Protecting the Herd – WildAid Keeps Endangered Species Safe Through Education

The statistics are heartbreaking. In 1970, there were 1.5 million African elephants; now there are 400,000. There were 100,000 lions; now there are 20,000. There were 65,000 black rhinos; now there are 5,000. Wildlife is in such peril that on March 19, 2018, global news outlets reported the death of 45-year-old Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on the planet at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Only two females remain. Imagine how tragic a world it would be if wild animals could only be viewed in captivity at zoos instead of roaming free in their natural habitat because they had been hunted to extinction.

Thanks to the efforts of people such as British-born Peter Knights, a former Greenpeace activist and undercover investigator of illegal wildlife trade, and his wife, Corie, endangered species have a chance of surviving. When Peter co-founded WildAid, a San Francisco nonprofit in 2000, he took a different approach. Instead of focusing on protecting wildlife, he focused on educating consumers and reducing demand. WildAid’s tagline is “When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too.”

Photo by Kristian Schmidt

“When we began, most people thought ivory and rhino horn came from animals that died naturally. They didn’t know thousands were being slaughtered for their body parts,” says Peter. WildAid gets its message out through campaigns like “Join the Herd” and $300 million a year in donated media placement (mostly in China), along with help from 200 or so celebrity ambassadors and a small team of staff members, partners, supporters and contributors in the U.S., Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. In 2013, Peter met HRH Prince William at a Wildlife Crime Conference in London, where the prince agreed to do a public service announcement for WildAid and offered to enlist David Beckham to join him and Yao Ming. “It was hard coordinating schedules, but we shot two PSAs at Wembley Stadium, and Prince William did the tagline in Vietnamese and Mandarin,” says Peter. “When he visited China, our PSA aired 75 times a day on Chinese state TV.” WildAid’s campaigns raise public awareness and put pressure on the Chinese government. In the last three years, the consumption of shark fin soup declined 82 percent and the sale of ivory was banned starting Jan. 1, 2018, following a two-thirds reduction in price.

Corie Knights and guides with an elephant in Kenya

WildAid operates on grants from foundations and individual gifts. For the past six years, Charity Navigator has given WildAid a perfect 100 score for fiscal responsibility and good governance. One of the ways the nonprofit raises money is by bringing its donors on safaris to Africa. “These aren’t your typical safari tours. They are immersive experiences with a conscience we call ‘Journeys With Heart,’ where people learn about conservation,” says Corie, who is in charge of major gift donations, planning WildAid’s annual November gala and donor trips to Africa, the Galapagos Islands and Mexico, where people swim with whale sharks and giant manta rays.

Peter Knights and Lupita Nyong’o in Kenya

Their Africa adventure costs $25,000, and each couple pledges a $100,000 tax-deductible donation, half of which goes to WildAid’s five local partners, including The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an orphanage for baby elephants and rhinos in Nairobi. Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o recently visited the orphanage and says, “I’m proud of my Kenyan heritage and honored to be a WildAid global ambassador. I spent three transformative days at the Amboseli National Park and learned elephants each have unique features and a distinct character. A 1-year-old also named Lupita trumpeted loudly when her mom wouldn’t stop to breastfeed her. That made me proud. I like a girl who knows what she wants. ”Nyong’o says if it weren’t for humans, elephants would live 65 or 75 years. She explains that a live elephant creates jobs and brings in $1 million in tourism in its lifetime. When poached, it only provides a few hundred dollars for a handful of people. “An elephant is poached every 15 minutes, which means $96 million a day is lost,” says Nyong’o. “At that rate, elephants will soon be extinct. Fortunately, brave, dedicated people at organizations like Wildlife Direct, the African Wildlife Foundation, Save the Elephants Foundation and WildAid are combating poaching. But they need our help.” Despite the atrocities they are trying to stop, Corie, who has been to Africa 20 times, says it’s the place she feels most at peace. “Being near these majestic animals is humbling.”

Peter and Corie Knights swim with a whale shark in Mexico

Peter proposed to Corie at the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and they got married in 2002. Each year they celebrate their anniversary with safari guests who become family at the Ol Jogi Lodge, a 58,000-square-foot privately owned wildlife conservancy ranch in Laikpia, Kenya, lauded by CNN and Forbes as one of the best places on earth to stay. This year, daughters Julia, 13, and Charlotte, 9, joined them. “We stay in luxurious lodges and tents and feel so privileged eating delicious food and drinking a glass of wine, surrounded by a herd of elephants at dusk,” says Corie. “Africa is magical. Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton in Kenya, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle fell in love in Botswana. High-profile people can relax on safari, which is refreshing. One of our guests, a big finance guy, didn’t use his phone for two weeks. ”Peter, who has been to Africa 50 times, recalls some incredible moments captured by renowned photographer Kristian Schmidt. “This year we were at Amboseli when a flock of flamingos took off in a blaze of pink with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. Then Tolstoy, a giant bull elephant in musth, came within 10 feet of our vehicle and trumpeted loudly to let us know who was boss. “We’ve drifted through the mist at sunrise in a hot air balloon 1,000 feet above the ground while a herd of wildebeest grazed below and a huge African sky stretched out before us. We also skimmed along the Mara River in a helicopter with hippos and crocodiles a few feet below, watching 13 lions that just killed a hippo standing at water’s edge feeding on their catch.”

 Beyond the savanna, the Knights are also passionate about protecting marine life. They just returned from Mexico, where National Geographic photographer Shawn Heinrichs spent four days taking photos of their group swimming and snorkeling with 30-foot whale sharks and giant manta rays. “It’s exhilarating to be 2 feet away,” says Corie. “We took Richard Branson, who said it was one of the most beautiful mornings of his life.” “Fishermen who hunted them now protect them,” says Peter. “They realize they are worth more alive than slaughtering them.”

Remember: When the buying stops, the killing can too!

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