By Meredith Ogilvie-Thompson

Surreal, to say the least. Particularly for me as not two weeks before I was blinking into the midday sun on the edge of the Maasai Mara game reserve in southern Kenya, listening to an impossible story of conservation, community development, and education.

“It used to be a tradition or a trend that after every school holiday over 40% of girls dropped out of school,” Sarah Liaram, director of the Olare Orok Conservancy Outreach Programme, told me.

“This time, after we held the mother-daughter forum, 100% of the girls went back to school. So we are crossing our fingers to get better results for Maasai girls through education.”

I later discover health clinics within the conservancy have reported a decline in visits, which they attribute to personal hygiene demonstrations that focus on women and children’s health education. In addition, women who made use of alternative energy sources were no longer carrying an estimated 30 kilograms of firewood, over long distances, often as many as three times a week, freeing up their time instead for money-making ventures.

It is a story I hear again and again in the context of my work as Executive Director of Tusk USA. Communities, once disparate and with little to no infrastructure or income, have come together pooling their collective resources. In the case of Olare Orok, a Tusk supported programme, it was 27 Maasai land-owners who came to understand the real value of conservation and sustainable income which are a direct result of protecting the wildlife that is their natural heritage.

Founded 21 years ago by Charlie Mayhew and Timothy Ackroyd, in response to the terrible poaching crisis that was decimating elephant herds across Africa, Tusk Trust has – right from the very beginning – been interested in people. It is a hallmark of the charity, a holistic approach to conservation that has ensured Tusk’s success and served as a model for many of the more than 45 projects it helps to support across 17 countries.

Not to mention the reason Prince William chose to become the charity’s Royal Patron in the first place.

Which is something William had the benefit of experiencing right from the beginning, starting with his first visit to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a sixty-two thousand acre private reserve near the foothills of Mount Kenya. Tusk has been a major partner to Lewa since its inception twenty years ago, and has helped it to grow into one of the most well regarded and often replicated conservation initiatives in the world.

“Lewa plays a unique role in the lives of indigenous communities,” said M Sanjayan, Lead Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “It’s dual role, as both a reservoir for rare wildlife and model for community development, makes Lewa a particularly attractive conservation partner.”

In particular Lewa has been instrumental in bringing the black rhino back from the brink of extinction in Kenya, which, this past year, has proved both challenging and dangerous.

According to Mike Watson, CEO at Lewa, “Our security teams operate both within and outside our boundary to meet the ever increasing threat from poachers whose appetite for risk has risen hugely by virtue of the value of the rhino. It’s an evolving situation on the ground and I have no doubt poachers will alter tactics and we’ll have to remain aware and flexible to ensure we don’t get caught out again.”

Tragically, this surge in poaching is a continent wide epidemic. In South Africa alone, 433 rhinos were killed for their horn last year, an average of one every 20 hours. While recent studies in northern Kenya have revealed more elephants were poached in the last 2½ years than in the previous 11 combined. And with prices of rhino horn fetching as much as $60,000 per kilo, and elephant ivory as much as $3,000 per kilo, it would be easy to think we are back where we started.

“The recent surge in poaching across Africa has demonstrated that we can never be complacent about the long term survival of these iconic species. Meeting this challenge is our priority,” said Charlie Mayhew.

In recent months Tusk has launched several initiatives, including a working partnership with WildAid who are at the forefront of lobbying in China, the final destination for the bulk of illicit ivory and horn. And, in addition to continued support of anti poaching efforts on the ground, the charity remains deeply committed to ongoing education and awareness campaigns to address the crisis specifically, and conservation in general.

All of which is supported by Tusk’s most high profile supporter, Prince William, who says as much as he circulates easily among the small gathering in Beverly Hills. He is more aware than most of the
challenges, and eager to discuss possible solutions.

“I have a deep love for Africa,” William said. “And without education, the future generations will not know the right path to tread.”

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