conservation initiatives throughout northern Kenya. And Lewa is just one of many new projects. In 2008, the Conservancy dropped nearly half a billion dollars on 312,000 acres of former timber lands in Montana, the largest deal in the Conservancy’s history.
But the nonprofit hasn’t left its image problems behind. Soon after the BP oil spill, Joe Stephens, the Washington Post reporter who’d co-authored “Big Green,” wrote a story outlining TNC’s financial ties to the oil giant. So far, however, the Conservancy hasn’t shied away from its relationships with big energy. “A lot of environmental organizations would think, These strange bedfellows, you can’t trust these guys,” CEO Mark Tercek told me months before the spill. “We’ll take some risks if we think our science can guide us and it can lead to good outcomes. There’s a need to guide those companies so that they do the least amount of harm. That suits us.”
The Conservancy also needs corporate sponsorship to maintain its size—$4.6 billion in assets and an annual operating budget of $448 million. The way you pull in that coin is to ask for it, and if you’re buying up choice quarters of Kenya and Montana, you need to do more than blast e-mails into the ether. You need to cozy up to very wealthy people and convince them that your work is not a luxury but, rather, a beautiful necessity.
To this end, last October, Sanjayan flew to Manhattan to give three speeches in as many days. The most important took place at the Sony Club, on Madison Avenue, where Sanjayan addressed 100 potential TNC supporters. A funereal procession of black coats bobbed outside the building, fending off the avenue wind. Lehman was a fresh corpse; AIG was running on borrowed taxes. The giving spirit did not fill the air.
Sanjayan rode the elevator to the penthouse, where a long glass wall offered a voyeuristic view of the city below. In 1987, the Sony Club had served as one of the film sets for Oliver Stone’s pre-bubble vision of opulence, Wall Street. The East River resembled a canal and Brooklyn looked to be within spitting distance.
The main event was held in a dark wood-paneled room hung with original Audubon prints. Men in suits and women in sheer dresses filed in. The CEO of Sony America entered. The Japanese ambassador, Ichiro Fujisaki, arrived. The lights dimmed. The screen filled with images of yawning lions and spouting volcanoes, and then these words: NATURE’S GREATEST THREAT IS NOW ITS GREATEST ALLY: MANKIND.
An emcee introduced the main speaker, “the man with the best job in the world.”
Sanjayan entered, wearing a blue suit and a half smile, sipping rum and Coke.
“Who here has been to Namibia?” he asked. No one answered. “Good,” he said. “Then I can tell you whatever I like about Namibia.”
Sanjayan often starts his speeches this way. It both breaks the ice and conveys an air of expertise. He launched into a story about a colleague who tranquilized a cattle-marauding lion for angry villagers. When presented with the opportunity to kill the lion, the villagers declined. He laid down the punch line: “You just need to give people agency. Most of the time, they won’t shoot the lion.”
He told stories about the Solomon Islands, Ecuador, and the Arctic. He pointed to the Audubons, big birds staring out from behind glass frames, and asked the crowd which of the species had gone extinct. It was the Carolina parakeet. He made the case that science’s obsession with the extinction crisis had hurt conservation by separating mankind from the global ecosystem. “Look at the cover of E.O. Wilson’s Biodiversity,” he said. “Which species is missing?”
Sanjayan made not a single oblique overture for “support.” He simply spoke, and spoke well, and, by the end of an hour, convinced 100 valuable friends that man and nature could coexist in a new paradigm. The crowd rose, the sound of smacking palms ringing off the glass-shrouded birds. Everyone loves a good storyteller.
Sanjayan followed the beneficent to the elevators. But before leaving, he tapped me on the shoulder.
“Now that,” he said, “was out of the ballpark.”