African wildlife takes Center stage

JACKSON, Wyo. — Events around town, including at The Center, are being canceled due to concerns about coronavirus. But here’s one that’s still moving forward as planned, with the option to live stream for the sake of social distancing:

Three speakers from Game Rangers International (GRI), an organization dedicated to wildlife conservation in Zambia, will share their mission to revitalize wildlife in the Rufansa Conservation Project, an area more than double the size of Grand Teton National Park in southeastern Zambia. The event is still on, but limited to 150 people. You can tune in to a live stream on The Center’s Facebook page.

GRI was founded by Jackson local Charlie Ross and his friend Robin Miller, native Zambian. It is the result of decades of work in and love for Zambia.

“This is a game management area that needs love and protection,” Ross said.

Game Rangers International works to protect the Rufansa Conservation Project, an 800,000-acre game management area twice the size of Grand Teton National Park. Despite its intact ecosystem and unique landscape, the area has been depleted of wildlife due largely to human conflict. At the core of GRI’s challenge and mission is communicating the importance of conservation to local communities and economies.

“There’s a conflict between community development and conservation, and the necessity for both to exist,” Miller said.

Sound familiar? It’s not much different from some of the problems Jackson faces as its population grows. Perhaps the biggest difference is affluence. Unlike Teton County, the wealthiest in the nation, neighboring communities of the Rufansa Conservation Project live off the land. Their living is agricultural and even sustenance-based, which means natural resources are profitable. If you live in a village on the banks of the Zambezi river and an elephant is destroying your crops, it’s hard to see that elephant as a friend, Miller said.

The conversations are starting. Part of GRI’s success is its ability to incorporate local communities into its business, so conservation becomes the new economy. They hire from within those communities, employing them as game rangers, organizers, and teachers.

“The real solution lies in getting communities to subscribe to conservation and show the benefits they can accrue,” said Sport Beatty, head of GRI. Once communities are vested, they will fight to protect what they have, which includes their ecosystem and wildlife. GRI also goes into schools in the area and teaches kids about surrounding wildlife so they feel vested at a young age.

Another critical element of GRI is its wildlife rescue unit, the Elephant Orphanage Project. They take orphaned elephants, often reported by locals, and care for them until they’re old enough to be reintroduced to the wild. The project’s goal is to make itself obsolete, said Director Rachel Murton.

“Ideally there wouldn’t be a need for us,” Murton said. “Orphans are created as a result of human conflict,” and that conflict is exactly what GRI hopes to eradicate. But until they do, Murton will continue to care for elephants in need.

It can take up to 10 years to rewild an elephant, and the Elephant Orphanage Project has already successfully supported 49. They currently have 19 in their care. It’s a full-time job, but it’s working.

It’s working so well, in fact, that Murton and Beatty both beam at a recent success story: an elephant they had cared for and released years ago recently returned to the refuge to give birth to a healthy baby. It was a “very clever decision,” Murton said. She knew her baby would be safe there. The calf turned six months old last week.

Hear more success stories from Miller, Murton and Beatty tonight at The Center at 6 p.m. The presentation is free. The live stream will start on Facebook 15 minutes before the presentation. The presentation is made possible by Wonder Institute, an initiative of Center of Wonder.

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