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“Tell Us What You Need:” The Essential NGO Mindset

Wendy Hapgood is a 2017 graduate of Columbia’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program. During her time there, Hapgood helped expose the illegal ivory trade in New York City through investigative reporting for her Writing about Science for International Media class. Her work aided authorities with the confiscation and destruction of $4.5 million of illegal ivory – the largest bust in New York State history.

John and Wendy in the field
Wendy and her husband John founded the Wild Tomorrow Fund. Photo courtesy the Wild Tomorrow Fund.

Hapgood co-founded and directs, with her husband John Steward, the Wild Tomorrow Fund (WTF) in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. This NYC-based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) strategically acquired 3,200 acres between two very large, pre-existing animal sanctuaries. This land provides local wildlife access to both parks, and was recently designated as a nature reserve, the highest conservation protection offered by South Africa.

We recently spoke in her NYC apartment. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

What drew you, a New Yorker, to doing conservation work in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal?

It was really because of my husband John, who I co-founded the program with.

Until 2015, he worked in advertising and I worked in finance, but we were both transitioning out of those lives. I was redirecting my time and energy to the climate crisis and John volunteered with the NGO Wildlife Act in KwaZulu-Natal.

We started dating during this transitional period of our lives; I started my master’s at Columbia, and at the same time we started WTF to supply basic necessities that the rangers John worked with in KwaZulu-Natal needed: boots, rifles, uniforms, and tires for their vehicles.

WTF has bought and protected a large tract of land in South Africa, which you are currently rewilding. How did you acquire it?

We bought the land we are working with from a lady whose family used to farm on it. We were competing against someone else who wanted to turn it into a pineapple farm. We approached the lady and explained to her that we were a charity and did not have the total sum that she was asking for, but that we wanted to rewild the area – bring back the original plants and animals.

She must have agreed with our goals, because we worked out a plan to pay it off over five years. At this point we had only been supplying basic ranger needs, so this was a big purchase, but after we looked at the land in person, we knew that it had to be saved and protected.

WTF has since acquired a second piece of land and we worked with other conservation-minded private landowners to establish a nature reserve to expand wildlife space. The news just came in last week that all that land we’ve been restoring has now been declared a nature reserve by the government. That grants it the highest level of protection that South Africa has to offer.

WTF owns this reserve now?

No. We wanted any acquired land to be owned by a South African organization, so we founded Wild Tomorrow Fund South Africa, an affiliate of WTF and an official, registered charity out of South Africa, and bought the land through it.

In other conversations you’ve referred to the land WTF acquired as a “wildlife corridor.” Can you explain that?

Wildlife needs wild space. We’ve taken so much of their space through farming, development, and other types of land use.

From a biodiversity perspective, what animals are left with are “islands” of habitat, which does not work over the long term. Wildlife can’t survive if it’s genetically isolated so corridors link these separate, larger wildlife areas together again.

Giraffe in the Ukuwela. Photo courtesy the Wild Tomorrow Fund.

So, might we call it a “nature bridge” between these established, protected wild spaces?

Yes, but it doesn’t always have to be. For birds, a corridor could just be a line of trees on the edge of developed land. That’s their corridor, or green highway, from one area to another.

To be clear, a corridor is a mechanism for wildlife to move between otherwise separate wild spaces?

Yes, but it doesn’t have to be physical. We’ve helped Ithala Game Reserve translocate elephants. This just means that their elephant population had become too big, and unsustainable. We helped them relocate the elephants to a park in Mozambique where elephants had been poached out.

I like to think of this as a “virtual” corridor, but this only works if the destination is now safe for that animal.

WTF’s corridor project is the Greater Ukuwela Nature Reserve. How are you participating in this work?

Yeah! There’s been so much talk about it, which is great because there’s a vision. What I’m really proud of is that we are actually doing it. It’s very expensive, and I think part of our strength is our fundraising efforts in NYC.

Our corridor is situated between iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which is like 800,000 acres, and Phinda Private Game Reserve on the other side, another 80,000 acres. Our land is only 3,200 acres, which is about four Central Parks.

map showing location of the nature reserve
The Greater Ukuwela Nature Reserve connects the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the Phinda Private Game Reserve. Map courtesy the Wild Tomorrow Fund.

