Norton and Belpietro Interview

 
 
 

CONSERVATION Q&A: Edward Norton and Luca Belpietro

 

Outside GO gets to know Edward Norton, actor and conservationist, and Luca Belpietro, the founder of Campi ya Kanzi ecolodge in Kenya. These are the men behind one of the biggest conservation efforts in all of Africa, the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust

By: SANDY CUNNINGHAM

 
 
 

Q:

 

Edward, you come from a rich heritage in terms of conservation. Your father was one of the legends of the Nature Conservancy, with his pioneering work in China. What was the catalyst for your becoming involved in conservation in Kenya?

 
 

A:

I traveled for the first time to Kenya in 2000. I have some family that live there, and my sister used to work for a terrific adventure travel outfit. We went and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and wandered around to a few places, and in the course of that we met Luca Belpietro and Samson Parashina who had just launched the Maasai-owned safari lodge, called Campi Ya Kanzi, as stage one of their plan to build sustainable economies for Maasai communities out of innovative natural-resource management. They were already envisioning what became the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. I was very impressed by them.

 
 

"They stood apart from any other place we visited in terms of really ‘walking the talk’ when it came to a sustainably operated camp and a true community enterprise."

 
 

And Luca was putting into practice what everybody at the discussion tables at the UNDP and UNEP and big conservation NGOs were just talking about; in terms of working with communities to create innovative natural-resource conservation models that also support human development goals.

I offered some early small support for their efforts, but as Luca and Samson and I continued to talk, I just became more and more inspired by what they were aiming at, and I got progressively more involved. I think I got involved because, one, I really liked these guys; two, the area they are working to conserve is truly one of the most astonishing places I’ve ever been, both ecologically and spiritually; three, I thought what they were working on was significant as a global model; and four, I was interested in applying what I had learned from my father to a specific project like this.

 
 
 

Q:

 

Luca, your father used to bring you on hunting safaris to East Africa when you were a child. At what point in your life did your calling to conservation manifest itself?

 
 

A:

While hunting is often regarded negatively, it can actually be a very effective conservation tool. In fact the closing of hunting in 1977 in Kenya was responsible for the decimation of the Tsavo elephant and rhino populations. With no legal hunting, there were no controlling measures on the ground. Poaching skyrocketed as a result (60,000 elephants became 6,000 in a ten-year span). That being said, I did not maintain my interest in hunting, and at 24 years old I did my thesis, in economics, on wildlife as a natural resource in Kenya, sustainable development, and environment conservation.

 
 
 
 

Q:

 

Edward, China poses a significant threat to conservation in Africa and the work you do there. You had said in an Earth Chats interview on Slate.com, “I think most people in the West would be surprised at how many people in China are focused on these exact questions and very concerned about them and working hard to advocate for sensible solutions." Do you still believe this to be true? If yes, why?

 
 

A:

I think I made that comment about China’s moves to address its own macro-environmental challenges…not about the role Chinese and Asian markets are playing in illegal wildlife slaughter. I do think there are indications that China as a country is very earnest about dealing with climate shift and water sustainability and pollution. I’m not at all an expert on this, but that’s my sense from my father who has a lot of insight into it from his years there. But I do not think China has grappled with or confronted its outsized role in elephant and rhino poaching—nor with its singular role in driving the shark-fin trade. These are historic tragedies taking place in front of our eyes, and it’s driven entirely by cultural traditions that in my opinion can no longer be rationalized. Shark fin is a display of wealth—nothing else. It has no flavor or nutritional value, and 100 million sharks a year are being finned so that people can show off to their friends at weddings and dinners. Elephants are being poached at historic rates so that Asian buyers can display ivory as a symbol of wealth.  Rhinos are being extirpated for the belief that their horn is an aphrodisiac.  Young people in China have to rise up and say, "No more. We don’t want this to be our legacy."

 
 
 

Q:

 

Luca, Has the decrease in tourism to Kenya over Ebola impacted you and the work you do? In your opinion, is it safe to visit Kenya?

 
 

A:

Yes and yes. Yes, the irrational fear that it is unsafe to be on safari in East and southern Africa has had a massive impact on tourism revenues, affecting all conservation organizations whose proceeds are linked to tourism. The result is more poaching. Yes, it is totally safe to visit Kenya, and Tanzania, and Zambia, and Zimbabwe, etc. All the East and southern African countries which offer amazing safari experiences are more distant from the Ebola outbreaks than Europe is. Europe has direct connections with those countries—Kenya does not. 

 

"Therefore you could say that it is much riskier, if you are concerned about Ebola, to visit Paris than Nairobi!"

 
 
 

Q:

 

Edward, the first time I met Luca was when I walked out of the bush in the Chyulus with my husband and our two four-month-old puppies. Our vehicle nearly went over a cliff in a landslide, so we grabbed the gun and dogs and walked for four hours to a camp we had heard was being built nearby. We arrived dusty, thirsty, and tired and Luca and Antonella opened up their home to us with freshly made pasta and warm beer. We have been friends ever since. What’s your favorite Luca story?

 
 

A:

Anyone who visits Campi ya Kanzi will end up with Luca stories. And they are always great. I love his story of the woman from America who insisted to him that she could communicate with all cats and could persuade lions to convert to vegetarianism, and that this would solve the issue of lions preying on the community’s cattle and end poisoning of lions. Supposedly he said, “I am happy for you to try…let’s see how that goes!” Now that’s what I call an accommodating host.

 
 

Norton and Maasai guides training for the NYC Marathon

 
 

Q:

 

Luca, give us a good story of your travels with Edward in Africa—adventures, misadventures, charging buffalo?

 
 
 

A:

 

A simple quote, while flying with Edward over the Chalbi Desert: “Where is the airstrip? We are running low on fuel…” Much more worrying than buffalos! Edward was flying and we could not see where to land. Finally he found a clearing and we came down next to a missionary post. We then got a lift into a prison car and made it to the community lodge we were looking for...a good Kenyan adventure, to be sure.

 
 

Q:

Luca, give us a good story of your travels with Edward in Africa—adventures, misadventures, charging buffalo?

 
 
 

A:

 

A simple quote, while flying with Edward over the Chalbi Desert: “Where is the airstrip? We are running low on fuel…” Much more worrying than buffalos! Edward was flying and we could not see where to land. Finally he found a clearing and we came down next to a missionary post. We then got a lift into a prison car and made it to the community lodge we were looking for...a good Kenyan adventure, to be sure.

 
 
 

Q:

Edward, what’s next for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust? 

 
 

A:

I think the most exciting thing happening at Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust right now is the steady advance toward a major carbon-credit deal to protect the Chyulu Forest and bring sustainable revenue to the surrounding communities. This will be historic, and MWCT played a central role in pulling it together...along with incredibly effective assistance from Conservation International.

 
 
 

Q:

 

How would you ask your fans who don’t know anything about conservation in Africa to get involved?

 
 

A:

I think the best thing one can do is do what I did—go visit this area. Go stay at Campi ya Kanzi.  It’s life-changing. It’s a totally different experience from what you generally find on what I call the high-end safari tourism loop. It’s so much more engaging and authentic; it’s hard to put into words. Don't just go for three days—go for at least a week. That’s the best way to experience it. Apart from that, read up on what we’re doing at the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. There are really lots of ways to get involved staying at home, too.

 
 
 
 
 

 

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