“I very much believe that I am an instrument to achieve something else,” Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, a dedicated charity and conservation advocate, says in a measured tone.
President of the world's oldest international wildlife conservation charity Fauna & Flora International (FFI), she is in town to host its International Conservation Circle (ICC) gala dinner, which is throwing the spotlight on saving wild Sumatran tigers.
Wife of Prince Constantijn and sister-in-law of King Willem-Alexander, Princess Laurentien travels extensively to address environmental issues such as the illegal poaching of animals and overfishing among others. Hands-on and down-to-earth despite her royal titles, she is known to venture deep into jungles, wild parks and under-developed villages. “Discomfort does not matter. There are bigger things to be concerned about than a mosquito bite,” she says of her work.
On-site, she and her team identify issues, such as turtle-poaching in the Galapagos Islands, and enter into dialogue with the local community, which may practice poaching as a traditional way of life or as an income supplement. “Any poaching situation or illegal trade is connected to the livelihood of people so you need to replace it with an alternative and sustainable solution that people can live on instead,” she says.
Taking a community-based approach, she may implement strategies such as sustainable fishing methods or, in the case of her turtle project, educate school children on the value of turtles to the ecosystem and biodiversity. “You have to involve all the different stakeholders and help them shift the way they look at their own environment. It takes a long time but it is the only way and never a one-shot deal,” she stresses. In Asia, she also works to protect endangered turtles in Cambodia and gibbons in Vietnam.
Today, though, it is the Sumatran tigers in Indonesia (the cause that has brought her to Singapore), which preoccupies her mind. Saddened by how few of the majestic big cats are left in the wild — a mere 400 to 500 in Sumatra and just 3,200 in the world — she opines: “The numbers are incredibly alarming. It is sad that we have come to this situation. But moving forward, we have a duty to educate our children to preserve Earth's natural beauty.”
Indeed, reaching out to the young is the ultimate aim. “The generational aspect of conservation work is very important. We have to educate, impart values and instil a moral drive in our young people,” she emphasises. This is the reason she has also set up the Missing Chapter Foundation, an NGO in the Netherlands that exposes the next generation to conservation, biodiversity and climate change issues.
It is also for this reason that FFI is holding its ICC gala here — to attract young, well-educated individuals and professionals in this region to the cause. An inner circle of change-makers, the ICC equips members who have a passion for protecting the natural world with global networking opportunities with leaders in the fields of business, science, conservation and media.
While it may appear that many in the field of conservation are privileged, Princess Laurentien begs to differ. “I see charity conservation work as an important, mainstream cause and not something to be sidelined or reserved only for certain members of society,” she says. “All of us play a part in preserving the world we inhabit.”
The 48-year-old has championed the environment for the last 12 years, starting as a strategy director for African Parks at Conservation in Africa. Thereafter, she worked with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and was introduced to the FFI, where she was vice-president from 2006 until she became president in 2012. She is also a special advisor to the WWF and to Rewilding Europe, a Dutch foundation that aims to re-wild one million hectares of land by 2020, and a fellow of the European Climate Foundation.
A former CNN journalist, the Princess also has a long record of fighting illiteracy in the Netherlands and is author of the popular children's book series Mr Finney. Naturally, the book's protagonist looks for solutions to environmental problems. “Mr Finney is a good avenue to share my experiences from doing conservation work. I love to write…journalism is all about an inquisitive mind and Mr Finney is, in a way, an externalisation of my own inquisitive mind, always asking why things are happening in a certain way on our planet.”