INDIANA JAX: THE QUEST TO PREVENT POACHING AND PROTECT WILDLIFE IN A CHANGING WORLD. Oh and Some Movie References Thrown in..
Jax Metcalfe: a Profile
By James Murphy
When one tries to define why they fell in love with Cinema as an art form, it frequently comes down to a genre, an image, a vicarious experience. Remembering THAT big film which caught your attentions as a kid, clinging to that to the extent that it perhaps even influenced a University choice or career path and so on.
In my case, I always loved action adventure pictures. And consequently, I was fascinated by the real world counterparts to James Bond, Indiana Jones and so on. So you can imagine how delighted I was to meet Jax Metcalfe: scientist, explorer, innovator and above all: a champion of our global need to preserve wildlife in the fight against extinction.
Jax very kindly sat down with me for an insight to her work past, present and future, whilst also letting us into the secret of the movies that mean most in her memories.
We look first at Jax’s current focus: POACHING PREVENTION.
Poaching Prevention is a charity in its infancy; established to prevent poaching of rhinos, elephants and other endangered species, in particular, but not exclusively, by providing protected area authorities and conservation NGOs with free mapping software, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (commonly known as drones) and specialist training.
UAVs are a tool for providing positional information and live visual streams to the ground control, therefore, it is imperative that they are flown in the correct place and are embedded with the anti-poaching unit. We will ensure that this is the case.
Operating the unmanned aerial system will generate local employment (the UAV pilot and system’s operator would be employed by the park/reserve. Jax’s hope is to be able to donate the cost of their salaries to parks and reserves that can’t afford any additional expenses).
So, in a way this is high tech meets old school? Tony Stark meets Indiana Jones. I hesitate slightly in using those terms of description to Jax, but one of her most charming qualities is the ability to ‘get’ a reference in context and especially a cinematic one.
‘I haven’t had much opportunity for adventure, but before I had my daughter I lived and worked in Africa. The first time I went to Africa I had £500 to last a year… I spent 3 months undertaking environmental research in Genda Genda and Mkwaja in Tanzania before spending the next 9 months travelling through Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and finally going to see the gorillas in, what was then, Zaire.
It was wonderful having so little money as it meant I had to live and travel as the poor did. I’m certain that this enriched the adventure and gave me a better understanding of the people that live there… wouldn’t have done it any other way!’
In short, therefore, Jax IS an adventuress! Go on, you thought so as soon as you read it, it’s not just me, Dear Reader! That said, one must not diminish the role of good old school brains and ideas and hard work. Even Indiana Jones was an academic as much as a field man. And so, as it happens, is Jax. Naturally, I have to tease it out of her because she is possessed of a naturally self effacing discretion amongst her other qualities.
‘I suppose one might call me an academic, as I have a masters degree, but I think of myself as more practical than academic. I only did a BSc. and MSc. because they seemed to be a prerequisite for working in the conservation sector.
I have an abiding love of nature and genuine concern about the state of the planet… conservation work pays poorly, when it pays at all (there are few employment opportunities in the conservation sector) but I wouldn’t want to do anything else (though I’ve periodically worked as an administrator in order to pay the bills). A female Indiana Jones… well I do like to wear khaki and love the analogy ;)’
And, as established by countless fan -fictions and prequel plans for heroes of late, those great strides to adventure begin with a mentor giving the hero the call to adventure. Jax once again fits that bill: inspired by others on her quest and clearly now as a dedicated Mom passing on that passion to the next generation.
‘I have long been concerned about the impact of poaching and have always wanted to help prevent it. However, it was only after working with at the University of Exeter’s Environment & Sustainability Institute on a project that used UAVs as a conservation tool and subsequently reading an article about predictive software developed by Prof Thomas Snitch (formally of UMIACS) that I realised I could draw upon my qualifications, my knowledge of Africa’s environment and its culture, and use my contacts to help facilitate the role out of this emerging technology as an anti-poaching tool. I contacted Tom at the University of Maryland, offered my assistance, and the rest is history. (We’ve still a long way to go… i.e. we need to raise the necessary funds before we can action anything)’.
Of course, all quests and heroes are defined by an end goal. Surely therefore, for Jax, an end to poaching full stop must be the ideal? Is that too ambitious, though: this adventure’s equivalent of an idealised ‘café in Florence’ moment for Batman or that party on Endor in Star Wars (ie happy endings that simply cannot hold together, even in fantasy). Jax is optimistic but also pragmatic and to the point, taking into account the various factors that keep poaching alive as an industry, sadly.
‘ Sadly, despite everyone’s best efforts, it’s very unlikely that poaching will ever stop altogether. This is because as the human population has grown the demand for wildlife products has grown with it.
If the ‘war on poaching’ is to be won it has to be fought in all quarters! The rate of poaching and the demand for endangered species can be lowered through concerted and collaborative efforts between governments, conservation NGOs and celebrities – i.e. frontline defence, policy, law enforcement and education/communication campaigns.
Education and communication campaigns can change cultural mores by teaching people about the inefficacy of most traditional ‘medicines’ and by making the possession/consumption of wildlife unfashionable and taboo.
Unfortunately, changing cultural mores takes time (generations even); therefore, additional measures are needed. Strong penalties, in conjunction with robust law enforcement, can provide a powerful disincentive for poachers, whilst rangers and conservation NGOs on the ground provide the first line of defence.
