Guest Post: Clinton Wright, Senior Ecologist and co-founder of the The Wildlife Tomorrow Fund
Big things are made of small things. A nucleus with electrons form an atom. Atoms make up matter. Matter makes up our world. Little things combine into big things.
In 2008 I reached a crossroads. Life had slowly taken me off my path and into the corporate world, and away from wildlife. It wasn’t a sudden change, but a slow process that happens over years and, although my life felt like an uncomfortable coat, like someone else’s life, I was barely aware of it. I was lucky – I had a chance to re-assess, correct, and do so without impacting a family, partner, or friends. I could do it and I did. As much as I was able to contemplate these changes, it wouldn’t have been possible without the right backing that builds confidence and allows for the change to happen. That’s what Natracare was for me.
I sold everything, paid up my debts, and went back to University – to add to my honours degree in Animal Science from my youth, I now studied Wildlife Management honours. It was one of the best years of my life and I knew I was back where I belonged. My next step was Wildlife Master’s and my dream was to work with African wild dogs. The university offered me projects on Aardvark and cheetah – it would require minimal field work but be fully funded. I declined and set my targets on African wild dogs – but would have to find the funding myself. Not easy for someone who has never had to raise funds and struggles to ask people for help.
We had a great family friend living in Canada. Someone who has dedicated their lives to supporting good causes and raising funds for a variety of charities. I wrote an email, and to one or two similar friends, asking if they knew of anyone who would be willing to support such a project. Immediately they wrote back.
Theresa White had contacted her sister Susie Hewson – Founder of Natracare. Since the late 80’s, Natracare had been making sustainable, organic feminine hygiene products. This was a campaign for nature, as well as one for women’s health care. Without hesitation, Natracare donated $10 000 towards the project for Africa’s second most endangered carnivore. Two other close friends, HH Yang and James Lin from Taiwan each personally donated another $1000, and the project became a reality. This funding was largely to secure very basic living costs, fuel, equipment and general costs of the project, and every cent was parsimoniously spent with the project in mind.
For the next four years, I tracked and followed an introduced pack of African wild dogs on a frontline small 30 000 hectare/ 74 000 acre wild reserve called Tembe Elephant Park. I very soon took over the monitoring position managed by the excellent organisation Wildlife ACT, including tracking the various lions prides, and recording sightings of black rhino, white rhino, leopard and suni for the reserve. As my data was collected, we were able to build solid records of movements, diet, prey preference and composition of the predator guilds. It also put me in direct contact with volunteers who participated in the work, through Wildlife ACT, as a means for funding this critical programme of monitoring. We shared some incredible success stories, watch pups and lions cubs grow up and the sorrows of losses due to snaring, poaching, and fighting – it is a hard world out there.
Being on the coal-face of conservation allowed me to slowly see how the lack of funding and how missing key equipment was hampering conservation efforts. So many good people had dedicated their lives to this cause, but just didn’t have the support, funding or know-how and time to raise the funding. Ideas began swirling in my head and a seed planted began to sprout. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when a fire swept through the reserve, burning 11km of fencing. At around the same time, a lion I had watched since birth was poached and his head, paws, tail and stomach fat had been removed for “muthi” or traditional medicine. This was added to rangers finding a rhino that had been poached and had died a horrible death. She had been shot through the spine and couldn’t move. The poachers, not wanting to waste a second bullet and attract attention with the sound, then attempted to immobilize her by chopping along her back with a machete to prevent her head moving so they could cut the horn off in their own time. Figuring out this wouldn’t work, they then chopped a “V” chunk out of the massive hump on her neck to her spine, before chopping the horns off her face – all while she was alive. She was left suffering alive and the ground around her bore the scratches as she floundered in pain. The tiny calf she had was chased off and never found (despite exhaustive searches), presumed killed by lions. During the autopsy, it was found she was pregnant, so 3 rhinos gone in one go. Seeing how this affected staff and rangers, how it broke something inside those defending these magnificent creatures, it further motivated me to do more. After speaking with the reserve management, it became apparent that drastic funding cuts, lack of critical staff, and slow bureaucratic procurement processes have added up to a perfect storm which has given poachers the edge. It was time to do something.
