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meet James Wolstencroft

James left  Cambridge to travel the world observing birdlife

James Wolstencroft - Tanzania [2010 ©]
James left  Cambridge to travel the world observing birdlife

It was difficult to find James Wolstencroft. We guessed our way up narrow dirt roads, asking young kids where the Mzungu (white man) could be found. Our Swahili was no better than their English; they would grin and point in different directions. We found James on the slopes of Mt Meru, living on a ‘shamba’ left to grow tropically wild. He appeared from the foliage in a woolly hat and camouflage trousers, cursing how ‘urban’ was his private jungle, lying, as it does, above busy Arusha in Tanzania. A ‘sonic shamba’ he called it. It is characteristic of the man that he yearns for wilder places in a place others would consider very wild indeed.

James Wolstencroft - Tanzania [2010 ©] - James Wolstencroft - Birds And Man - Great Guides

James is a naturalist, he is also a philosopher. He wrestles with life; and birds are both his delight and, in a way, a symbol for him. They represent his own yearning for freedom in nature, and his professional concern as an indicator of environmental change.

"I seek an honest dialogue with nature"

He is extremely intelligent: he won the Queen’s Prize for his outstanding academic success at school and gained an open scholarship to Cambridge, where he read Geography, the nearest course to Ecology available in those days. His mind turns quickly to the fundamentals. No doubt he could have settled for a comfortable job, but he has lived his life in an extraordinary way.

James Wolstencroft - Tanzania [2010 ©] - James Wolstencroft - Birds And Man - Great Guides

Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Traveling in Asia, James was deeply influenced by eastern philosophies

After Cambridge James moved to Asia. His life has been deeply influenced by Buddist and Dao values. He became a "Cha'an Chora Man" (Buddhist Birdman) living an ascetic life, of birding travel, frequently solo and on a tight budget. He lived for several years in the Himalayas, then in India and the Oriental Tropics. He led his first birding tour in Assam. His wider travels took him through the Middle East, Russia and North America. He identified many rarities and unknown bird species. During the 1990s he lived in Thailand, the Seychelles, Ethiopia and Lao PDR. By the early 2000s we find him monitoring bird migration from a tiny blue cottage in Southern Andalucia overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. In 2005 he comes to Tanzania to help in a survey of waterbirds, and he settles in Arusha, leading bird trips and simply enjoying the richness of east Africa’s abundant nature.

After a lifetime travelling four continents, living in nature, experiencing and reflecting deeply, James expresses a simple, but deeply challenging, message. When, as a boy, he heard politicians promising permanent economic growth, he was already asking ‘what about nature?’

He describes the relationship between nature and the industrial age as ‘antagonistic’. And he asks the awkward questions. The ones that make us think. Do we revere nature? Can we live in harmony with it? "I seek an honest dialogue with Nature”, he says "why do we allow lands and waters, forests and fish to be made so degraded? Saving the planet has little to do with making more science and scientists; much more to do with love and respect regardless. Let's just do it!”

James Wolstencroft - Nepal [2012 ©] - James Wolstencroft - Birds And Man - Great Guides
James calls us to love and respect nature

James has an intimate and devout attitude; where respect and love for Nature are paramount. For human, aesthetic and ecological imperatives James challenges us to share in his devotion. 

Listen to James’ first talk 'Finding Rarities' where James remembers happy seasons on the Scilly isles, furtively snipping his way through privet hedges on a quest for rare Phylloscopus.

Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 07 Oct 2010
Location: East Africa | Tanzania
Themes: natural world, travel | bird, conservation