The 67-Year-Old Still Fighting for Wild Places
Dennis Sizemore has been thrown by a grizzly bear and traded gunfire with poachers, but that hasn't stopped him from doing conservation work around the globe
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Dennis Sizemore is limping, shuffling his swollen left ankle through the dusty streets of Maun, Botswana, the gateway city to the wildlife-rich Okavango Delta. Over his long conservation career, it’s hardly the 67-year-old’s first injury. The former college linebacker has been slapped into a tree by a grizzly, breaking ribs and his left arm; traded gunfire with poachers in New Mexico; and been medevaced to Anchorage, Alaska, when that same hapless arm was nearly severed by the prop of a floatplane.
Considering the brutality of injuries past, this latest wound feels a little ironic. It’s mid-September 2019, and Sizemore has ruptured his Achilles tendon stepping into a Maun hotel conference room for a meeting with the leaders of the Okavango safari industry. But as he well knows, the most significant conservation work often gets done in conference rooms.
Sizemore is the director of Round River Conservation Studies, a university ecology program that offers students semesters in places like Namibia, Chile, Mongolia, and British Columbia. At the same time, the organization has secured protection for 19 million acres worldwide, some of the largest blocks of biodiverse wilderness on earth, with a full-time staff of just eight. Round River works to empower indigenous people to set and reach their own environmental stewardship goals. In a conservation movement historically characterized by white people telling indigenous people what to do with their land, the organization stands out for listening instead.
“Round River does the kind of work that is focused on the community, which isn’t as common as you might think,” says Rhea Suh, former president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and an assistant secretary of the Interior Department under President Obama. “That means taking local economies into account. Finding ways to do conservation without evaporating residents’ economic opportunities is the hardest work, but it’s the most durable.”
Tourism is Botswana’s second-largest industry after diamond mining, drawing people from around the globe to experience thriving populations of lions, leopards, and zebras. The country is home to some 130,000 elephants—nearly half the world’s remaining wild population—up from 80,000 in 1996. Trophy hunting was banned in Botswana in 2014, but the increase is due in large part to the fact that the animals have been migrating there for years to avoid poachers in neighboring countries.
That population boom, however, has led to human conflicts. Between August 2018 and August 2019, elephants killed 17 people in Botswana, many of them defending their crops. In addition, conservationists link the conflicts to an uptick in poaching, as farmers victimized by elephants have fewer qualms about helping foreign ivory poachers.
In the villages of Sankoyo and Mababe, just outside the Okavango Delta, it’s easy to see the effects of the increased elephant population—fields lie fallow, fruit trees are broken and bare, and elephants have trampled nearly every fence. Villagers there say they haven’t bothered to farm since 2013.
“My house used to be surrounded by crops,” says Igea Newa, 66, gesturing to dusty fields. “Now we can’t plant fruit trees or a garden. The elephants destroy them.”
Last spring the government announced that trophy hunting would once again be allowed in an effort to cull elephant numbers. Newa welcomed the change, but the decision has been controversial, leading to international outrage, a drop in safari bookings (something that has been exacerbated by the current coronavirus pandemic), and anger over how the 158 licenses were issued and that a radio-collared elephant was shot.
In a conservation movement historically characterized by white people telling indigenous people what to do with their land, Round River stands out for listening instead.
Some conservation groups, including Round River’s local partner, Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, are sanguine about the decision, focusing on trophy hunting’s capacity to generate employment and revenue for wildlife programs. Still, Round River hopes to keep the bloodshed from ramping up by funding solutions to human-wildlife conflicts that don’t involve killing—not just of elephants but also lions and other predators. Think: renting watering holes from ranchers for migrating zebras or creating a market for higher-value “wildlife-friendly beef,” which incentivizes farmers to bring their cows in at night so they aren’t killed by predators.
Communities will choose their own tactics, but each requires money, which is the purpose of Sizemore’s trip to Maun—his 40th to Botswana. He has arranged a meeting of the major players in the Okavango safari industry in hopes they’ll agree to ante into a fund to pay for his plan. Round River would augment the envisioned $50 million fund with donations from environmental foundations. “The problem isn’t raising the money,” says Sizemore, limping into the meeting. “It’s getting a bunch of competitors to agree to work together.”
Sizemore has raised millions for conservation in his career, but he started Round River with just a bottle of George Dickel whisky and a few pounds of backstrap from a pronghorn his father had shot. Those were the gifts he bore in 1991 when he knocked on the door of grizzly bear activist Doug Peacock.
A former research assistant with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and biologist at the University of Montana, Sizemore wanted his work to have bigger effects. He figured that Peacock, with his ties to the activist edge of the conservation movement, could help.
