Dr. M. Sanjayan

Dr. M. Sanjayan,

Executive Vice President, Conservation International.

M. Sanjayan is an American conservation scientist, writer and Emmy-nominated television news contributor, specializing in the role of conservation in improving human well-being, wildlife and the environment. He is referred to as Sanjayan, using one name as is Tamil custom. He is executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International and host of the television series Earth – A New Wild, produced by National Geographic Studios in association with Passion Pictures, which began airing on PBS in February 2015. He also was featured in Grist November 19, 2014, for a story about the PBS series along with Men’s Journal and another recent story in Grist.

Prior to Conservation International, Sanjayan was lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy. His scientific work has been published in peer-reviewed journals Science, Nature and Conservation Biology and his expertise has received extensive media coverage, including Vanity Fair, Outside, Time, Men’s Journal, The New York Times and The Atlantic. His television experience includes serving as a correspondent for Years of Living Dangerously, the 2014 Emmy-nominated climate change series and hosting and contributing to television programs on The Discovery Channel and the BBC. In 2009, he appeared as a guest on Late Show with David Letterman. He also writes for The Huffington Post.

In May 2012, CBS News named Sanjayan its science and environmental contributor and his 2013 CBS Evening News report on elephant poaching was nominated for an Emmy in the investigative journalism category.

National Geographic Society recently selected Sanjayan for its Explorers Council, a distinguished group of top scientists, researchers and explorers who provide advice and counsel to the Society across disciplines and projects. Sanjayan is also a Catto fellow at the Aspen Institute and a senior advisor to the Clinton Global Initiative.

Born in Sri Lanka, Sanjayan and his family moved to Sierra Leone in 1972. He moved to the United States to study at the University of Oregon, where he received both a B.S. in biology and a M.S. in ecology. In 1997, he earned a Ph. D in biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Excerpts from Interview with Dr. M. Sanjayan (For full interview, please checkout TAP 2015 Book at http://tinyurl.com/2015tap)

KC: Can you elaborate on the approach to solving our environmental crisis or acting on the fact that we have a problem?

MS: Well I think the biggest challenge we have is that people don’t fully appreciate how much nature provides for us. I think that we underestimate constantly that when you protect nature, that we live better. If you go to any town or any city, look at the areas that have more natural settings included, typically the houses are better off, people are better off, and you think “Well, that’s because people who have money move to areas like this.” But the opposite could also be true, that if you cultivate those things, they also provide well-being and a sense of community that then drives you to take better care of things. I think the fundamental flaw that we have with conservation today is that we think that humans are not part of nature. And when we think that we’re not part of it we think its someone else’s problem. We think it’s something that you do on the side after you’ve dealt with the more important issues like where I’m getting my food, where I’m getting my water, what my job is, you know, whether I’m going to be secure in my home tonight, whether I can educate my children, you think those are your pressing problems, and then once you deal with all of that, maybe if I have something left I’ll recycle or I’ll give to a charity that protects elephants. That’s how most people think of nature conservation. And it’s deeply flawed, because everything, the food you have, the water you drink, the job you have, the clothes you’re wearing, all of it comes from nature and has a tremendous impact on nature that you will feel and your children will feel and a hundred generations down the line are going to feel. So it’s in our real interests to protect nature. So I firmly believe that people are part of nature and that once we start seeing ourselves as part of nature, you realize that saving nature is really about saving ourselves. Look, I love polar bears and I think we should deal with climate change because I want polar bears to exist, but I also love people and trust me, people are going to be in much, much more difficult situations than polar bears are when climate changes.

KC: Got it. So my next question was exactly related to this, as you assert that we often see nature pictures with one of the species missing, human species, right? So what was the source for this type of view?

MS: I don’t know, it’s a good question. I don’t think anyone went out to try and do it. I think that it mostly comes from a Western- sort of a modern Western ethic of conservation. By the time we started thinking about how to save bison in Yellowstone National Park, we had removed 60 million bison from the Great Plains. They’ve all been plowed under, they’ve been replaced by cows or they’ve been replaced by farms. And we had only a tiny fragment of what was left. And of course then the only way to protect it is to put it in a park and stay away from it. So when Aldo Leopold, when John Muir, when President Roosevelt, when Ansel Adams, when all these people who kind of helped us think about Western conservation ethics came around, we were already dealing with a tiny fragment of what was once there. So their solution was, people are the problem, get people out of there, let’s create a park, and let’s set it aside. That’s not the same when you go to many other parts of the world. You know, even in a place like India, which has, you know, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, even today, when you go outside the cities and you get into the country, you do start seeing vestiges of nature. Surprisingly, it’s still there.

Dr. M. Sanjayan’s TAP Tip For Success

Tamils are an extraordinary group of people. They are pioneers, they’re explorers, and they are mavericks. Embrace that pioneering spirit and get engaged in the most important struggle that you feel is important.