Big Life Featured In Philanthropy Magazine, Summer 2014


How donors are using research, security, and economic incentives to save Africa's wildlife

By Caitrin Nicol Keiper, Executive Editor of Philanthropy.


Kenya’s Tsavo area is home to that country’s largest population of elephants, as well as many other animals. And nearby Amboseli National Park is the site of the longest-running research ever done on elephants—Cynthia Moss’s four-decade field study that has produced much of what we know about the species today. But the budget of Kenya Wildlife Service is small, and the parks’ animals often range past the borders, sometimes straying into Tanzania, a common home base for poaching gangs.

BIG LIFE FOUNDATION, a nonprofit started in 2010 by East African conservationist Richard Bonham and photographer Nick Brandt, views conservation and economic opportunity as interlocking challenges. The organization works with the Maasai and other local tribes to run eight schools, protect crops and livestock from wildlife, and support a security team and intelligence network that operate in tandem with the park rangers.

On a budget of over $2 million a year, Big Life covers an area of more than 2 million acres and has become the biggest employer in the region. Many of its recruits are former poachers, bringing a wealth of insider knowledge to the job. Like Buffett, Big Life has found that although the ex-poachers’ salaries are a fraction of what they could occasionally make with a big kill, they agree that steady, predictable, and lawful work is more appealing.

“I am convinced that Amboseli would have lost many, many elephants over the last three years if Big Life had not come in to save the day,” Cynthia Moss has said. Brandt’s aspiration is to help Kenya and other countries become more like Botswana, with its hundreds of thousands of elephants and thriving ecotourism trade. He first went to Africa in 1995 to produce Michael Jackson’s music video “Earth Song” in Tanzania. He was instantly enchanted with the wildlife, to which he has since devoted his career.

Brandt describes his haunting photos—featured in this story, and collected in the trilogy On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, Across the Ravaged Land—as “an elegy to a world that is disappearing.” As he traveled through east Africa over the past few years, he was dismayed to find so many of the subjects he had come to love gunned down or poisoned from one trip to the next. One time he learned that an elephant family he was photographing just the day before had been found dead. Their faces, so full of spirit and vitality in his intimate portraits, were hacked off.

No longer content to stay behind the lens, he leapt into action. He called his old friend Richard Bonham—bush pilot, safari guide, legend of the travelogues Sand Rivers and African Rainbow, honorary Maasai. Bonham’s community development and conservation group was well respected locally but had little connection to outside support. The two men each had exactly what the other needed.

Brandt’s first supporters were avid collectors of his photography: hedge fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller and his wife Fiona in New York, and investment firm co-founder Stanley Baty and his wife Kristine in Seattle. The couples quickly donated a combined $700,000 to get Big Life started.

“When I look at Nick’s photographs, I can feel the soul of the animal,” says Kristine Baty. “I will never forget the day we learned that our favorite elephants had been killed.” (One of them, Marianna, is the matriarch leading the herd pictured above.) In addition to donating to Big Life herself, Baty has become an active fundraiser for the nonprofit, and is exploring more ways to get involved. Though she and her husband give to many charities, including other conservation groups, she has made this one her cause.

“People often ask why they should save an elephant when there are so many other pressing human needs to be addressed,” she says. Big Life’s inclusion of the interests of the animals’ human neighbors makes this a moot choice. It is critical to the organization’s success, and to her support.

Big Life is not just for elephants. One of its signature programs, the brainchild of Bonham and Tom Hill, offers a system of direct incentives to preserve another endangered, and dangerous, species. Texan entrepreneur and venture capitalist Hill packed up and moved to rural Kenya in 2000, where he and Bonham launched a plan to save the local lions.

By some estimates, fewer than 20,000 lions remain in the world, down from 100,000 just 20 years ago. While they are often poached and sold for parts on the black market, the bigger threat to their existence comes from habitat loss and increasing human conflict. Wandering through settled areas and preying on the livestock, they are hunted down by herdsmen trying to protect their livelihoods.

But not so much in Big Life’s region. A predator compensation fund started in 2003 that is now part of Big Life has nearly halted lion killings in the area. The premise is simple: Livestock owners are paid for each animal taken by wildlife, so long as the predator is spared.

The program, similar to the incentives used to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the U.S., was conceived of independently by the Maasai when Bonham and Hill asked them what it would take to stop killing lions. In its first decade, the fund reduced lion kills from a probable 200 to just six in the range it covered, without impoverishing or harming local residents.

Big Life offers a number of complementary services to help protect local livestock, including better fencing and husbandry training. Immediate compensation for occasional losses, however, is the overwhelmingly popular centerpiece of the initiative—the “core of the onion,” according to Bonham, without which the other “layers” wouldn’t hold. Program managers explain it as a basic economic equation, a fairer way to balance the benefits that “citizens of Kenya and the world at large” receive from the existence of majestic lions with the burdens of living near them.

The Maasai say they like the program because it replaces their livestock quickly and feels just. The payment goes to them individually and cannot be co-opted by their leaders (as government spending often is in Africa). And it represents the first time local residents have ever received a benefit directly from sharing their land with wildlife. “[We] listened to what they had to say,” Hill told the Daily Telegraph.

Expanding programs that combine economic incentives with conservation, and that attend to the needs and priorities of the human community, will be essential to further protecting endangered species. Philanthropists who want to conserve these magnificent animals should work with African authorities to give the local people a direct economic stake—and perhaps even some forms of shared ownership rights—in the wild herds that surround them.

Only a tangible ability to share in the economic and spiritual benefits of teeming wildlife will make the creatures next door an asset to be guarded, rather than a problem. When equipped with such an outlook, as well as the type of knowledge about animals’ needs that donors like Paul Allen are collecting, philanthropists will have much better chances of aiding the species they admire.