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M. Sanjayan: Nature’s Guardian

By Linda Dyett

Dec 14, 2011

From the January/February 2012 issue

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Name: M. Sanjayan
Age: 45
Hometown: Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Currently lives in Missoula, Montana.
Months per year on the road: 12
Places visited in the last 12 months: Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Turkey, Jordan, the Netherlands, Kenya, Namibia, Ecuador, and Canada, along with more than 20 U.S. states.

M. Sanjayan is not your run-of-the-mill frequent flyer. As the lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy, he travels to the most remote and beautiful regions on earth. His mission is to help the nonprofit organization identify and adopt new models for conservation. Among other activities, he hosts documentaries for the Discovery Channel, the BBC, and other outlets. Sanjayan (who, like many Sri Lankans, goes by one name) considers himself the Nature Conservancy’s chief storyteller, spinning scientifically accurate tales that help define the complex relationship between the earth and its 7 billion human inhabitants. As a child, Sanjayan left Sri Lanka with his family and lived in Sierra Leone, Sudan, Pakistan, and Kenya. He’s now based in Missoula, Montana, where he teaches in the University of Montana’s Wildlife Biology Program. Linda Dyett spoke to Sanjayan about the places his work takes him and the problems he confronts as an ambassador for conservation.

How far off the beaten track have you ventured lately?

This year, I accompanied seven Nunavut youths making a 200-mile trip on the Thelon River in Arctic Canada. It was about as remote as you can get. This place in the Northwest Territories is both the largest wildlife refuge in North America and the spiritual home of the Dene people. The Dene used to be nomads, but in recent years about 300 of them have settled into the small village of Lutsel K’e. It is about 275 miles from the refuge, and most people in the younger generation have never visited the Thelon. We wanted to make sure these kids still have a connection to the land, which we believe will ultimately help them make the best decisions for their future.

What kinds of stories do you tell to help people understand their relationship with nature?


In Kaktovik, an Arctic village, I visited a 70-year-old Inupiat man who showed me the ice cellar that had been in his family for generations. Today, it doesn’t stay cold enough for him to store meat. Instead, a big General Electric freezer is sitting on his porch. My god, we’re now selling freezers to the Eskimos! On a more positive note, in Northern Kenya I visited a ranger station newly built by Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust, a close partner of the Nature Conservancy. The intention was to protect rhinos and elephants, but the station provides other benefits for the Samburu people. Its presence deters cattle rustling. I met a woman who no longer sleeps with her shoes on. She doesn’t worry anymore about having to run away from raiders in the middle of the night.

How did you get hired by the Nature Conservancy?

After I got my doctorate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I designed a wildlife corridor—a narrow strip of land that mountain lions could traverse in suburban Southern California. That caught the Conservancy’s eye. Less than a year later, I was on staff, with a lot of room to push the organization and the conservation movement in new directions.

Have you had any close calls with wild animals?

Sure, but being charged by a rhino, swimming with sharks, or having a polar bear rock the van I’m driving pales in comparison to being in a Calcutta taxi or flying in suicide tubes (as I call small planes) into remote villages. I have never felt in danger around wildlife, but people and machines make me nervous.

Where are you headed next?

Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas, the largest inland marsh in the U.S. It attracts tens of thousands of migratory birds and waterfowl.

When you get the chance, what kind of vacation do you take?

Because I live in Montana, I often take city vacations. But I don’t go on tours. I have no need to see the entire city. For me, it’s about exploring microneighborhoods. I have networks of friends, literally everywhere, who escort me.

Can you compare the way your message is understood around the world to the way it is received in the United States?

It can be harder here, with our affluent society and political deadlock, than elsewhere. Living in a culture that believes more is better is a very, very big challenge. Fifty years ago, we had no idea about the impact we were having on the planet. But today we have opportunities. We can go down in history as the biggest losers, or the hero generation.


Great Bear Rainforest Fjords, British Columbia “In the past, temperate coastal rain forests stretched from Alaska down to Santa Barbara, California. Today, the only one that remains intact is the Great Bear Rainforest. Its salmon, wolves, white Kermode bears, and huge trees—Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and western red cedar—are protected through an agreement with the local First Nation communities.”

Raja Ampat, Indonesia “Protected by community conservation efforts and the Conservancy, the reef off the Bird’s Head of West Papua has the highest documented diversity of coral in the world. If you’re a scuba diver, this is simply heaven.”


Palmyra Atoll, Hawaii “Smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Palmyra is one of the most isolated atolls on the planet. It’s not uncommon to see pods of thousands of whales and dolphins. Giant coconut crabs lumber around on the land, and delicate fairy terns hover in the air, inured to human presence. The entire atoll is now protected by the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. government.” (Shown above.)

Namid Desert, Namibia “This is one of oldest and driest deserts in the world—the only one I know of where all the ‘big animals’ still flourish. Here you can see a black rhino, an elephant, and a lion traversing sand dunes.”

East Africa’s Rift Valley “Over 4 million years ago, humans diverged from other primates in this narrow, semi-tropical valley. Step into the savannahs of East Africa, and even if you’ve never been there before, you immediately know you are at home. You breathe that air, look at that landscape, and something about it speaks to your cellular memory.”


Lebi Derya Istanbul, Turkey “At dusk, get a window table at this restaurant. Eat dinner and enjoy marvelous views of the Bosporus and the Blue Mosque. Centrally located, the top-notch bar is favored by locals.” Kumbaracı Yokusu 57/6 Tünel, Beyoglu, 90/212-293-4989, lebiderya.com.

King Pacific Lodge British Columbia, Canada “From this floating lodge in a fjord in the heart of British Columbia’s spectacular 21-million-acre Great Bear Rainforest, you have a good chance of seeing a spirit bear (or Kermode bear), a variant of the black bear with a pure white coat.” (604) 987-5452, kingpacificlodge.com. (Shown above.)

Hopper Hut, Toronto, Canada “Hoppers are bowl-shaped rice flour crepes cooked in a wok. They’re uniquely Sri Lankan, and they’re traditionally eaten for breakfast or dinner. The version that is made with coconut milk and cooked egg may be my all-time favorite dish.” 880 Ellesmere Rd., Scarborough, (416) 299-4311.

Business Card Market, Hong Kong “Family-run businesses along this street have been making ‘chops,’ or name cards, for decades. You can design your own business card and have it downloaded onto a USB memory stick, or have a traditional chop printed for you with a hand-carved stamp.” Man Wa Lane, Sheung Wan.

Hotel at the Three Storks Prague, Czech Republic “Very close to Lesser Square, Prague Castle, and the Charles Bridge, Hotel at the Three Storks transports you to another era. The original building dates to the 16th century, and Kafka’s house is a short walk away.” Tomášská 20/16, 420/2-57-210-779, atthethreestorks.praguehotels.it.

Photo of Sanjayan by Ami Vitale. Photo of Palmyra atoll by Randy Olson. Photo of King Pacific Lodge courtesy of the lodge.

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