A People-Driven Approach to Animal Welfare with Azzedine Downes, President & CEO of IFAW

Animals and people can thrive together.

When Azzedine Downes became President and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 2012, one thing was clear to him: “Talking to people who already agreed with us just isn’t enough to get real results.”

As IFAW’s Executive Vice President since 1997, Azzedine had worked closely with experts from across the sciences and decision-makers from around the world. But when he became President, IFAW started bringing together what Azzedine likes to call “the unusual suspects.” Seamstresses in Malawi. Auction houses in China. Military intelligence officers in Minnesota. Working together, IFAW’s eclectic network is now helping animals and people thrive together in more than 40 countries.

Azzedine has led IFAW through a groundbreaking period of geographic expansion and strategic consolidation. He’s helped open offices on four continents, including IFAW’s first office in the Middle East. He’s deployed IFAW’s world-class Tiger Team to South Asia, where new programs are proving critical support for the species. And he established IFAW’s Wildlife Crime program.

Azzedine has also influenced international policies to create positive change on the ground. In Azzedine’s first year as President, IFAW signed a historic lease agreement with a Maasai community near Amboseli National Park in Kenya, securing 16,000 acres of precious habitat for elephants. Months later, Azzedine helped establish a first-of-its-kind cooperative framework between IFAW and INTERPOL’s Environmental Crime Program. For years, Azzedine has served as the Head of the Delegation to the CITES Conference of the Parties. And recently, he directed IFAW’s successful campaign for membership to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Before joining IFAW, Azzedine served as the Chief of Party for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Jerusalem and Morocco, as well as the Acting Regional Director for the United States Peace Corps in Eurasia and the Middle East.

In 2015, Fast Company named Azzedine one of the “The Most 100 Creative People in Business,” and he has been listed among The NonProfit Times’s “Power and Influence Top 50.” He is a member of the Global Tiger Forum Advisory Council, and he currently sits on the U.S. Trade and Environmental Policy Advisory Committee.

A graduate of Providence College and Harvard University, Azzedine is fluent in Arabic, English, and French.

Azzedine joined host Raj Daniels on the Bigger Than Us podcast to discuss why people are essential to animal welfare, his philosophy on bringing together “the unusual suspects,” and why he doesn’t want to be a briefcase conservationist. 

If you ever feel overwhelmed by bad news, be sure to listen till the end for Azzendine’s inspiring words of wisdom. 

By rallying people to create a movement that supports animal welfare, Azzedine is having an effect that is Bigger Than Us. 

Take me to the podcast.

Animal Welfare Vs. Conservation

Excerpts from a conversation with Steve Schmida on the Bigger Than Us podcast. These quotes have been edited for brevity and readability.

When we speak of welfare, it’s a term that applies to well-being, and how are animals treated? How are they viewed?

Oftentimes, when we’re involved in some of the larger issues of conservation, it’s always about large-scale habitat, the economics of conservation. It rarely focuses on the well-being or the welfare of an individual animal.

For a long time, throughout the history of animal welfare, the science community viewed it as an emotional response. It wasn’t based on science. It really didn’t matter whether or not the well-being of an individual animal was important. But over the years has really been a body of science that’s emerged, that talks about animal welfare and the daily life and the role that animals play in their own societies.

When you look at elephants, for example, which is a matriarchal society, it’s incredibly important to look at the life of the matriarch. What is it that she does on a daily basis? And there is an emotional attachment that those animals have amongst themselves.

The good news there is that animal welfare, I think is much more recognized as real science and a real concern in conservation. And that’s one of the things that, personally, I really drive towards.

Sometimes when we talk about conservation, people will say, well, animal welfare is in your name, are you moving away from animal welfare? And my answer to that always is no, I don’t want to change animal welfare. I want to change conservation so that it includes animal welfare.

Unexpected Consequences of Conservation

There are all sorts of things that that that you learn when you’re willing to sit and listen and not come with a conservation plan in your back pocket.

In many places around the world, people who lived in what was the [National Park] are no longer even able to visit their ancestors, where they’re buried because they don’t have the money for the entry fee to the park. And so that created an atmosphere where the people that we rely on most to help us were actually opposed to protecting wildlife.

You fly over the National Park and it’s luxuriously green. And standing outside the fence and looking in their place for a moment thinking, those elephants…have a much better life than I do. How is this fair? How is it fair?

I hear oftentimes things like, “People in Africa don’t like wildlife.” It becomes a racist issue and causes problems that you would never even imagine.

It goes to colonialism and postcolonialism issues, where suddenly you’re saying, all right, well, it’s much more difficult to deal and involve communities in conservation efforts, because in many cases, they’ve lost their lands, they may have lost a relative to an elephant or lion attack or rhino attack. There are all sorts of things that that that you learn when you’re willing to sit and listen and not come with a conservation plan in your back pocket.

