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Honorary Graduate's Speech: Dr David Western, Doctor of Science (DSc)

Chairman of the African Conservation Centre, Nairobi and former Head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Dr Western's honorary degree was awarded for his contribution to wildlife conservation. He was an undergraduate student of the University of Leicester  and is considered to be one of the top conservation ecologists in the world. He received his honorary degree on Wednesday, July 10 at the morning degree ceremony. The following is his response after the degree ceremony oration.

Vice Chancellor, members of the faculty, ladies and gentlemen. This is a particularly wonderful occasion for me to return to Leicester and receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Science for it is exactly 35 years ago that I graduated the same as all of you here and, as a matter of fact and perhaps by coincidence, I felt it was a little bit long in my returning to Leicester, and I was thinking of a excuse to come back and see how the University had changed.

I didnít imagine for one moment that I would be in these circumstances, so it is with great humility that I accept this honorary degree for I feel that the role of science has been to some degree both over emphasised and unemphasised.

Dr David Western and the Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess
Dr David Western, receiving his honorary degree from the Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess  [pic: Paul Smith]

So rather than talk about the coconut tree which took me back to East Africa, I want to talk about Kilamanjaro. As a matter of fact my first memory when I was three years old was the snows of Kilamanjaro - seen from a railway train going from Kenya to Tanzania. I was so impressed that the image stayed with me for the rest of my life and it spoke of something wild, something different, and something majestic, and it's for that reason I believe that I ended up in conservation because I wanted to preserve something that was not humanised but that was natural and nature, and so, through a very long winding course, bringing me here to the University of Leicester in 1964. 

I tried to imagine what role a young person would play in conservation back in the 1960s. I thought of being a big game hunter, I thought of becoming a game warden and many different things and yet there was one thing that stood out for me that had not been tried and that was a scientific approach at that stage for wildlife conservation and why.

I had grown up among a hunting family and yet realised that we knew precious little. We knew precious little about wildlife. Yes, we knew how to hunt them, but we did not know what they were doing and where they were going and it seemed to me that understanding the basics of wildlife was best done through a science degree, and thatís why I came to Leicester.

But hereís where it all fell apart. I went back to the old dream of Kilamanjaro, and every single picture you see of Kilamanjaro with wildlife in front of it is Amboselli National Park - the area that I set out to do my PhD study, but no sooner did I get going on science than I realised that answers lay not in science but in humanities. Yes, we could understand what wildlife were doing and where they were going when we used science but what it didnít tell us is the human side of the story, and I am going to get back to Kilamanjaro to show you that we can be in an isolated world.

The Masai, who I have worked alongside for many many years, have been traditional pastoral people living off milk and the meat of their livestock and they have led a very isolated life and have managed in the confines of the ecosystem.

But if you look at Kilamanjaro today the snows have almost disappeared. Within ten years they will be gone all together. Why? - because of global warming. Because the impact of humanity can no longer be confined to a single ecosystem it has become truly global so we are the problem, we human beings, and ultimately we must be the arbiter not only of our own small ecosystems from which we came, but also the entire globe.

I am going leave you with this challenge. Francis Baker, founder of modern science, said that "Knowledge is power". I will put it that knowledge has a very different role in todayís world. Knowledge leads to greater understandings, not just for our own people and ourselves but of all humanity. It makes us aware of other people, other cultures, other ethnic groups, and with that comes sensibility. We become sympathetic to other people, and we become sympathetic to other species than ourselves. 

So today the biggest challenge of science is creating new knowledge and new sensibilities and with new sensibilities comes a very humbling responsibility - not only to protect other species but also the very own world in which we are all destined. Within 50 years every single facet of this world - whether it's climate, whether itís the soils, whether itís the waters - will be dominated by human activities and there is only one solution and that is we ourselves. 

And so I put it to you that science is a common denominator for good evidence and in the long run science can only give us evidence and not the solution. One of the great findings for me has been that science is a beginning of a long long journey into all the other disciplines and ultimately all those disciplines are the solutions to our common humanity. Thank you.

July 2002

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Last updated: 8 July 2002 17:00
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