The contrarian conservationist - Will Travers OBE

1st February 2024


As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Born Free Foundation, co-founder Will Travers OBE tells Chris Seekings how a new approach to conservation is needed to end animal suffering

For too long, conservationists worldwide have seen species abundance and populations as the only measure of successful wildlife protection; failing to recognise a key ingredient – compassion.

That is the view of the Born Free Foundation, a wildlife charity that campaigns to “keep wildlife in the wild” while promoting “compassionate conservation”. It has helped bring about numerous changes to animal welfare policy across the globe.

Set up by actors Dame Virginia McKenna and the late Bill Travers MBE, as well as their son, Will Travers OBE, the foundation will be celebrating its 40th anniversary in March, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Beyond zoos

“After 40 years, we’ve had quite a list of successes,” Travers tells me. As executive president, he has seen his foundation help introduce an international ban on the ivory trade, bring an end to wild animals performing in UK circuses, ensure whales or dolphins are no longer held captive in Britain, and a great many more achievements.

“One of the things that I’m most pleased we became involved with was advocating for all EU zoos to have an operating licence, which led to some pretty profound changes,” he says. “They now at least have some responsibilities for conservation and animal welfare.”

Despite helping bring about this change, Travers and his foundation remain focused on a controversial goal: to phase out zoos altogether.

“We know that will take 20 years, 30 years, probably beyond my lifetime, but keeping wildlife in the wild has been our slogan for the past 35 years.”

I speak to him days before a thought-provoking discussion on the subject, titled Beyond Zoos, with a star-studded panel of conservation experts at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Travers explained how just 4.2% of the annual income of the UK Consortium of Charitable Zoos goes to in-situ conservation projects. Of the 11 UK zoos that have elephants, eight have car parks bigger than their elephant enclosures.

He tells me that there are three justifications that zoos put forward for their existence: conservation, research and education. “It would be foolish to say that no one comes away from zoos feeling better informed, and more inspired to become advocates for animals, but it’s a question of scale, and the jury is out on the impact zoos make from an educational point of view.”

There are more than 10,000 zoos worldwide, holding millions of animals – many of which suffer terrible living conditions. “The number of species that have been successfully returned to the wild following long-term captive breeding programmes in zoos is really very, very small,” Travers says. “Many zoos are beginning to gently roll back on their conservation claims.”

At the Beyond Zoos discussion, it was also mentioned that the primary purpose of zoos is to generate profit through the exploitation of animals for the entertainment of visitors.

Naturalist and presenter Chris Packham, who was one of the panellists, said: “You cannot run a zoo where you invite people in to look at ‘exhibits’ which are ‘fun for all the family’. It’s not fun looking at a caged animal – that isn’t fun. It’s not fun for that caged animal and it shouldn’t be framed as such.”

Coexistence and compassion

The Born Free Foundation manages or funds projects related to conservation and wild animal welfare in more than 20 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. These projects have specific criteria for how they measure success, beyond simply the abundance of animals in a specific area.

“I wouldn’t discount species abundance and numbers, but they’re not the only way the conservation success story can be told,” Travers says. “We’ve been working in central India for 20 years to mitigate conflict between tigers and humans, and we measure success by the amount of land set aside for conservation, the number of people that have benefited from our education and healthcare work, environmental sustainability, the number of tigers in that location – which has gone up – and more.”

He explains how compassionate conservation should focus on a “co-existence approach” with resilience at the heart of it. “That means resilient wildlife populations living in resilient habitats as part of functioning ecosystems alongside resilient human populations that benefit from those natural resources without undermining the needs of others for those resources.”

Travers also highlights work by the Kenyan government and Kenya Wildlife Service as an example of compassionate conservation, which has seen the number of elephants in the country rise from 16,500 to 35,000 since the “absolute catastrophe” of ivory poaching in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Notwithstanding the challenges of living with a really large species that requires large amounts of land and food, and comes into conflict with people on a fairly regular basis, they’ve been able to accommodate a more than doubling of the wild elephant population, at the same time as the human population more than doubled,” he says. “That kind of work is where we should be putting our time, effort and resources.”

Dispelling a myth

In June 2021, the Community Leaders Network, which represents millions of rural Africans in six nations, accused
the Born Free Foundation “of waging a campaign of disinformation against trophy hunting that will damage African conservation activities, and undermine their human rights and livelihoods”.

As a result, the UK Charity Commission requested that the foundation provide evidence to support its trophy hunting campaigning. It cooperated fully with the request, and the commission later closed the complaint.

“About 3% of the revenue generated by trophy hunting goes to local communities, according to a 2013 report by Economists at Large,” Travers explains. “I’m perfectly happy to argue whether it’s 3% or 4%, but it is a tiny minority of the funds generated that end up at local community level. In Zimbabwe, it works out at about $2 per person, per year.”

Although many believe it to be inhumane and cruel, advocates of trophy hunting say that the income it generates can help conserve land and biodiversity and control wildlife populations. “I would argue that there are better ways of conserving wildlife and supporting local people with a benign approach to conservation, as opposed to a consumptive approach,” Travers says.

“We can do better, we must do better, so that would be my message to the Community Leaders Network and the communities they claim to represent, although I’m not familiar with the process by which they’re elected, and how they are chosen to represent those communities.”

Tough choices

Despite calling for a compassionate approach to conservation, Travers admits there are some instances where this is not always possible. On the issue of culling, he says: “If the alternative to humanely removing a number of deer from the Highlands of Scotland over a severe winter is that hundreds of deer slowly starve to death because there’s not enough food for them to eat, then you will have a hard choice to make if you are truly interested in animal welfare.

“But it is human beings who have removed the natural predators that would normally keep deer populations in balance with their environment that has led to this predicament – the solution is certainly not an easy one.”

Indeed, the State of Nature Report 2023, published last September, revealed the UK to be one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, with the abundance of wild species declining by almost 20% since 1970, and nearly one in six British wildlife species now at risk of extinction.

Travers describes the UK government’s approach to animal welfare and conservation as “a mixed bag”, saying he was “delighted” when the King’s Speech unveiled plans to bring forward an Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill, but was “deeply disappointed” when a proposed Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill was dropped.

He also believes that the government should pay greater attention to the protection of marine environments, and invest far more in nature, calling for the establishment of a “Natural Security Council”.

“One of the few things that we can take from the pandemic – and I think the most plausible source of the crisis was zoonosis transmitted to humans from wild animals held in captivity in wet markets – is a greater appreciation of how nature is vital for our physical and mental wellbeing,” he continues.

“If we don’t put significant, but not insurmountable, sums of money into nature protection and conservation, then all we may have left is zoos. We might call them something else, but they will be like living museums.

“People have to come to their own decision about what the trajectory for the future is, but we must remember that it’s not always about what we want as human beings. There has to be a wider context in which we live, whether it’s spiritual or not; it has to feed the soul. Otherwise, we become soulless.”


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