Tying concepts and the consequences of ecosystem loss into his lecture, Corwin encouraged the audience to understand the human-animal reliances that balance our ecosystems and act with the natural future in mind.
“Our biggest challenge to conservation is people don’t feel connected to nature,” Corwin said. “You can’t protect what you do not care about and you can’t care about something if you don’t know it.”
Corwin concluded his lecture with an open Q-and-A session with students, addressing everything from conservationist advice, close encounters with poachers and his dangerous ordeal with a young elephant on CNN’s “Planet in Peril” in 2007.
“You can still put your seatbelt on and die in a car accident,” Corwin said, putting the incident into perspective. “You have a problem with an elephant, you may not get out of it. You just try to be careful. I think that elephant thing was the only time I ever thought, ‘Holy moly, this may not work up.’”
Corwin’s lecture served many purposes, providing answers to the curious, entertainment to the bored or even inspiration, in the case of pre-veterinary junior Lauren Koos.
“I’m interested in characters that are very much involved in helping animals and awareness of conversation,” said Koos, who arrived at the Marshall Student Center hours before the lecture to ensure good seating.
Jeff Corwin rose to prominence in the early 2000s with his acclaimed and wildly popular Animal Planet program, “The Jeff Corwin Experience,” and Disney’s “Going Wild with Jeff Corwin.” He currently stars in ABC’s “Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin” and has had programs on Food Network, Travel Channel, and MSNBC.
Before Corwin took to the stage, ULS organizers rewarded students for completing a Facebook “like” challenge by tossing 100 ULS t-shirts into the audience, and announced the lineup for spring 2012’s lecture series:
Jan. 13: Football analyst and philanthropist Herm Edwards
March 4: Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield
April 9: Grammy-winning singer/songwriter John Legend
ULS organizers and Corwin were able to manage time for a quick split-interview before the lecture with Bulls Radio and USF News.
What do you feel is the most pressing environmental conservation effort, or project today, and what role does that play on the global scale?
Corwin: I think one of the greatest challenges we face is we live in an age of extinction. Unfortunately, during the last debate and election, all of this stuff gets lost. We lose a species of life on our planet about every half an hour. It’s gone forever. We lose more animals, plants and life-forms today than was lost 65 million years ago, in the wipeout of the dinosaurs. It’s been argued as the “sixth extinction.”
When we lose life, we not only lose an aesthetic element to our planet: We lose a resource. It could be a cure for some sort of disease; It could be a resource we depend upon as food; It could be a life-form that interconnects to an ecosystem that makes it whole and complete, and drive it. We are losing things before we even can identify them, and I think extinction today is, to me, one of the biggest issues.
The cause of extinction is basically four or five factors, and they’re all equally deleterious. They’re all equally terrible: Habitat loss, pollution, environmental degradation, the unsustainable exploitation of species and human population growth. All these factors, habitat loss, climate change, human population growth and environmental pollution, work together; They conspire together and they don’t work in a vacuum. Habitat loss, “cut down the trees, burn it down and make room for agriculture,” contributes to climate change. So you see how they work together. Cut down the habitat, access of the animals, and sell them to the black market trade. They conspire to make it the perfect extinction story.
My new series that I’ve had, actually season two for “Ocean Mysteries,” which is a series running on ABC, has opened my eyes to the great challenges we face in the ocean, which finds its way into that pie of extinction, I’m sure. The thing that’s really shocked me, filming “Ocean Mysteries,” is that no matter where we go, the bottom of some deep abyss off of Alaska, filming Stellar sea lions or somewhere in a cave in the middle of the archipelago off of Hawaii, filming manta rays or a remote beach, filming nesting albatrosses, we find trash. We’ve polluted our oceans. It’s really inspired me to do a few projects, and one of them is an e-book coming out around the end of November. It’s designed to really use this sort of 21st century technology, the sort of trans-media, interactive technology of video, footage, narration and classic literature reading to combine all together in this really cool, interactive e-book. The first book is called “Sharks,” because nothing says more about what’s happening to our planet than sharks. Ninety percent of all shark species are in trouble, and 70 percent of our sharks are endangered. These are animals that have been around, some of the first creatures on our planet.
How did your passion for conservation and wildlife involvement start, and how did you turn that into the career it’s been?
Corwin: Well, I’ve always loved critters and nature; I’ve always had a fascination for the natural world. I was a city kid at first: Until I was about eight or nine years old, I lived in a very urban environment, in an apartment building. My dad delivered doughnuts, worked at a printing shop and then became a police officer. I put my mom through school to become a nurse, so you can’t really say a “Rockefeller background.”