People Save Animals

We do a lot of training, and we support Rangers. You’re looking at young people who show up I mean, it’s heartbreaking. But it’s also inspiring to see young people who see a future because they helped protect wildlife. And they show up and they go through this training…the sweat and tears of it with, barely a stitch of clothing, and they’re in the cold and wet at night. 

All I’m saying is, buy them some shoes, buy them some boots, buy them a hat to protect them from the sun.

And sometimes, you know, people will ask, “How is that helping animals?”

These are the people who save lives. So that’s what we did, actually, during the pandemic. I said, listen, we need to focus on keeping everyone healthy, and keeping people employed so that they could save lives. But we’re also going to focus on the frontline people. And that means people who are in our rescue centers and rangers. We cannot abandon them.

The loss of revenue in many places, 100% in national parks, and all of those rangers are left to fend for themselves, including food and water, things that we just talked about. They’re provided with absolutely nothing. And sometimes you say, “I want to support animals. I don’t want to support people.”

Well, in our world…it’s people who save animals today.

Sometimes Support Comes From Unexpected Places

At the end of the chain of wildlife problems, there’s always money there. And so what I’ve tried to do is to reach out to one or two people that don’t agree with us, and that’s why we work in southern Africa.

In southern Africa, for example, many governments subscribe to the philosophy that if wildlife doesn’t pay, it doesn’t stay. And this gets to this notion that I shared with you of animals have intrinsic value. There are many governments and there are many people who believe that wildlife and nature in and of itself has no intrinsic value. It has no worth unless it’s worth money to someone. And that’s a very difficult conversation to have with people.

There’s a lot of money involved when you talk about the illegal wildlife trade, the sale of ivory or the sale of pangolins, or the sale of rhino horns. There’s a lot of money to be made. So the argument connects in ways that were unexpected to me. And, and that’s what I talk about the characters who are out there that you would think, I’m not going to speak with them, I’m not going to work in a place that opposes us philosophically.

But my feeling has always been well, one, you have to be patient, you have to be willing to be criticized. You have to be willing to be attacked.

Why Spend Time Changing Minds?

I want to build a movement of people because that’s what it’s going to take.

I don’t want to be the person who manages the demise of the planet. Because I see myself as part of nature, I don’t see myself apart from it.

So, I always tried to boil things down to get a message across. This is our home, would you burn your own home down? When you think about that, you’re literally going to sit by and burn your own home down? It doesn’t make any sense. So that’s what drives me from a motivational point of view.

I have learned that people are much more averse to change than I thought they ever were. And that’s true in the animal welfare and conservation world as well.

But, that’s what drives me is because I don’t want to build an organization. I want to build a movement of people because that’s what it’s going to take. And it’s going to take a movement of people who understand one another and who are willing to have empathy.

Don’t Become Overwhelmed

Everyone can save a life, no matter how small.

Everyone can save a life, no matter how small. Don’t become overwhelmed, and don’t become so loathing of the worlds in which we live. And I think a lot of people who work in conservation and animal welfare do become overwhelmed by the negative news that comes out constantly.

Don’t become overwhelmed by the bad news every day. There are all sorts of analogies of throwing the pebble in the pond and the ripples and things like that. But when you read about the bees, or the loss of the butterflies or pollination, things like that plant a flower that butterflies love, plant flower that that bees love. Make that small step. And that you can do anywhere you are. You can do it anywhere you are.

The Full Transcript: Episode 144 with Azzedine Downes

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels 03:30

If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Azzedine Downes 03:37

I married someone that I didn’t know. We had an arranged marriage. And we’ve been married for 32 years. So it clearly worked out pretty well.

Host Raj Daniels 03:47

And I’m guessing you know her now.

Azzedine Downes 03:50

Well, you know, one never knows. But yeah, I pretend I do.

Host Raj Daniels 03:56

I know. I think we all just kind of nod and hope there’s not a follow-up question.

Azzedine Downes 04:04

That’s right.

Host Raj Daniels 04:05

You’d be surprised how often I have to say, well, what were the last three words you said?

Azzedine Downes 04:11

Oh, yeah, and we speak Arabic together. And it goes back and forth, depending on where we live. We have three children. They answer us in English, and we speak to them in Arabic. My brothers, who don’t speak Arabic, cannot understand, how is it possible that people can be speaking two different languages and understand one another? But to us, it seems very normal. But to others, it seems incomprehensible I guess.

Host Raj Daniels 04:39

Yeah, we have a similar situation in our house, my wife and I speak Hindi back and forth. We speak to our kids in Hindi every once in a while they’ll look at us. The older two know a lot more than they let on because obviously, every once in a while my wife and I’ll talk about something and they’re like, no, yes. They’ll answer you know, you do understand, right? So I know what you want. Yeah.

