Since CI was founded 27 years ago today, growth and innovation have been critical to bring the organization closer to achieving our ultimate goal: protecting and restoring nature for the sake of people everywhere.
In that spirit, we’re excited to announce that Dr. M Sanjayan — visionary scientist and conservation thought leader — is joining our team as executive vice president overseeing development and communications strategy. Sanjayan comes to us after 16 years at The Nature Conservancy; he discusses what drives his conservation passion below.
Q: What inspired you to join CI’s team at this time?
A: CI is a bold yet nimble organization working in some of the most amazing places on Earth, and its mission of saving nature to ensure human communities thrive resonates deeply with me.
This is a crucial moment not just for the organization but also for the conservation movement itself. For me, loving nature comes easily, but engaging all segments of society in conservation requires a much broader framework. The upcoming launch of CI’s new campaign will strongly anchor the conservation of nature as necessary and essential for the persistence and improvement of human life on our planet.
I suppose I also have a personal bone to pick, too. You know, my family really wanted me to become a doctor. Shortly after receiving my Ph.D. in biology, my grandmother began introducing me as “a doctor, but not the kind who helps people.” I’d like to prove her wrong.
Q: You’ve been a global thought leader and visionary force in conservation for more than two decades. Which achievements are you most proud of so far?
A: When I joined the organization, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) didn’t work in Africa. I grew up in Africa, and a piece of my heart will always remain there. I helped lead the team that took TNC into the continent.
We built a science-based case for the need to work in select biogeographic regions of Africa in partnership with existing institutions. We raised the initial funding for the program and hired the managing director, who continues to lead a highly successful and financially stable enterprise that has already seen some significant successes in northern Kenya, western Tanzania, Namibia and other areas.
More recently I have helped lead two projects that will be influential for a long time to come.
First is a collaborative venture called SNAP (Science for Nature and People) that brings TNC, Wildlife Conservation Society, and NCEAS (National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis) together to help solve challenges in linking conservation outcomes to human well-being.
Second is an online digital platform designed for kids and teachers called www.natureworkseverywhere.org, which brings science into classrooms through experiential learning. With the generous support of the Morgridge Family Foundation, this online portal has managed to reach almost a million kids.
Q: In your new role with CI, what are some of the toughest challenges you want to focus on?
A: Conservation and environmentalism achieved huge successes in the late 20th century. Think of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act in the U.S.; now add the proliferation of national parks around the world. Yet as a movement we also boxed ourselves in a little and alienated crucial constituents amongst the rural poor, businesses and government institutions.
For too many, conservation is seen as a luxury — nice to have once you have health, sustenance, security and wealth. As a movement, we have had important victories but also missed a huge opportunity by not focusing on the full story of how nature benefits people. We have work to undo and well as work to do. For me nature is the safety net that sustains us all — and when it fails, we are all in peril.
Q: One of CI’s core values is optimism. What are you most optimistic about as you look five or 10 years into the future?
A: In a word: people. As I wrote in The Huffington Post, “There are now seven billion people on Earth. People are smart. We can figure this out.”
It’s not that population numbers aren’t a concern — of course they are a huge concern — but I adamantly feel that we are the luckiest generation in history. We have all the collective knowledge of the human race — and the ability to share that knowledge. We know what’s coming and have the knowledge and time to do something about it.
If we don’t take advantage of this moment, we will go down as the biggest losers in history. But if we rise to the challenge, then truly we can be the greatest generation — those who would have witnessed the worst but contributed the most to the future of our planet. What a fantastic time to be born into!
Q: Describe your biggest conservation passions.
A: I grew up in Africa, the place where humans evolved. Even if you have never been to East Africa before, when you get there it feels like a homecoming. The continent, its people and its wildlife have a powerful and permanent draw on me. Of course I also feel very much at home in Asia given my background and being born in Sri Lanka. And coming from an island, I always have enjoyed being near or on the sea.
I also have made a home for the last few years in western Montana, which remains the only place in the lower 48 states that Lewis and Clark, if they came back today and did their 500-day voyage of discovery, would find all the plants and animals they originally came across. There is something really unique and special about sharing the landscape with a top predator — with something that can kill and eat you. It teaches humility.
I am and always will be a scientist at heart. I love asking questions, though I admit I don’t have the patience for field work. But the process of evidence-based inquiry and skepticism is how I always approach problems and it has served me well.
On a personal note, I love fly fishing because it allows you to see water in a whole new way, as three-dimensional space to be lived in. I like exploring cultures through their food, I read almost anything I can get my hands on — from historical biographies to science fiction — and am fond of birding though I am not competitive about it.
Q: With more than 25 years of conservation research and advocacy in your past, what continues to drive and motivate you?
A: You know, I’ve seen civil wars destroy wildlife in the countries I grew up in, and then I have returned to see it rebound. That experience has given me unwavering faith in nature’s resiliency. I’ve seen how that wildlife returns and sustains people who suffered without it.
Some years ago when I was trekking in Sierra Leone, West Africa, I came across a little kid in a village roasting a small dead monkey. He had a gaggle of friends ready to eat what little meat was available. The kid was fanning the smoky fire with a sheet of tin on which were printed the letters WFP (World Food Program).
The irony of the moment was not lost on me as I snapped a photograph. Here was a kid fanning the flames of a fire with the WFP sign so that he can eat a monkey. It is apparent to me that when nature fails, then for the poorest amongst us, the last safety net is also removed. So many things we take for granted come from nature, and nature provides all of this for free. It’s time to pay it back.
Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature. Sanjayan is CI’s new executive vice president overseeing development and communications strategy.