A Cooperative, Comprehensive Approach to Saving African Elephants
February 06, 2018
I fell in love with wildlife as a child when I traveled to Africa with my father, who was a biologist. Back then, the beauty of the continent was difficult for me to put into words, and it stayed with me. But if I was in awe of all the different species I saw on that trip, I was overwhelmed by the elephants — so much so, that when I became a father myself, I wanted to share their beauty and majesty with my daughter. I had to wait a few years, but when she turned 15, we traveled together to the continent that had captured my imagination many years earlier.
It was not what I had expected, and my heart almost broke when I saw firsthand the devastation local elephant populations had suffered in the years since my last visit. I explained to my daughter that these magnificent creatures were being killed for their tusks — which would be smuggled out of country and turned into trinkets and bogus medical remedies to satisfy the growing consumer market in far-away countries such as China and Vietnam. What's more, at the rate they were being killed, African elephants might become extinct in my lifetime, and that her children — my grandchildren — might never have the chance to see one in the wild.
As a co-founder of a hundred-million-dollar company, I had long felt the need to give back, and when I got back to the U.S., I decided I would dedicate myself to saving the African elephant from extinction. It soon became apparent, however, that I would have to embrace unconventional strategies if I hoped to have the slightest chance of succeeding. As I returned to Africa several times over the next few years to learn about amazing organizations already working toward this goal, I realized I didn't need to start another NGO to bring a new approach or project to the table. Instead, I could create a nonprofit organization that would fund established projects and organizations already making a difference and use my connections and influence to bring those projects and organizations to the attention of donors and activists here in America.
My insight led to the founding of Elephant Cooperation in 2016. But I soon realized that in order to save the elephants, we would need to peel back the onion on the factors contributing to their decline — big things like poverty and human/animal conflict. And in the two years since, I have come to believe that empowering impoverished villages in Africa has to be part of any long-term solution. If we focus only on poaching, we miss a bigger opportunity — to change the hearts and minds of the people who live among these magnificent creatures by providing them with the resources and tools they need to improve their livelihoods. Our comprehensive approach to saving the African elephant includes protecting elephant populations with rangers and beefed-up surveillance; supporting local communities with anti-poverty and educational initiatives; raising awareness of elephants' plight among the public, business leaders, and philanthropists, both in Africa and here in the United States; and sharing best practices and resources.
To that end, we have developed a portfolio of organizations we support based on four criteria — their impact, history of achievement, growth potential, and alignment with Elephant Cooperation's core values. The programs we fund include frontline efforts (i.e., anti-poaching rangers and drone operations); park management; and local community development initiatives — building greenhouses, digging wells, supporting clothing lines made by community members, and so on — aligned with our broader goals.
At the same time, we believe it's important to engage American business leaders in this effort. Africa might seem to be a world away, but the extinction of the African elephant would be a devastating loss for all of humankind. To make sure that doesn't happen, Elephant Cooperation takes entrepreneurs and business leaders to Africa to witness firsthand the extraordinary efforts being made to save elephants so that they, too, develop a passion for these majestic creatures and return home committed to their conservation. With so many great minds working toward the same goal, there's no limit to what can be achieved.
For instance, one innovative new approach involves using surplus merchandise to generate support for ongoing conservation efforts. Many companies often find themselves with excess inventory due to over-production, slower-than-anticipated sales, or the discontinuation of a product line. In 2017, one such company, Shoes For Crews, a Florida-based manufacturer of anti-slip footwear, was going through a rebranding when I shared the plight of Af rican elephants with the company's CEO, Stuart Jenkins.
Once I completed my pitch, Stuart declared himself all in; eventually, Shoes For Crews donated four hundred thousand pairs of shoes to the cause, and with our partner Air Shepherd, we arranged for them to be shipped to and sold in South Africa, with all profits going to support Elephant Cooperation programs. The deal has since raised tens of thousands of dollars, and we hope to boost that to $750,000 by the end of 2018. Best of all, the model is a win-win, in that it raises much-needed funds for our programs and benefits the manufacturer, who ends up paying much less to dispose of its surplus merchandise while gaining enormous credibility as a socially and environmentally responsible business. In short, good business can result in good philanthropy, and vice versa.
At Elephant Cooperation we're pursuing a cooperative approach to saving the African elephant — not only because it's the best approach, but because we believe that no single entity can effect large-scale positive change on its own. Big problems require comprehensive, long-term solutions and a willingness to see those solutions through to the end. Business can be an extraordinary force for good, and one day I hope to tell my grandchildren that the African elephant was saved from extinction thanks to the efforts of local communities and businesses around the world working together to make sure that never happened. Won't you join us?
Scott Struthers is the founder of Elephant Cooperation, which is dedicated to raising awareness of the African elephant crisis and supporting NGOs already working on the ground. He co-founded Sonance, an audio systems manufacturer, in the early 1980s.