Azzedine Downes 04:59

You have to be careful with the kids around. My son just married a woman from Brazil. And so she speaks Portuguese. I’m a brand new grandfather, which I’m thrilled about too. And she speaks Portuguese to him. And so when I tried to say something to him in Portuguese, he just looks at me and says, no, no.

Host Raj Daniels 05:17

Well, congratulations on being a grandfather.

Azzedine Downes 05:19

Thank you.

Host Raj Daniels 05:22

Can you give the audience an overview of the International Fund for Animal Welfare and your role at the organization?

Azzedine Downes 05:28

Sure. We’re a global organization. We work in 40 countries around the world. And our focus is really on animals and people thriving together in the place that we call home, which is our planet. So even though animal welfare is in our name, we’ve been around for 50 years, we were formed in 1969 up in Canada. And I think the focus over those years was really on individual animals. 

I’m now the CEO. And it really occurred to me through the course of our work that if we don’t involve people, we’re not going to solve the problems that wildlife faces. So that’s really what we do as an organization, and involving communities in ways that they haven’t been involved previously to save the lives of animals. 

Basically, you’re saving yourself, when you’re saving the planet in which you live, you’re saving the place that you yourself live. It’s a new approach, in the sense that conservation really was focused on populations of animals. It rarely involved or focused on the lives of individual animals, the part that they play in their own societies. And it certainly didn’t include the people that live with wildlife. And in many cases, you know, very dangerous animals.

Host Raj Daniels 07:01

I love the word welfare in the title of the organization. I think the mind goes in a different direction when you speak about conservation versus welfare. Can you speak to welfare for a minute?

Azzedine Downes 07:16

Yes. When we speak of welfare, it’s a term that applies to well-being, and how are animals treated? How are they viewed? 

We talk a lot about it. I found the intrinsic value of animals and the intrinsic value of wildlife. So oftentimes, when we’re involved in some of the larger issues of conservation, it’s always about large-scale habitat, the economics of conservation. It rarely focuses on the well-being or the welfare of an individual animal. 

For a long time, throughout the history of animal welfare, the science community viewed it as an emotional response. It wasn’t based on science, it really didn’t matter whether or not the well-being of an individual animal was important. But over the years has really been a body of science that’s emerged, that talks about animal welfare and the daily life and the role that animals play in their own societies. 

When you look at elephants, for example, which is a matriarchal society, it’s incredibly important to look at the life of the matriarch. What is it that she does on a daily basis? And there is an emotional attachment that those animals have amongst themselves. 

When you translate strategies that simply focus on populations, you wind up in situations like many years ago, in a national park in Africa, it was said, well, there’s too many elephants. And so they culled them and it was haphazard. They just decided, well, we’re going to kill 50 elephants, not taking into consideration family groups are the matriarch. That’s what they did and wound up with 10 years of sort of rambunctious, male teenage bulls rampaging through the National Park, destroying crops, leaving the park, and causing all sorts of incredible problems that disrupted the balance that the herds had. 

I think it was a moment when scientists began to realize, well, wait a minute. It’s not just about the numbers. It’s in many instances, how those animals are interacting with one another and whether or not they’re stressed. So a lot of times when you talk about animal welfare, you’re talking about The stress that they encounter either through the loss of their own habitat or in the case of illegal wildlife trade, the killing of a matriarch, leaving a family group without a leader. 

The good news there is that animal welfare, I think is much more recognized as real science and a real concern in conservation. And that’s one of the things that, personally, I really drive towards.

Sometimes when we talk about conservation, people will say, well, animal welfare is in your name, are you moving away from animal welfare? And my answer to that always is no, I don’t want to change animal welfare. I want to change conservation so that it includes animal welfare.

Host Raj Daniels

The idea of culling 50 elephants just sounds heartbreaking.

Azzedine Downes

This issue of there are too many animals — when you look at the statistics that come out every year, and the UN reports a million species in danger, it’s hard to fathom that anyone is still making the argument that there are too many animals, too many elephants. It’s really the politics of the situation, and I think the approaches of conservation. 

One of the things that we can chat about is this notion that I call fortress conservation, where you have a national park, you fence the animals in, and you fence the animals, you fence the people out. So when you find a fence that people out, it creates, you know, a great level of animosity. And if then elephants, in particular, destroy crops of people who are struggling to make ends meet in the first place, the response typically is well, we need to kill those animals.

In response to that, if the focus was just on, well, how many elephants are there? What’s the population size? As opposed to the family groups, you wind up with a culling situation where you’re killing elephants for, really, for economic reasons to sell the ivory. But they caused many, many more problems than they solved. It’s also preventing the animals and other animals that migrate naturally from their natural movement. 