800,000 acres is about the size of Yosemite National Park. That’s massive.

Yes, and to connect those two reserves together is so powerful. We know historically that wildebeest used to migrate through this area. This corridor will give the large animals freedom to migrate from the mountains in the Phinda Game Reserve to the coast in iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

In recent years there has been a lot of concern about the work that wealthy white people from developed nations do in developing nations, mainly because of the “white savior complex.” How would you identify this problem and is WTF different?

I’ve seen the terrible white savior stories where it’s about the person’s ego and how they are saving the children, or whatever they’re fundraising for, that definitely happens. I do ask the question, “is that me?”

Do you worry that you are exploiting the rangers that work in these parks, or the local people?

I’m pretty confident that we don’t fit that description because it was very important when we started WTF that it be based on need. We told people, “Tell us what you need.” We provide what they ask for and we do not ask for anything in return.

Ranger Sam Dladla taking part in a bird survey at Ukuwela
Ranger Sam Dladla taking part in a bird survey at Ukuwela. Photo: Nadja Rutkowski, courtesy the Wild Tomorrow Fund.

We’re a big team and we’re bringing funding from the U.S. to help people involved in conservation work in South Africa. But it’s not to be their savior, it’s about empowering the people we work with. I don’t expect South Africa to save rhinos on their own, these species are important to the planet. It’s about altruism.

John and I don’t really get to reap the benefits of all the work we do. I would love to be in a cottage on the reserve and look out my window and see a giraffe every morning, and really experience more of what we’re saving, but our job is here in the U.S. We bring people along with us and tell the story about why it is important to rewild those lands. We live in NYC, in the concrete jungle, because that’s where we need to be.

rangers in Ukuwela reserve
Ukuwela rangers, with Zamani Sibusiso Zisongo in the foreground. Photo courtesy the Wild Tomorrow Fund.

How are you helping the people who live near the reserve?

We’re employing local people. In one sense, it’s job creation, which I think is a lot different than trying to “save” them by giving them something. It’s creating opportunities for people to help themselves.

We do community work as well, which has been challenging due to COVID-19, but we help supply a local orphanage with meals on Saturdays – the children get a meal every day at school, and the church supplies a meal on Sunday.

How are the “experience trips” that WTF does for its donors different from what some other organizations do?

Our Conservation Experience is a two-week trip that enables people in the corporate world to get behind the scenes and really partake in actual conservation efforts. We organize them 100%, and after covering their trip expenses, every penny goes toward the conservation efforts they partake in.

We focus on conservation experience, education, and exploring the natural world in that area. Some activities include: wildlife surveys, camera trapping, and pulling out alien plants on the reserve. It’s fun for us city kids to get out there with the machete.

We also do one big wildlife management event, right now it’s usually rhino dehorning – which helps keep the rhinos safe – which is what the largest sum of their fundraised money goes toward. It’s a very emotional day, to watch someone use a chainsaw to remove a rhino’s horn, but it works and protects them from being poached.

Other big events can include helping put a collar on an elephant or monitoring wild dog packs. It’s also important to do some fun activities, which are usually sightseeing the surrounding natural world, like a hippopotamus and crocodile tour on a boat in iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

A zebra release in Ukuwela. Photo courtesy the Wild Tomorrow Fund.

Does WTF work with other organizations?

Yes. We frequently get asked questions like this, and I was initially confused by them. “Don’t you think it’s competitive,” or, “are you competing with other NGOs?”

We’ve always been very collaborative. An example last year was for World Ranger Day, we asked all of these reserves what they needed, and the requests were three times the amount of what we could do. I was sad about that. Especially because of COVID-19, you know, they really needed support last year more than ever.

I reached out to other organizations and saw that The Shannon Elizabeth Foundation also had a ranger relief fund. They were able to match our supply, so it doubled the impact in our region. I also asked The Thin Green Line Foundation from Australia because they specifically support wildlife rangers. They were able to help us with supplies for under-resourced rangers that work on reserves near us. We couldn’t do it all alone, but we asked for help and it worked out great.

What is WTFs next goal?

We started WTF in KwaZulu-Natal, but I have always told John, it would be amazing if we could have rewilding projects in other countries one day, including the U.S., which I think is equally important.

Thinus Venter is a current student in the M.S. in Sustainability Science program.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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