I started thinking about opening a non-profit to support the areas on the reserves that were not sexy – the boring mundane stuff that reserves actually need. Solar panels, uniforms, generators – the things that make everything else work. But what could a poor student stuck in the middle of the bush in Africa do? I had faced similar odds at the beginning and remembered how willing Natracare, HH Yang and James Lin had been to make a difference. It made me believe.
The years working for Wildlife ACT had exposed me to many people with huge hearts and interest in such a venture – but finding people who took this same feeling and motivation back home with them once returning to the routines of normal life was challenging. Also, I didn’t want to cross ethical lines by soliciting support from those already aiding my current employers, who fulfil a crucial conservation role better than anyone else. Whatever we were going to do had to compliment the work already being done and not compete – it had to fill a necessary niche. I contacted an ex-volunteer I thought would be the perfect person – but having written down the email with a single spelling mistake – never got a reply. The idea kept growing, and the reserves needs became more. I contacted two friends in South Africa and we started the process of forming a small non-profit called the Wild Lion Trust – to focus on carnivore protection as we believed that lion poaching was about to hit South Africa like it was further north in the continent. Also, by protecting lions you ultimately end up protecting everything. It was a small step, but a step nevertheless. Then fate stepped in.
I met a volunteer out from the US (although originally English) – John Steward – who was the Creative Director at Havas Worldwide. He and I clicked right away and discussions grew as he shared his ideas and gave poignant insight and inputs into the idea of an NPO. He had begun to lose joy at work and life in the US and wanted to make a more meaningful contribution. After one of our morning sessions tracking the lions and wild dogs, he sat on his computer and created the concept of what is now Wild Tomorrow Fund. The more we spoke the more we realised we complimented each other well and ideas began to take shape – workable, real ideas. Time came for John to return and although I remained hopeful, I had seen it so many times before, that the routines of life, paying bills, old friends, take hold and we forgot the feeling of the excitement of a new venture. It is safer to stay and be who we have become, than to follow our hearts. But John was different. He booked his next trip through Wildlife ACT, and had floated the idea of working 4 day week and committing the remaining 3 to starting Wild Tomorrow Fund. Havas were supportive of the idea and gave him the new work regime. He was too valuable to lose. But then John dropped a bombshell just before coming back to South Africa – he went into work a few days before his flight, and just realised he couldn’t anymore – after 25 years – continue to manipulate people into buying stuff they don’t need while something greater was out there waiting. Something scary but exciting.
He resigned. Now it had become even more real.
So now the Wild Lion Trust and Wild Tomorrow Fund were becoming real entities. John is a magician and soon had Wild Tomorrow Fund flourishing and gaining incredible support. His partner, Wendy Hapgood, also resigned from her banking position and joined the organisation in New York. To this day I don’t think you could ask for better, big hearted, and committed people to run a conservation NPO. The idea to start various NPO’s in different countries/ regions that were independently run, but feeding into the same projects was born. This allowed more to be done and a greater impact by funnelling resources directly to the ground where it was needed most. We would sit with managers, rangers and ecologist and get their needs and try our best to supply – the items they wanted and in the way they needed. The original person I wanted to approach, David Oates, returned as a volunteer with Wildlife ACT. He had in the time back home, managed to die for 6 minutes and decided to re-look at his life’s priorities. After his trip and we discussed the NPO ideas, he too resigned from Oracle UK and started As Wild As in the UK. Later, a third volunteer Sue Orloff loved the idea, and with her background in science and endangered species in the US, led to Biologist’s Without Borders being started, with a focus on the science and research components. All this was discussed and supported by Wildlife ACT and their directors, who understood the need for more support on the ground, and were instrumental in the formation of these entities.
