Where are you originally from?
“Very far upstate New York – actually closer to Canada than NYC.”
What’s your job title?
“Co-founder and Conservation Director.”
What’s your background?
“I grew up in northern New York State so think of an indoor life, snow, rain, grey skies, shopping malls and suburbia. Pretty much the antithesis of Southern Africa.”
What brought you to Africa?
“A very smoky plane flown by Balkan Bulgarian Airlines – the fact that there was a smoking section tells you how long ago I arrived! But the reason I came here was a fascination with Africa. I came out with a backpack, one fax number and a plan to work somewhere for three months and I ended up in Botswana.”
How did you become involved in conservation?
“I was introduced to African wildlife in Botswana, which is a pretty incredible place to see your first elephant or cheetah. I was completely hooked! I ended up working in ecotourism lodges and then later signed a contract to work as a chef on mobile safaris. This allowed me to move beyond protected areas and see how wildlife interacts with people in rural areas. After 3 years on safari, I decided my cooking had probably traumatized enough tourists and I should study wildlife conservation instead. I eventually became a conservation scientist and was soon fully entrenched in the conservation field.”
How did you come to co-found Natural Selection, and what was your original vision for the company in terms of conservation?
“After many years in wildlife conservation research and academia, I felt that I wanted to contribute more to conservation solutions rather than just identifying the problems. Tourism has always been there as an ally to conservation and I’ve been lucky enough to work with a couple of companies that are making great contributions to conservation. But I also felt that tourism could be an even bigger player in addressing wildlife and habitat loss with the right model and approach.”
Has that vision changed since the company launched?
“Yes and no. The vision is the same, but how I envisioned it unfolding has changed many times over. You need to be patient and adaptable to make a difference and carefully select your partners. I’ve also had to learn a lot about business and balancing spreadsheets, but luckily we have amazing, talented people in the company who have taken that over and brought it to the next level. Like cooking, balance sheets are definitely not my thing!”
What existing Natural Selection conservation project are you most excited about?
“I get excited by all the projects we are supporting. Some were incredible projects that already existed and needed sustainable funds, while others we developed once we identified the needs on the ground. I suppose it’s projects that unite many people and organizations with the same vision that make me feel we are on the right track. There is no time or point in being proprietory about saving wildlife. The more who can jump on board the better. I suppose that’s easy to say when we aren’t fighting for funding like conservation organizations typically do. It’s an incredible feeling to be generating funding for conservation instead of chasing it.”
Are you able to tell us anything about projects you’re working on at the moment?
“Each project is in a different stage of development. One that is quite interesting is an initiative to bring a transport solution to school children who frequently encounter elephants along the main walking paths and roads of the Okavango panhandle. We’ve been working with Ecoexist on this and there have been several meetings with community members to find the right solution that will reduce human-wildlife conflict in that area. Right now, a lot of people have reached a point of complete intolerance for elephants. It’s not an easy thing to shift and this initiative will be one step in the right direction.”
What sets Natural Selection apart from other safari companies in terms of conservation?
“The very fact that we are generating funding from our own coffers is what sets us apart. There are some fantastic tourism companies out there doing great things in conservation but because of their history and business models, most are in a position where they have to raise funds from outside and be a funding channel rather than the actual donors. They play the crucial role of communicating conservation issues to visitors who may choose to donate to a project. We are lucky that we can do both – fund projects ourselves and create awareness that inspires more people to donate to wildlife conservation in Africa. People can donate through our Trust, which adds to the sustainability and reach of our projects.”
Which is your favourite area that Natural Selection operates in?
“That is a tough question. The Okavango Delta is where I started this journey and fell in love with Africa but the Skeleton Coast is like a soul tonic – I love the Namib Desert!”
What’s your favourite part of your job?
“Not having to cook or balance spreadsheets!”