We spoke with Anthony Ochieng for this Tony Wild podcast

Podcast: Anthony Ochieng | Tony Wild

Today we’re speaking to Anthony Ochieng, or Tony Wild as he is often known. Tony is a Kenyan-born wildlife ecologist, conservation photographer, traveller, educator and explorer. He is a busy man!

I’ve been following Tony’s work for the past three years and his photography of conservation projects is truly inspiring. He has quickly and rightly amassed a collection of awards for his work, helping to educate and communicate African conservation issues. And he’s also very humble man.

I’m happy to have him on the podcast today, where we talked about how he found his unique place within the conservation community. Tony talks with passion about how wildlife conservation should be as important for people as having food on the table and also how we need a greater diversity of voices within the sector to drive engagement at the local level.

Just a heads up the line was a little poor quality during the call in places, but it’s worth persevering to hear Tony’s story and messages. As always, enjoy!

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Audio Transcript   

Tony   

My name is Anthony Ochieng. I am a wildlife ecologist, conservation photographer, and also an emerging filmmaker. I am the founder of TonyWild, a platform that uses photography, film, and science to raise awareness on conservation, and also the co-founder of Biophilic Conversation which is mainly to promote conservation practice among professional conservation in Africa.  

Nick   

You’re involved in so many things, and I’ve been aware of you for the last I don’t know two, three-four years. You share beautiful photos, you tell amazing stories as well, particularly about Kenyan and African conservation initiatives that you’re involved with and that you support. And as you just described yourself there, you’re a Kenyan born wildlife ecologist, conservation photographer, traveler, educator, explorer. Gosh, which one of those many things that you do are you most interested or passionate about? What fires you up and kind of gets you going?  

Tony   

Initially, it was being a wildlife ecologist but then, when you get into the industry, you find much more and you are like what? because most ecologists specialise in a particular species or a particular taxa, but for me, I felt it’s important, but when you come back now to the public, it becomes difficult to communicate to the public about the importance of wildlife. You know, how do I communicate to the public about why it is important, any particular point. So I had to choose. I tried to pick a side. So I had to leave the wildlife space for a while, and start doing photography as a tool to now help me bridge that gap. Secondly to other quarters that are not necessarily part of the conservation society because conservation has always been treated as an elite space and it is something that I feel in my personal opinion about conservation matters. It matters to anybody from all the careers so photography came in handy as a tool but mainly I refer to myself as a more than as a public educator communicator on matters about wildlife and conservation.  

Nick   

So you’ve evolved from someone who sees himself as an ecologist to realising the importance of communicating. The way you communicate is through your imagery through your photography. Why did you choose photography? What power does photography have to engage and change behaviours and help to conserve wildlife? 

Tony   

Interestingly, photography was in mind for quite some time when I was working for different organizations. I first had a chance to work with Laikipia Wildlife Forum and I would receive amazing magazines and look at these particular images. And that was like great. I wanted to visit the sites. I wanted to take these beautiful pictures. So how do I do that? That was back in 2012.I started looking for a photography school. But in 2012, there were no schools that could offer just specifically photography. What was there was multimedia, which I had to go for a two-year program, but I didn’t have that time or resources to go for another extra certificate course after doing my bachelors degree. I waited for about five years just looking at these particular images, admiring other people’s work. I was out of Nairobi town just in the northern parts of the country, and I had an amazing opportunity to work with BirdLife International. Now that is when I got the opportunity now to come back to the city and got training on a short photography course. I was able to create time. It just intrigued me, I just felt like I found my piece of what I’m supposed to do on planet Earth during that particular period. I studied photography in 2016. I did all sorts of photography just to fine-tune my skills. And then I started focusing on trying, how to use photography to influence other people’s perceptions about conservation. Most photographers who are from out of Africa, if they are in Africa, their pictures are mostly for print or just for calendars and I felt we could use these images for something else. But when I was working in wildlife, I was in monitoring and evaluation, or conservation organizations across eastern Africa. And I noticed the biggest gap was mainly sending images, but could not communicate what they are doing and I felt this is a gap that needs to be addressed. There’s so much conservation work happening down here, but nobody is communicating about it with proper images or telling that particular story. So, being in wildlife for almost six years, I felt that was a gap in the conservation space. Everybody was concentrating on the science part, policy part, but then communicating these particular results came in mind to me and I think we’re not taking the results … But it takes time because it’s on paper, nobody’s seen it. So I felt if we started to go out, and take images, or film to at least have a broader perspective and get somebody’s attention in one image, or 10 minutes film, you should be telling them where different types of conservation work is happening in Africa. So that pushed me to get out of the conservation space and learn this particular skill, which was new to me photography and filmmaking to be able to now match with the skills I picked up, to now be able to tell the stories that need to be shared with everyone else because conservation is not just about me and you, and the people working in conservation. It’s about every single person that I meet anywhere. And one thing that pushed me further was I used to work for wildlife. And when go back home, I see everywhere, people not taking care of the environment, people are not caring, and I felt corrupt. I can’t go to school to come and say I am working for BirdLife International and then when I go back to my space, there’s garbage everywhere, there are people not taking care of birds. Nobody knows how important wildlife is. I felt very corrupt and I felt if I can when I am in wildlife what can I do to influence other people who are not conservationists. To be honest those thoughts were strong and they made me go to a different state in terms of my career. I almost felt useless in wildlife as much as I was working. 