Over the bourbon and backstrap, the pair launched Round River Conservation that same evening, naming it after a seminal Aldo Leopold essay on ecosystem protections. Their first donors were Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and the late ecological philanthropist Doug Tompkins, whose landscape-scale restoration project in Chile foreshadowed the group’s preference to preserve large blocks of habitat. In those chunks, points out Peacock, “you always find indigenous people living,” a fact Round River has relied on to make its mark on the conservation world.
Sizemore has had particular success in British Columbia: Round River helped save five million acres of old growth in the Great Bear Rainforest, and in the Taku Watershed, after a 14-year fight, eight million acres were spared. A key in both cases was Sizemore’s deployment of “traditional ecological knowledge,” a technique that augments field surveys with locals’ generations-long experience of hunting and gathering on the land. The process had the side effect of galvanizing local support among people tired of being disenfranchised. “Being involved got people to open up and get very organized with protecting our lands,” says John Ward, a Taku River Tlingit First Nation elder.
Another key strategy to Round River’s outsize results are its student groups. Each semester, fresh cadres continue long-term ecological studies in the regions where the organization works, helping underpin the conservation objectives but also allowing it to maintain an active presence in certain communities for years on end. That can be a significant contrast from the more sporadic, and jaded, appearance of some larger conservation groups. “People like having the students around,” says Sizemore. “Their optimism and energy make them great ambassadors.”
In the Maun conference room, Sizemore is at his ambassadorial best. He has his swollen leg propped on a chair beside him and speaks softly, letting others drive the meeting as much as possible. Not always so benevolent, Sizemore’s grizzly-like tenacity is legendary. He is, says author and close friend Terry Tempest Williams, a man of “big ideas, big results, big heart, big shadows.” Sizemore likes to tell the story of challenging one former Round River staffer to a fistfight during a meeting with Namibian government officials and has had fallouts with allies during the push to designate Bears Ears as a National Monument.
But no fistfights are necessary in Maun. In fact, Sizemore doesn’t have to say much because he’s brought along a ringer. Ross McMillan, the recently retired CEO of the environmental nonprofit Tides Canada Foundation, tells the safari-industry stakeholders the story of the $120 million Coast Funds, which he helped engineer. Born from an agreement between 26 separate First Nations tribes in the Great Bear Rainforest and the Canadian government, the fund is much more complex than what’s being proposed in the Maun meeting, but it brightly illustrates what’s possible. Logging in that rainforest, the source of years of bitter political protests, would have yielded just a handful of local jobs for First Nations people, says McMillan. Instead, supported by the fund, 1,033 jobs have been created in sustainable logging, aquaculture, and tourism since 2009.
The dozen safari-industry representatives are sitting up straight and peppering McMillan with questions. Everyone is essentially convinced, and the remaining day and a half consists of people getting used to the idea. Afterward, Jennifer Lalley, cofounder of the safari operator Natural Selection, says that while some companies like hers already support conservation work, collective projects are usually more successful. “Any collaborative efforts in conservation or poverty alleviation have the potential of achieving a much greater impact than individual efforts,” she says.
Anderson Kambimba, a staff member of the Botswana Democratic Party, agrees that such a fund would help both his Okavango community and the animals living nearby. “Wildlife in and around my community are unfortunately viewed as government property and responsibility,” he says. “This results in wildlife and habitat receiving negative attention every time government is perceived in a bad light.” A community conservation fund, he says, would bring a sense of ownership and accountability. “When people connect economic benefit to wildlife and habitat conservation, their commitment to protecting it rises. The community will fight wildfires, discourage and guard against poaching, police harmful waste-disposal practices, and so on.”
Sizemore has raised millions for conservation in his career, but he started Round River with just a bottle of George Dickel whisky and a few pounds of backstrap from a pronghorn he’d hunted.
After the meeting, Sizemore meets a group of Round River students for dinner at a café. Despite the meeting’s success, and in what is meant to be a pep talk for the students, he can’t help but veer into melancholy.
You’ll be doing important work, he tells the eight undergrads. “But it can be awfully hard sometimes. One has to learn to embrace loss.” His voice cracks, and a tear runs from behind his yellow-tinted eyeglasses. He apologizes and blames the emotion on the four Advil he took and the double gin and tonic he’s drinking, but it’s obvious that he’s a man whose emotions are always swirling close to the surface.
Later, Sizemore mentions a quote of Leopold’s: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that you live alone in a world of wounds.”
The students help push him on, even as he eclipses the age when most would throw in the towel. “I try to absorb as much of their youthful exuberance as I can,” he says, acknowledging a duty to those who continue to show up looking for tools to heal a world that, even in their brief lifetimes, has been accumulating even more wounds.