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.