Note for the readers: Greetings RazaVerde, on the anniversary of his passing we celebrate the life of an inspiring conservationist, mister Steve Irwin, by celebrating our own discovery of the love for nature. Our invited writer for this article is my very good friend and colleague, Junaid Khan, you can find out more about him at the end of this inspiring post. I keep on trying to find new ways to tell wild stories. If you want to read more from Junaid and would like to have more invited authors, leave me a comment, tell me what you enjoyed, I would love to hear your thoughts.
“I want to swim with a Blue Whale.” That’s it. That was my response to “what do you want to do in your life?” It was a simple answer for me; second nature. But, why a Blue Whale, and why this dream and career?
I did not grow up in a single nation; I had a very migratory life with my family. This made it hard to make any long-lasting friendships, which meant my friends were those I could take with me. Chickens, Guinea fowls, budgies, finches, pigeons, quails, and the occasional goat were most of my childhood bonds and friends as they were quite easy to transport and relatively easy to keep. I loved and cherished these friends. It was not until a fateful TV special, however, where I truly started to become fascinated with animals as more than just easily transportable companions.
It happened when I first learnt of a man named Steve Irwin, the man who would become my lifelong hero. The man ran around jumping on crocodiles and wrangling snakes with a passion and excitement the likes of which I never knew could be mustered about animals. I was hooked; I watched him every day, becoming more and more enthralled with these exotic animals the likes of which I had never known existed. Australia was my dreamland. That is where Steve Irwin was. That was where the animals were! That was where wildlife was.
I continued to travel even when I arrived in Canada after having been to three other continents and lived in four other countries. I have been blessed to have seen the Rocky Mountains, the Arabian Desert, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and many of the creatures within these incredible ecosystems. Yet, nothing could beat my long-held image of Australia; wild was still out there. I dedicated myself to wanting to be Steve Irwin, jumping on crocodiles, running up to cameras, and speaking to millions of people around the world about the incredible magic of animals!
Now, if you are an animal lover of any sort, you likely know of Steve Irwin, maybe some of you could even attribute aspects of your passion for animals to him, or perhaps some may even dislike him. I know I have certainly met a fair few people in my life who have made both those claims. However, no matter how close my academic and professional career brought me to animals, no matter how many new species I saw and held, I could never settle my direction in the field. I still had not gone to Australia, and I had still not seen “true wildlife.” I do not have very many pictures of the animals I have seen over my life. That is in part because none of them were the wildlife I had pictured in my mind.
It was not until I had already worked for two conservation organizations, and was now working on my Masters in Ecology that all of this changed, and it changed because of a simple realization: I did not know the first thing about animals. See, I had always learned great facts about species and knew about all the different exotic species Steve showed me, but ask me about the migration patterns of the American Robin (Turdus migratorious), and I could not tell you the first thing about it. The challenge I had, and the problem I was faced with, was the fact that I had externalized the concept of wildlife, and hence the basis of my passion in ecology, to a country I had yet to go to. How could I possibly get truly interested and involved in my studies and work if I had never experienced wildlife?
I got woken up to this fact when I met my friend Andres Jimenez Monge. See, he loves Steve as much as I do, and he had done a similar amount of insane things to see exotic animals; we were from the same planet. All except for one key difference. Andres was excited about all kinds of animals, not just Blue Whales (Balaenoptera musculus) and Dingos (Canis lupus dingo), but local mammals and frogs and snakes! Since Andres had not explored Toronto as much as I had, I took him to a place I had been before but had never truly appreciated as much as I knew he would. I asked him to teach me something about species in my backyard. An ironic ask, as he is from Costa Rica, and I have lived in Toronto for almost 12 years.
I saw 13 species of birds that day, and a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis)! It was invigorating! I asked Andres questions about these species and ate up every nugget of information like a child rediscovering his favourite candy. I had never truly connected with wildlife I realized. I had never truly paid attention, and never really learnt. I had developed a sense of ‘otherness’ with the natural world. It was always somewhere that I was not. But, becoming aware of the incredible creatures in my own backyard gave me an entirely new appreciation for the complexity and beauty of the natural world all around us. Wilderness is not out there somewhere else, it is all around you and me.
It is in your backyard, where termites may reside in an old chopped down tree, and rabbits and skunks and mice might nest in burrows and holes. It is in your local park where spring brings out all the birds calling to mate. It is under a discarded piece of tin in an active garbage dump. Wild is all around. It is surprisingly easy to find and interact with and learn about. And each and every lesson is new and different. We are quite literally surrounded. We just have to look, and pay attention.
Somewhere along the spectrum of human existence, we created the story of nature as a polarity. Thinking that wild places exist where human places do not. Among other things, this construction has supported many iconic conservation strategies; backcountry wilderness tourism, breathtaking and highly idealized National Geographic productions, shows of survival in the wilderness, and so on. This has all been fueled by a human-centred view of the world. There is no polarity between nature and humans. While it may be true that wild nature in the form of megafauna exists where the human footprint is lightest, most of nature exists everywhere, coexisting with us in varying degrees of human impact. Quoting Andres’s favourite Resource Manager (also from Australia), Beeton and Lynch (2012) “most of nature is not charismatic or appealing. Yet all of nature constitutes the planet’s ecological system.” To successfully understand the planet as a whole, as a highly complex system, we need to reconnect with ALL of nature, mostly by getting amazed at every single living thing, not just the blue whales.
Since discovering this concept, and re-discovering my passion for the wild kingdom, I have logged 40 different species of birds, 2 species of snakes, 3 species of frog and toad, 9 species of mammals, and at least 25 different species of plant fauna. All of which I have witnessed in my surroundings. I still have so much more to learn about all of these creatures that share this incredible planet with us. They each bring such unique characteristics and skills to this environment to make it so dynamic and interesting. They make the world interesting and beautiful to live on. Sure, a lowly Brownsnake may not compare to the majesty of the mighty Blue Whale. But, having been fascinated by the Brownsnake, I have a feeling I will truly appreciate it when I witness ol’ Blue for the very first time.
Moving between, and within, four countries a total of 15 times, the one thing that remained constant in Junaid’s life was his passion for animals. Before ever learning the term “environmentalism” Junaid was fascinated by the idea of working within nature in a culture that did not particularly foster nature connection. Once in Canada, Junaid took the opportunity to travel across the country to live in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec, each time working in some capacity that brought him closer and closer to wildlife. From black bears to bison to red foxes to stick insects, Junaid is fascinated by all creatures great and small.
Moving forward in his career and passion, Junaid hopes to travel to areas of high biodiversity in the world while also continuing to build his love and understanding of the natural world right at his doorstep. #Wildisallaround