Abercrombie and Kent Week—Living with Elephants and Other Philanthropic Projects

On the second day of our safari, I woke up at sunrise to the cacophony of high-pitched bird calls. French-press coffee arrived at my lodge at Stanley’s Camp and I drank a cup overlooking the high grasses of the Okavango Delta. After breakfast, our group of six was driven to a clearing where we soon stared in awe at a massive 11 ½-foot high, 5 to 6 ton elephant named Jabu. A gentle giant, Jabu was joined by two other elephants, the playful Thembi, and the oldest of the trio, 40 year-old Morula. The elephants were led by American Doug Groves and his South African-born wife, Sandi, two zoologists who adopted the threesome when culling operations in South Africa and Zimbabwe left them as orphans more than 25 years ago. 

Doug first came to the continent in 1987 to help with a feature film about the early days of South Africa. He met Sandi, adopted their elephants, and never returned. In 1999, they founded the charity, Living with Elephants, dedicated to creating a harmonious relationship between people and elephants. That morning, I had the opportunity to touch the ears and tusks of Jabu, walk Morula by the trunk, even get a slimy kiss from Jabu before we had lunch. But this is no hokey tourist trap. The primary goal of Living with Elephants is to help Botswanian schoolchildren overcome their fear of elephants and other large mammals that could very well have killed members of their family in the past. An estimated 30,000 elephants are now killed every year in Africa due to poaching. That leaves some 350,000 elephants on the continent with more than a third of these amazing animals in the small country of Botswana. If the Groves can show locals how compassionate elephants really are, this can only help stem the mass killings. 
On our last day of the trip, we visited the community of Nakatindi, not far from where we stayed at Sanctuary Sussi and Chuma in Livingstone, Zambia. When the government promised this village a medical clinic, fresh water, and a primary school and never came through on that promise, Abercrombie and Kent came to the forefront. They built a clinic that now serves 10,000 people annually. They were also instrumental in educating the community about Malaria and AIDS, the two killers that have left many children in this village as orphans. When the villagers had to walk through a national park to get their water from the Zambezi River, they were frequently attacked by wildlife. So Abercrombie and Kent created a water pump to get fresh water piped to their village directly. They also opened a bike shop, shipped old bicycles directly from America to Zambia and Botswana, trained locals to become bike mechanics, and then bought those refurbished bikes back. They are now used by schoolchildren who need to bike 7 kilometers each day to get to school and by farmers who need to get their goods to market.
I was once skeptical of these philanthropic projects in Africa. Saw it as a drop in the bucket, especially when you consider that the cost of one day on safari is comparable to the yearly earnings to someone in the village of Nakatindi. Then I visited a school in the Maasai Mara that was built largely due to the donation of one safari client on vacation. I met a young woman there who was continuing her studies at Oxford. She told me that before the school was built, no girls were allowed at the local public school. In one of the largest slums in Nairobi, I saw how a Johnson and Johnson executive on safari returned to donate a factory that created tampons. That way, girls would not miss 2 to 3 days of school when they had their period. Another executive, this one from Warner Brothers, created a computer room where locals could not only play video games but learn about the risk of AIDS. Then, of course, there’s Bill and Melinda Gates, who also went to Africa on safari. Eradicating malaria is now their top priority. I often say to clients that you visit Africa the first time to see the wildlife, but you return often to be with the people. Those people need a helping hand.