Baskins Bear It In Yellowstone

Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival

Cat Summit 2017

I was gasping for every breath; hanging onto the railing so that I wouldn’t pass out from the lack of oxygen, but I kept climbing because I knew the just a few steps away there was a mecca of like minded people (800+) who are changing the world.  That was the scene about a dozen times a day during our week in Jackson Hole at the Cat Summit because Howie and I live at 7 feet above sea level and Jackson Lake Lodge is close to 7,000 feet above sea level.  Between our room and both levels of the conference, it meant taking the stairs up and down three levels in between each hour long session.

The rock stars of the Cat Summit were Dereck and Beverly Joubert.  They have worked primarily in Africa on big cats for over 30 years.  They are the cofounders of the Big Cats Initiative with National Geographic and were recipients of eight Emmys, a Peabody, Panda awards, the World Ecology Award and the Presidential Order of Meritorious Service by the President of Botswana.  The Jouberts are also involved with the Great Plains Conservation Foundation which was established to protect wild land, and is presently managing over one and a half million acres in Africa.

George Schaller is a field biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera.  He has studied and helped protect such species as the mountain gorilla, tiger, giant panda, and snow leopard.  These have been the basis for his books, among them The Year of the Gorilla, The Serengeti Lion, The Last Panda, and Tibet Wild.  He continues his field work particularly in China, India, and Brazil.

Our good friend and ally at CITE, Debbie Banks Debbie Banks from the Environmental Investigation Agency.  She’s the Campaign Leader for Tigers & Wildlife Crime and has over 20 years of experience investigating environmental crime with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), including illegal wildlife trade, illegal mining and illegal trade in ozone depleting substances. She has developed, deployed and participated in overt and covert investigative teams to obtain incontrovertible evidence in the form of video and audio recordings, and ensured that EIA investigation findings are backed up with robust desk-based research and analysis. ​She has been with EIA since 1996, investigating, exposing and campaigning against the illegal and unsustainable destruction of tiger habitat, illegal trade in tigers and other Asian big cats, and tiger “farming”.

We met Carlton Ward and hope to get to know him a lot better.  Carlton is a National Geographic Explorer focused on the story of the Florida panther as a call to action for protecting the Florida Wildlife Corridor – a campaign he helped establish through two 1000-mile expeditions that mapped and connected conservation priorities from the Everglades to Georgia and Alabama.

I was invited to speak by Jeff Flocken who is the North American Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare where he leads the organization’s team of legislative professionals in the US and Canada advocating for global, national, and local policy initiatives on behalf of animals.  Jeff serves on the Board of Directors of the Jaguar Conservation Fund, the Steering Committee for the IUCN Tapir Specialist Group, and is an Advisor to the Grace Gorilla Sanctuary.  He is also the founder and board co-chair of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders initiative which mentors and provides campaign training for up-and-coming leaders in the wildlife field.  He is the coauthor of the book Wildlife Heroes.

On my panel, which covered the impact media can have saving animals, using examples of Cecil Lion and the Zanesville massacre, was Ian Michler who has spent the last 27 years working as a safari operator, specialist guide, consultant and photo-journalist across Africa. Currently, he is the Consultant and Lead Character for the campaign documentary Blood Lions ( Ian lives in South Africa where he is co-owner of Invent Africa Safaris, a specialist safari company running trips across Africa.

Also on my panel was Brent Stapelkamp is a Zimbabwean born conservationist and wildlife photographer who has spent the last decade studying lions and specializing in mitigating the conflict between them and livestock owners in Zimbabwe. Guided by Permaculture ethics he is working with his community towards a sustained regeneration of the landscape for the betterment of both the people and its wildlife. The community trust is called “The Soft Foot Alliance”.  He was the person who discovered Cecil’s murder because he’d been following Cecil for years.

There were far too many celebrities in the world of big cat conservation to mention here, but not only was it global collective of those heroes, the conference was primarily held for filmmakers and those working in exciting new areas of virtual reality to meet up with the film buyers from National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet, and other well known and private funders.  Hundreds of films had been submitted and judged for a night of awards in the little town of Jackson.  As a panelist I was given access to all of the films and am still working my way through them.  There is so much talent out there and I’m really looking forward to Big Cat Week in December when many of these will debut.

I met a lot of very interesting people that I have scheduled for future Cat Chat shows and was able to meet people working in VR that will be able to help us move the experience of being close to wild animals out of the barbaric practice of breeding them for life as captives, to walking amongst them in a virtual world.  So many people try to tell me that their kids have to see animals in cages to appreciate them and I don’t buy it.  The poor cats who are destined to live in cages are mere shadows of who they would be in the wild, so it gives the viewer no real sense of who they are, what they need, or why they are important to our own survival.  I think Virtual Reality will be able to bridge that gap.  

We’ve started conversations, or extended friendships we already had, in order to save wild cats, in the wild, before it’s too late.  Many of the people we met have risked their lives to capture the evidence of the illicit trade in big cats that is being enabled by the legal trade here and abroad.  We are committed to making the most of their sacrifices to saving wild cats, and their habitats, because without healthy forests we will all be gasping for air like I was on those stairs.  


Excursions During the Conference

Howie and I visited Yellowstone National Park while there, and rafted the Snake River.



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