You need to know how to listen. If I have a sick animal in care, clearly there is something wrong with it. That’s like the issue you’re trying to solve. To better understand it, I’d carefully watch how it moves, how it eats, how it drinks, how it holds itself. I might take it to a vet for a second opinion, or consult a care manual. In the end, I’d hope to have a firm knowledge of what is wrong with the animal and how it can be nursed back to health.
As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elliot Connor.
Elliot is a wildlife filmmaker and futurist, an author, presenter, podcaster and animal rescuer. At 18 years of age, Elliot’s life goal is to reframe our human relationship with nature, inspiring gratitude and respect for the animals we share this planet with. He spent his last Christmas eve on the bonnet of a jeep 15-feet from a successful lion hunt, and has had a busy past few years including giving flying lessons to owls, playing chicken with vultures, baiting bandicoots with peanut butter and being stalked by a leopard in Botswana. He founded Human Nature Projects in the belief that community-led conservation could be scaled in our globalized world, and now directs a network of volunteers across 105 countries.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?
Far too slowly for my liking. I was born and raised in Southern England, but migrated to Australia’s East coast at the age of five. Both my parents worked senior coaching roles and my father was always gallivanting around the world for his side of things. As for myself, I’ve been keen about birdwatching from a young age, and have added 700-odd species to my life list in the past 18 months. My first fascination, however, was with the minibeasts in my very own garden. For a long time, I would spend every spare afternoon I could find down there in that overgrown patch of shrubs. I borrowed a 50mm macro lens from my parents and would crouch motionless for hours at a time, photographing a spider catching ants in its web or a praying mantis poised on a leaf. I collected dead insects that I found (I never could bring myself to kill them, as is the norm) and then moved on to collecting everything from bird feathers to rocks and minerals, shells, coins, stamps and fossils. I learnt a lot that way, and it has led me to where I am now, trying to share some of my passion for the natural world with others.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’ve read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals more times than any other book. I loved it from the moment I picked it up, because I could resonate completely with the author’s younger self exploring the island of Corfu. He kept water-snakes in his bathtub, and I cared for pygmy bearded dragons. He raised a young owl and I rescued close relatives of theirs- the tawny frogmouths. Sometimes I would rescue, rehabilitate and release several of these in a month, alongside an assortment of parrots, possums and plovers. I loved it- I still do. So whilst I read about young Durrell’s exploits, I was hatching assassin bugs in my bedroom, and the two things clicked. I was inspired to travel, to go to even greater lengths, to systematize my knowledge and to share it with others. I started a local field naturalists group, met up with experts from the local museum, and generally made a right old nuisance of myself so as to follow in Durrell’s footsteps. I consider myself a possibilist, meaning that I don’t care for what is but what could be. Reading that book expanded my horizons by making me realize how much more of the world there was out there.
You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?
Human Nature Projects is trying to create a new sort of community in conservation. Behind it are two basic frameworks: Mass Individualism and Conservation’s 4 C’s. The former of there refers to the potential for change-making when a single person’s talents are tied in to a network that complements them. The latter describes the key intangibles required for people-powered protection of natural places- connection, curiosity, collaboration and creativity. Combine these simple elements with a decentralized model and you arrive at the core of what the charity is trying to do. Our objective is no less than a reform of ‘human nature’ towards appreciation and compassion for other animals. But the mechanism by which that is achieved is community, where ideas like this can spread and where simple actions taken up by over a thousand volunteers can inspire hope for a brighter future.
Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?
Several years ago now, I took up my first ever volunteering placement with an organization called Birdlife Australia. They ran a small discovery centre in a local park, which I’d known about for some time. So I decided to help out there. What I hadn’t realized was that a.) they received next-to-no visitors, and b.) their volunteer staff were all retired octogenarians. That experience painted a pretty bleak picture of conservation for me.
Fast-forward to January of last year, and I was holed up in a French castle, slowly freezing to death, dreaming of Australia’s scorching white-sand beaches. Oh… and helping out at a local wildlife hospital, caring for birds, bats and hedgehogs. During the month I was over there, I spent the long winter evenings mulling over this question that had haunted me for so long: how come we’re still failing to protect our environment? I pored over the work being done by several hundred NGOs and found that my experience with Birdlife Australia was far more the rule than the exception. Organizations were struggling to engage with the public, to preach beyond the choir, to grow, to find their voices and to sustain their impact. People were the problem, but were also the solution.
