Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Interview with conservationist Elissa Sursara

Elissa on one of her conservation missions. Image supplied.

Wildlife advocacy and conservation must be tough. Just as a small advance is made (opening of a sanctuary, changes in legislation to protect wildlife), another species becomes extinct or added to the critically endangered list. But conservationists don't give up easily.

Elissa Sursara is a wildlife advocate and conservationist working on behalf of endangered animals and threatened habitats. She is an environmental and science writer, formerly of National Geographic’s now defunct News Watch and has appeared on television and radio as an advocate for the environment. She is the ambassador to Earth Hour, Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo and Patagonia brand’s 1% for the Planet. Elissa served on two Antarctic campaigns with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to prevent whaling in the Southern Ocean and is a supporter of plant-based eating and sustainability. She was happy to talk to SAT about her career.

What’s your day job?

After a few years on hiatus to pursue passion projects and volunteer work with different organisations, I’ve returned to study to attain higher credit in the biology and research field. Previously, my day job consisted of heavy travel, dense research and lots of sacrifice as a full-time and often embedded volunteer (like a 2012 to 2014 stint on a ship in Antarctica!) whilst now, it’s a lot or study and research. I spend a lot of my day emailing with my lecturers and supervisors and mapping out a finite academic plan for an eventual PhD – possibly in morphology or animal communication. I’m really interested in what makes wildlife tick. 

Elissa aboard the Sea Shepherd. Image by Eliza Muirhead, Sea Shepherd.
How did you become interested in conservation? 

We all love animals, but not everyone will want to be a conservationist. For a really long time I drew those parallels, believing that my professional conservationism was a natural progression from being an animal lover. And I used to feel confused and frustrated when my peers lacked my same resolve to actively address environmental issues. The truth is that my interest in conservation was only a result of experience: I experienced melting ice and illegal whaling in the Southern Ocean, I’ve picked up koalas on the roadsides and I worked on call to untangle baby whales from shark nets along the Queensland coast. I felt the impact of our poor choices on the environment when not everyone has. My interest in conservation is a direct response to seeing suffering in the environment.

Elissa meets some incredible creatures during her work. Image: supplied.
You’re an advocate for a range of wildlife species. Why do these species need advocates?

Many, if not all of our most iconic species are in trouble. Tigers are dwindling in numbers in isolated pockets and elephants and rhinos are disappearing from their historic range. Where there were once hundreds of thousands, there are now no more than 3000 wild pandas in the world. UNESCO reacted by declaring their natural habitat in south China a World Heritage Site. When you’re hit with information like that, information so symptomatic of wildlife protection gone wrong, it’s hard not to feel compelled to advocate on their behalf. Our relationship with animals is very subtly anthropomorphic (that is, one that humanises our pets and other TV animals with names and clothes and behaviours, like begging, that we’ve come to see as human like) and somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that wild animals can’t beg or plead or ask for help. Polar bears clutching softened pack ice can’t ask us to turn off our lights at night. We’ve got to ask each other to do better. That’s advocacy.

"We;ve got to ask each other to do better" - Elissa Sursara. Image: supplied.
One of the things you promote is positive wildlife interaction. Why is that not all wildlife interactions are positive, and how can the rest of us ensure we are interacting with wildlife in a positive way?

A lot of recreational activities with animals locally and abroad, like monkey parks, pictures with tigers, elephant rides and swim with dolphin programs are deeply exploitative of wildlife. Often the animals are trapped from the wild and forced to live in built up environments away from their families and without their natural enrichment. 

Captive dolphins, for example, are generally sold from fishermen, like in the infamous cove of Taiji, Japan, who have caught the animals for market. This differs from respectable zoos and parks, like Australia Zoo, where animals are often born in captivity and receive impeccable care; in stark contrast, global animal tourism, particularly in developing countries, is cheaply run and many of the animal’s basic veterinary needs are neglected. Protecting animals while on holidays is paramount, and something we can all do is our homework. 

World Animal Protection have launched a great campaign to help guide our holiday-maker choices when it comes to seeing animals in the wild. Look for the signs: are there cement floored cages and collars? Does the animal have space to move? Are they shackled or chained? Is the animal performing? Animal attractions are a hot-bed for cruelty. And if you see something unsettling, report it to local police, the embassy, tourist officers, animal welfare organisations and your tour operator.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about interacting with wildlife species?

The most important thing I’ve learned in interacting with wildlife is to always respect the animal, especially in its natural habitat. It’s important to respect the natural environment as a self-regulating, independent structure. Too often we push the boundary. And it’s when we test those waters that we disrupt the balance – like fracking, mining and drilling, and fragmenting important habitats for development and farming.

Caring for wildlife also means caring for the environment. Image: supplied.
You’ve travelled all over the world and worked on numerous conservation projects. Can you share with us a few practical steps we can take to make the world better for non-human animals?

I’m a big believer that small change creates a big impact! Its important to me as an advocate to ensure that mums and dads, doctors, painters, fashion designers, office workers and students don’t feel like they need to quit their jobs and relocate to the Amazon just to be wildlife warriors. 

The planet’s struggles can be simplified to a few simple things: climate change, overfishing, deforestation and wildlife exploitation. 

It’s surprisingly easy to reduce our impact when it comes to these issues. Switching off our lights and unplugging unused appliances is a great way or reducing energy and the affects of global warming. Eating less fish and switching up our dietary routines to include more vegetables and less meat is a fool-proof way of helping our empty oceans recover, and its particularly helpful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Checking labels to avoid nasty additives like palm oil and palm sugar are highly effective for those interested in conserving tiger, elephant and orang-utan populations that are declining through the rise of palm oil production. And finally, the best thing someone can do to make the world better is to simply ask two questions: how will this affect me, and how will this affect the environment?

Elissa Sursara. Image: supplied.
What’s your next project?

Returning to university in the Science and Engineering department after several years of study has so far been extremely rewarding. It’s given me the flexibility to specialize in biology and continue shaping my career as a conservationist and scientist. A doctorate is my academic goal and I’m feeling motivated to accomplish that. Across the next year or so, I’ll be working on some great projects with some incredibly impressive people. 

Most recently I filmed an episode with Totally Wild, an Australian children’s show as part of my role as the World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour ambassador. I was invited as an ambassador to Australia Zoo to hear primatologist Jane Goodall speak on the grounds with the Irwin family and to meet her afterward. She gave me the single greatest piece of advice: be a rebel. With that guidance, I’ve leapt on board for several projects, including raising awareness for Josh Zeman and Adrian Grenier’s documentary, Lonely Whale. Later in the year, as part of an upcoming creative conservation project, I’ll visit Philip Island Nature Parks to work with penguin researchers and visit an important seal colony. And finally, after months of preparation, I’m launching two projects: a sustainability blog and an environmental awareness project. It’s been an exciting year so far and I’m looking forward to what’s coming up.

Thanks Elissa for sharing your time and your tips. You can find out more about what Elissa is up to via her social media channels: