Tolga Aktas is a conservationist, explorer and story-teller who has travelled the world with his passion for wildlife and preserving the natural environment. Last week we spoke to him about discovering your own local conservation projects and how we can explore more responsibly, closer to home.
Words & Photography by Tolga Aktas | @tolga_aktas
What was your first experience with the natural world that inspired you to pursue a career in conservation?
Growing up as a kid, I was very fortunate to have travelled back and forth between London and Northern Cyprus with my parents. My father and his family originate from that country and most of my summer school holidays were spent there. My uncle owns farm livestock in our village of Cihangir, and alongside the presence of sheep, goats, chickens and dogs – I was able to wander the Turkish-Cypriot environment. It was always fun witnessing the native fauna to this country when I was a child, from catching geckos in Nescafe jars, sneaking up on little owls in the olive trees or just simply watching the busy ants take back their disassembled prey to their homes – there was somewhat always something to inspire me there.
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I believe these experiences and many others spent in Northern Cyprus all contributed to what I do today in wildlife conservation. It was also the help of wildlife documentaries that helped cement my desire to make a career of it all. I recall the early days when cable television became a thing in our household, and watching the craziness of the Late Steve Irwin and informative wildlife narration clips from Sir David Attenborough really inspired me a lot. Up until today, those two individuals are whom I give my thanks too for where I am today. Many other wonderful and inspirational people have then been added to the list also.
What projects are you working on currently and what area of conservation are you most passionate about?
In light of all that is going on globally with COVID-19, not many projects are being worked on right now if I'm honest. Originally, I was hoping to do some travelling around Europe and document the local conservation efforts that are being carried out. However, the travel restrictions had put a halt to that and I am currently in stand-by mode – dreaming of new projects to work on when normality returns to our planet. I hope to do more conservation work here in the UK and our neighbouring countries in Europe in the near future. There is a lot going on which is only now being documented and it would nice to switch it up from my conservation efforts in Africa.
In regards to which area of conservation I am most passionate about, I have a fond appreciation and desire to learn all I can about endangered fauna and flora, the problems which are impacting them, and what is being done to help restore the balance in our ecosystems. From the moment I found out what conservation is, exposure to endangered species was what I was always drawn to, and I knew early that someday I’d love to also contribute my work efforts to make a difference.
You encourage people to take more notice of the connection between ourselves and nature ‘what we do to nature, we do to ourselves’. How would you recommend people can further their relationship with nature currently, starting in their own backyard?
It is often thought that to do these things in general, one must have to travel specifically to far off destinations or have to know where these opportunities are. The truth is connecting to nature and getting exposed to little snippets of its wonders can be closer home than we think. From stepping outside into our gardens and examining the pollinators on the flowers, digging up the soil and witnessing the biodiversity beneath our feet, or finding a local nature reserve that could be close-by to where you live. We’re so fortunate to be able to co-exist with the effortless beauty that the natural world freely gives to us. For this very reason, this is why it is important that we protect it in every way possible – for what we do to nature, we indeed do to ourselves!
As we all start to turn to adventuring closer to home, how can people access conservation projects in their local area and what should they be aware of when exploring new landscapes within the UK?
Well of course it is now a very new era that we find ourselves living in. It may take a while for us all to get back to normal, but when things do calm down - I personally encourage people to go outside and see what the UK has to offer (as safely as you can do so). From simply finding a small to large mountain peak near you and conquering it, getting lost in the woods and taking your time to take it all in, or going to a destination that is working hard to better our natural environment and its inhabitants within it. Over the last year and a half, I was able to visit two of my most favourite places in the UK, and these included the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Scotland; and the Knepp Estate in West Sussex. Both destinations and the teams that occupy these places are doing fantastic work with re-wilding efforts, which is really putting the UK on the map for conservation. You could even travel safely to Cornwall and witness the amazing conservation work for beavers by the Beaver Trust. The UK has so many hidden gems of conservation opportunities which are waiting to be found, and equally a large selection of passionate individuals waiting to greet you as well.
Exploring new destinations should always require a lot of research of the area and the safety measures which are put in place at specific spots. This generally doesn’t matter whether you’re an experienced adventurer or a beginner travel enthusiast. The times and environment around us are constantly shifting, so it is always good for us all to keep safe, so we can then enjoy whatever the natural world around us has to offer.
What does adventure mean to you? Has this changed at all over the last few months?
The term adventure for me means not only discovering the natural elements and wonders outside, but also finding them within us while we’re embarking on our journeys. In this perspective, I consider each journey that I take an adventure in which I can document and record for generations to come. Of course, I am totally in love with those adrenaline filled adventures that have my heart pounding. From sitting at the back of a Ford pick-up truck in South Africa and tracking African wild dogs in the bush, to walking through leech infested vegetation in the Bornean rainforest or simply standing at the top of Mt. Snowdon to admire the landscapes – these are of course moments that make us feel most alive. However, over the last couple of months my biggest adventure by far has been focusing on my wellbeing, mental health and looking after those that take care of me daily. That in itself is life’s biggest adventure – the purest kind, if not the most difficult to find.