I didn’t accidentally come across the dead elephant. I knew he was there, one of four victims in a recent poaching spree in Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba – but he was my first.
For most of this year I have been working full time on Africa’s poaching crisis, originally from the comfort of my desk, and then these past couple months I have been moving between writing assignments – from South Africa to Mozambique, Zambia to Zimbabwe. Somehow, up until now, I had escaped the face of death, or in the case of the elephant, death without a face.
As I walked through thickets of bush in the direction of the carcass I could still hear the dirt music; the crackling of twigs, the crunch of earth beneath my soles, and then… silence. The shuddering sight of this lifeless body some thirty metres away was deafening. And then suddenly I was beside him, this once magnificent animal, now just a crumpled carcass of flesh and bone. His face had been hacked into with an axe and machetes, and in that moment I felt like a piece of me had been amputated. His eyes were still open, and I caught myself blinking in the squeeze of a tear. As I stood there I felt my heart tighten like a fist, and I felt life begin to seep out of me.
By now his tusks have likely been claimed by rich folk in China, ravenous for status symbols. This burgeoning lust for vanity is by far the most dangerous weapon in this war on greed, because as long as there is demand, there will be supply, until there is nothing left but the smell of death, and failure, because right now humanity is failing our iconic species. Every 15 minutes another elephant is shot and butchered, and every 7 hours another rhino is slaughtered just for its horn – for keratin – the stuff in fingernails. I struggle to understand how a civilisation as advanced as we are can still be so savage and senseless.
For the next few days my mind was like a raft lost at sea, crashing between waves of rage and frustration. Is the killing ever going to stop? Can someone like me, just one person, really make a difference? And then I forced myself to quiet my mind, and I began slowly tracing my own personal journey since I started savingthewild.com – a platform to connect with global thought leaders engaged in the crisis, and a space to document my own ‘stories from the trenches’.
About six months ago I had the great privilege of spending some time with legendary Dr Jane Goodall. At the end of the interview I asked the world’s most beloved conservationist how she transforms anger into a force for good. And her response was, “The only way to turn anger into something good is to be doing something to try and prevent such an atrocity happening again. That’s the only way, to feel that you’re using all your energy to stop it happening again.”
We all have our own special talents, and we all have the power to be a voice for the voiceless, whether it’s sharing a story about the plight of Africa’s elephants and rhinos with your own social media network, or the stamp of your feet at a march against corruption; every click, every conversation, every petition, and every collaboration, is another step forward in this growing movement to save our iconic species.
My weapon is the written word, and my battlefield is the page, and every time I connect with one of my readers the call of the wild travels just a little bit further. And I would walk a hundred miles and write ten thousand words if I could just bring back that one dead elephant bull that now haunts me. He haunts me, and yet at the same time he compels me to push on through the darkness, wherever it may take me. Anyone that has spent time amongst Africa’s wild things will understand; the pure poetry of nature, the awe and the longing to be close to something so much greater than what we are.
But who are you, really? What is your contribution in the fight to save the planet’s natural heritage? Because I can promise you Africa will welcome you with open arms if you choose to fall into the bosom of her spell. Walk with me…
This journey that I am on returned me back to my African homeland in September, after a five year absence living a serene life in New Zealand; and it began with a few days in the bush with one of Hollywood’s hottest rising screenwriters researching and penning an illegal wildlife trafficking script for a top bill cast. When this film comes out, it will have a massive mainstream reach that conservation NGOs simply cannot get to. The arts have a major role to play in raising awareness; whether it’s film or music, print or digital, whatever the medium, the creative industry has the tools to synthesize experiences. Artists can open people’s minds to a cause they didn’t even know they cared about, until suddenly they feel this jolt inside them, and they realise they have become emotionally attached.
On the ground in Africa, business has a vital role to play, not only through the sustainable economic development of our natural resources, but also through savvy investment in conservation enterprises. Last month I released an interview with Patrick Bergin, CEO of African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), and they are successfully harnessing the power of impact investment to save wildlife and help people. AWF’s model is to ensure local communities have real equity in the business, so that Africans are then empowered to be guardians of their environment. I have seen firsthand rapid progress and transformation throughout Southern Africa where poaching has literally collapsed as a direct result of investing in communities living near wildlife, because the creation of alternative incomes pulls good men out of poverty that have, in the past, done horrific things in order to feed their families.
A lot of people want to experience Africa’s wild, they can scratch together the funds for an air ticket, but then going on safari completely blows the budget. Activism doesn’t pay the bills, and so I am used to roughing it, but that’s often the best way, because the experience gained is priceless. Last month I lived amongst volunteers at The Rhino Orphanage in Limpopo, and this month I volunteered for (International Anti-Poaching Foundation) IAPF’s Green Army in Victoria Falls. There are many opportunities across Africa where you can unite with like-minded people and play a supporting role in this teeming theatre of unscripted beauty.
Coming up in January, conservation collides with communications, and I am thrilled to be returning to Entabeni Game Reserve in support of the Youth 4 African Wildlife Internship, experiential learning with the lifelong objective of empowering young adults with the necessary tools to become global wildlife ambassadors through meaningful storytelling.
If you’re still sitting there scratching your head, feeling helpless and thinking none of this works for you, then when you’re ready, step away from all your electronic devices and try talking to a fellow human. Share your knowledge; tell them what you know, because you never know where an idea worth sharing may take you. For me, all it took was one moment, one instance of courage of another human being to inspire me to pack up my bags, sell all my belongings, and find my way back home.
And now that I’m home, I borrow courage from the elephants and rhinos we have lost, and the brave rangers that have lost their lives trying to protect our precious wildlife, and from all the men and women that have done it harder so that we can walk further.