Art Versus Science? Using Both for Conservation

As a zoologist, Lindy Rodwell van Hasselt helped save South African cranes. Now her art speaks for endangered species.

As a child, Lindy Rodwell van Hasselt was so fascinated by the six-foot-tall wattled cranes she saw during family visits to the bushveld, that they shaped her career as a conservation advocate for South Africa’s endangered birds.

Now she’s using her skills as an artist to protect wildlife.

Wattled cranes, which mate for life, often breed on private farms, so van Hasselt involved farmers and landowners in crane protection.

It’s not much of a pivot for van Hasselt, who in 1991 began spearheading efforts with the Endangered Wildlife Trust to protect wattled cranes and preserve South African wetland habitat from encroaching cattle ranches, farms, and hydroelectric dams.

Realizing that cranes are unfettered by national boundaries, van Hasselt, a Rolex Laureate, ultimately spread conservation efforts to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo under a partnership developed with the International Crane Foundation, which united field experts and volunteers to monitor cranes and raise awareness about their habitats.

A key was getting buy-in from farmers and ranchers about the cranes' plight. Some had routinely cleared the grasslands that cranes use to build nests and hatch chicks; others had considered the birds pests and poisoned them. Now many crane-friendly landowners pride themselves on the “crane custodian” signs posted on their property.

Farmers once burned grasslands that cranes nested in. Thanks to van Hasselt, many are now crane friendly, reporting nesting activity and threats to birds, earning coveted crane custodian signs.

By 2008, van Hasselt had transferred oversight of the crane protection project to a colleague and began working for the Lewis Foundation, a Johannesburg-based nonprofit that funds conservation and animal welfare programs. With crane populations on the rise and awareness of their plight heightened, art—a lifelong passion for van Hasselt, 54—continued to beckon. She started transitioning to a career as a sculpture artist promoting conservation efforts.

“I’ve always been interested in art, but with our schooling system, you have to choose between art and science,’’ says van Hasselt, whose professional career began as a zoologist. “As much as I love cranes and was completely passionate about my work, my strength really lies as a catalyst for getting the groundwork done, then handing off to others once things are sustainable.”

Van Hasselt, who has a studio at home and space in a professional studio, now works with clay, stone, porcelain, plants, and found animal skulls and skeletons. her works can fetch up to $3,500.

An upcoming exhibit entitled “Going, Going … Gone” will feature art of endangered birds, frogs, plants, and insects.

“I hope the pieces portray the beauty, diversity, and fragility of endangered species, but also highlight the role we have played and can choose to play in the future,’’ van Hasselt says. “So while this exhibition is about loss, in the end it’s about fighting back.”

Interpretive and personal, art exhibitions can make the kind of statements van Hasselt couldn’t when heading crane conservation efforts.

“The images and information around an art exhibition can be very powerful—even disturbing,’’ she says. “You can definitely express yourself, even be politically incorrect, which you can’t do when you’re heading a cross-border conservation program where you have to be diplomatic and can't criticize policies.”

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

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