Nick   

You didn’t feel that you were using your skills and your passions, as best as you could. You’d found your niche with photography and you found that you could communicate to people. Have you found the power of photography, something which is leveling and something that anyone can engage with? Do you have any specific images that you’ve taken actually, that have communicated a message or story or grabbed people’s attention? And why have those, or that particular image been so powerful well, 

Tony   

There is this particular image of a bee-eater and I’ll tell you the story behind it.   

Nick   

The bee-eater, yeah. 

Tony   

When I showed the eyes of the bee-eater facing the camera and when somebody sees it, it has that personal touch you feel like the bee-eater is talking to you. Now that’s one powerful image, I’m always proud of having taken it at the beginning of this particular career. It made people see birds in a different way like they are part and parcel of the society. They are like part of our ecosystem. And we have the Big Five, the mega wildlife that need habitats. We need to conserve them so that my image helped me push much more further. It even makes people realise, like back in my village, people don’t look at conservation as a career. They refer it to something that’s been done by western people or out of the country. Same thing now with photography, people say we are getting that personal touch, this is what exactly means to conserve the environment. So one of the images I’m inspired by is the one for Nairobi river where I took the comparison of how the river is filthy an a section that is clean and in between there are kids … telling us something about what we as human beings need to take care of and need to take action as fast as possible. We keep blaming the government for the situation, but it’s all about us it’s figuring out how we properly treat our waste. So those two images are the ones that stand out. But over time as I keep doing my assignments, I think the third one probably be the one for the chimpanzees. So taking time I was just seeing chimpanzees in Uganda, and one of the chimps was just scratching his hand and I was like, this is something that I have not seen anybody else take into consideration. I know we share 90 percent with chimps but then there are those particular behaviours like scratching itself, they are there … and I felt if I take this image and use it on my audience because my audience is different. My audience is my people, it’s my community, it’s my friends then people will be inspired to get to know more about chimps … where they are found. So that awareness for me was really inspiring. 

Nick   

Inspiring to hear and I’m looking at a picture in the background behind you right now of is that a chimp or possibly even a gorilla hand, I can see on your zoom background. Is it a close up of a hand glistening moisture, with dust on it a primate but again, so human, actually, in a way beautiful? You talk so passionately about conservation, and spreading the word and educating and bringing more people into the movement. Why do you care so much about wildlife and conserving it? Why is it important to you? And why should it be important to others?  

Tony   

I don’t know a lot about it. I just feel it’s my responsibility, my purpose in life, but conservation, or loving nature, since I was pretty much young because I remember drawing lions, after safari, I would draw a lion or something. I always found myself in environmental leadership positions in schools, so that particular time … that led me to a career in wildlife conservation. I shouldn’t say mine was pretty much inborn. I am ready to go that extra mile to support conservation. For me, it goes beyond the money, but society comes back to you and tells you they need the money to survive. But if the money wasn’t there trust me, I will put all my efforts to make sure that everybody around me understands that wildlife is key in sustaining their – all life as human beings. 

Nick   

Absolutely. You’re Kenyan, you’re in Kenya right now, you’re intimately linked to the African conservation community and beyond, you know, that you have links all over the globe now through your work, you know, independently, but also through birdlife International, previously, who I used to work for, as well. So it’s nice to kind of reconnect. What particular issues, you know, does wildlife face within your country and within your region? I mean, how would you sort of characterise the threats to wildlife within Africa? 

