Call of the Wild: Why Nancy Lee is Helping to Save the Planet With African Parks

Nancy Lee was just a few years old when she stepped on to the deck of an ocean liner, looked towards the horizon and set eyes on South Africa. “It was 1962 and my family was moving from South America to Asia,” recalls Nancy. “We travelled by ship the whole way. It took us three months to sail from Buenos Aires to Cape Town, then up through the Indian Ocean. It was an amazing experience—people don’t travel like that any more. I was very, very young, but I remember South Africa clearly. It was magical—I remember thinking it was like a beautiful garden.”

It’s an impression that has stuck with Nancy—and it’s a landscape she’s now fighting to protect. Last year, after decades directing her philanthropy primarily towards the arts, Nancy took on a very different role as a founding member of the Asia Pacific Advisory Board of non-governmental organisation African Parks. “I became aware of the work of African Parks through a friend who witnessed several elephant relocations in areas managed by African Parks,” says Nancy. “I thought it was a wonderful thing.”

The complicated business of elephant translocation—moving a single elephant can require helicopters, cranes and a team of dozens—is just one small part of African Parks’ work. The NGO was founded in 2000 to take on responsibility for national parks that were being mismanaged, often resulting in the destruction of irreplaceable ecosystems, insecurity for local people and dramatic losses of animals that were being poached and brutally butchered for their meat, horns or hides.

African Parks takes these struggling reserves off the hands of politicians and assumes full control of all aspects of management—including conservation, community development, law enforcement and more—while the government retains ownership. Currently, African Parks manages 15 national parks and protected areas in nine countries. In total, these parks cover more than 100,000 square kilometres—an area nearly the size of England.

This public-private model was part of what interested Nancy about the NGO. “The fact that African Parks works in partnership with governments to reforest degraded land, reintroduce wildlife that had become locally extinct, train local rangers to a high standard of loyalty and professionalism and teach local communities to farm and live in harmony with wild animals is a particularly impressive model of sustainability,” she says.

It’s also proven to work. All African Parks reserves are run along business lines, so that everything from the funding to the growth in wildlife numbers to the revenue generated for the local community can be measured year-on-year.

To cite one example, in the nine years since African Parks partnered with the Rwandan government and assumed management of the country’s Akagera National Park, the NGO has reintroduced lions and Eastern black rhinos, both of which were previously locally extinct, and returned the park to its “big five” status. In 2017 alone, these animals helped attract more than 37,000 tourists to the park, generating a record US$1.6 million in revenue—money that was ploughed back into the park and community programmes.

Animals aren’t the only ones benefiting. “African Parks views the community as an essential part of its efforts. It builds schools, supports teachers and provides healthcare,” says Nancy. “If the communities don’t see the benefit of the park and the wildlife being preserved, then the park won’t work in the long run,” adds Neil Harvey, the Zimbabwe-born chair of the NGO’s Asia Pacific Advisory Board and former CEO of Credit Suisse in Hong Kong and Greater China. African Parks is one of the largest employers in most regions where it works, and trains locals to become everything from anti-poaching rangers to safari guides and chefs at luxury camps, while more than 79,000 children attend schools run by the organisation.

“The African Parks model is really scalable and can be adapted in every country,” says Neil. “In Malawi we started with one park and now there are four parks under management; in Rwanda there’s one and there may be another coming online soon; in Zambia there are two parks, and it looks like a third may be underway soon. The African Parks model works.”

These parks in remote corners of Africa might seem like a distant concern for many, but they are of global importance. “Climate change is the single great challenge to the future of our planet, and we need to make sure there are viable intact areas of land—such as the forest in the Congo and the Zambian wetlands—that are being preserved for the long term,” says Nancy. “This will ensure carbon sequestration for the benefit of the rest of the planet and will preserve essential water systems.”

The Asia Pacific Advisory Board is only six months old, but is already contributing hugely to the organisation. “We have been really impressed with the ambitions and leadership coming out of the Asia Pacific Advisory Board,” says Peter Fearnhead, CEO and co-founder of African Parks. “And key to this relationship between Asia and Africa is the financial support that is critical for us to fund our activities.”

Read the full article on Hong Kong Tatler