“It’s no good being angry and passive. You have to be angry and active.”
Co-Founder and President, Big Life Foundation
A little over a year ago as Craig and I were sitting in an airplane and, literally, lifting off the ground once again saying goodbye to our beloved Africa, I reached the end of the outstanding memoir Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story, by Dame Daphne Sheldrick. Sad to see it come to an end, I extended the read by perusing the “Acknowledgements” and discovered that the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) had a US organization called the US Friends of the DSWT. Craig and I were already supporters of the wonderful work DSWT does rescuing and raising orphaned elephants and then re-releasing them into the wild, with our adopted elephant Barsilinga and rhino Solio, so I made a mental note to look this group up when we returned home.
Time passed as we reluctantly adjusted back to our everyday lives. As a means to deal with my post-Africa blues I decided to look up the US Friends of DSWT, wondering if maybe there was some way we could do some volunteer work and continue to grow our connection and love of Africa and its wildlife. It didn’t take long before I discovered that Wendie Wendt, Vice-President and Director of Fundraising, lived right here in Seattle. I proceeded to do some more research, thinking that a connection now seemed inevitable, and went on to discover that while Ms. Wendt was no longer with the Trust, she had become the Executive Director of Big Life Foundation, another organization that Craig and I were already supporters of. After a couple of emails and a meeting over coffee, Craig and I found ourselves on the Big Life Fundraising Committee, immersing ourselves in some new territory and learning quite a few things along the way about fundraising for an NGO and, specifically, gearing up for a fundraiser Big Life would be holding in Seattle.
Big Life Foundation was started by photographer Nick Brandt in 2010, but establishing a conservation organization was never part of his plan. Brandt first discovered the beauty of Africa and its wildlife in 1995 while directing “Earth Song,” a music video for Michael Jackson that was filmed in Tanzania. The experience stayed with him and in 2000 Brandt began a photographic project to document the “vanishing natural grandeur of East Africa.” The project resulted in a trilogy of books, the first of which, On This Earth and A Shadow Falls, were published in 2005 and 2009, respectively. The third book, Across the Ravaged Land, was published this September.
Brandt’s work is beautiful and haunting, and unlike any other wildlife photography I’ve seen. He shoots only in black and white and without the use of a telephoto or zoom lens. His photos seem like studio portraits, except his studio is the African bush. The first thing I thought of when I initially saw Brandt’s work was that it was the wildlife equivalent of Richard Avedon’s In the American West series. In both artists’ work the subjects appear larger than life, majestic and proud; but at the same time so very vulnerable and fragile with their histories conveyed through solemn expressions. Craig and I were fortunate enough to see an exhibition of Brandt’s work last year in New York City at the Hasted Kraeutler Gallery, and it’s even more powerful seeing the photographs in the large format they’re intended to be viewed in.
So how did a music video director and photographer decide to start an organization to help the magnificent creatures who were his subjects? In July 2010 Brandt was in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park working on the third book of the trilogy when he noticed something very different about the elephants he had come to know over the years. Instead of being able to easily approach a herd in a vehicle the elephants would now “run in a terrified panic.” The elephants were suddenly frightened of approaching humans, and there were also reports of gunfire around the same location. Brandt tried to report this to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), but without much funding or other resources the KWS was unable to make this a priority.
In the coming weeks and months the poaching situation escalated, but it wasn’t just the poaching of elephants that led Brandt to start his organization. Lion and rhino numbers were also declining fast, and even plains animals like giraffe, zebra, and antelope were being targeted for their skins and meat. The entire eco-system was in jeopardy.
Brandt also discovered that many of the poachers in Kenya were coming from neighboring Tanzania, and came to the understanding that cross-border communication and action was necessary. He realized that the local people would be the greatest resource, and that establishing relationships on the ground was critical to the success of the organization. In order to be effective, there was also a need for basic equipment, such as vehicles, cameras, and radios. Brandt brought in renowned Kenyan conservationist Richard Bonham as Director of Operations, and Damian Bell as Project Manager. Big Life was born. The organization sees their work as “effecting immediate protection, immediate results – a kind of short term triage – so that the animals will still be there in the wild as longer term solutions are implemented.”
Today, Big Life has expanded to thirty-one anti-poaching outposts staffed with 315 well-equipped rangers and teams of tracker dogs, along with a network of local community members acting as informants across two million acres in Kenya and Tanzania. Since its inception, Big Life has made 1,030 arrests and confiscated 3,012 weapons, and has made an impact on the poaching of all animals. However, the poaching crisis continues to escalate, and so they have a goal of doubling the numbers of rangers along with the necessary equipment throughout the Amboseli ecosystem. Once the operations in this region are stabilized and sustainable, Big Life will begin to provide funding to other areas of Africa facing this poaching epidemic. Big Life says, “Africa is Africa because of the animals there. But we can no longer take their presence for granted. At this rate, within the next twenty years, they will be gone. Imagine a world where very soon, these animals can only be seen in the sad, drab confines of a zoo.”
Click here to watch a short film to learn more the Foundation’s work.[Edited to add: Big Life's Seattle fundraiser has been postponed until Spring of next year. We'll keep you updated on the event.]
Big Life Foundation seeks to conserve and sustain the wildlife and the wild lands of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem of East Africa through innovative conservation strategies that address the greatest threats while – at the same time – satisfy the economic interests of the resident Maasai people in ways that improve the quality of life for the entire community.
Big Life recognizes that sustainable conservation can only be achieved through a community-based collaborative approach, whether the goal is to mitigate human-wildlife conflict, greatly reduce the loss of wildlife to poaching, defeat the ivory trade, protect the great predators, or manage scarce and fragile natural resources.
Big Life’s vision is to establish a successful holistic conservation model in Amboseli-Tsavo that can be replicated across the African continent.