5 -min. read

From around midday yesterday, residents of Stellenbosch might have noticed unusual numbers of conservation, travel, technology, behavioural sciences, philanthropy and government experts making their way to the picturesque Spier Wine Farm. Bucking the usual trend of holiday-makers in search of the best tipple, these visitors do nonetheless have one thing in common: an unequivocal ambition to save our planet’s wildlife.

Colin Bell and Neil Midlane
David Wilson, Stuart Slabbert and Sharon Gilbert-Rivett

The reason for their gathering is the Conservation Lab, the first event of its kind that aims to create optimal conditions for creative thinking and collaboration, in a bid to unite these various fields and move conservation efforts forward. This is no ordinary conference; in fact, it’s an ‘un-conference’, by virtue of the fact that all content is created by participants – there are no bystanders here, only active contributors.

Serge Dive welcomes participants

But even un-conferences have rules (or un-rules?). After welcoming this motley crew yesterday afternoon, Beyond Luxury Media (creators of the Conservation Lab) Founder and CEO Serge Dive briefed them on the need-to-knows:

  1. Dress as cool as you like – we don’t care what you look like, we care about your ideas (just make sure you “cover the important parts”!)
  2. Get involved – you’ll only get out what you put in
  3. Stay with us – digital detox is the new cool
  4. Overcome your fear of public speaking – apparently the most-feared thing after death… But remember: everyone’s on the same side here
  5. Keep calm and check out your ego – when it comes to conservation, what’s most important is that everyone works together
  6. Don’t suck the oxygen out of the room – we want to hear what you have to say, but give others a chance too
  7. Avoid conflict – no “But” or “I disagree”; here we “plus” others’ ideas
  8. Seek collaboration – there’s no knowing who your next partner could be, so open your mind and introduce yourself
  9. Remember that you are the content – no participants, no un-conference; it’s on you
  10. Chatham House rules – you can talk about what you hear, but don’t say who said it (remember: you’re under verbal contract!)
  11. Don’t make it a sales pitch – people will see straight through it, so remember why we’re all here
  12. Have fun – conservation is a serious issue, but fun creates connections and opportunities
Richard Leakey gets on stage to give a Team Talk

Next up, renowned conservationist Dr. Richard Leakey took to the stage to give a Team Talk – and boy did he light a fire under our participants. Ever true to himself in the face of controversy and political correctness, Leakey imparted words of wisdom that will no doubt provide fuel for debate throughout the weekend. Not only that, he also took it upon himself to make an improvement to the Conservation Lab slogan: instead of fighting our way back, henceforth We Can Fight Our Way Forward. Such was the respect in the room, that he left the stage to a standing ovation. Quite the act to follow…

Chris Roche kicks off SPARK

But follow they did. Chris Roche of Wilderness Safaris led the SPARK charge, where speakers have under four minutes and just fifteen slides to present the idea they think will change the future of conservation. He was joined by another 15 speakers, who not only successfully combatted any fear of public speaking, but also succinctly and eloquently articulated themselves in the most impressive manner. Does this spell the end of 100-slide, hours-long presentations? We certainly hope so.

Greg Monson, Hanli Prinsloo and Justin Wateridge

After a candlelit dinner continuing the conversation, participants gathered around the bonfire with amarula-laced hot chocolate to network, or ducked into the screening room with popcorn to watch The Ivory Game (at the Conservation Lab even movie night makes you think). After a day of introductions and ideas, eventually bed beckoned.

Hongxiang Huang screening The Ivory Game

This morning our DISCUSS board is jam-packed with participants signing up to lead a group discussion on the subject of their choice, setting in motion a lively day of debate and deliberation today. With topics ranging from ‘Empowering Women in Conservation’ to ‘The (Trophy) Elephant in the Room’, we’re fascinated to see what goes down.

Lesley Rochat scribbles down her topic on the DISCUSS board
Sandor Weyers and Hongxiang Huang assess the DISCUSS board

And all the while in the background, our TEAMWORK groups are meeting to answer the challenge put to them: ‘We know that in order to win the conservation game, the worlds of travel and conservation must work together. However, too often the brunt of responsibility (and cost) for delivering conservation success falls upon the lodges and those in the field. How can we truly harness the power of those in travel source markets (i.e. travel agents, travellers, international press) and encourage them to share more of the risk and responsibility involved in moving conservation efforts forward?‘ This afternoon will see them present their ideas onstage; stay tuned to find out more…

Participants gear up for a day of debate

Katie Palmer
Katie Palmer is Editorial & Content Manager at This is Beyond Ltd.

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