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Since earning a doctorate in animal behavior, Briton John MacKinnon has acquired many titles: biodiversity expert, chief technical advisor of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) wetland program, professor, photographer, writer, UN official and adviser to China’s policy makers.
But the common thread linking all of MacKinnon’s wide-ranging efforts is his dedicated love of nature.
When he was a teenager in a boarding school, MacKinnon survived a fire that burned his school to the ground at night. Because of that traumatic experience, he has a hard time sleeping comfortably in the evening and can be startled by the slightest sound. But he has also developed sharp hearing, which always helps him notice wild animals faster than others. “I am not sure if the fire is directly related to my exceptional hearing,” says MacKinnon. “Actually, I was the first one to notice the fire. So maybe my hearing was always sensitive. But I am glad that now I have much more exciting things in my life than a fire.”
MacKinnon isn’t joking: He has been chased by elephants many times. He has been attacked by bears and orangutans. He has met tigers and leopards. His little finger was bitten off by a wild hog. He credits his continued survival to training in the Combined Cadet Force at age 12: “It was army training in school. I took the survival course and learned how to live in the mountains and find water.”
The risks don’t dissuade his passion for nature, and even reinforce it. “I like being alone in the forest,” he explains. “When you are alone and slightly frightened, your ears grow and your senses stretch. You can detect animals from further and further away until you really become part of the forest yourself.”
MacKinnon has loved wild animals from a young age. As a child, he preferred wild animals such as lizards, snakes and eagles over tame dogs and cats. At age 18, he followed Jane Goodall to research chimpanzees in Africa. That experience also helped develop his field survival skills and make him more comfortable in nature. He even learned some photography techniques from Goodall’s husband, a photographer for National Geographic.