Tony   

I’ll categorise the threats in different categories because some categories are not touched on. The one major threat right now is the human-wildlife relation. There is no common ground yet to figure out how to live harmoniously with wildlife. That is a major threat to wildlife in the country. One of the things that come from that particular threat is biodiversity loss because we humans need more space. Wildlife also needs space so the different species are … And this is just a particular threat in terms of human and wildlife interactions. But again, I feel that the other threat is the political threat, which people don’t talk about. The political threat here is people don’t understand the importance of wildlife. Even from our leaders, to the young people on the ground. They don’t understand that wildlife is small things around us and is a problem caused over time, by the educational system on what exactly wildlife should be appreciated or what is the definition of wildlife. So this politics, I call it the politics, not the politics for leadership because this is just policies and politics, that money is not given to scientists. Because if our politicians or politics can redefine or continuously talk about conservation, as a key component in society, just like food, shelter, health every individual should take into consideration. So those are the spaces that I try as much as possible to figure out how to get could fit everybody into that particular conversation, because I come from a philosophy of if I understand about this particular issue, I can be able to make a change if there’s a problem. So if I do not understand what’s going on I can’t do anything. So, if I don’t understand the definition of wildlife, I won’t do anything about it because wildlife is in the parks, but people forget wildlife is next to the dogs, it’s where we live every single day, but now the definition has changed. So the political differences in what conservation is is something that I feel is a threat to conservation in the future. Because if we do not make people understand this, 10 years from now nobody will even care about any … or an insect or even bee that is going extinct somewhere. Nobody will care and that the communities are working towards sustainable development, but we need to just ensure its sustainable for all humans and wildlife. So, it’s a … close, I can see few points on threats the way we put them on document … biodiversity loss, but I’m looking at a different type of threat, which is more of the behavior and the politics around our societies. 

Nick   

Society’s awareness of the issues, because if you’re not aware, you don’t understand you’re not going to act, very strong point. You’ve highlighted some big issues there; political issues, societal issues, human-wildlife conflict issues. Are you optimistic for the future, as to whether we as a regional or as a global and international society can turn things around and make an impact? 

Tony   

I am so optimistic, to be honest, because of the number of young people who are coming up … and I put that particular face, on conservation to not only the people online or the society, but also the parents now understand why conservation is important. So I have a healthy optimism. For example, Conservation Careers, I had the opportunity to read your free E-book Careers Advice for Conservationists, it inspired me beyond what I could have done. I read it in 2017 when I was still trying to figure out … and that particular book showed itself. And I was like wow this is what I needed. So, me as an individual, I have not only just inspired myself, but also … who will occupy different spaces in society tomorrow. And that’s my goal that when those particular positions or roles conservation has it will survive. We just need to get more people to get involved. That’s my vision. So yeah, I’m optimistic about the future of conservation. All you need to do is just need to package that information properly so that everybody is on the same page. Just like having food on the table. All of us need food on our table. So, how do we need to understand conservation is almost similar to having food on the table. 

Nick   

We all need food on the table. We all need wildlife around us as well. Such a simple message. It’s inspiring to hear that you feel as a groundswell of interest. We need more people but there is the interest therein people wanting to help wildlife more people wanting to work to help wildlife more too in terms of their careers and their professions. What advice would you give people who are listening to you right now within Africa, who want to follow in your footsteps? They want to be a conservationist, whether that’s an ecologist or an educator, whether that’s a photographer or something else, what are the key bits of advice you’d like to pass on to those people?   

Tony   

We as young people need to tread carefully when it comes to making conservational changes. There is so much and when you are beginning your career you need to draw that line and know where exactly which space, you want to work and support it with all your heart. One thing I tell everybody is that please let us just think beyond the money. Once you think beyond the money and think about what role do we have in our societies that will amplify the conservation effort because as a society we must look at you in terms of the money you get or the grants you get or the awards you get but it inspires him to do something right. So for me, it believes in yourself, it’s what you do is never wrong. There’s so much information that you can pick up and learn from others and be willing to go the extra mile because in conservation it’s not easy, but at the same time, it’s not difficult. But you just need to focus on that particular issue and trust as much as possible and draw on other people. So for me in the African conservation or any other conservation try as much as possible. As you continue working in the conservation space or finding your foot in the conservation space don’t work alone, inspire other people behind you who are younger than you so that particular continuity can last. And this is coming from a point where I had to struggle to figure out which space do I occupy right now. If I had somebody in the country reviewing something similar to what you do or had that relationship with them, it would be easier for me to pick up, but there was nobody. And we need to just continue supporting platforms that promote conservation ideas, mostly to have someone on board. I don’t know but regardless of what career you take, conservation has to be key, whether you’re a doctor, teacher, engineer those are amazing but let’s come back and agree that as much as we need food, we need conservation.  

Nick   

Yeah, I love that message. I think sort of finding the space you want to occupy in your career. Yeah, that’s quite kind of profound. And something we talk about a lot, actually, through Conservation Careers, podcast and other things is finding the niche, the place where you’re going to feel most happiest, fulfilled, where you’re going to be good at, and you love doing this thing. Everyone’s different. Everyone’s unique, you found your niche, through conservation, photography, and the education and inspiration you give others. Everyone has to find their niche. Yeah, and it’s a nice idea to if there’s someone else doing something similar, reach out, network with them, work with them, learn from them, and if it doesn’t exist, carve your path. That’s what you’re doing. Find that niche and kind of commit to it. One thing we’re doing as well as through Conservation Careers, I wanted to kind of talk about a little bit with you is we’re celebrating diversity in conservation. You know, there’s a need, I believe, you know, for a wider representation of voices within conservation, you know, I’m a white western man. I recognise that you know, and I’m not therefore representative of the global audience of people who are working within this field. How important do you think diversity is in conservation? And do you also feel and support that we need a wider selection of voices within this sector?  

