We had the chance to talk with Jackie Cittone Magid, director of The Bodhi Tree Foundation, one of the main wildlife conservation charities that Andrew Harper, LLC has supported this year.
The Bodhi Tree Foundation was established in 2009 to harness the resources and power of the travel industry to directly benefit local communities in need. The foundation’s mission is to identify and fund grassroots initiatives focused on protecting places, helping people in need and protecting cultural heritages around the world, preserving them for future generations of travelers to experience. To date, the foundation has given more than $100,000 in grants to more than 20 grassroots organizations.
We wanted to know more about The Bodhi Tree Foundation’s new S.A.F.E. (Safeguarding a Future for Africa’s Elephants) campaign which launched in 2014: Why elephants? Why now? And what can we do to help?
Why elephants? What drew The Bodhi Tree Foundation to this particular cause?
Elephants are a keystone species in Africa. They are critical to the environment and an icon of the continent. Africa lost an estimated 100,000 elephants from poaching in the past three years, and there are roughly 300,000 to 400,000 left. It’s not hard to do the math — at the current rate, they will not survive for our children to see if we do not take action immediately.
How did The Bhodi Tree Foundation’s new S.A.F.E. initiative come about?
Several tour operators and lodges in Africa asked if our organization could help raise awareness within the tourism industry and among travelers regarding this crisis. Not just to donate money, but to educate and spread awareness and encourage people to travel to Africa. We created the S.A.F.E. campaign as an outcome of this plea to galvanize and unite the travel industry to get involved.
The S.A.F.E. campaign selected four conservation organizations to give grants to that are well-known for protecting the elephant community: African Wildlife Foundation, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Save the Elephants and WildAid.
It is important to point out that everything that we do (The Bodhi Tree Foundation and S.A.F.E) is completely underwritten, so 100 percent of all the donated dollars go right back into the projects that we have provided grants to — every dollar goes to work.
What are the future plans for the initiative?
Our goal for the future is to continue our outreach to raise awareness about this crisis and to support and to raise funds for projects that are helping save this majestic species. To do this, we need the support of the travel industry. Right now, we have around 28 companies supporting our campaign that have committed to offer financial support or to build awareness. Companies like Andrew Harper and Singita are all uniting with one common goal: to keep Africa’s treasures alive and safe.
What is the importance of the travel industry rallying behind wildlife conservation efforts?
The travel industry has so much to lose if we lose wildlife. Each year, more than 55 million people travel to Africa to see diverse and abundant wildlife. But what happens when that wildlife is gone? The tourism industry is a powerful global voice with the opportunity to educate and influence millions of travelers. How could our industry not do something?
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust recently released a report called “Dead or Alive? Valuing an Elephant,” demonstrating the value of the elephant alive versus how much an ivory tusk is worth from a dead elephant. The numbers are overwhelmingly favorable (76 times more so) toward keeping the animals alive for tourism's sake alone.
Tell us about how you became so invested in this cause.
In 2002, I went on my honeymoon to South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, and came back a more educated person, wanting to get involved. I couldn’t just sit back in New York and not do something. I wanted my kids to be able to see and appreciate the beauty of the country. For many who go to Africa, it is a life-changing experience. They say it touches your soul, and that was the case for me.
Two years ago, I went back to Kenya with my husband and was fortunate enough to spend time at the DSWT nursery in Nairobi, and Ithumba, where many of the older orphan elephants live until they are ready to go back into the wild. That, more than any other trip, for me was life-changing because I had the opportunity to spend time with elephants. Elephants are like us but without many of our bad traits. You begin to understand how much like us they are while interacting with them — family-oriented, emotional and intelligent. To know that people are killing them so brutally for ivory, material things — for me, there was no way I could not do anything. It really directed me to refocus my energy and time to do more for their survival.
What is the role of the individual traveler in all of this?
There are many ways to get involved: Never buy ivory, travel to Africa with responsible travel operators and lodges, donate, spread the word. The combination of tourism and philanthropy is so compelling and powerful because the two just go hand in hand. We recently created a collection of vetted African itineraries called the S.A.F.E. Travel Collection. We encourage people to go on one of these special trips with our travel partners, many where you get to interact with elephants or go behind the scenes of conservation efforts. A portion of the trip proceeds go to S.A.F.E., and 100 percent of those funds directly help protect the elephants.
We hope that people are still encouraged to go to Africa, and we understand that there is a panic and ignorance about the Ebola crisis right now. However, people should do their research before canceling their trips. Africa is three times the size of the United States, and the virus is isolated in a few spots within just a few countries, far away from East and Southern Africa safari destinations. Ignorance about Ebola not only impacts the tourism people depend on for jobs, but can also lead to a bigger poaching crisis. When safari bookings are down, it directly impacts the number of elephants that are killed for their ivory. The elephants need the tourism industry to survive. This is such a critical message.