In the last week of my stay, I took part in a vulture release in the French Alps. It was late in the day, with the sun’s rays glinting off surrounding peaks and a dusky blue haze settling in the valley below. Stood there, on that precipice, I watched this bird that I had cared for over many weeks soar out of its travel cage. I saw it join with a hundred others circling overhead, and the sight absolutely took my breath away. Every person there was moved by the moment, including the researchers who knew each of these hundred birds by name. I simply remember thinking “What if everyone could experience this? That would change the world.” So I set out to do just that.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Eleven months after my time in France had ended, I found myself abroad once more- this time in South Africa. I had been invited to spend six weeks as a cameraman for a company called WildEarth TV. Camped in the midst of one of the world’s largest national parks, I would go out on a 4WD for three-hour safaris twice a day and film the local wildlife in a livestream to a million viewers globally. It was a huge learning curve, but I ended up having the time of my life.
I arrived in camp on Christmas eve and the crew decided to head out on a celebratory night-drive. I was put on the tracker’s seat- a padded chair welded to the front of the car bonnet. And we set out. Soon, my flashlight found a lioness walking through the long grass. The presenters were old hands and knew what this meant. They drove two-hundred metres further down the road and pulled up beside a large herd of impalas- antelope. We switched off all the lights and shut down the car engine. The sound of the bush crickets and the impalas grazing all around filled the silence in the pitch black darkness. Several long minutes went by. Then a barked alarm call and the sound of hooves. Then a thud, the sound of a spine being splintered and a dozen 300-pound lionesses walking past the vehicle to claim their share of the impala ram. That’s one heck of a way to spend the festive season! And another door opened thanks to my founding Human Nature Projects.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Lesotho is a tiny mountainous country within South Africa. It has a population of 2 million, a per capita GDP one-tenth that of Portugal and a life expectancy of 52 years. It also had no action whatsoever being taken towards environmental protection before Human Nature Projects came along. Within a month of HNP international starting, a local named Justice Senkoto had created a national chapter in Lesotho. Working in HR for Lesotho’s Olympic Team, Justice had always wanted to help conserve and restore Lesotho’s wildlife. HNP kickstarted this journey, and now the community under Justice’s guidance is flourishing. It has official government backing, permanent staff and office spaces, TV coverage, major events run for world animal days and a school debating programme in its infancy.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a difference is what every one of the 7,834,148,043 people on this planet do every day. It’s what each of the 20,000,121,091,000,000,000 animals on Earth do as they go about their lives. We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) control the latter, but there’s a very small slice of the former that we have complete control over. Ourselves. Nature gave rise to the human mind, which still fails to understand it. But what we do know is that small actions can have large effects, just as a falling pebble can cause a landslide. So the art of making a difference is being deliberate about the change you’re creating, treading not lightly but with purpose, and knowing when and how to start the occasional landslide along the way.
Here in Sydney, as I write this, the cicadas are emerging. A forest-full of them will all come up from the ground overnight. By coordinating this, the majority of them survive and they go on to deafen anything within ear shot with their calls. The lesson we learn is that the greatest change comes from spontaneous, collective action. Evolution teaches us that change is life’s only constant, we to make a difference we need to embrace this and work with nature as opposed to against it.
Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.
I certainly didn’t know what steps to take. I made it up as I went along. Youth are the leaders of today not because they have decades of experience by which to formulate careful plans but because they have unique insight and drive to fix the problems at hand. Fake it till you make it is a phrase that comes to mind. As for advice, I’d say as follows…
1.) You need to know how to listen. If I have a sick animal in care, clearly there is something wrong with it. That’s like the issue you’re trying to solve. To better understand it, I’d carefully watch how it moves, how it eats, how it drinks, how it holds itself. I might take it to a vet for a second opinion, or consult a care manual. In the end, I’d hope to have a firm knowledge of what is wrong with the animal and how it can be nursed back to health.
2.) You need to keep an open mind. Animals don’t speak English, but they’re communicating with us all the time. Some of these messages are obvious, like when I pick up a sick lorikeet to give it medication and it screams its head off like a banshee. Some messages are subtle, like a faster heartbeat or a sharp keel bone beneath a bird’s feathery down. In each of these cases, though, empathy and an open mind allows me to better understand how the bird is feeling, and how I can better attend to its needs.
3.) You need to find your tribe. To mix the metaphors up, ant colonies are excellent models for change-making. A single argentine ant wouldn’t last long by itself. But in a colony 10,000 strong it’s able to find a role where it can thrive. Argentine ants are arguably some of the most successful creatures on this planet. They’re found on every continent except Antarctica, and ants from colonies half the world apart will still work well together if given the chance. Your tribe doesn’t need to be billions strong, but with half a dozen people who share your values, your impact can be increased hundredfold.
