‘You’ve got to make the changes you want to see’, says Fota Wildlife director

Rita de Brún speaks with Sean McKeown, Fota Wildlife Park director and longtime Cork resident.
‘You’ve got to make the changes you want to see’, says Fota Wildlife director

Fota Wildlife Park director, Sean McKeown and family at home in Midleton, Co. Cork. Left to right: daughter Faye holding Leia the dog, wife Barbara, Sean and grandchild Inés, son Simon and partner Lizzy, son Luke.

Fota Wildlife Park director, Sean McKeown and family at home in Midleton, Co. Cork. Left to right: daughter Faye holding Leia the dog, wife Barbara, Sean and grandchild Inés, son Simon and partner Lizzy, son Luke.

Rita de Brún speaks with Sean McKeown, Fota Wildlife Park director and longtime Cork resident.

I grew up in a very rural area in County Monaghan. We were lucky to have lovely lakes nearby.

I remember it as green and natural, with labourers working in the fields.

As a young guy, I did that work myself. There was a lot more wildlife around in those days.

Deer and foxes were regular visitors to our family farm, which was bordered by woodland.

I always had a love for the environment. At 8 or 9 I watched a wildlife documentary about wildebeest migration.

It was nature in action and will forever be ingrained in me.

A few years later, I asked for ‘World of Wildlife’ for Christmas. I collected every volume in a binder.

The interest it awoke in me was life-changing. So too were the slides my aunt, a nun, used to project on our wall at home, whenever she’d return from Africa.

I’d never been to a cinema at that stage and they made a huge impression.

I went on to study zoology and to work at Dublin Zoo before helping set up Fota Wildlife Park and becoming manager one year later.

In 1995, our family moved to the Middle East. I’d been offered a job by a sheikh who’d visited the Park.

We put wildlife in his 60 acre garden. We started with two oryx, then added cheetahs, gazelles and other species.

He had a great love for and understanding of wildlife.

Like the Irish, the people of the Middle East have known boom times. People everywhere share many experiences.

We are all interconnected. One cannot rule over the other. We have to learn to live together in a more sustainable manner.

Population growth is putting increasing pressure on the Earth’s resources.

There’s only a certain number that the planet will be able to maintain into the future.

Everything a person uses in a lifetime brings change to our planet. Everyone born into this world impacts our planet.

A certain sustainability is required in life. If we don’t get back to that, if we don’t understand that, there’s very little hope for humanity, as we’ll destroy it all.

Humanity sees global warming as its main threat, but destruction in nature is happening at a far higher pace.

All over the world, the fine balances that exist between insects, birds, mammals and amphibians are being destroyed.

Destruction steadily continues, bringing extinction in the animal and plant kingdoms and throughout nature.

Approximately one fifth of the world’s species have not yet been scientifically described.

Many animals and plants will go extinct before we learn about or begin to properly understand them.

Every couple of days a new species is discovered or described. Most, when they are discovered, are seen in very small numbers and close to extinction.

Take for instance, the red-crested tree-rat. While working at a nature reserve in Colombia, my son and his partner caught sight of one.

They took photographs before the animal disappeared back into the forest.

Shortly afterwards, they learned that for close to 120 years, there had been no record of this animal being sighted.

Until they saw it and captured its image it was believed to be extinct. No further sightings have been recorded since.

Most are not aware of the level of extinction occurring. We all see climate change affecting us.

But for me, the most alarming thing is the destruction of so many animal and plant species of so many other living organisms on this Earth.

Inevitably, if they’re all gone, humanity is gone.

If there is an answer, it’s awareness and education. Telling about the value of nature is not enough.

We’ve got to get people to understand it, and that hasn’t yet happened.

Last year, 18,500 students completed formal education courses at Fota Wildlife Park.

Every year in Europe, more than 145 million people visit zoos that are members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquara (EAZA).

That group of zoos has four Irish members of which Fota is one. EAZA is the fourth largest contributor to wildlife conservation on Earth.

Veganism will be and has to be part of the solution to the challenges facing our planet. Many aspects of current day agriculture methods need to change.

Agriculture, if it is to continue, has to be developed in sustainable, organic ways.

Free public transport is not the answer. People would have no value for that.

What’s needed is a reasonable charge that will incentivise people to use it. State support will be necessary as will better infrastructure.

There’s no point in having railway lines if there isn’t adequate transport to and from populated areas.

Everything must be linked up.

My wife Barbara and I’ve been married 38 years. She keeps me grounded. We’ve two sons and a daughter.

All are really interested in the natural world. The recent birth of our first grandchild changed my life’s focus.

I feel more responsible for the new generations.

Within Fota Wildlife Park, we’re moving away from electric heating. Geothermal, hydrothermal and air-to water systems are in place.

The shop and offices are heated with wood-chip which comes from natively grown trees.

We’re switching away from fossil fuels and striving to greatly reduce our carbon footprint.

You have to start doing what you talk about.

You’ve got to make the changes you want to see.

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