I have loved animals since I was a young boy. A love that grew from cleaning the cages for my local veterinarian in Tennessee into a lifetime of educating people about the value and beauty of wildlife through zoo experiences, books, television and film. I was thrilled when I was asked to judge the Every Elephant Counts Contest because Naledi’s struggle and triumph in the film Naledi: One Little Elephant, gives me hope for her species.
Naledi’s story of finding her family, both human and elephant, is so inspiring because it shows the positive outcomes that occur when humans take the time to stand up for animals, whether it is helping an individual animal like Naledi, or working with an organization to protect an entire species and the ecosystems that depend on them. What an amazing opportunity for a young person to meet this remarkable elephant, her dedicated handlers, and experience the beauty of Africa’s wild lands in person.
Much like Paul Allen, I have a deep and abiding love for Africa, both the wildlife and the humans who live each day as their neighbors, guardians, and champions. My wife, Suzi, and I regularly visit our “home away from home” in Rwanda. The rare and critically endangered mountain gorillas of the Virunga Mountains have faced extreme hardship, just like the elephants are facing today. But now, thanks to their human neighbors, the mountain gorilla population is growing and our hope is that the elephant population will do the same.
It is so important to teach and inspire audiences about these thoughtful gentle giants, but in my time as director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and as a wildlife correspondent, I have learned that personal experiences with wildlife also have a tremendous impact on the next generation of conservationists. We like to say, “Touch the Heart to Teach the Mind”. When people are educated about animals, they learn to love them. When they love them, they will want to save them.
The joy that I felt watching Naledi bond with her human caretakers and elephant family was just another reminder of how it is our responsibility to protect our animal friends. The work of the handlers and scientists who protect, rehabilitate and learn from elephants while also providing ecotourism experiences for guests is important work, and Naledi herself is the great ambassador for elephants everywhere. I look forward to reviewing the submissions from the bright minds of young animal lovers, who – like myself, Paul Allen, and our friends at the National Wildlife Federation – are thinking of ways to save one of the Earth’s most incredible species.
If you haven’t yet, be sure to enter the contest or remind the young wildlife enthusiast in your family to enter so you have the chance to travel to Botswana and meet Naledi and her family. Best of luck!