Dr. Dino J. Martins#PANGAIAChangemakers
Could you tell us a little bit more about your organization?
Mpala is a living laboratory, it’s an amazing part of Northern Kenya, on the Laikipia Plateau. On this 50,000 acre conservancy, students and scientists from all over the world come here to learn about the wildlife, the insect life, the bird life, the plant life. And to ask questions that help us understand how life exists, how species interact, how we can solve the many problems we face in conservation, in science, and in education. The mission of Mpala is focused on three things: science, education, and conservation.
Good science is essential for us to solve the problems that humanity faces today. Evidence is really important in decisions made around conservation and sustainable development. We need to be more engaged with the world around us, and we need to engage more people, young people in particular, in science. That’s one of the things that Mpala does, with students and scientists from all over the world, but especially from Kenya and from the African continent.
Why is this work so important?
This work is really important because the African Violet, for example, is a plant that will be familiar to so many people around the world. But African Violets originate in East Africa, in the mountain forests of Kenya and Tanzania. Today, in the wild the African Violets are among the world’s most critically endangered plants. This work is important because extinction matters. We are facing a crisis in the world today. And many species like the African Violet, are critically endangered due to habitat loss, deforestation, pollution, poaching, over-collecting, over-harvesting and climate change.
All of these different factors contribute to extinction. This African Violet in front of me is a very beautiful plant, but also a very sad plant. It’s the last of 2 individual plants left in the world of this particular species. The habitat where it grew was mined and destroyed, the forests were on cliffs and the plant has disappeared completely from the wild. I rescued this plant with some friends and we managed to grow it so we are maintaining it in cultivation but we don’t have any wild individuals left.
Extinction matters because we are just one of millions of species on this planet. We have the fate of millions of other species in our hands. If we don’t save the African Violet, we will not be able to save our food systems, our sustainable production systems, our life support systems. Extinction is a call to action for us to do something about the world around us and to engage and to be responsible.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your journey so far?
Working on interactions between plants and pollinators, and making discoveries has been one of my most rewarding moments, both as a scientist, as a conservationist and as an artist. The African Violet, for example, is pollinated by a very special bee, the Amegilla bee, that looks like a teddy bear, and this bee does a very unique thing with the flowers: it holds the flower in its teeth, its mandibles, and it vibrates it at a very particular frequency, and only then is pollen released and the bee then carries the pollen to another plant. This is called ‘buzz pollination’. Many plants are uniquely adapted to very specific pollinators, as is the case with the African violet. Making discoveries like that is one of my most rewarding moments in terms of working on conservation and science around insects and plants.
I also find great joy in sharing that moment of discovery, working with farmers, children, and schools, has been incredible. When they themselves can make discoveries, when everyone can be a scientist, can be engaged, learn, watch, listen, look at plants, look at insects and realize that even though they are different from us, they’re actually very similar to us. Our lives are impacted by them and we impact their lives immensely too.
What changemakers do you look up to and why?
Growing up in Kenya, in a rural community, I’ve had the immense privilege of learning, listening, and working with some of the most amazing conservationists and scientists.
• Dr. Richard Leakey has been a mentor, friend, and hero all my life. He is one of the leading thinkers and changemakers in terms of conservation, both here in Kenya and across the world.
• I’ve had the immense privilege of getting to know Dr. Jane Goodall, who is another hero. I love her because she takes an approach that includes people, includes empathy, includes deep love and respect for nature as an intrinsic value within all the changes that we want to see in the world.
• Professor Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s Nobel Prize winner, who sadly passed away a few years ago, was a dear friend and a very important mentor for me. Wangari made sure that I got into graduate school, helped me when I was facing some very difficult times and has been an incredible inspiration for myself and for millions of other people across the world, through her dedicated and very committed stance she’s taken on nature and conservation more broadly.
• I’m also very inspired by all the young people. The incredible students, the energy, and the people that come from all over the world to work here in Kenya, at Mpala, and I am especially inspired by my students. In them, I see the hopes, the dreams, and the power to truly change the future, to protect wildlife, different species and to develop new ways of working with nature rather than against it.
If you could save one species at the click of your fingers, what would it be?
Well, that’s a very difficult question because I love so many different animals, birds, insects and plants. But I think despite all the beauty of all the birds, flowers and all the other creatures in the world, I would choose to save the bees. And not just one species of bees, but all species of bees. Because without the bees, there’s no life for people, no life for birds, no life for plants. We cannot survive without bees. The Vulturine Guineafowls cannot survive without bees. We are all connected together in the web of life. And one of the most important parts of the web of life, are the bees.