In the private garden area next to Antelope Park’s kitchen, where they were keeping Disa, Dala, and Dingane, resides a tawny eagle (named Tawny, of course). The eagle was rescued some years back and has watched over more than a few sets of cubs as they took their first confident steps. Tawny’s also missing a wing – his left wing, to be exact – and as such can’t fly. Just don’t tell him that. During the brief morning hour we got to spend with the Ds I caught something out of the corner of my eye and turned towards the far end of the garden to see Tawny on the ground. Odd, I thought. I watched as Tawny hopped over to the base of the tree he was previously perched on and slowly climbed his way back up to his favorite roost. I turned back to the cubs, not really thinking about it, when it suddenly struck me that I wasn’t quite sure how the bird got down to the ground in the first place with only one wing. So I turned back around in time to see Tawny launch himself out of the tree, only to promptly fall straight to the ground with a very unmajestic thud. A minute later he did it again. And then again. This bird was determined to take flight regardless of the outcome. “The eagle has landed… for now,” I told Kim, who looked at me with some confusion.
The difference between me now and then is that, back then, I could see visions. The me now can dream dreams.
There are many similarities between Tawny and ALERT founder Andrew Conolly that go beyond the obvious fact that both are missing their left wing. There is a dogged determination in each to overcome whatever obstacle is in front of them; a drive that can easily be mistaken for stubborn foolishness at first glance. At the same time, there can also be a frustrating amount of contradiction.
When Mr. Conolly first came up to greet us ahead of our scheduled interview we sat down for several minutes to catch up. He was concerned about what the profiles project was exactly, as no one from ALERT had given him any real explanation regarding it in advance (something we found to be the case with every person we were slated to interview). So, as with everyone else, I spent some time giving him an overview of what I’d been asked to do, what I thought I wanted to do beyond that, how it would all come together, and who the list of people being profiled were that I’d been given by his COO, David Youldon. He then proceeded to tell me in so many words that I was doing it wrong and needed to interview a much larger set of people – here at AP, back in Livingstone, and at ALERT’s Victoria Falls location. Handlers, program managers, others who weren’t direct employees for ALERT but worked within the Andrew Conolly Empire and made it possible for ALERT to operate. Explaining that Kim and I had only a short amount of time and a specific, previously agreed upon, interview list didn’t sway him. “I’m the founder! This is how it should be done.” Further explaining that we were paying to be at AP on our own dime, while still paying to be volunteers back in Livingstone while away at AP, and were also donating time and equipment to work on the project both while in Africa and after returning home, didn’t sway him either. I simply had to expand a project that, I started to realize, was mine to succeed or fail with but was one that I didn’t own. Queue my head starting to explode.
Funny thing about it, I agreed with everything Mr. Conolly said. Speaking politely but in a firm tone, and making me privy to other information he felt I should know, everything he said made sense. The people, the scope, the reasoning behind it. It all made sense. The problem was that our time was limited and no one seemed willing to offer us anything in return to help out. No covering transportation to Vic Falls or accommodations while there. No coordinating the other people who should be interviewed. No consideration towards our schedules or the fact that we’d paid a small fortunate to fly halfway around the world to be here doing this (and we’re by no means rich people). Nothing. We were already paying out of our own pockets to be here to work on a project whose sole beneficiary would be ALERT, but apparently that wasn’t enough. More had to be done, we were told.
I felt I didn’t have any easy way out, and that our being welcome at AP was now dependent on agreeing to new terms. So, lifting my head up out of my hands and trying to banish a persistent, blurry hum that had started midway through our chat, I offered to interview two additional people from AP outside the original profiles list, saying further that I’d follow-up with David when I returned to Livingstone regarding the rest of what he wanted covered; doing my best to impress upon Mr. Conolly that everything he was telling me was really a conversation that should be taking place between himself and David. I took on the project on as a way to support ALERT, but I was now feeling trapped in the middle with no recourse and no one willing to understand, or acknowledge, what had already been put into the cause by us and what we were, and were not, physically and financially capable of. Two additional interviews would take up the majority of the one day off from the project we’d scheduled for ourselves while at AP. That was the best I could do. It was a day that was supposed to be filled with no filming, no microphones, and no interviews; a day spent with my sweetie enjoying some much-needed rest and relaxation. Not any longer. I looked at Kim and felt horrible for allowing her to be dragged under with me on this project. She deserved better, and at minimum didn’t deserve to be paying the same price I was for having become entangled in all this. TIAP.
Mr. Conolly drove us out to one of his favorite spots in Antelope Park, where we conducted the interview proper. He wanted it to take place under an authentic backdrop, “out in the bush and not at some table with walls in the background.” He described his childhood growing up the grandson of pioneers who came up from South Africa to settle Zimbabwe alongside Cecil Rhodes. He talked about taking over Antelope Park and discovering its lions acting on their natural, instinctual behaviors when taken out into the bush. Seeing the wild lion population decreasing at a rapid pace across Africa, the seeds of a program to breed captive lions and return them to the wild began to form. He spoke with a fiery passion about the importance of saving the lion and the work ALERT was doing in support of that.
It’s here that his eyes narrowed as he focused in on the critics of ALERT’s Rehabilitation and Release Into the Wild program. “I am convinced – absolutely convinced – that this will work! We must save the lion!” Asked what the defining moment of the program’s success would look like, his eyes softened and his voice quieted as he described a tableau of seeing a lion such as Wakanaka or one of her cubs in one of Africa’s national parks; protected, free, and truly wild, walking down towards a river bank to a kill she’d just made. He paused for a moment, savoring the scene, then hardened his eyes once again, vowing to prove the naysayers wrong even if it took him the rest of his days. In listening to him talk with such emotion and determination I realized that he will prove his detractors wrong. They might wonder how a one-winged bird can fly, but by sheer force of will he’ll throw himself off the perch and somehow take flight. Of that I had little doubt.