So we talk about corridors across Africa, and allowing these animals to move so that they’re not destroying crops, they’re not destroying the landscapes and tearing down trees and things that elephants do if they’re confined. So this gets gets to this issue of, you know, sharing the planet. And that’s why I focus on of animals and people thriving together. Because the parks, if they’re just fenced in, they’re not capable of allowing the animals to act naturally. And you wind up with situation where your governments believe they’re forced to cull.

Host Raj Daniels 13:14

So let’s talk tactically about what IFAW does on the ground. And I’d like for you to speak about “the unusual suspects” also.

13:22

Yeah, yeah. You know, I do talk about “the unusual suspects.” Because over the years, throughout my career, I’ve found that it’s probably human nature that we often have the propensity to speak to people of like minded, right? So we’re talking to the people who already agree with us. 

I found particularly in the political world, it is much more political than I ever imagined. It’s driven by economics and driven by money. At the end of the chain of wildlife problems, there’s always money there. And so what I’ve tried to do is to reach out one, two people that don’t agree with us, and that’s why we work in southern Africa. 

In southern Africa, for example, many governments subscribe to the philosophy that if wildlife doesn’t pay, it doesn’t stay. And this gets to this notion that I shared with you of animals have intrinsic value. There are many governments and there are many people who believe that wildlife and nature in and of itself has no intrinsic value. It has no worth unless it’s worth money to someone. And that’s a very difficult conversation to have with people. 

There’s a lot of money involved when you talk about illegal wildlife trade, the sale of ivory or the sale of pangolins, or the sale of rhino horns. There’s a lot of money to be made. So the argument connects in ways that were unexpected to me. And, and that’s what I talk about the characters who are out there that you would think, I’m not going to speak with them, I’m not going to work in a place that opposes us philosophically. 

But my feeling has always been well, one, you have to be patient, you have to be willing to be criticized. You have to be willing to be attacked. 

But at the same time, there are lots of organizations out there, and governments and UN bodies that focus on a human issue. So we talk about, you know, the Sustainable Development Goals. I’ve had experiences where I’ve met with people in in East Africa and Ethiopia, but Southern Africa as well, where they focus on girls education, or women’s issues, or gender issues or agriculture. 

And they’ll say, “Well, I don’t know why you are here, because you work with animals.” 

And I say, “Well, you know, I’m just curious about what it is that you’re working on.” 

They might say, “We’re working on agricultural issues. And you know, we’ve put a lot of money into creating agricultural space.” 

Then I would ask, “Did you think about where the migratory patterns of the wildlife that live in this area will be affected when you when you put that beautiful fruit grove or, or whatever, or corn or maize or whatever it might be?” 

And you could see sort of the blood drain from their face because they realize, well, we never thought of that. 

We don’t work on wildlife issues. The communities that live with wildlife know, these issues, if you only focused on one issue, as opposed to looking at the habitat that shared, you miss the point. And so that’s what I mean, when we talk about reaching out to the sort of the unsuspecting characters, and sometimes it works. And sometimes it doesn’t work.

Host Raj Daniels 17:13

It sounds like you almost are taking a systems thinking approach to the problem.

Azzedine Downes 17:19

That’s right. And you know, that’s, that’s what I mean when I talk about fortress conservation. And I know, I know why organizations do it. And I know why they did it, initially. And it was, honestly, it was easier. When you have a controlled space and all you’re focused on is the animals that live inside that space, you’d never were faced with the cultural issues, the religious issues, the economic issues, educational issues, gender issues of the people that live outside the park. 

In many places around the world, people who lived in what was the park are no longer even able to visit their ancestors, where they’re buried because they don’t have the money for the entry fee to the park. And so that just created an atmosphere where the people that we rely on most to help us were actually opposed to protecting wildlife. Even though ultimately they lost some of the cultural knowledge that they had. 

So, I really believe in one being patient, listening to people. It takes a lot more time. 

But this notion that people are always against animals. I hear oftentimes things like, “People in Africa don’t like wildlife.” It becomes a racist issue and causes problems that you would never even imagine. 

It goes to colonialism and postcolonialism issues, where suddenly you’re saying, all right, well, it’s much more difficult to deal and involve communities in conservation efforts, because in many cases, they’ve lost their lands, they may have lost a relative to an elephant or lion attack or rhino attack. There are all sorts of things that that that you learn when you’re willing to sit and listen and not come with a conservation plan in your back pocket. 

And sort of the joke that we hear and I’m happy I think, to never have been accused of being you know, a briefcase conservationist. you’ve got your briefcase, you’ve got the plan is I’ve got the money and see you later, never to be heard from again.

Host Raj Daniels 19:59

It seems like this beautiful fortress conservation idea would breed animosity as you said. Drawing a very rough parallel to it, it reminds me of when we have gentrification in urban areas. You get these planners that come in and start, you know, rehabilitating and renovating certain areas. And then the local populations can no longer afford to live in those areas. And then that breeds a very similar animosity.

