My life has always been connected to nature -- from the banks of the River Boyne in southern Ireland where I grew up as a child, to the shorelines of California and Hawaii where I reside with my wife Keely and our sons. Between these two worlds and an ocean of time spent traveling the world as a working actor, I have seen the beauty of what man can achieve on this earth and also what can happen when he lets nature slip through his fingers.
Last evening I was at the World Bank where we saw excerpts from National Geographic’s soon-to-be aired global programming event, “Great Migrations”, that show just how fragile the lives of some of the great animals of our world are today. The majestic African elephant, or the fleet wildebeest, are confronted with obstacles in their daily existence that threatens their very continuation as a species. As we expand our human footprint across the planet, we have paved over their breeding grounds, plowed under their grazing areas, depleted their sources of water, and disrupted their historic migratory routes.
Climate change is adding to the immense dangers facing bio-diversity. In my native Ireland, at least eight species of birds, such as the gray partridge, face extinction, due to the loss of habitat, reduction in food supplies, poisonings from pesticides, and wide scale development. In my adopted home, here in the United States, the Grey Whales that migrate north and south just off our California coast have survived since the ice age. Yet, these whales face more threats today than ever before from ship strikes, loss of habitat, pollution, and other human activities. Climate change is destroying the food chain they need to survive.
In its series “Great Migrations”, National Geographic turns its spotlight to two species. Across the great Serengeti Plain and National Park, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest make a long, hazardous trek every year to reach their breeding grounds. The wildebeest migration, the last great migration on Earth, faces one of its biggest challenges ever. Plans to build a road through this “designated wilderness area” would make the journey of the wildebeest even more arduous.
Tanzania’s leaders are faced with a difficult choice: road transport is important and necessary for development and poverty reduction, no one can deny that. But a win-win situation can emerge if alternatives to this road can be found – and surely this would be in the best interests of everyone, and in the best interest of the wildlife.
In Mali, Gourma elephants, the biggest and tallest in Africa, live on the continent’s northern, dry reaches, roaming hundreds of kilometers annually in search of water. These water resources are now under threat. The government of Mali is making noble efforts to channel water to where the elephants range. But, in the struggle to provide the citizens of Mali with enough water, getting water to elephants may not be the number one priority.
We all know that even with all the mitigation efforts, there are impacts of climate change that these animals will need to deal with. We need to bolster rather than clear habitats, manage water supplies more sustainably to assist them to adapt to a climate-changed world.
We must ask ourselves: in Tanzania, in Mali, and in countless other places, do we have the “wisdom and the will” to make the right choice, the statesman’s choice? I believe the answer to this question can be “yes!” I believe that people can move from poverty to prosperity, and that we can protect our plant and animal species at the same time. Development and conservation must go hand in hand in a world where climate change is a reality.