We’re delighted to introduce our Friend of the Month for May, Grant Burden. Grant recently joined the EPI Foundation team as a Special Adviser on Human-Elephant Conflict. He has spent nearly 20 years in protected area management, mostly in East Africa.
Grant, we know you’ve worked in conservation in several African countries but please tell us a little bit about your childhood - where did you grow up and were you interested in wildlife and conservation from a young age?
I was born in Zululand, South Africa, where my father was working for the Natal Parks Board at Lake St. Lucia. I spent most of my childhood in the Natal Midlands. My father spent his career working in conservation and was my inspiration.
You’ve spent a lot of time in East Africa’s wild places, in some of the most beautiful parts of the continent. Can you please tell us your most favourite place of all? Ok - to make it easy - we’ll allow you to name three!
The southern edge of the Serengeti eco-system along the Eyasi escarpment with all its dramatic beauty and the indigenous people that inhabit that area holds a special place in my heart. It is where the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area seemingly blend into one landscape. But all the Serengeti ecosystem, with its vast open spaces, beautiful thickets, rivers and 1.5 million migrating animals is a close second for me. I love big rivers and wetland systems and have been drawn to the Lugenda River in Niassa, Northern Mozambique, and the sight of the Zambezi is always one to behold.
We screened the film ‘Living On the Edge’ the other day, which featured your hands-on work in the frontline of human-wildlife conflict on the edge of Serengeti. Seeing you darting elephants, shooting injured hippos and releasing caged leopards, I couldn’t help wonder…how do you cope with all the administration, politics and paperwork of conservation?
I don't! I think it is every conservationist’s dream to always be out in the field, hands on and getting dirty. You need discipline to master the other aspects of the job; you have to structure your day, and not be distracted by unplanned interruptions from the field.
Seriously though, some conservationists in Africa feel daunted by the challenges. Disappearing species, climate change, human population growth. What keeps you optimistic?
I’m motivated by what my children will experience in the future, and also what I can share with them now. It puts a lot of the challenging work that we do into perspective. I also think there is almost a selfish element to what I do. I’m driven by my love for wild places and functioning ecosystems, and desire to be in them, it's a dream for me to experience moments of wilderness across Africa.
You mention your children…but you’ve only recently moved to Nairobi after years in the field. How challenging has it been to raise a family?
My wife also works in conservation, and our kids are 8 and 5. We built our own mini-school out of a container. They had the privilege of growing up in the bush, but we always knew we had to balance this with other benefits of education - the social side, the sporting side, and now they are at a regular school.
You’ve recently joined the EPI team, working specifically on Human-Elephant Conflict issues. What, for you, would constitute success in your new role?
To see growing elephant populations in range states, with enough managed space for them to occupy. At the same time, we need to raise the awareness of HEC at a global stage, so that we have the resources to implement successful mitigation & prevention of HEC, for the benefit of communities.