WildEndurance – a race to save the wild

Taking place on the weekend of May, WildEndurance is a team  event which takes participants through some of the most magnificent, natural locations in Sydney’s Blue Mountains Heritage Area. In teams of between two and seven, participants walk and/or run either 100 or 50km.

WildEndurance is one of the core fundraising events for the Wilderness Society, with close to a million dollars raised over its eight year history. The Wilderness Society is considered to be one of the oldest and largest non-governmental, environmental organisation in Australia.

Over the past three decades, the Wilderness Society has enjoyed a number of prominent wins for the protection of Australia’s natural places. Most notably, the organisation led the campaign to prevent the construction of the world’s largest natural gas processing hub at James Price Point in the Kimberley, one of the most pristine coastlines in the world. The Wilderness Society is also seen as the catalyst for the establishment of the Australian Greens Political party.

This year’s WildEndurance event is incredibly poignant, as part of the funds raised will be donated to Science for Wildlife (for the training of koala detection dogs and GPS tracking devices), an organisation that focusing on the conservation of koalas in the upper Blue Mountains. Koalas were spotted in the Upper Blue Mountains only two years ago, for the first time in seventy years.

Currently, 10% of threatened and endangered native species in New South Wales can be found in the Blue Mountains. Therefore, the conservation of koalas in the area is also expected to have flow on effects on the conservation of a number of other native flora and fauna endemic to the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

The 36 hour time limit, challenging terrain and weather all combine to make WildEndurance a truly unique endurance event. A number of professional athletes have used WildEndurance to prepare for international long distance trail and endurance events. However, despite the tough conditions, overwhelmingly, the participants are your everyday, ordinary mums and dads, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. Some participate to cross it off their bucket-list, some for the opportunity to escape the urban rat race, some who seek to push their physical and mental limits while others see WildEndurance as a great way to support the protection of some of Australia’s most pristine environments.

WildEndurance is also a great way to motivate people to reconnect with nature as the event organisers actively promote participants preparing for the event by hiking outdoors. Regardless of the motivation, participants are connected by the shared sense of accomplishment when they cross the finish line and stand on the podium.

As a participant in last year’s 50km event, I understand just how tough the event can be on your mind and your body. The ascents were tough on my legs, and it was really cold and windy on the table-flats. However, it was such a surreal experience, walking with such a diverse group of individuals, who were looking forward to a fun and challenging weekend. A large part of the journey of WildEndurance last year was having my team mate and close friend, Mik Scheper to share the experience with. We took the opportunity to do some bush walks in Blackheath and the Coogee to Bondi coast walk while preparing. We helped each other stay focused during WildEndurance where some sections were particularly challenging and tested us mentally.

The views were breathtaking and descending down the Giants stairway past the iconic ‘Three Sisters‘ at night felt like we were travelling back in time. Frankly, I would not have been surprised if we had seen dinosaurs. After 15 hours of walking, my team mate and I finished, it was past midnight, we were both extremely exhausted, and there was a sense of euphoria in the thought that we had completed something extraordinary.

This year, I am working on the delivery of WildEndurance, getting a different perspective on how the event is coordinated and delivered. Somedays, i feel participating in the event seems a lot easier than the logistics work. I will be present at the event (working at event headquarters) come the first weekend in May, but i feel like a part of me will look enviously at all the participants ready to tackle WildEndurance.

My WildEndurance team mate – Mik Scheper and I ready to head out at Dunphy’s Camp-ground.
Finally, the start. It was raining lightly but the weather cleared up. It was still very cold and very windy at some stages. Image credit: Jessica Loi
Could not resist capturing the amazing backdrop. I think some teams take a bit longer to finish because they are constantly stopping to take pictures.

World Parks Congress – Day 6

On day six, the rapporteurs presented their findings from all the streams and cross cutting sessions that had been taking place at the World Parks Congress. The recommendations and comments made would go towards the overarching document that will be released after the Congress in what is being dubbed ‘the promise of Sydney’.

Rapporteur: reconciling development with conservation

The first report was about reconciling development with conservation, a balance that has been extremely hard to achieve. It appears that nearly three decades on, the international community is still grappling with the concept and meaning on sustainable development.

The promise of Sydney will argue that investment in conservation should be seen by governments and policy makers as investment in ‘critical development’. By doing so, it is hoped that ecosystem services provided by the natural environment are valued. For conservation to be considered as critical development and for the highest benefits to be acquired from ecosystem services, landscape scale conservation and management must be implemented.