At this time Axel Hunicutt, a great friend and excellent up-and-coming scientist, was returning to Greenwich, Connecticut, after completing his initial studies on suni. He was heartbroken to be leaving South Africa and came past to say goodbye. We started talking and in the conversation we realised that it would benefit everyone if he could join Wild Tomorrow Fund. The fledgling NPO could sponsor further studies (along with Biologists without Borders) and he could attend the events and talks in the US. It was early days so we were all still finding our way. John was immediately contacted in the US and the rest is history. Today Axel spearheads the science and research for the NPO’s and has been a key driver of our growth on the private reserves – allowing us to build relationships and prove our worth by making sure our support goes straight onto the ground. Even today, 100% of our donations go to the ground and we rely on donations for salaries, fuel and running costs to be made directly for that.
Each the 4 original NPO’s continue to tick over and provide crucial equipment as was our original mandate. Wild Tomorrow Fund in particular has grown quickly, and driven in the US by Directors John Steward and Wendy Hapgood and Chairman of the board Seth Hendon, has opened a South African Public Benefit Organisation entity. These 5 entities continue to work together and have achieved incredible things in such a short time. We now work in 15 reserves in 2 countries. We have put uniforms and high quality boots on every ranger and anti-poaching member in 7 reserves (with more to follow suite). We have bought tyres, solar panels, water pumps, air compressors, GPS units, rifle scopes, stove tops, dart guns, darts, and much more. We have sponsored the dehorning of all white rhino in Ndumo Game Reserve, and all black rhino in Munyawana Conservancy (&Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve). We have put 5 collars on elephant, collared African wild dogs and lion. We have paid for helicopter fuel and veterinary fees for important conservation actions. We have supported 2 rhino orphanages with food for the baby rhinos, paid for months of food, harnesses, tick medication, water bowls and other equipment for the K9 units fighting rhino poaching and tracking down suspects. We have sponsored an International Inter-reserve Crime Scene Investigation course and new ranger Basic Education.
We are doing multiple research projects on elephant, African wild dogs, spotted hyenas, suni (a miniature antelope), climate change, vegetation changes, and pangolins. We are currently preparing for a regional Reptile Survey and species list and a regional Entomology and Arachnology Survey, something not done yet in this key biodiverse region.
We are looking at constructing a research centre and laboratory to encourage and support local research. This might include a pangolin re-wilding facility if our research determines a regional recovery plan is necessary. We have employed and supported local communities around reserves and believe it is the only sustainable way. We have written reports, resource documents and species management plans for both private and government reserves.
Most recently we have purchased a key parcel of land that was about to be decimated and lost to conservation through destructive farming practices. The land is named Ukuwela and is right in the centre of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Biodiversity Hotspot, one of the 32 most biodiverse regions of the world, and one of only 8 in Africa. It is a critical piece as it is the border to a Big 5 world famous reserve, adds a layer of security as a buffer zone against poachers, protects a river (vital wildlife water source) and keeps alive the potential to link it up to other larger conservation areas. A piece of land home to many hippos, crocodiles, >6 leopards and cubs, spotted hyena, serval, side-striped jackals, honey badgers, aardvarks, zebra, wildebeest, nyala, impala, common reedbuck, red duiker, common duiker, suni, vervet monkeys, Chacma baboons, various mongooses, rare dwarf chameleons and a variety of small mammals. Cheetah and African wild dogs have also been transient on the property/ region.
We are not even 3 years old yet – and through fantastic support of our donors, environmentally minded corporates, and incredible hard work from our few staff members – conservation has been the victor. Imagine what we can do in 10 years!
I often wonder…….
If Natracare (and my 2 Taiwanese friends) had not been there to sponsor the start of this journey, would it have ever happened? Would these 5 non-profits exist? Would all these animals on Ukuwela be alive today, and would the reserves have been able to find support elsewhere?
Big things are made of small things. What might have seemed like a small thing to Natracare, is a HUGE thing for conservation. Follow us as we change the world!
Thank you. For everything.
Author’s note: This is a story from my perspective. Each person involved have their own story and they all combine to create this wonderful project. Without any of them at the right time and right place, it is likely none of this would have happened.