How a Few Adventurous Philanthropists Are Changing the Face of Conservation
January 11, 2017
Sophy Roberts, Robb Report

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Throughout the African continent, individual donors are reshaping conservation models—and transforming the concept of luxury travel.

On a day in late January 2016, a team of antipoaching specialists employed by African Parks flew by helicopter to a GPS point deep in the western reaches of Gambella, a 1,954-square-mile national park in Ethiopia close to the border with South Sudan. They were investigating why one of the four elephant collars that African Parks was monitoring in the area had stopped transmitting. When they arrived on the scene, in a floodplain near the Gilo River, they found five dead elephants, including the collared cow. The animals had been shot by poachers, who had attempted to conceal the carcasses in grass but had yet to remove their ivory.

After an hour’s toil in a 5-foot-deep swamp, the African Parks specialists and their colleagues from the Ethiopian Wildlife and Conservation Authority were able to retrieve only one tusk. Recently enlisted by the Ethiopian government, the Johannesburg-based African Parks was functioning with limited resources. The conservation group—which works in eight countries across Africa, rehabilitating 23,000 square miles of wilderness—lacked the full operational mandate to start the boots-on-the-ground antipoaching work for which it is known.

In fact, to have the helicopter present at all when the collar’s transmission ceased was a curious stroke of luck. The helicopter had been chartered from Kenya for a group of international donors who were visiting Gambella with Peter Fearnhead, the CEO of African Parks. Rather than vacationing at a five-star safari lodge, these five travelers were negotiating a remote swath of the continent to see what this tract of wilderness had left to save—and if it merited their philanthropy.

I, too, was in Gambella during the poaching incident. The moment was overwhelming—both for the beauty of the landscape, peppered with rare Nile lechwe and elegant shoe-billed storks, and for the bleakness of the situation. Witnessing the wet blood on the ivory, and the silence of the rangers when they came back into camp carrying the lone tusk, I experienced an entirely different emotional response than I had at any other time in my years of reporting on poaching and conservation issues. I thought of the glittering fund-raisers I had attended for African wildlife, where Prince William and others cast their celebrity magic dust about the room. All of this helps, of course, but to witness the stench of death in the field, to observe the strength of men and women doing this work, to walk the sun-scorched earth among elephants whose behavior is changing out of fear for their lives, strikes at the core of what makes us human.

It is a story I have been covering closely for the last few years, on trips into parts of the African continent where frontline conservation is taking place but mainstream tourism has yet to penetrate. These assignments, largely for the Financial Times, have taken me to 13 African countries, including Chad, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. At times, the facts and figures—an elephant is killed every 15 minutes, a rhino every 8 hours—can be heart-wrenching. But I have noticed a philanthropic trend reaching over all these stories like an umbrella. In its simplest iteration, the trend involves a high-net-worth individual traveling to a remote area, engaging in its conser­vation, and writing a check—often from a foundation the person has established—to an organization such as African Parks. Taking it a step further are individuals who are leasing massive tracts of land and providing the financial support to restore and protect them. Facilitating both forms of the phenomenon is a new breed of specialists who help broker deals and, equally important, create the travel experiences to expose potential donors to off-the-radar opportunities.