Rapporteur: Respecting indigenous knowledge and culture

As stated by Professor. Patrick Dodson during the opening ceremony:

“Modernity must learn about connectivity” (Dodson, 2014)

The World Parks Congress in Sydney was the first time  in the history of the congress, that the role of indigenous knowledge, culture and tradition played such a central role in the conversations about conservation. Indigenous people have been the ultimate conservationists and have had a stewardship relationship with their lands for thousands of years. Indeed, they are often now in the front-lines, working in grassroots projects to conserve, rehabilitate, protect landscapes and sea-scapes. Many, work as park rangers and have lost their lives protecting these places of natural beauty.

Rapporteur: New Social Compact

This stream reflected and reinforced the central role of indigenous culture and knowledge. However, the focus of these workshops and discussions were on the history of dispossession and disconnection that have been perpetrated on local indigenous people from their ‘tribal’ lands.

“Historical injustices of nature conservation should be addressed”

Having protected areas is not enough, there needs to be a move away from fragmentation (of both indigenous people and conservation areas) to integration.

An interesting mural showcasing the link between people and nature


World Parks Congress – Day 5

The session I listened to today dealt with ‘marine protected areas as tools for food security’. The IUCN, its partner organisations and many conservation groups have been arguing for an expansion in the size of marine protected areas.

“Currently, only 3% of the world’s oceans are designated as marine sanctuaries”

However, achieving harmony between conservation goals and livelihood goals is incredibly difficult. This is highlighted in areas where marine sanctuaries and other protected areas are implemented as ‘no take’ zone.

‘No take’ zones may allow for fish and other marine species to repopulate and grow more resilient and diverse. However, by declaring an area as a ‘no take’ zone may undermine the ability for local communities to achieve food security. Further, by preventing access to local communities, income may also be lost, and thus, the poverty cycle is perpetuated.

Perhaps the most effective marine parks are those that might prohibit fishing at large commercial (and often destructive scales), while allowing small scale fishing for livelihoods to continue.

Indeed, one of the key messages from the World Parks Congress has been that indigenous people and locals are often the best conservationists. For protected areas to function, the distribution of benefits from protected areas much be equitably distributed among all stakeholders.

World Parks Congress – Day 5 and Planetfest

On Day 5, I had the opportunity to hear the world leaders dialogue on ‘how to feed nine billion people’. Some of the panelists participating in the discussions included; Dr. Sylvia Earle (marine biologist and National Geographic explorer in residence), Dr. Jason Clay (WWF US branch), and Ms Monique Barbut (UNCCD).

Despite the fact that ‘producing food has had the greatest impact of the earth’s ecosystems’, the panelists agreed that it was possible to feed a global population of nine billion people within the earth’s ecological limits (carrying capacity). However, significant changes in the behaviour and attitudes of people, particularly in wealthy nations were needed to achieve this.

For example, Dr. Earle highlighted that because society thought of the oceans as bountiful, decades of over exploitation and destructive fishing practices have resulted in significant decline in the number of apex species. Further, the desire to consume species that have not historically been part of an individual’s diet has also meant that some of the most pristine marine wildernesses such as the Arctic and Antarctic are also being fished.

“90% of commercial marine species have now become extinct since the middle of the last century” (Dr. Earle, 2014)

Ms Barbut presented some sobering statistics which highlighted the environmental challenges associated with the current state of food production.

“The amount of food wasted each year is equivalent to emitting 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2” (Monique Barbut, 2014)

Feeding a population of nine billion does not simply mean producing more food as highlighted by Mr. Jason Clay. He argues that policy makers need to identify where global populations are likely to increase, and focus on increasing food production in those areas. Of course, focus should also be directed towards establishing the best food crops and methods for those areas that has the smallest environmental footprint possible.

The final strategy that was discussed which would allow for feeding a global population of nine billion was the issue of land tenure. The lack of land ownership in some local communities mean that the ability to produce food is undermined. Any policies that address land tenure should also in some way promote land tenure rights of women as well.

Land tenure is particularly poignant when it comes to ‘protected areas’ as these have sometimes been implemented in such a way that it prevents the local people from accessing natural resources.

It appears that a population of nine billion can be fed within the earth’s ecological limits, but only if there are fundamental shifts in current attitudes and behaviours about food production and consumption.

World Parks Congress – Day 3 and 4

On days three (yesterday) and four (today), the sessions I witnessed at the World Parks Congress revolved around one particular theme – building resilience within nature and within community livelihoods.