The illegal wildlife trade is worth somewhere in the region of £15 billion per year, so one could reasonably surmise that money is the root cause of poaching. However, it’s only part of the equation – greed, vanity, arrogance, ignorance, tradition and corruption; they’re all contributing factors – that said, were it not for the vast profits involved I’m sure poaching wouldn’t be so prolific. It’s difficult to envisage how one could completely eradicate such a lucrative and nefarious trade…
It’s thought that the growing number of the Chinese middle class is the primary driver for the unprecedented scale of poaching. However, the demand for rhino horn has been exacerbated by the Vietnamese wealthy elite who have made it fashionable to demonstrate their wealth and status by drinking “billionaire cocktails” which contain ground rhino horn.’
I quite deliberately move back to the nicer, fluffier side of things. Any movie fan will tell you one should throw in a cute or even deadly critter when faced with a plot hole or twist one cannot escape. An Ewok, a baby Groot and so on. Except Jax’s encounters are all too real and NOT CGI!
‘I really don’t have a favourite animal, I honestly think them all wonderful each with their own charm.
Provided you’re alert, sensible and treat wildlife with respect, I don’t think there’s any reason to fear it. I’m not really afraid of any species/group of animals. Fear would depend on the situation and the individual animal. Least favourite animal to deal with– hmm, I think it would have to be cockroaches; I’m not terribly fond of tsetse flies either, they hurt; and fast spiders, the sort that scurry along the floor and run up your trousers, I don’t like those, but big spiders are fine’.
And what advice does Jax have to the layperson, venturing out to the kind of terrains she confronts so often?
- ‘I make sure that I learn about the environment and the wildlife within it. If you understand animal behaviour you’re better able to avoid dangerous encounters and are better prepared to deal with a potentially dangerous situation if you come face to face with something that has the capacity to injure/kill you.
- Pay attention
- Wear appropriate clothing
- Walk normally – a lot of people tend to tread softly when walking through an area where snakes could be present (but it’s better to walk normally so that the snakes can feel the vibrations of your foot fall and move away).
- Take plenty of water with you’
Well: that’s me told! Not that I would venture as far as the African jungles or Australian outback. Nope: I am quite happy based in Blighty. And there IS some GREAT wildlife here. With causes to match. I decide to try and validate that position (ie not going on adventures in exotic locales) by enquiring about equivalent UK based causes. Jax, as ever, is quick on the draw.
‘I’m not sure exactly what you mean by equivalent causes, however, if you’re referring to animal welfare then they’re all worthy causes. I know you didn’t mention it, and I can’t speak for other Wildlife Trusts, but Cornwall Wildlife Trust does excellent work.
Fox hunting – I’m VERY strongly against it… It’s not an effective way of managing fox populations as the hunters claim; if population control really was the objective they’d shoot rather than hunt them… It’s such a cruel sport on so many levels.
Badger culls – I’m extremely against this also! Scientific evidence has shown time and again that culling is wholly ineffective and yet the government insists on continuing with the practice… Madness!’
And so, I feel better informed already. Also a bit more adventurous on my own door-step! Of course, even with an adventurous outlook and skills, one still requires a work/life balance and ongoing prep.
‘In my free time I go to the gym (weights and circuits mostly); enjoy the company of friends, regularly take my friends Labrador for walks (I absolutely love dogs but don’t have one of my own); watch TV and occasionally read (though less so than I once did).
I’m lucky enough to live in Cornwall so get to enjoy coastal walks and occasionally have the opportunity to go kayaking. My daughter is 17: beautiful, bright, healthy and kind-hearted so I have absolutely no cause for complaint.’
I am at that point sorely tempted to inject a James Bond style flirtatious quip along lines of ‘well she must take after her mother’. But I of course..don’t. Instead? I take over with the thing I DO know about: MOVIES! And I have managed to tease a list of ones to watch from Jax’s own personal hitlist. You can probably see why they appeal to her and why frankly the lady herself would be at home in most of their worlds.
I can see why Jax likes this one. It is a visceral, urgent, raw and earthy piece of Cinema. The story is simplicity itself; the execution pure cinematic genius. Moving, engaging, timeless. Classic!
A distinctive theme tune. A first rate cast. Beautiful landscape shots. And the bond between nature and man. What’s not to like? Perfect choice!
Gorillas in the Mist
Ripley is not Sigourney Weaver’s only turn as a tough heroine. Meet Diane Fossey: a pioneer in the study of Gorillas in the wild. Sadly it is as much about HUMAN failings as anything and one leaves feeling the Gorillas have a greater sense of civilisation sometimes than the ‘human’ counterpart. Great acting all round and excellent balance between documentary style accuracy and compelling drama from Director Mike Apted (The World is Not Enough).
Tarka the Otter
This is simply one of THE cutest sunday afternoon comfort movies ever. Once again it is not the easiest of watches in places. But I defy you not to laugh, cry, fall in love and snug up with the eponymous creature.
If you are currently enjoying this summer’s WONDER WOMAN, it MIGHT be because of it’s ‘fish out of water’ quality. IE: Take a hero/ine from their natural habitat and translate the skill base to a new environment wherein everyone else seems at home. It’s funny, smart, charming and very much a portal to the 1980s whilst offering both a glimpse of 1950s screwball comedy and a timeless romantic adventure. There was a sequel which is a straight up action adventure (Dundee vs Drug-Lords) which is derivative yet still great fun. Just avoid part 3 ‘In Los Angeles’. Reboot due, surely? 😉
The Jungle Book
Some films need little if any introduction: they speak for themselves. This is one of those. Both the animated classic original and its surprisingly effective 2016 remake are a family experience one simply cannot forget. Every animal has anthropomorphic charm with apt voice acting to match; there is action, adventure, a lesson in life and maturity /survival both alone and in communities. But above all? THE catchiest songs in the Disney canon. Sing along now..
It was a pleasure to talk to Jax and we wish her every success with her work.