4.) You need to celebrate success. This is a stumbling block for many of the most driven leaders, but crucially important. When a troop of chimpanzees finds a waterfall they all break into a celebratory dance. This helps to boost morale, strengthens family bonds and helps them to learn and find their way back there in future. When you receive a positive email, come out of a great meeting or hear the impact story of someone who’s life you’ve changed, you need to stop and mark that moment. I use a small fist-pump. You’ll feel better as a result and can proceed with fresh resolve.
5.) You need to draw energy from your ikigai. You can always tell the most inspiring people you meet because they seem to be uniquely animated and alive. I think of it in terms of gears, whereby people who’ve found purpose go into a higher gear than those without direction. Your ikigai is a beautiful Japanese concept that describes this point where your work aligns with your talents, with your passion, with a genuine need in the world and with a role that rewards you in return. Rockhopper penguins mate for life, combining their skills with those of a partner they love in raising up a new generation. At times, the couple might spend six months apart, but they’ll always return with fresh stores of energy to hike, swim and hunt for their young. They have purpose.
What are the values that drive your work?
Conservation as a means of ensuring intergenerational equity, community-building to celebrate diversity and collecting reasons for hope in the form of trailblazing ideas all count amongst my passions. My values encompass respect for our living planet, the transformative power of storytelling and realizing the potential of individuals. These I pursue as a volunteer wildlife rescuer nursing native animals back to health, as a multimedia creator and advocate for worthy causes, and finally as a thought leader in the field of mass individualism, generating scalable resilient grassroots impact networks. I’m driven by my love of animals, and by the dedication I see in fellow young leaders across the globe. I’m trying to share those two things.
Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centred in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?
I’m fortunate in that I’m able to return to the roots of my passion daily through my care for injured animals. These breaks invariably form some of the highlights of my day. Aside from that, though, I try to follow my own advice above: I stay connected with my ‘tribe,’ celebrate the small wins and keep an introspective outlook that reminds me how much I care about my work. It’s simple, really.
In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!
In 50 years’ time, I’d like us to have reached a stage where we’re looking after the planet not due to financial incentives or guilt, but because we appreciate our role in natural systems and acknowledge our love of the millions of animal species we share the Earth with. I’d like our designs and our commodities to stem from the 4 billion years’ experience nature possesses owing to evolution. And I’d like to see some fundamental changes to our definition of ‘nature’ and ‘humanity’ that recognize the living world’s ubiquity and our relatively unremarkable place within it. Finally, I would like for half our planet to be set aside and allowed to restore itself, with the other half managed sustainably for human-animal cohabitation.
We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?
If I had limitless resources, I’d create another dozen planets and spread our human population across them so that we could take the easier route to fixing the mess we’re currently in. As it is, however, Mars is a long way from being terraformed, so we’re going to have to do things the hard way. The point is that we need to change our thinking to make real progress. That doesn’t require limitless resources, but it does require innovation, an open mind, and listening to nature’s wisdom.
I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?
I’d like to see travel become part of education, and experiential learning. As I recently heard it put, “You learn more in one day spent in an unfamiliar environment than you do in five years of schooling.” It harks back to my earlier comment on being a ‘possibilist.’ I prefer this word to optimism because optimism can be unfounded, and to realism because realism limits our vision to the status quo. Seeing the world though a lens of what’s possible as opposed to what is or has been is the one thing I wish I had been taught.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I’d say that saving the world is like a baboon: you risk life and limb getting tangled up with it, but it sure does look attractive from behind!! It’s certainly easier to keep your head down, but founding Human Nature Projects changed my life. It saw me travelling to South Korea and South Africa, speaking at TEDx in Sydney and the World Biodiversity Forum in Davos, and opened the doors to my dream career in wildlife filmmaking.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would have to say David Attenborough. He has been at the forefront of the evolution of wildlife filmmaking for the past 70 years, and generated an unmatched momentum towards environmental protection. As I enter the fray, I’m hoping to learn from his vision and redirect that into the modern mediums (virtual reality, viewer-controlled cameras and more). Storytelling through film allows for a global community to be formed, to have their perspective profoundly changed and to grow a legacy for the story in their own lives.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find my website at elliotconnor.com, and listen to my podcast there. You can find my book, Human Nature, on Amazon or any other book store. If you prefer social media, then I’m @eco_elliot on Twitter, @elliotconnor.eco on Instagram and @elliot.eco will give you my Facebook page. See you there!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!