The case studies examined by the speakers throughout both days identified the critical role that local communities, particularly, indigenous communities play with regards to conservation. The first example of this was from Finland, where game hunting for meat is popular. Indeed, nearly ten million kg of game meat are hunted each year (with nine million being moose). Not only does game hunting offer a mechanism for sourcing protein, it is also seen as an effective method for maintaining wildlife populations.

A similar case study was presented from Cameroon, where game hunting not only provided protein to the local indigenous communities, but also an avenue for income generation.

Wall set up in the main pavilion for people to leave their environmental messages.

The greatest challenge facing policy makers and conservationists has been balancing ecosystem resilience with livelihood resilience. The focus on ‘protected areas’, where no-take boundaries are established arbitrarily will deny indigenous and local communities access to natural resources.

Perhaps an even greater impact of conservation policies that undermine livelihood resilience is the loss of indigenous knowledge and practices. This was touched upon by various speakers in the sessions i visited today. Indigenous knowledge is vital for conservation management. For the benefits (ecosystem services) of protected areas to be felt both locally and on a larger scale, the areas need to be protected for generations.

The only way to achieve this is to allow for indigenous knowledge to maintained, practiced and passed onto the younger generation. This can be done in the traditional sense, where traditional elders spend time in nature with the youth, or through mainstream education programs where school children learn to respect nature.

The sessions that I have visited so far have made me realise that there are so many unique and interesting solutions and strategies available to the most common challenges currently facing the global community. While no on strategy trumps all others, ongoing dialogue and networking between and within the global environmental community if vital for continued protection of landscapes and seascapes.

One of the many international organisations present at the World Parks Congress promoting conservation dialogue.


World Parks Congress – Day Two

Day two at the World Parks Congress saw the start of the first plenary sessions. Again, the session did not disappoint , with some very high level dignitaries taking to the stage.

The first speaker to take the stage was Professor Patrick Dodson who highlighted the importance of indigenous culture and tradition and conservation. According to Professor Dodson; ‘reconciliation of humans also means the reconciliation of nature’.

United Nations Under Secretary General and Executive Director of the UNEP, Achim Steiner also took to the stage. He also emphasized the relationship between people and nature and how indigenous peoples all around the world have been conservation managers for thousands of years.

Steiner also reinforced the message from the Durban conference in 2004, that the youth need to take center stage in the management of protected areas. What stood out most from his speech was the fact that the United Nations was revisiting the concept of sustainability in an effort to redefine it and make it more reflective of current environmental challenges.

However, it was the smaller Pacific nations that stole the show, challenging the larger, more wealthy nations to get their acts together.

Firstly, the President of Palau, announced that he was creating 500,000 km2 of marine sanctuaries (no commercial fishing) within Palau’s EEZ.

Followed by the President of Kiribati, who, together with the other heads of the small island Pacific nations, would move to create the largest network of marine parks in their region.

The final accolade is reserved for the crew of the Vaka. The sailors are composed entirely of members from various Pacific Island nations, who have been sailing in a traditional canoe all over the Pacific on their way to the WPC. On their way, they have been campaigning and collecting messages from Pacific Islanders.

The messages have culminated into what is now known as the Pacific Promise, which seeks to lobby the global community into acting on climate change. The exploits of the Vaka crew and the Pacific Promise led to a standing ovation from the crowd.


Celebrations at the Pacific stall in the main Congress Pavilion post plenary session

World Parks Congress – Opening Ceremony


The opening ceremony for the World Parks Congress – Sydney saw nearly 4000 delegates, including VIPs, high level dignitaries and volunteers converge at Sydney Olympic Park.

The ceremony began with a traditional indigenous welcome to country, followed by speeches by the likes of Nelson Mandela’s great grandson, the Australian Federal Minister for the Environment (majority of the Australian delegates were not impressed/confused by the Minister’s statements) and the New South Wales Minister for the Environment.


Delegates arriving into the Opening ceremony hall

There were three important messages that all speakers alluded to during the course of the ceremony.

1. Any large scale conservation management must include the local community, with the local indigenous population being at the core of decision making. That no-one should be ‘left behind’ when it comes to protected areas.

2. That the youth needs to be more involved in protected area management, as highlighted my Mandela during the Durban WPC in 2004. Indeed, Mandela’s grandson referred to ‘growing a collective legacy’.

3. The third piece of the puzzle is climate change and how it not only affects ecosystem resilience but also provides opportunities to implement long term and effective management strategies.

There is so much faith and positive energy at this conference, that the President of Gabon announced that 23% of the waters within Gabon’s territory would be designated a marine park.


Opening ceremony underway


Full capacity

I am already looking forward to what Day 2 brings. I will try and keep everyone updated as best I can.

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