Tony   

I’ll be very honest in this is that in my country, when you talk about wildlife or conservation, it’s attached to a tourist and this particular tourist is a white person. So it becomes so difficult for somebody like me, who comes from the same country to convince my people that wildlife is a good career. I think you need to actually … and also, we find ourselves most of the … country. This is something that has happened for a very long time. I respect that particular part because they have a lot of information … particularly from the country to learn from them and figure out how do I now start building a voice that is different from the perceptions of what they are doing in the country. Because I stay in Kenya I know the different challenges in my society, I know what exactly they need. I know how exactly they perceive wildlife. And I know they appreciate wildlife. What I never came to realise is that Africans appreciate wildlife, they appreciate wildlife a lot and they go the extra mile to conserve it. The only thing is just to tell them in their traditional ways. People told them that do not cut the particular tree because it’s a wrongdoing or does not eat this particular animal, and these traditional villages … So this type of information over time has been lost. It is lost because when colonisation happened in Africa, it took a lot from the African definition of what wildlife is and how important wildlife is. But then we had our values for wildlife before and these values were to just be brought back, again to this particular time but … Now to understand that wildlife starts from your doorstep, and not necessarily the Big Five, which was moulded around hunting or poaching of the amazing Big Five. I feel like we need to stop focusing on the species conservation efforts, and now start thinking about ecosystem and landscape conservation efforts because now it covers everybody. I come from a place where there are no elephants. There are hippos but nobody talks about hippos the way somebody talks about elephants or lions. So people from my community do not value trees, the insects, they won’t value them, even the hippos because they don’t give them any income or any support. So how do I tell them the society a different narrative, so amongst ourselves as Africans, it’s really important. We need to move like go beyond the parks go away far where there are different types of wildlife and talk about those species, and that’s the reason why TonyWild came up. Like how do I localize the information? So that came in handy and again I know, wildlife has an amazing idea but it is a section of a part of ideas… Everybody needs to just appreciate birds whether they are Endangered, Critical. That is amazing. But when it comes to the public, birds are important. Birds are important for conservation. I feel I have been a different voice in the conservation space that allows the public to be a part of the particular process. And that’s why diversity is the key. I’m really happy that through pushing through almost three years, it wasn’t easy, but I had to do it because I didn’t know what I was doing. I have seen opportunities come to my end that I never imagined that I would get and the beauty that is once an opportunity comes I figure out who is the next one coming… I will have to leave. So, I have to think whatever I start right now has to have a continuous path and that’s why we  … conversation we have with TonyWild currently a partnership, international group of conservation photographers in the country. So because I have a different way of communicating about what’s important in wildlife and another African has a different way to communicate, and they have a different audience that can relate to them and that is the diversity that we need in the conservation space. And in terms of diversity, we need diversity and we need more collaboration to support conservation in the future. So that’s my take on diversity in the conservation space.  

Nick   

It’s interesting to hear and I hadn’t thought about in clearer terms, as you just articulated that from an African context it applies so many places across the globe that often conservation is linked to tourism, is about people from abroad, coming in, they will evaluate and then go away. And without that value, local people don’t necessarily understand perhaps the value of a hippo or something else, you know, and actually, for you is about internalising the conversation within the country. Forget tourism, forget everything else, you know, this is the important to as Kenyans, as Africans or wherever you might be that you’ve kind of got me thinking about that a little bit more. So thank you. Tony, it’s a real pleasure to talk to you, to get to know you a little bit better. And, you know, watch you closely as you grow and evolve, and I know you’re going to have a continued successful career. So good luck and stay in touch. If people wanted to find out a little bit more about you, about Tony Wild, or anything else that you’re involved with, where should we point them what should they do? 

Tony   

They can visit our website www.tonywild.co.ke and also check out Biophilic Conversations which is almost similar to Conservation Careers but more different twist. You can just go to the website or even just look for Tony Wild you’ll definitely find on the top of the list. 

Nick   

Tony Wild, we’ll find you Facebook, Twitter, and everywhere else it’s important. So we will link to in the notes as well so people can click through. Yeah. Once again, a real pleasure to talk. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your stories with us, Tony. I wish you all the very best for the future. 

Tony   

Thank you. I appreciate it.  

Nick   

Okay, well I hope you enjoyed that everyone. If you did then please do hit that subscribe button to get notified when new episodes are live and also give the ratings it helps us to get in front of more people. If you enjoy the interviews, we’ve collected the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free eBook, which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please tweet them to @ConservCareers. We’d love to hear from you. Okay, till next time, guys, this is Nick signing out. 

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