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Living with our Wild Neighbours

This interview was published when my Wild Neighbours booklet was included as an insert in Africa Geographic magazine.

Can you tell us what inspired your interest in urban wildlife?

Having grown up in Cape Town and near the beautiful Table Mountain National Park, I always had a profound sense of nature, and my natural empathy and compassion were drawn towards the birds and small creatures that inhabit what is left of the natural environment in the Cape. I could see how the ever-expanding suburbs with their busy roads, increasing light and noise pollution, domestic animals, and myriad human issues were impacting wildlife, and I wanted to become their voice so that people could find a way to live in harmony with nature and the very attributes that make Cape Town such a species diverse and unique city.

How did you arrive at the name 'Wild Neighbours' and what support have you had for this initiative?

Urban centres generally develop in natural areas, and the animals that are able to adapt to this encroachment are, in essence, our neighbours. We share the landscape, and occasionally our paths cross, and I have always felt that it is for us to give way so that they can continue their lives as much as possible, unaffected by our presence. That is where the name was derived, and it resonated with many people, and I now see organisations around the world referring to urban wildlife as 'wild neighbors'.

Until this time, I had published Cape Envirolink, which focused on green issues in Cape Town, and I was also a founding trustee of the Baboon Matters Trust, so I had a very informed understanding of urban wildlife issues.

When I came up with the idea for the programme, I was inspired by a thought- provoking and meaningful conversation that I'd had with Dr Jane Goodall, when she spoke of speaking out for wildlife who do not have a voice.

I then approached Dr John Hadidian, an urban wildlife specialist working for The Humane Society in the US, and his incredible input and interest in my work, as well as financial support, enabled me to launch my programme. I was also supported and encouraged by Dr Andrew Rowan, President of The Humane Society, who was very generous with his knowledge and time.

Wild Neighbours went on to become a Wild Cities Champion, which was lovely recogition.

Since then, I have worked closely with IFAW Southern Africa, and Wild Neighbours awareness signboards have been installed in the key nature reserves around Cape Town.

What motivates you to continue with this project?

I have a deep and almost primal awareness of the land. I can hear birds or pick up tracks in the sand as though by instinct. I have the most profound appreciation for it all.

It's inconceivable to me that one day future generations might never know what it feels like to stand outside at night, under the dazzling stars, and hear the foxes 'barking clear and cold' or the sound of baboons barking deep in the mountains. What will life be like without these animals? What could ever fill the emptiness and loneliness of a land void of life?

These are my concerns.

I have lived in rural communities that regularly hunt wildlife. I have seen more roadkill incidents than I care to remember. I have seen the impacts of cats on birds; poison on small creatures; pollution on wild habitats; the decline in insect populations and how this reduced food source impacts bats and migratory birds; and the list goes on and on.

At what point do we ask ourselves: How will we feel one day when the migratory swallows no longer migrate? What could ever fill their passing? And then, what changes can we make to ensure that they still live amongst us, nesting in the eaves, catching insects on the wing, and their excited chatter filling the skies as they prepare themselves for their long journey south?

Can you leave us with a story of hope?

The American writer and anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote: 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.' And across the globe, one reads of rewilding projects; or small community initiatives supporting pollinators; and of wolves or indigenous carnivores being reintroduced where they were once hunted to extinction. And these stories provide hope. And what do we have, but the hope that through our collective caring and through the dedication and goodwill of people who are prepared to devote their lives to the cause of a species in plight - the Iain Douglas-Hamilton's of the world - we will turn this tide of impact on wildlife?

Let us hope that one day, when the political landscape has shifted to a more holistic, integrated, and caring approach towards people and the land, we will revert to a reciprocal relationship with the earth, where it supports our lives, and in turn, and with reverence, we protect it for future generations - human and animal - to prosper and enjoy.

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