Interviews with Veronica Varekova. African Wildlife Foundation.
Patrick Bergin. CEO. African Wildlife Foundation.

Interview: Maranda Pleasant

Maranda Pleasant: Why is this cause personal for you?

Veronica Varekova: The continent is incredibly exciting. When I first went there, it consumed me, and I instantly felt like I wanted to be engaged one way or the other, whether on a philanthropic level or business. I’m lucky to say today that I do both. In terms of African Wildlife Foundation, I started working with them roughly around 2009, on the ambassador level. Then I joined the board and was exposed to deeper issues that the Foundation was combating on the continent. What’s there not to be passionate about when it comes to wildlife? I think we all have a piece of wild in us that we want to protect. It was a very organic choice for me to support this organization. It’s been a wonderful fours years. Some challenging situations, but they’re such a smart, innovative organization.

MP: What is the part of this work that breaks your heart?

VV: My grandmother said it very simply: “If you don’t like dogs, you don’t like humans, and vice versa.” I really believe that. If you have appreciation for life, whether it is a planet or any wild species, if it’s a human or an elephant, death is really bad for all of us to adjust to. We are all going to die. When it happens in such a drastic, inhuman way, which we’ve been seeing in Africa, this is crime on its highest level. It is affecting not only the security of the national parks, it is affecting the people in communities that live around the national parks. In terms of security for wildlife and our society, it’s an incredibly alarming situation, and we need to address that.

MP: How can we get involved?

VV: I think there is a scientific approach to it and there is a political approach to it and an economical approach to it. All of this combined, we might find a solution. But each of those pieces of this puzzle are incredibly difficult on the continent of Africa specifically, and in America, when you talk about corporations, business, profits, and should we save this little piece of land for wildlife? There’s politics. When you talk about Asia—no one really wants to approach that full-force because it’s very thin ice. No one wants to harm the relations with Asia, where most of those products are going to and being exported to. Many of the local institutions and politicians and veterinarians are involved in illegal trade. To crack that down, it’s a big crime and big names to reveal.

In terms of economical aspects, reinforcing those national parks with sophisticated anti-poaching patrols—these poachers are beefed up like the army. In the case of Cameroon, that’s a perfect example of the lack of finance. The government could not provide the national park with more guards. Therefore, they lost the majority of the elephant population. I don’t want to see that anywhere else. South Africa is not Cameroon. It’s a strong economy. I think they should be the first ones setting an example—improving the legal punishments for those that are involved, reinforcing the borders from every angle, meaning that even the diplomatic plane that lands in South Africa should not have the green light to leave without having the plane inspected. Obviously, those guys are often involved. If I get killed for saying that, so be it. That is the fact. There’s way too many important people that are involved that don’t want to change. There’s too much money in it. It is a question of security, not only for the wildlife but also for the people. That’s incredibly alarming and concerning.

MP: If you could say one thing and have everyone hear you, what would it be?

VV: There’s so much beauty in Africa, but it’s not endless. We have to prevent these crimes and these awful, awful killings. I just hope people pay attention to it.


MP: What is the main part of your work?

Patrick Bergin: When economic modernizations come in, say goodbye to wildlife. They are inversely related. In most of the world, we have only small remnants of the wildlife that once existed. Africa has the most astonishing wildlife still. Now Africa is modernizing. It is very clear. In the next twenty years, Africa is modernizing economically, and one of two things is going to happen. Either Africa will be just like the rest of the world and it’s say goodbye to wildlife. Or, we can learn from the mistakes made in the rest of the world, work with the people in governments in Africa, work with vision and foresight and plan, and have it both ways: allow economic modernization to happen with a really large and wonderful wildlife resource still intact. That’s what it’s all about to us. Helping Africans navigate the transition to modernity with a huge, wonderful wildlife resource still intact.

MP: How are you making that happen?

PB: A lot of African wildlife is very big. If you’re protecting the big stuff, you’re usually protecting the small stuff, too. One of the main things we advocate for is for countries to set aside, even if it’s fewer places, really big places, so that you can have viable populations. A pride of lions needs a huge home range. There’s a place in Botswana where there are 100,000 elephants living in a single population. Think of the amount of space they need. Remember, the United States would fit in Africa three times over and there would still be space. That’s how big Africa is.

With good planning, Africa can have cities, farms, factories, export processing zones. But if the political will is there, the huge areas—the Serengeti, the Okavango, the Kalahari, Kruger—these wonderful, huge places for wildlife could still be set aside and protected, and be treasures for humanity for many generations to come.

MP: What can we do to support you in protecting wildlife?

PB: For the last twenty years, our biggest concern has been the loss of habitat. There’s no space for wildlife; the humans are crowding them out. In the last four or five years, poaching has exploded again. In the West, we got the message that it’s not cool to wear ivory. It’s not cool to utilize products from these wonderful species. They are not commodities. We need the whole world to join hands in getting this message now, particularly countries in Asia and certain communities that have not been educated about this. They have not had the campaigns that we had. Twenty years ago, we had a campaign with Saatchi & Saatchi: “Only elephants wear ivory.” We did a campaign here with New York Times. We had a great ad: “Today in America, someone will kill an elephant for a bracelet.” We became sensitized in our society. Now there are four or five billion people in Asia who need to get this message. We need to use social media, print magazines, celebrities—anything we can to share this message. It’s not cool, it’s not okay. You are destroying beautiful animals. You are robbing a continent of its wealth. And you are hurting a lot of innocent people.

MP: You are so eloquent and passionate. Thank you so much. Can we donate to your website?

PB: Please do. These magnificent species of Africa—elephants, rhino, lions, leopards, cheetah, the great apes (Africa has four of the world’s five great apes)—this is a treasure for all humanity, and they are not for sale. They are not for trade. They need to be valued and preserved by humanity. We all need a global commitment to that.


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