Azzedine Downes 20:31

It’s absolutely right. A conservancy is land that’s held outside of a national park. So a national park, for simplification is is controlled by the government. 

A conservancy could be land set aside in a land trust, that’s either held by a community like some of the projects that we have in Kenya, for example, where the land is held in trust by a Maasai community. Or it could be held by a private landowner. 

And so this is sort of a leftover, I would say, post-colonial land that was valuable. People who did believe in conservation were often families of from the colonial era or extremely wealthy people from Europe or the US who buy land in countries where it’s possible to put it into a trust. And this happens in the United States as well, where people buy land where they can, and they put it into a trust to preserve it and protect it, which is a is a noble goal. 

But at the same time, you get into issues of well, who really owned that land before colonialism? Who will allow local communities to access water, or fish, or cattle on the land? And so you do see civil strife erupt, and what was a noble goal, to protect wildlife becomes an anti-African issue. That is really, really difficult to deal with.

Host Raj Daniels 22:29

And speaking of the water issues, I would highly recommend, and I’ll put a link to the video, I think it’s in Malawi, where the the tribe was actually sharing a body of water with the animals. And I think you’ve got some video of fishermen poaching in that river too.

Azzedine Downes 22:46

That’s an incredible story, really. You know, the issue of water has been always something that has interested me. While it’s not directly related to the work that we do in conservation, although it applies when there are drought issues and the amount of water that some national parks provide to elephants, which is a good thing from an individual animal’s perspective. But it also prevents them from…in the wood in the dry season in the wet season. 

There’s always an upside and a downside to those things. But in Malawi, it was just so extraordinary to see that there was water available. Because I’ve lived a lot in the Middle East, in places where water is a serious issue for everyone for every living being. And there was so much water available. 

And I thought, well, how are they not taking more advantage of it? Only to then learn that the women mostly were the ones who go to the river every day to fetch water for drinking water, cooking, water washing, and things like that. 

Only to learn that, you know, up to 50 people a year killed by crocodiles. And I thought, well, what about a fish farm? What about some sort of sustainable agriculture for these people that could provide, you know, an economic benefit? 

Oftentimes in southern Africa, in particular, the economic benefit is always related to things like trophy hunting, which, I always find extraordinary that there’s nothing else that you know, governments or the private sector could do for people besides kill. 

But on the issue of water, so what it is that we did was we had a fish farm, and the fish were going to be sold to the safari lodges. So I thought, okay, well, there’s a source of income for people. And you know, when you look in some of these communities, you’ll find that every employed person is supporting financially up to 12 other family members. So sometimes, the statistics of well, how many people did this project employ are misleading because they’re actually exponentially supporting many more people in their community. The runoff from that water was used to irrigate the agricultural products that we helped them develop. From a sustainable energy perspective, we thought, well, how is it that we’re going to bring in electricity here? 

We put in solar-powered pumps, that brought water from the river directly to the village. So immediately, the women, in particular, the women were extraordinarily happy because they no longer had to go to the river and lose their lives. And oftentimes there were elephants in that same area, and we put a fence up that protected the agricultural products. 

But oftentimes people going through the forest to the river surprised elephants, and then unfortunately, a number of people were killed. And so we opened that project, and we had a bit of an event to celebrate the opening, and the minister was there. And she gave a speech. The Deputy Minister was also a woman. And I noticed that she was crying during the speech, and I thought, well, I’m not sure why she’s feeling overwhelmed. So I went to her afterwards. 

I said, “I saw that you were weeping. Why? Why were you weeping?” 

And she said, “Well, I don’t think you understand the implication of that water pump.” 

And I said, “Well, no, I know that you know, people were killed going to the, to the river.” 

She said, “Yeah, but what you don’t know and probably no one else would tell you that many of the women were sexually assaulted in those woods, going to the river. And I guarantee you that they no longer have to do that. They will do anything to help you protect those elephants and that fence.” 

And it was one of those moments that was just staggering to me, thinking all of those things I believe in and sitting and listening and, and involving people. No one had told me that. No one had told me that. Clearly, a highly sensitive issue. A water pump did that.

Host Raj Daniels 27:28

That really is amazing. And I’ve heard those stories before. And again, that video, shows the women going down to the water with the containers and you can read stories all day long about how far they have to travel and the issues around sexual assault, animal attacks, etc, etc. And to your point, something simple as an you know, I’m saying simple, but you know what I mean, from an engineering perspective, you know, solar with a water pump, it can change the entire ecosystem of one village or, you know, an entire generation of people.

Azzedine Downes 27:58

It brought to light some of the things that I think the villagers believed in before they were locked out of the National Park. They had such great knowledge of how to live with some of these animals and share the space. But they had a very, very negative view of that national park because as you fly over, and it was the dry season, just absolutely brown leafless trees and shrubbery. 

