‘Radical conservationist’ Ed Warner talks rhinos, outside-of-the-box conservation

Julia Rentsch

 

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While Ed Warner, namesake of Colorado State’s Warner College of Natural Resources and 1968 CSU alumnus, spoke at Avogadro’s Number Thursday to promote his new book, a black rhinoceros lurked in the corner. Though no danger existed — it was a realistically-painted, life-sized blowup specially imported from Europe — its unique and unconventional presence acted to represent the man who stood in front of the packed house.

CSU Alumni Ed Warner spoke on radical conservation and his work with Rhinos Thursday at Avogadro's Number. Photo by Ryan Arb
CSU alumnus Ed Warner spoke on radical conservation and his work with rhinos Thursday at Avogadro’s Number. (Photo by Ryan Arb.)

Self-described as an oilman environmentalist who never takes no for an answer, Warner’s book “Running with Rhinos: Stories from a Radical Conservationist” details his experiences volunteering with the World Wildlife Fund’s Rhino Conservancy Project, also known as Rhino Ops. 

“Few if any laymen like me have been invited to do what amounts to some of the most dangerous volunteer fieldwork around,” reads the book’s introduction. 

Warner, who grew up in the suburbs of New York City, made his fortune while an exploration geologist for McMurry Oil Company. He was the discoverer of the third-largest natural gas repository in U.S. history under Jonah and Pinedale fields in Wyoming, and a pioneer of the hydraulic fracturing practice of gas extraction there, also known as fracking. After leaving the natural gas business in 2000, he has pursued conservation and philanthropy full-time. 

“I was a natural-born environmentalist from a very early age,” Warner said. “Going to work in the energy business was a way for me to practice my science. … I never saw it as some kind of a conflict until the environmental movement made it an issue and labelled people like me the enemies of the environment.” 

According to Warner, human intervention and making use of the land’s resources are both crucial to conservation.

He calls himself a “radical conservationist,” however, because he advocates for “radically new approaches (to conservation) that people had not tried,” including the merits of public-private partnerships.

For example, Warner sees cattle ranchers in Wyoming as a potential boon to biodiversity, provided that it is made economically viable for people to to integrate wildlife, such as sage grouse, prairie dogs and elk, into their sustainable land practices. 

“Ranchers are actually grassland ecologists,” he said. “If they destroy the grass, their cattle have nothing to eat. The only thing they have to sell is beef … and so they actually have to be better stewards of grassland than their fathers and grandfathers before them in order to make a sustainable livelihood.”

Though Warner initially began his work in the American West, his love for the African bush catapulted him into over a decade of volunteer work in collaboration with veterinarians and biologists who care for black rhinoceroses, which are endangered due to poachers out to collect highly valuable rhino horn.

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“The fact of the matter was, I went to Africa as a tourist. It was the trip of a lifetime,” Warner said. “I was going to go and walk in the bush with San Bushmen and other tribal people who are now safari guides, and I didn’t want to drive around, I didn’t want to be in big buses — I actually wanted to walk on the land and see the animals from the perspective of local people … and I just bloody fell in love.”

While in Africa, Warner advocated for native community management of conservancies in order to apply his support for public-private partnerships to the situation of indigenous people living on communal land. According to Warner, this would both promote trade and give indigenous people the direct authority to make business deals.

Warner had a two-fold solution to the problem of poaching. 

Ed Warner sits for an interview with the Collegian. Photo courtesy of CTV.
Ed Warner, a self-described radical conservationist, sits for an interview with the Collegian. (Photo courtesy of CTV.)

“If we make the animals more valuable alive than dead, the local people make a living off of them somehow, like photo safari business, things like that, we have a chance of the local people taking care of the animals, because that is where the real conservation needs to be done. Not from New York or London, but from the countryside of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia and places like that,” Warner said. “And then I believe that the real answer has to come in re-educating the next generations of Asians. Remember that the West believed, right out of the Bible, that nature was something that was given to man that we had dominion over and we could do anything we darn well pleased with it. And we’re just discovering that that’s not working really well for us anymore. We’d better take care of nature or it might not take care of us. Asians have not learned that yet.” 

Warner makes regular appearances on the CSU campus to speak to students, and each summer leads a four-day student field trip that is part of the geosciences curriculum.

“I get to sit around a campfire, I get to hear about their lives and their ambitions and their beliefs and the wonderment they still have,” Warner said. “It’s inspiring.” 

Dr. Richard Knight, a professor of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at CSU, has been a friend of Warner’s since 2005, around the time Warner donated a $30 million gift to the College of Natural Resources. 

“Ed’s not an ordinary person,” Knight said. “I guess he is extraordinary … he works outside of the box and he thinks outside of the box, so therefore, he’d be what you’d call a creative thinker. … He comes up with new ideas.”

The out-of-the-box advice he would give to college students centers around being appreciative of what they have, and using that knowledge to do good.

“If you’re going to take time off between your bachelor’s and a job, or your bachelor’s and a master’s, or a PhD and a post-doc, I don’t care when it is, go and get a job in the third world,” Warner said. “It’ll transform your life. You will see how real people in subsistence and marginalized existences have to live in life. And you will come to the conclusion that the greatest decision in your life was your choice of parents. How do you like them apples?”

Collegian Reporter Julia Rentsch can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @julia_rentsch.