The one sour point for me during our morning together was when, at one point, the subject turned to elephants and Conolly stated that he believed it was okay to cull them if governments or other authorities determined their numbers to be too large, or the need to resolve elephant/human conflict was too great to overcome any other way. It was an awkward and unexpected moment for me, and was extremely disappointing to hear the founder of an animal conservation group talk so emphatically about saving one iconic African species while simultaneously saying in a dismissive manner that it was okay to kill another. Especially an animal remarkable in its intelligence and social hierarchy, who’s been proven to be self-aware, and known to love, mourn, and even to laugh.
It’s an argument I’ve heard from others: Elephants eat a lot (between 100-300 kilograms of vegetation a day) and when there are large numbers of them the devatstation they can cause can be substantial; therefore we must be able to thin out herds, or otherwise be able to kill problematic elephants, if and where necessary. It’s also a flawed argument, and one used by countries like Zimbabwe where corrupt officials artificially increase the numbers of elephants the country has so they can sell more hunting licenses and thus make more money. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s 2007 African Elephant Status Report puts the elephant popolution at less than 500,000 across the entire continent. And while those numbers are twenty times that of the number of wild lions believed to be left in Africa, their survival as a species is anything but assured. Elephant/human conflict is a major concern, and will only continue to be as elephants’ natural habitat and range areas continue to be encroached on. Elephants continue to be poached at alarming rates for both the ivory and bush meat trades. Not to mention there are the Bob Parsons of the world who purchase permits (see above note about corrupt Zim officials) so they can get off killing these iconic animals for the bragging rights in some perverted way of proving their manhood under a thinly veiled, and thoroughly discredited, guise of humanitarianism. The fear of extinction for this keystone species is just as real and present as it is for the lion’s, so it was terribly disheartening to hear Mr. Conolly talk about elephants in that way.
That said, and even though I profoundly disagreed with his statements on elephants, it has to be understood that it’s part of Conolly’s complexity, which itself is a reflection of the complexity of Africa. That’s not to give him, or others in his employ who I’ve heard similar remarks from regarding elephants, or anyone else for that matter, a pass. Rather, it’s to point out the work and education that still needs to be done in overcoming such deeply engrained attitudes and beliefs about these magnificent, sentient creatures. The “Environmental Research Trust” in “ALERT” should stand for something better, especially if the Trust’s plan is the restoration of flora and fauna beyond just that of the reintroduction of lions, as their agreement with the country of Burundi would imply.
Even with that, and even considering what happened before our interview began, I have a fond and deep respect for Andrew Conolly and I do believe in his vision and the tenacity of his conviction in standing behind it. In many ways he reminds me of my own father and grandfather and I understand the cowboy in him, warts and all, even if there are parts I fundamentally dislike. He’s a fantastic person to talk to if you’re asking interesting enough questions to keep him engaged, and he’s one of those exceptional interviewees who intuitively understands pacing and can speak eloquently and at length without being prompted. The classic “once more unto the breach, dear friends” orator, in the best possible sense.
Interview completed, gear packed up and back at camp we passed by Craig van Zyl and the film crew, who were seated at one of the tables outside the kitchen area. Mr. Conolly greeted them and then proceeded to talk about the interview we’d just done; going on at length about the rare privilege of being asked such smart questions and saying they could learn a thing or two from me. It lifted my spirits and made me feel it wasn’t all for naught. Since first introducing myself to him a year ago he has remembered who I was and called me by name every time our paths have crossed. He didn’t have to bring us out into the bush to do the interview. He didn’t have to do the interview at all. Nor did he need to insist that the profiles project change to become something more in line with how he felt it should be presented. But he did. And even though it made for a ridiculously distressing time for me and Kim while at AP, and even though it felt out of my control, I understand that he did it because he cares deeply for both the program and for those who’ve poured their blood, sweat and tears into it.
When we were out in the park setting up for the interview I started talking music with Mr. Conolly, mentioning that I’d heard he was a big fan of Bob Dylan. “Oh, yes! Love, Bob Dylan! Love him!” Asking what his favorite song was, he replied “Mr. Tambourine Man” with a wide grin on his face. In the kind of random coincidence that I seem to find myself stumbling across more and more as the years wear on, as we were driving out of the Antelope Park on our last day to catch a bus to Vic Falls the driver turned the radio on and “Mr. Tambourine Man” came drifting out of the speakers. “Ha!” I said to Kim. “How’s that for TIAP?” With the song as a backdrop, we slowly wound our way towards the next leg of our journey and I let myself disappear through the smoke rings of my mind. Antelope Park was still the beautiful place we remembered it to be, but Kim and I both agreed that we weren’t sure we’d return again given the opportunity. As beautiful as the light, the sounds, and the lions were, there was still a lot of struggle and stress that was unnecessary if not unwelcoming (purposefully or otherwise). I kept thinking about the vols and the handlers on the fence line of the Ngamo release site jeopardizing research so they could crush on the pride, and the clients and the staff person laughing and jeering the lions up at BPG, and I wondered “to what end?” As sure as I was that Conolly’s vision for reintroducing lions back into the wild would work if given the chance, and if it was properly run and supported both internally and externally, I also wondered how much of the circus atmosphere that seems to be part and parcel of the park would ultimately hinder his dream of seeing Wakanaka’s cubs walking down a river bank towards a fresh kill in some truly wild corner of Africa. As we neared AP’s entrance I looked out the back window of the car, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tawny the eagle, certain he would be flying in the skies behind us.