And then you fly over the National Park and it’s luxuriously green. And standing outside the fence and looking in and put yourself in their shoes, or in their place for a moment thinking, those elephants that wildlife have a much better life than I do. How is this fair? How is it fair? And, you know, it hits you in a way that’s unexpected. 

I do try to get out to people that when they asked me, “Why don’t people in Africa want to protect the animals? We want to protect the animals.” 

And I said, “Well, I’m a gardener. Are you willing to let the rabbit teacher tulips?” 

But you’re asking people who live with crocodiles and lions on a daily basis trying to find water, to live next to those animals that could kill them. It’s an awakening of a spirit. 

I think what drives people is an emotional response. The statistics that I mean, we could talk about statistics all day long, but the end of the day is like, what is it that drives people to, to want a better world? It’s an emotional response. It’s not statistics.

Host Raj Daniels 30:08

Well, to your point there’s a person at the end of every statistic?

Azzedine Downes 30:13

Well, that’s right. And you know, I have that many funny conversations with my own staff and scientists over the years. 

We had an international forum, and they’ll say, “Okay, here’s the CD, just give it to the politician. It has all the stats on it. And so once they read it, they’ll vote with us.” 

They said, “Why are you asking them about their family? Why are you asking?” Because they don’t know me? Why would they trust me this? They said, “Well, what does that have to do with it?” 

In my own life, in my own career, if that’s one thing that people would remember me, for is I listened, and I was respectful. And if they trust me that I’m going to do the right thing, then they’ll help me do it.

Host Raj Daniels 31:04

I agree. So speaking of your career, you’ve been with IFAW since 1997, so if my math serves me correctly, it’s 24 years. You know, the crux of our conversation is the why behind what you do what motivates you. So 24 years is a long time to be with one organization. So my question to you is, why and what motivated you to stay there so long?

Azzedine Downes 31:34

A couple of things. I think, from a personal point of view, I see myself as part of nature. I don’t see myself as someone who’s managing nature. I talk a lot about this, I don’t want to be perceived, nor do I wanted to manage the demise, of of the planet. And I think that there’s a lot of negativity out there, where it’s a fork gone conclusion that people are going to destroy the world, and they’re going to destroy the planet, and there’s nothing you can do it, to stop it. 

I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be the person who manages the demise of the planet. Because I see myself as part of nature, I don’t see myself apart from it. 

So, I always tried to boil things down to get a message across. This is our home, would you burn your own home down? When you think about that, you’re literally going to sit by and and burn your own home down? It doesn’t make any sense. So that’s what drives me from a motivational point of view. 

From a professional point of view, and what motivates me to look at my email every day, and things like that is that the organization is 50 years old. It started based on, you know, trying to save the lives of the seals, the harp seals up in Canada. And it was really a collection of people who were living in different parts of the world. And if you said, well, it was an organization, the organization was founded in 1969. 

But it really was a collection of people. And so, you know, when I first came to IFAW, I think if you asked me, you know, how many people work for us, or, you know, how many offices we had, or how many projects we had, you would get different answers from the people that you asked. The French would say one thing the Germans would say another thing, you know, the folks in South Africa would say something else. And so, what drove me to build the organization was was really to, create something that was greater than the parts. 

Was I surprised? Yes. It took a long, long time. I kind of come from a world where change is the constant for me. And that’s what excites me. But I have learned that people are much more averse to change than I thought they ever were. And that’s true in the animal welfare and conservation world as well. But, that’s what drives me is because I don’t want to build the organization. 

I want to build a movement of people because that’s what it’s going to take. And it’s going to take a movement of people who understand one another and who are willing to have empathy. 

You know, and Jane Goodall is a good friend of mine and we talk a lot about hope. I never want people to get so discouraged that they give up. So you have to have hope you have to have a positive attitude. You know, sometimes when I meet donors, they’ll say, “Well, why are you always smiling?” I am a happy person by nature. I enjoy people. And I think that, without people, we’re not going to save animals. So that’s what drives me.

Host Raj Daniels 35:25

So, tell me more about this deep-seated connection, or this idea about we’re all nature. Where did that come from? I agree with you. I’m just curious.

Azzedine Downes 35:37

It’s interesting that you brought up the issue of water. And I’ll be honest with you is that I’ve lived in places, you know, in, in the Middle East and in Yemen, and in Jerusalem, and going down to the Dead Sea. And seeing the animals that live around the Dead Sea, and Arabian leopards that not extinct, but extirpation, they no longer exist in one particular area. 

And I thought, you see the essence of life and the availability of water that’s taken for granted in so many places, you know, around the world. When I was younger, living, in Morocco, I lived in the city of Fez. We had water from seven o’clock to eight o’clock in the morning. You had one hour of water a day. And, you know, you get up and you fill your buckets. And that was the water that you had for the day. 

