22nd October 2018

Grant Fowlds: The True Face of Modern Conservation

By Graham Spence

I had a fascinating chat with a film director over Skype last week.

He was doing a deal in Bulawayo, of all places, and I was in a village 80kms southwest of London. Bulawayo is not exactly the geek capital of the world, and some of the folks in my village get nosebleeds if they travel to the Big Smoke. Yet the director and I could have been in the same room. And we were talking about the hypnotic magic of a continent he was not born in, and I no longer live in.

In other words, we were talking about Africa.

By birth and temperament, he’s a gritty New Yorker, deeply involved with the burgeoning TV-movie and Netflix market and is interested in filming The Last Rhinos, the third book in the trilogy I co-wrote with the late Lawrence Anthony.

He told me that some years ago he dated a South African girl. She took him travelling to her home country, then Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. Now, despite the fact he makes Tinseltown blockbusters for First World audiences, he wants to move to Africa. The continent has captured his soul.

I have heard that before, but this guy I believe. For a start, he is one of a handful of non-Africans who actually ‘got’ what The Last Rhinos was about. I’ve had quite a lot of feedback from readers telling me that they loved the book, but what was the point? Lawrence failed as the Northern White Rhinos are now officially extinct.

So why write it?

Well, that was exactly the point. Perhaps it was in part a glorious failure — even meeting the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army in its jungle headquarters — but the key issue was drawing a line in the sand. So far, and no further. At the risk of a spoiler alert, the final chapter describes two Southern White Rhinos orphans whose parents have been murdered for their horns arriving at Lawrence’s game reserve. They are the final symbolic stand.

The New York movie director understood that beautifully.

His passion again rammed him home how magnetic the continent is. It’s pull on people outweighs disasters, wars, famines, and any other apocalypse you can imagine.

The current book I am co-writing also has this absolute, compulsive, attraction of Africa at its heart. That’s not the way I planned it — the story has a roller-coaster mind of its own.

The guy at the heart of it, conservationist Grant Fowlds, was brought up in the countryside, speaks Xhosa and Zulu flawlessly, and is at the frontline of the conservation wars. Unlike extremely courageous game rangers, he is not fighting it with a gun, which is also vital.

Instead, his weapons are two stark contrasts: the classrooms where he goes to remote schools and gets pupils to draw rhinos depicting what the animals mean to them; and the air-conditioned boardrooms where the resources needed to win this war will be financed.

It’s a rollicking adventure more than a memoir. From smuggling out rhino horn from Vietnam’s black market to trekking with DRC gorillas accompanied by survivors of Africa’s most brutal war that cost five-million lives, it spans several decades of a rich and varied life.

Much of what is happening to the people he works with has happened to him. He’s survived murder attempts. His home’s been invaded. His farm has been expropriated. You would think he would be despondent.

Not at all. In fact, the polar opposite. He has kept the faith ... the faith that Mama Africa will come right. Africa is in his blood, from bird-hunting withabafana friends in the Xhosa outbacks to selling goats in the wild sticks of Zululand, he knows firsthand the folklore, the myths, the beliefs and the legends of those forgotten people, the raggedly-poor majority who live on this continent.

He had no university degrees, no fancy public relations or community outreach diplomas — yet it is grass-roots conservationists like him who are able to straddle the gaping chasm between the hardscrabble peons who live off the land, and those in suits who decide the future.

 That is the true face of modern conservation.

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