NGO African Parks is protecting some of the continent’s most vulnerable ecosystems—with help from Nancy Lee and a handful of other Asian philanthropists

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.”

Picking Up the Pieces

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.

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Tried and True 

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.

It’s important for Asia to be part of the solution to conservation in Africa
Nancy Lee

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.”

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Global Impact

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.”

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Another connection between Africa and Asia is more controversial. Sadly, the poaching of some of Africa’s most vulnerable animals is due to demand for animal products from Asia, where ingredients such as rhino horn and pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine. “It is a sensitive topic, but many animal parts from Africa are trafficked through Hong Kong to China and Vietnam,” says Neil. Adds Nancy: “The Asia Pacific Advisory Board is working to raise awareness regarding the misuse of animal parts, such as rhino horn and pangolin scales for medicinal purposes, which have no basis in modern science.”

Raising Awareness

The board—which comprises Neil, Nancy and Markus Jebsen in Hong Kong, as well as Leo Evers in Singapore and Rajiv Louis in Jakarta—is particularly focused on raising awareness among schoolchildren. “We are talking to Chinese International School and Kellett School at the moment,” says Neil. “And for Harrow International School we’re planning a school trip to one of the parks, which will be a great thing to do—being there really opens your eyes.”

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Nancy and Neil want others to travel to African Parks reserves, too. There’s accommodation in most African Parks, ranging from basic campsites to plush, five-star lodges operated either by the organisation itself or a luxury safari company. Talks, films, books and more are great for spreading the word, but a first-hand experience of coming face-to-face with an elephant or hearing a lion roar in the distance can change people’s attitudes—and behaviour—for life. “The ultimate goal is to make the parks self-sustaining through tourism,” says Neil. “Relying on donor money, NGO money and money from the EU and US governments and philanthropic families is not sustainable in the long term.”

Looking Ahead

The future is on African Parks’ employees and supporters’ minds at the moment because next year will mark the organisation’s 20th anniversary—and there are big plans. “We are on track to have 20 parks in our portfolio by the end of 2020,” says Peter, meaning five more parks will come under African Parks management in the coming months.

Back in Hong Kong, Nancy hopes she’ll have some royal help spreading the word. “I hope that Prince Harry will come to Asia next year to help spread the message, as he’s president of African Parks,” she says.

But whether Prince Harry visits Asia or not, Nancy, Neil and the rest of the Asia Pacific Advisory Board will keep doing all they can to support the parks, which are some of the world’s last true wildernesses. “The world is more interconnected than ever, and the byproducts of our current lifestyle affect Africa very directly,” says Nancy. “It’s important for Asia to be part of the solution to conservation in Africa.”

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