Twenty years ago, game capturing, caring for the land, wildlife and people was considered completely ground-breaking.
Les Carlisle has been with &Beyond since its inception in 1991, starting off with the creation of &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. Today, he is the Group Conservation Manager and has the task of caring for wildlife in &Beyond’s numerous game reserves as well as transporting animals from one reserve to another. We chat with him about the conservation efforts that have taken place throughout the years and some of his career highlights to date.
You’ve been part of &Beyond’s conservation team in both Africa and India for over 20 years, can you explain a little bit about what got you into this profession? What kind of childhood did you have?
I was fortunate enough to have grown up in Eastern South Africa, in Npumalanga to be more precise (‘the land where the sun rises’), which happens to be the biggest game reserve in the country. My father’s job, which was supplying water to nearby Kruger Park, meant that I was exposed to wildlife at a young age.
During the school holidays, I would help out in the vet clinic and this continued on after I had finished school. I remember an instance when the vet had to go on holiday and asked me to take care of a cheetah’s cub (she was shot by a farmer). From that day on, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to working with wildlife. So after my national service, I went straight into game capturing.
Though the activity sounds ominous, it is simply the art of tracking animals that have escaped from a fenced park and bringing them back to their home. I then went on to start moving animals from one game reserve to another, which enabled 17 game reserves across the country to be restocked with species that were rare or dying out. Today, game capturing has massively developed; when I first started in the 80s, they were about 5 or 6 companies practicing this activity, as opposed to 50 close to 30 years later.
In those 20 years I’m sure you’ve seen tremendous change, both positive and negative. There are way too many for a single question, but can you perhaps pick one of the most impactful for each?
Twenty years ago, game capturing, caring for the land, wildlife and people was considered completely ground-breaking. Today, it is a norm and it is fairly common (and amazing) to see how this has developed. The ‘conservation experience’ is not common in traditional travel sector but has become fairly common in this region of the world.
Operators have become much more responsible and there is a significant, positive impact on conservation, but also on social development. Through these initiatives, we have been able to build schools and hospitals for locals and obviously conserve the land and its wildlife.
As positive as that is, there are a lot of operators which now do it for marketing purposes (it’s obviously a lucrative business and makes them look good), which I deplore: it isn’t about true conservationism but about making money off of it.
The plight of the African elephant has always been very much publicized around the world. These days however, it is the rhinos that are very much in focus. When and how did their situation become so dire?
The plight of the Africa elephant is very much unchanged and still very dire. Actually, all of Africa’s free-ranging wildlife is under threat, though the degree of severity varies across regions. There are approximately 500 000 elephants in Africa, 10 000 of which disappear each year. It is absolutely diabolical. With regards to rhinos, there is a baseline population of about 25 000 and approximately 1 000 are killed each year. When you look at it that way, the risk of rhino extinction is much direr than that of the elephants, but we must remember that there is a risk for all animals. Giraffes are also under threat.
The reason that these animals are under threat is not just because of poaching, but because of habitat loss. The space for wildlife is being cut down every year.
What is one of your best career memories?
It is always satisfying when we are able to transport wildlife from one reserve to another without any casualties. There are two that are more memorable for me.
The first was when we managed to bring giraffes on a game reserve that hadn’t had giraffes on its land for 150 years due to local extinction. I admit that I burst into tears when I watched these giraffes grazing the ground and eating from a tree. Another memorable experience was when we trans-located a mass herd of about 50 Indian gor from Kahna National Park to Bandaff National Park.
Both of these experiences were life changing for me and have kept me focused on trying to make a positive difference every day of my life.
Because we’re trying to capture the full experience, what is one of your worst?
During every transportation, there is an average of 2.5% mortality rate, which we all need to prepare for. But sometimes, disasters happen. Whilst transporting 40 zebras in Kenya, we were surprised by an unexpected rainstorm and our truck got stuck. We were in the middle of a mountain, with a deep ravine to one side and no network to call for help. We had to tie the truck to a tree to stop it from sliding off the mountain whilst waiting for the storm to subside. 11 zebras died that day. It’s probably the biggest lost I have ever had.
For the average person who isn’t really involved in conservation or tied to Africa/India in any way, what are your suggestions on how they can help the cause? Is there more that people can be doing than donating money?
Conservation efforts are different from country to country. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach as we need local solutions to local problems. The best way to make a difference is to get in touch with a local NGO who have the same core values as you do and ask them how you can help make a difference.
For African wildlife, I always say that the best way to help conservation efforts is simply by going on a holiday in Africa. You will then see the incredible landscapes, experience unique ways of life and see firsthand how your tourism dollars are helping: hospitals and schools for locals, necessary care for wildlife and of course plenty of space for them to run around!
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If you were presented with a poacher and had to say one thing to him that would hopefully change his ideals, what would it be?
If you look at it from a first-world perspective, then of course the poachers look like the bad guys. But from a third-world perspective, they poach as a means to survive. Telling them ‘don’t kill rhinos, don’t poach’ is not going to have any effect whatsoever on them as they are doing it to feed their families and take them out of poverty. The real problem is the middle men that are making the most of this situation and making money off of these locals that do not have a choice.
I once met a poacher on our game reserve. He was arrested 3 times by the local police for poaching. The fourth time we caught him, we took him to the tribal police who fined him for killing animals and forced him to repay us by giving us goats, which he obviously did not have! So instead, he worked for &Beyond for 6 months, where he learnt a new trade which then help him out of poverty without resorting to poaching. That’s the approach we need to take in order to stop poaching, showing them that there is a different way to get them out of poverty.