One of the original co-founders of Tigers for Tigers back in 1997, Takako Sato (Clemson 2001) has contributed to our most recent T4T blog. In it, she discusses her passion for tigers and conservation, in addition to the challenges of conservation education in Japan.
After graduating from Clemson, Takako worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Sebastian, Florida. She couldn’t stay away from tigers for long though, and today still works to support the tiger conservation work of Tiger Trust in India. She currently is living in Tokyo, Japan, where she educates youth and inspires them to become actively involved in tiger conservation.
What is your passion for tigers and for T4T?
My original love for natural environments, the animals and even plants has evolved over the years. As a child, my interest grew from the love of collecting insects- to observing the intricate interactions between plants and animals. As I studied Wildlife Biology at Clemson, I grew to understand how man and nature interact and how we directly impact the natural ecology of a place. As the president of the Environmental Club on campus, I was approached with the idea to save our mascot, which was endangered and that is where my love for the tigers grew. I was NOT a big sports fan, but I was a BIG fan of endangered animals and if someone's love for football, baseball or any sport was going to increase the fan base for the tigers in the wild, I was ALL IN!
My passion for tigers and all endangered animals and their habitats are an expression of my love for nature. The wildlife that is at risk from being lost forever in my generation is the result of human activities that will undo millions of years of evolution. As a single member of the human society, I feel responsibility for the fate of the Earth's fragile ecosystems because the rate at which we destroy it, is startling. The short-sighted actions that others take are for greed or profit, and this makes me motivated to take action to save what we have left for the future generations.
The fact that the focused action of a few, dedicated individuals can help influence and change the current course of how things are going gives me great hope. What is important is how we shift people's attention not just from these precious creatures but to conserving the larger landscape. We need to stop poaching, illegal trafficking of wildlife parts and stop looking the other way as the land gets developed or destroyed.
I want to know how we can empower people to take action to be part of changing our current course of destruction! I want to spend the rest of my life towards working on these kinds of issues which are beyond my lifetime. I wish to inspire people to never give up hope that humanity can change! After having had a chance to go to India 3 times to learn about and see wild tigers first-hand, I have an idea for what challenges lie ahead. But it's been almost 10 years since my first time in India, and this year I could see positive changes in the social conditions so I have hope in the environmental conditions changing also!
How do you celebrate success and acknowledge others?
Everyday I am motivated by what I see or hear because I am disturbed by the grim news or sad reports of another battle lost against poachers, bad policies or people's negative attitudes. Instead of throwing up my hands, I ask myself, "What is it that I can do? How can I make a cause to see a different effect?" and I try to do something with the hope that my action will make a ripple in the pond. I feel that every single action I take, whether it's a "click to like" or sending an email or making a phone call to someone is my personal victory against the tide of hopelessness. The action I take may feel small or insignificant at times, but I have faith that taking one step towards my goal is a step towards achieving my goal.
Environmental issues are such a daunting and relentless struggle against so many factors that are actually out of my control. I can sometimes be overwhelmed by the vast universe and feel like a microscopic entity. But it's in one interaction, raising my little voice and taking the slow steady action over my lifetime, that I can move this giant mountain, pebble by pebble. To not be swallowed up by anger, hopelessness and despair is my small victory.
I celebrate success in my one single action, to make a change. I feel accomplishment when I don't give up hope. And because the things I want to accomplish are actually impossible to accomplish on my own, I need to enlist others' support and actions as well - so empowering the people around me is a key part of my struggle. I feel that saving one species is not the answer to the whole problem, but it is the key that allows me to open the door of people's hearts to the larger issues at stake. I hope that I can inspire people to see that it's not ONE action, but MANY UNITED ACTIONS that will make a change for the better. In Buddhism, we have a teaching that says "When you light the way for others, your own path is illuminated." When I try to inspire hope in others, I am also motivating myself to have hope!
I acknowledge the people who came before me, who had the vision to save and learn about the animals and ecosystems. I give thanks to them for their efforts- many of them swimming against the tide and risking their own lives for the sake of what they loved. I honor them by taking on their struggle. I hope that I can serve a role to inspire others, especially the youth, to never give up hope. They are taught how all these environmental issues - ice caps melting, species going extinct, etc are happening but they are rarely told what they can do about it. I try to tell people about my passion and my actions and hope it's contagious enough to catch! Everyone has their own unique way of expressing this, and I celebrate creative solutions! I am inspired by people who take action. These problems like poaching, climate change, and pollution are caused by humans. I believe that the solution to these problems must also be discovered by humans. So thank you to those who also did not give up hope and keep taking action in their own unique way.
How do you inspire others to get involved in tiger conservation in Japan?
In Japan, it's strange because people are very apathetic and unmotivated to take action. They have a group mentality unlike in the USA, and don't feel that their one small action will make any difference in the situation. So just talking to people and opening their eyes to the issues then telling them that I am taking action against poaching by supporting this NPO (Tiger Trust, T4T and Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund) actually it helps shift their way of thinking to "Oh, I can do something about that!?!"
Also in Japan, even though people love the symbol of the Tiger like in the USA, the actual wild Tiger scares them and they do not feel a strong desire or need to save them. When I tell them about how there are so few left, they are in the mindset, "So? What does that have to do with me? or That's too bad! Poor Tigers!" So when I ask them, do you feel like you want to save them? They usually answer "No, they are scarey and eat other animals." So I must tell them in my message how the tigers serve a role in the environment, as a keystone species they help promote a balance in the natural ecosystem so the prey's population can be controlled and overgrazing doesn't damage the forest. I share with them how the healthy population of tigers is a sign of how healthy the forests are...then they get a better idea of WHY tigers are important in the landscape.
Getting money from Japanese people is a whole other issue! They are not quick to donate even the smallest bit of pocket change, even though they full-heatedly support your cause! They are never confident that their small change can make any difference in the big picture! The more specific you can be about how these funds will be used and the more simple you can present this to them, the easier it is to get a financial donation!
I find that asking them to take a photo with me or some easy action like signing a card of support is the most effective way to make them feel like taking action. Some are interested in doing something but don't know what to do or don't have time to do it, so simply making them aware of the situation and asking them to tell their friends what they learned is action enough. I am still trying to discover HOW I can best engage people and empower them towards action.
The Japanese government is not the same as in the USA, petitions and demonstrations rarely move them to action. I am still in the process of finding out HOW to make a difference here in Japan, but I will keep doing what I can and hope that at some point, I can meet the right people to help my cause make a bigger difference in Japan! It's all about the slow, steady race as I'm living in a new country and challenging being able to just talk about these issues in Japanese! One day at a time...one person at a time...