The ‘tough as old boots’ conservationist | by Kate Stephenson

Never try to outrun a lion. That was the advice jokingly stuck inside the book of goodbye messages my brother had given me for my 18th birthday. Moving slowly under the African sun, I tread down unfamiliar terrain full of crisp, spikey shrubs and hidden pot holes, and wonder how the hell I would even try to run in these things, anyway. Brownish green hiking boots weighed my feet down with each clumsy step and gave me unbearable blisters. Useless. And I’m stuck with them for 3 and a half months; a miserable thought as I wade through the foliage towards an unsuspecting pride of lions.

I watch with baited breath as our guide’s hand signals change: Stop. Get low. Wow, we’re literally going to creep up on these guys! Inching closer, I heard one of our team gasp… we’d completely overlooked a muscular adult female lounging a few feet away from the others! Through the long grass she sat poised, eyes fixed upon us, ears twitching under the pesky buzz of flies. I swallow hard and think to myself once more; ‘never try to outrun a lion.’

In London the rain has this irritating way of beating down diagonally; reaching in under your umbrella and touching your face, your hair, your neck. Fortunately, I don’t mind the rain too much – and on a day like today, it serves only to drum up more passion. Not even sheet rain can dampen the fire in our bellies. A collective of thousands, we’ve descended on Hyde Park to assemble, to speak passionately about our native wildlife and the dreadful decline of natural diversity on Britain’s shores. It’s the People’s Walk for Wildlife and together we’re making a stand.

Through London’s concrete jungle we march. Passed Green Park, alongside Trafalgar’s majestic lion’s and towards our Whitehall goal, the throng of conservationists trundles on. We step to the sound of birdsong, singing out not from our winged allies, but from the mobile phones of my fellow marchers. It’s a sorry state of affairs, but it makes our point vividly. It’s a long, slow walk to Westminster and I’m glad I’m wearing my sturdy, waterproof boots.

At 18 years old it took me a while to adjust to such a vastly different continent, but several weeks of raw and unforgiving African bush has a way of forcing you to find your feet. I was lucky enough to encounter lions many more times during my trip, including one unforgettable day we trekked at dusk. As night-time cloaked the savannah our lion pride found their voices. Tonight was a night for hunting and the anxious energy in the air was palpable.

The spine-tingling low rumble of lions called out from the distance. As the heavens opened we saw it as a sign to get out of nature’s way. All around us the wild was stirring, and even us intrepid travellers had no place in it. The heavy rain brought with it the distinct smell of Africa’s dirt, and as I stepped back up onto the land rover I noticed the perfect imprint of the sole of my boot, filling up with precipitation. It was then I realised my muddy boots were becoming my ally – and fortunately, I don’t mind the rain too much.

At 28 years old I’ve learnt that not everyone understands the magical smell of Africa’s dirt; that birdsong is not a necessity to everyone, and that votes have more value than the trembling force of the wild.

I’ve learnt that in Australia the red dirt of the outback never truly washes out. I ripped one half of my shoelaces clean off somewhere near Alice Springs where you find the unlikely sight of wild camels a regular occurrence.

In St Lucia I learned the value of packing the right equipment for a rainforest hike: a half decent pair of binoculars, compass, plenty of water and a good pair of boots.

In Norfolk I learned that even my local wildlife is not safe from persecution. I took a chunk out of the sole of my right boot when I tripped over a tree root in the dark.

On rainy day outside Downing Street I learned that even with an army behind you it’s hard to get change-makers to listen. That, like my boots, even wild spaces have a shelf life. I learned that in the years since first knotting the fresh new laces of my brownish green footwear, as many as 75,000 badgers have been executed on flimsy reasoning.

But most importantly, I learned that a lion’s roar in the nighttime can echo in your heart for a lifetime and that in the years to come and lands unknown, I can stand tall as a conservationist, with ever-growing wisdom, and a trusty old pair of boots.

About the Entry

Kate Stephenson

I’m a conservationist, wildlife blogger and campaigner for animal rights. In my day job I’m Education Editor at National Geographic Kids, as I believe passionately in the education and empowerment of our future generations. In 2017 I became the youngest Trustee of Born Free Foundation and I’m an ambassador for the charity IAPWA (International Aid for the Protection & Welfare of Animals).

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  • Why should someone visit your site? Kate on Conservation is a wildlife blog that gives a voice to the voiceless by highlighting important issues, individuals and organisations in the fight to protect our planet’s wild and domestic animal species. Featuring unique interviews with some of the world’s leading wildlife conservationists and ecologists, top wildlife bloggers, and well-known natural history presenters; it offers research, discussion and informed opinion on some of the top global issues effecting animals and wildlife conservation in the world today — as well as spotlighting campaigns and cruelty issues that so often fly under the radar.
  • Entry Title | The ‘tough as old boots’ conservationist
  • Entry Number | 54

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