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A WORD FROM THE CEO

Yolan Friedmann, EWT CEO

yolanf@ewt.org.za

South Africans and nature lovers around the world celebrated the news that the film My Octopus Teacher won not only a BAFTA award but a much-coveted Oscar as well. A remarkable achievement indeed, and a big congratulations must go to the team – a collaboration between Off the Fence, Netflix, and the Sea Change Project, an NGO raising awareness of the beauty and ecological importance of South Africa’s kelp forest. Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, executive produced by Ellen Windemuth, and produced by Craig Foster, My Octopus Teacher is a tribute to the extraordinary relationship between a human being and a species primarily viewed only as food to many.

Amidst a sea of films about the state of our natural world, the loss of biodiversity and the devastating impact that humans are having on the planet, this film stands out for its emphasis on the intimate relationship between two individuals across the species divide, as well as its focus on the power of human connection to nature and other animals. Most conservationists baulk at the idea of naming the subjects of their wildlife research or getting too personally involved with individuals, preferring to focus on systems and processes instead. Most would criticise interspecies friendships as being anti-science. And yet we know that the intimate connection to nature in small bites that we can touch, feel and, yes, name is what attracts and retains most people’s interest in and empathy for those with whom we share our natural world. I can even admit that EWT staff have, on occasion, named some standout individuals, including Wild Dogs, Cheetah, and Leopards, for their resilience, courage, persistence, and of course, the teachings they imparted as their stories were told. So, is it a bad thing for conservationists to name, individualise, and share personal relationships with specific animals when taught to focus on systems and species instead?

Humans need to connect for anything to matter. The COVID pandemic has certainly brought home the suffering that goes with the loss of human connection, and nature keeps paying the price for our increasing disconnect with the natural world characterised by children who think that milk comes from a carton and that waste no longer impacts the planet if it is put into a bin. We also know that human connections with other species have helped prolong lives in care homes and rehabilitate offenders in the prison system. Humans connect to nature in dozens of ways, through experiences like hiking, diving, trail running, camping, and so much more. Mountain ranges are named, and dreams are borne out of a desire to experience and – as humans do – conquer extreme climbs, trails, and ski slopes. It is our own personal relationship with nature and what this does for us on an intimate level that changes us the most – and may well be the saving grace for much of our imperilled natural world in the end. Stories about the natural world that centre around the human-nature connection are more adept at driving home messages about the fragility of our world and our own role in it, as well as the complexity and interdependence of all relationships, human or otherwise.

Craig Foster talks about how his relationship with his Octopus Teacher improved his relationship with his son and many other people, teaching him much more than just lessons about marine biology. This is probably true for many biologists, too, as life lessons about survival, communication, and above all, love are often better learned from our relationship with other species. Should there even be a debate about whether or not anthropomorphism has a place, not just in film-making and storytelling, but also in science-based conservation and the race to save the planet? Or perhaps both are just different sides to the same story after all.