I needed nature. I would go to my grandparents, who lived in a farming community, and I’d go up to the pastures, to that rural area and look for critters, and that’s where it all began. It just crystallized and germinated. I remember finding my first snake when I was six years old, and that was the lightning bolt that struck me, that said “No matter what I do, when I grow up, I want to work with animals in some capacity.”
I had a very unconventional life. I started out kind of ordinary, and by the time I was sixteen I was living in a rainforest, on the front lines of rainforest conservation that in the 80s created one of the first rainforest organizations, and in the late 80s created one of the first national parks with this foundation we created in Paraguay. This was my passion.
I was down living in Central America, kind of fingering my way, feeling my way, trying to find out what I was going to do for research. I got featured in a documentary, and I knew that I was in the wrong path. I did go to graduate school, but my passion wasn’t “lost in a jungle, doing important research,” but was to be a communicator, to be there to be a sort of conduit; To take that scientist’s information, that she or he has done, and translate it for a mass audience.
So, what was it like filming “The Jeff Corwin Experience?” A lot of us did grow up watching it.
Corwin: Yeah, that was my second series. My first series was called “Going Wild,” on Disney. That was the first series that really had been on television since Marlin Perkins’ Mutual of Omaha. I did that for three years for Disney, and I was one of the first new Disney stars with the rebranding of the network. Then I went back and finished graduate school, and then went on to Animal Planet.
It’s funny. I’ve been on television now for almost 17 years, and I’ve had ten different series; A series on the Food Network, and now I have a series on ABC, the highest rated series for 2012. Everyone, that’s what they remember: “The Jeff Corwin Experience.” It was a delight; It was a joy because I created that series and it was really different.
It was very funny when Animal Planet was entertaining the idea of taking me on board. They were like, “Oh, he’s too kid-ish,” or, “He’s too young,” and someone sent them an outtakes reel of me being me, and they said “If you can do your outtakes reel, and you can combine that with nature…” It was really an incredible experience. It was very different, and I’m very grateful for it because it allowed me to do the things that I’m doing now.
It was great, but I don’t wallow on stuff, I move on, you know? You move on, and you evolve, and that’s how you survive in the very competitive, unforgiving environment of television. Again, right now, I think this is my twelfth or thirteenth TV series. I’m just glad I keep going.
What was the most memorable experience that you’ve had? There’re so many, and you’ve worked in so many continents and been to so many places, but do you have any memories that jump out at you from working in the field, on or off camera?
Corwin: Incredible moments in doing this… I think, probably for me, a moment that really resonates is in itself a small moment. We’ve gone and taken orangutans and released them back into a rainforest, and we’ve gone with gorillas, and giant snakes… I think for me was a moment being with the scientists when a very special, iconic frog of Panama became extinct. They only lived in captivity. We kind of went on a “fool’s errand” in the area where they were, and we found one, alive, which became a critical part of the reestablishment of this species. That to me was an amazing moment. To see a species that had become officially extinct, with the scientists, as it was rediscovered… That glimmer of hope for the species to me was a great moment.
With this series, “Ocean Mysteries,” we’ve had amazing moments. We spent six weeks in Alaska this summer, and I remember being on a helicopter with a scientist from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, darting a giant grizzly bear as it slid down an ice slope to get a satellite collar, jumping off, securing the bear, and just sitting there, blue sky, mountaintop with a grizzly bear in your lap. You think, “Wow, I’m getting paid for this.” Could be working a toll-booth.
Obviously, you have a message of conservation for all the students tonight, but did you want to expand on that with what your goal is for coming here tonight and educating everyone?
Corwin: Well, really, we’re all accountable; There’s no excuse. I used to be the science correspondent for NBC, and I covered the oil spill. Whenever there’s a big environmental issue, someone brings me in and I cover it, and life gets back to normal and people forget about oil spills. There was not one conversation between a journalist, Romney, or President Obama about “What about the future of life on Earth? What about climate change? What about these major factors that are affecting our planet, and the success of all life on Earth?” That bothers me. I want to remind everyone that we all have responsibility to be stewards for our planet, and that’s why I do what I do.
Ultimately, who you’re punishing is not me, you’re not punishing yourself, you’re not even punishing nature; You’re punishing my two daughters, because they will inherit a world that is less biologically rich, healthy and diverse as the one we had. If you want a crash-course to extinction, deny your species resources they need to survive, and you’ll be just like the dodo bird.