Dr. M.A. Sanjayan: A storyteller saving nature — with corporate help

It is a sign of our times that the greatest American conservation biologist’s mother tongue is Tamil, that he left Sri Lanka as a child fleeing war, spent his adolescence in the jungles and savannahs of Kenya, then took his higher education degrees in Oregon and California.

His name is Dr. M.A. Sanjayan, but he wants you to call him Sanjayan (pronounced Sahn-jen.) He is the lead scientist of The Nature Conservancy, and he is a rock star of the conservation movement. I spent parts of three days with him last week preparing for his appearance at Minnesota’s Nature Conservancy gala fundraiser. People showed up with cameras and brought their autograph books.

You’ve seen him hosting documentaries on the Discovery Channel, for the BBC and Science. He is a frequent guest on the “Today Show” and has been seen sparring, toe-to-toe with David Letterman. You may have read him in The New York Times or read about him in Vanity Fair or Outside magazines.

When he’s not globetrotting, facing charging white rhinos, rogue elephants and endangered tigers, he goes trout fishing near his home outside Missoula, where he holds a research faculty position at the University of Montana. If nature needs an ambassador, somebody should build Sanjayan his own embassy.

The Nature Conservancy is the largest and richest conservation organization in the United States. It is made up of tree-huggers, environmentalists and some very wealthy people, as well as corporations. Its success in saving huge tracts of the natural world, and flora and fauna, is based on a philosophy of attraction and partnerships, not confrontation and enmity.

Dr. M.A. Sanjayan
The Nature Conservancy
Dr. M.A. Sanjayan

It counts among its partners the Dow Chemical Corp. and Wal-Mart. It is Sanjayan’s mission to enlist the aid of corporations and donors who have the power to save nature — and enlist some who had a documented history of destroying it.

Friendly and charismatic
The approach is working because Sanjayan is irresistibly friendly and charismatic, and because he makes the preservation of nature inescapably profound — even to those who have spent lifetimes as environmental apostates.

I asked him if he had a personal mission. He looked off into the middle distance, then said: “I think I’m just trying to be happy. All my life I’ve felt a responsibility to those less well off than I — people, plants, animals. I am a conservation biologist, but what I really am is a storyteller.”

He had come to Minneapolis to tell the story of nature. “Exploration, science, travel, discovery — even the people and animals I meet, the papers I write, the speeches I give — it is all storytelling,” he said.

Sanjayan has told his stories to some powerful people. He is a part of the Clinton Global Initiative organized by former President Bill Clinton. It puts people like Sanjayan and organizations like The Nature Conservancy in the same room with big business to help find market-based solutions to problems like climate change and water shortages. Sanjayan twists no arms. He does twist some minds. Sitting around the table, he tells the story and interesting things begin to happen.

There was the time when Matt Kistler, the senior vice president of marketing for Wal-Mart, faced the cameras after Sanjayan had told a story. Kistler pledged his company’s leadership and money to seek solutions for protecting the environment. Sanjayan had told a story, the moral of which, was that “nobody seems to care about their grandchildren anymore.” When Kistler stood up to make the Wal-Mart pledge, it was clear Sanjayan’s stories had touched him. Kistler’s eyes welled-up and his emotion made it difficult for him to speak.

The same thing happened when Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical, pledged $10 million to The Nature Conservancy. Liveris said the partnership would “help us [Dow] innovate new approaches to critical world challenges, while demonstrating that environmental conservation is not just good for nature — it is good for business.”

A cynic might say that Wal-Mart and Dow are only using The Nature Conservancy to build their companies’ brands. It is a fair observation. “Greenwashing” is a relatively new phenomenon that allows business to paint themselves green, while beneath the paint it is business as usual.

New outlook on the environment
But Sanjayan’s stories aren’t simply about polar bears and rhinos. Sometimes his stories are about the disappearance of the raw material used to make chemicals or Wal-Mart brand shower curtains. His stories give businesses a new outlook on the environment. And the word sustainability isn’t just about the green of the rain forest, but the green of money and bottom-line profits. In other words, he has their attention.

Having Sanjayan in the boardroom, it seems, is much better than barring the door against him. Inside the paneled chambers, Sanjayan tells his stories, and sometimes big business people break down and cry, and some might even repent. In the meantime, The Nature Conservancy takes their money and combines it with donations from concerned adults and more and more children who want to help save nature, and it buys huge chunks of land and preserves them in the natural state. It uses the money to fund research on ways to fight global warming, sustain the rainforests and protect from extinction threatened species.

Sanjayan is quick to point out that human beings are foremost on the list of species needing help. To make his point, Sanjayan told me: “If the extinction of the tiger meant the end of poverty in India, I would let the tiger go extinct. But it is a false dichotomy. You would end up with no tigers and more poverty. Nature is the last great safety net of the poor.”

Of all the places he’s ever been, I asked, “Where is our favorite?” With no hesitation, he said, “The Great Rift Valley in Africa.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It is where humans began,” he said. “You look around at the savannah and the umbrella shaped trees, and it is 72 degrees, and it occurs to you that we still want to look out at our green lawns with trees in the front yard, and we set our thermostats to 72 degrees. It is cellular memory, and that ancient memory tells me, every time I go there, that I’m home.”

That is how many of Sanjayan’s stories end — with the reminder that humans are not separate from nature, but of it. And when we destroy nature, we are burning down our own house.

Before we parted, this man of great experience, science and nature flattered me by saying, “May I ask you a question?” I was honored, and I nodded my assent. His eyes narrowed and he leaned toward me and asked in a whisper, “Is it true that you really fish through the ice?”

I told him to come back in the winter and I would take him into the BWCA to go fishing in the snow. Oh, what stories he would be able to tell.

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