- Issue: Spring 2021
Iris Mwanza grew up in Zambia going on safari with her family. “This was before it was a glamorous thing to do,” she says, laughing. “We would pile into the family car and drive to the game park, then drive around the loops looking for animals and birds.”
Of course, as youngsters, she and her siblings found the constant stopping at the behest of their mother to look for a particular bird terribly boring. But as she grew older, her thinking about these trips changed. They were important touchstones—for her family, and for keeping track of this beloved landscape as it changed.
“We always saw something different on safari,” Mwanza says. “We didn’t see wild dogs for 16 years, and then all of a sudden there they were.” She also noticed behavior changes in the animals. Their car was once chased by a herd of elephants during a trip into the northern part of Luangwa Park, where there had been a rash of poaching. By contrast, in the southern part of the park, where antipoaching efforts were robust, the animals didn’t seem to be bothered.
Mwanza also observed the evolution of conservation approaches in her homeland, from conservancies to eco-lodges to luxury hotels, all located to take best advantage of an area’s greatest asset: its natural resources. “I think efforts around sustainable tourism are good, but there’s always a delicate balance to be maintained,” she says.
And when the planet goes out of balance there is always a cost, as has been made clear by the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, if there’s any good to be found in this time of great global catastrophe, Mwanza thinks, perhaps it’s that we will think not just about our own immediate mental and physical health, but also about how what we do affects the health of the planet.
She lauds WWF’s ability to clearly explain nature’s complicated systems and their interconnections with each other and humanity. She also feels it is important to consider all of WWF’s areas of focus—climate change, sustainable food systems, freshwater, oceans, and forests, as well as wildlife conservation—and bring them together in a way that people can understand. “That nexus is not always intuitive,” she says, but it is required to inspire action.
In fact, she feels an interdisciplinary approach is the right way to think about most of the world’s larger issues. “I think we really need to figure out how to reframe all of our jobs,” says Mwanza, who leads the nonprofit Community Health Roadmap. “My organization has a very specific focus: community health,” she explains. “But how can my work in human health feed into the bigger picture of a sustainable future for humanity?”
Mwanza believes that it has been only in the last few years that the concept of planetary health has come to be understood more widely. She also believes that another pandemic is inevitable if we don’t change the way we’re living and more fully grasp how our fate is tied to the way we treat nature.
But she also sees this as a time of great opportunity—even hope. “WWF can lead the way in comprehensive problem-solving, in elevating the role of science, and in making sure the global community is better prepared for the future,” she says. “This is the moment, and we must make it count.”