It just made me think that this notion that I can just do whatever I want, and it has no impact on anything or not just individuals too. Because I think a lot of times, corporations are really good at shifting the blame, saying, well, you know, what’s your global footprint and things like that. But this notion that we are here to simply extract and use up, and if it has no economic value, to me personally, it has no value. 

That shocked me, that shocked me when I met people who said that. And they say it boldly. And you know, you use all sorts of arguments like, well, what about your children? Don’t you want them to see an elephant or, you know, what’s the world without rhinos or other animals? 

And the thing that I found most shocking, was that they would say I don’t care. I don’t care about my children, or my grandchildren, if there’s no money to be made, I’m not interested. I found that so fundamentally shocking. 

And so separate and apart as if nature was some sort of an amusement park that you visit. And if you visit it, or you don’t visit it, it doesn’t make any difference to you. But the fact of the matter is when you live in a place where water and vegetation and agriculture are living on the edge, it makes you think, you do need to have a light footstep in nature. 

This notion that you have dominion over everything, without responsibility I think it’s just a misconception that a lot of people have. I meet them, I meet them in my work, and I find it shocking because it gets to me back to this notion of, but you’re burning down your own home. Why would you do that?

Host Raj Daniels 38:47

I agree with you. And I mean, in my mind, it’s indisputable that we’re all part of nature. And the people that have that mentality, as you know, to your point about it’s a theme park visit or something to go see. I don’t understand it either.

Azzedine Downes 39:06

You know something that’s interesting about the pandemic, and it’s horrifying. But it’s a moment of reflection for people who perhaps saw themselves separate and apart from nature. 

But when they hear well, according to the reports, you know, the Coronavirus, originated from bats, and because people were consuming wildlife, it became very real for them. And there’s a quiet moment, when, you know, sort of the problems that we’re faced with a lack of tourism, which provides revenue for conservation. 

It’s a much quieter world and the inability of people to do the things that they normally do. Whether it’s going out to restaurants or wherever it may be. Going for a walk suddenly became something that they could do and in many cases, the only thing that they could do. 

We live next to a very, very nice park in the city of Providence. And I would say that before the pandemic, there were people there, but not as many now, as you see, just walking. and spending time with children, who see the world in a very different way. I teach my grandson to touch the trees and say hello and don’t hurt the flowers and things like that. And, you know, people ask, why I do that. What difference does it make? Because people have lost the connection. 

I live in a city too, but everyone can do something. Everyone can save a life, no matter how small. Don’t become overwhelmed, and don’t become so loathing of the worlds in which we live. And I think a lot of people who work in conservation and animal welfare, do become overwhelmed by the negative news that comes out constantly. 

But that notion that gee, perhaps I was wrong, it does make a difference, what animals live in their own environments. As worlds clash, more and more of these zoonotic diseases come up. And so I think it’s, it flies in the face of this notion that nature is separate and apart.

Host Raj Daniels 41:46

I agree. So 24 years with IFAW. What are the most valuable lessons that you’ve learned about yourself on your journey?

Azzedine Downes 41:57

I always find that I have to, I have to continually learn. I have to continually learn. I think that if I ever got to a point where I wasn’t learning something, I would be bored. And I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. You know, oftentimes people do ask me, it’s like, well, how do you stay positive? And it’s because I don’t want to be a briefcase conservationist. 

I get invited to a lot of things, speaking and whatnot. But I found that if I’m separate from the work on the ground, and I’m not out in nature, then I don’t have the energy to do what I do. You know, and the pandemic is, the pandemic, I think, has shown all of us, with Zoom fatigue, and things like that. 

But there’s also been a huge upside to it as well, is that I was surprised that in, in many cases, and it depends on parts of the world, like Saudi Arabia, where we do training for illegal wildlife trade, that many more women were able to participate in the training that we did because they felt more comfortable being on a Zoom call than they would have if they were, you know, invited to a seminar where there are men. 

So, there are some interesting gender issues. I don’t describe myself as an expert. I think the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

Host Raj Daniels 43:48

So, magic wand 2030. What does the future hold for IFAW?

Azzedine Downes 43:55

I think that we are literally going to change the face of conservation. I think that the connection of rescuing an individual animal and making that incredibly important in the conservation world is going to change the way that people become involved. 

I think that when you look at the young voices across Africa, and Asia, where we really focus, there are so many incredible, talented people who didn’t get the opportunity to get on the stage, and let their voices be heard in ways that, again, are unexpected, will be the platform to make that happen. And in the end, for me, and what I boil it down, in all of my discussions internally at the organization, is that if you’re proposing something that doesn’t ultimately result in saving more lives, I’m not interested.

Host Raj Daniels 44:59

I love the idea. And also regarding the next generation, does IFAW have an ambassador program for children for the next generation?

Azzedine Downes 45:09

We’ve done a lot of things with children, mostly through art, and we have animal action education. We’ve produced a lot of educational materials. And some of the research showed, it was very, very interesting that the younger children have a natural affinity towards the animals. 

And then for some reason, and maybe it’s, you know, for all of the other reasons that teenagers face, it kind of drops off. It kind of drops off during the teenage years, and then it re-emerges when young people are in their late teens or early 20s. 

So that’s where we’ve sort of shifted to, to get people involved. And reaching out to them in ways that previously hadn’t been done. We talked a little bit about it earlier. It’s like, well, how can we use music? How can we use art? How can we get people to express themselves and give them a platform? And so, you know, we do focus on that. 

The other part of education, not just generally talking about conservation issues, but how we can support vocational education so that local communities that live with wildlife give an opportunity that they wouldn’t necessarily be given because they don’t have the financial resources. And sometimes it’s small amounts of money. 

One of the things that I like to do, and I think it’s because I take risks, and I encourage people to take risks. Not everyone has the same level of risk aversion. 

When you look at young people, in many countries, and they want a job, and they want to work with you, and you said, all right, well, we’ll give you a contract, but you need to have your own laptop, or you need to have your old car, so you can get to these places. They don’t have any of those things. And so as an organization, you know, we talk a lot about if we’re not willing to give people a chance, it may work, it may not work. And you do take a risk. 

But you also have to help provide them with some of the things that they need to do their job every day. And sometimes it’s equipment, sometimes it’s things like shoes, boots. 

We do a lot of training, and we support Rangers, and, you know, you’re looking at young people who show up I mean, it’s heartbreaking. But it’s also inspiring to see young people who see a future because they helped protect wildlife. And they show up and they go through this training, and, you know, the sweat and tears of it with, barely a stitch of clothing, and they’re in the cold and wet at night. All I’m saying is, buy them some shoes, buy them some boots, buy them a hat to protect them from the sun. 

And sometimes, you know, people will ask, “How is that helping animals?” 

These are the people who save lives. So that’s, that’s what we did, actually, during the pandemic, I said, listen, we need to focus on keeping everyone healthy, and keeping people employed so that they could save lives. But we’re also going to focus on the frontline people. And that means people who are in our rescue centers and rangers. We cannot abandon them. 

The loss of revenue in many places, 100% in national parks, and all of those rangers are left to fend for themselves, including food and water, things that we just talked about. They’re provided with absolutely nothing. And sometimes you say, “I want to support animals. I don’t want to support people.” 

Well, in our world, sadly, it’s people who save animals today.

Host Raj Daniels 49:17

If you could share some advice, or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be?

Azzedine Downes 49:24

I think on a personal level, I would say, and I know it’s more difficult to do than just saying it but try not to become overwhelmed. Try not to become overwhelmed. Particularly for younger people who look at all of the bad news that comes out every single day. And then translate that into this is not a world I want to see my children live in. I don’t want to have children. I don’t want to bring anyone into this world. It’s a very, very dark vision of the world. 

It’s very easy to become overwhelmed. And you know, people will often ask, well, what is it that I can do? And I think that making a connection, however small it is to nature, whether it’s, planting a small garden, or thinking about what the birds need, or what the butterflies need, or even the rabbits when they eat the tulips, which drives me out of my mind, but there are things that you can do. 

There are decisions that you can make. Think about what you buy, and things like that, and the impact that it has. But, if you live in a place that has civil society, think about what it is that you want for the world. And don’t view it through an economic lens. Often, we’re forced to do that. 

But you know, when you think about the Sustainable Development Goals, for example. I think about this a lot. And I think it would be better if we said sustainable health goals, you can have development, you can have all of those things and still lose your health, and the planet’s health. But what is it that you’re doing when you use your voice to support policies and politicians, and regulations? 

If you have the ability to do that, and not everyone around the world does. But if you live in a civil society that allows your voice to be heard, think about, your health, and the health of the planet, before you think whether or not it has any economic value. 

I think that if we all did that, we would have both. And you can start small.

Don’t become overwhelmed by the bad news every day. There are all sorts of analogies of throwing the pebble in the pond and the ripples and things like that. But when you read about the bees, or the loss of the butterflies or pollination, things like that plant a flower that butterflies love, plant flower that that bees love. Make that small step. And that you can do anywhere you are. You can do it anywhere you are.


Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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If there’s a subject or topic you’d like to hear about, send Raj Daniels an email at BTU@NexusPMG.com or contact me via our website, NexusPMG.com. While you’re there, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter where we share what we’re reading and thinking about in the cleantech green tech sectors.

Raj Daniels

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