The view from here
“I was the mother to three baby vervet monkeys. I fed them 7 times a day, taught them how to groom, and socialised with them… but I had to walk a fine line between giving them the attention they needed and not giving them too much. If an animal gets too used to humans, it severely compromises its ability to be reintroduced into the wild.”
Meet Beckie Calder-Flynn, a wildlife activist, often described as New Zealand’s answer to Bindi Irwin and by all accounts a fierce young woman dedicated to protecting animals.
Animal encounters are a big part of travel for many people. Who doesn’t love getting up close and personal with the world’s most majestic creatures? Some of our most special travel memories include locking eyes with an animal we had only ever read about in books.
They can be carnivorous, ruthless killers. Or they can be adorable, fluffy marvels of intelligence. They capture the imagination because you can empathise with and even befriend them, and yet still they largely remain a mystery to us.
Their instincts for survival and growth lead to some of the most fascinating behavior that us humans have ever known.
But this infatuation with animals can sometimes cause problems for the wellbeing of certain species. How can we experience the wonder of the animal kingdom without harming it?
We wanted to find out a bit more about this topic and thought who would be better placed to comment than dedicated and earnest animal protector, Beckie Calder-Flynn.
A scientist, animal right’s activist and independent spirit, Beckie is on a mission to educate as many people as she can about wildlife conservation and animal welfare.
And she walks the talk. She recently returned from a volunteering stint in Africa, where she tracked poachers, mothered baby vervet monkeys and gave a health check to a male lion – among many other Eliza Thornberry feats. Here’s what she had to say.
Can you take us back to the beginning – how did your involvement in wildlife conservation start?
After spending a year working, I had saved some money, and I thought “if I’m going to go to Africa, now is the time”.
So I turned documentary into reality and flew to Africa in December 2015, for a three-month volunteering stint – combining travel and also putting my science degree to good use.
So Malawi was where you worked as a volunteer?
Yes. Malawi is the poorest country in the world. I was there for three months. I worked for a few different organisations – all of which I’d researched myself (I didn’t go through an agency). I picked the most ethical, grassroots organisations that saw all my money go straight to the animals.
I started in the Thuma forest, which is a 2,000 hectare forest reserve, and home to one of three increasing populations of elephants in Malawi. This NGO focuses on two things: poaching and deforestation.
Can you describe a typical day here?
A day in my life here… I’d go out on patrol with the scouts looking for poachers. I’d watch camera trap footage and analyse the animals – where they were, what they were doing. And I’d contribute to reports on how the forest was doing.
I was living off the grid, no electricity, no water, only a bit of solar power, cooking on the fire, no cellphone reception, cold showers, long drops… I was really thrown into the deep end. I think a lot of travellers can relate to that feeling, like, ‘what have I done, what am I doing here?’, but it turned out to be incredible, and it was definitely the most frontline conservation work that I did.
How long were you there for?
I was there for three weeks, before I travelled to Lilongwe, where I worked for the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre. This is like the premier volunteering organisation in Malawi – their volunteering programme is absolutely incredible. It’s expensive but amazing.
All of the animals there are rescue animals – they’re either rescued from terrible zoos in Europe, or they’re rescued from the illegal pet trade in Malawi. Every animal there is either too sick, injured, disabled or humanised to go back into the wild, or otherwise they are on their way to being rehabilitated and re-released into the wild.
And this is where you mothered three baby monkeys?
Where to from there?
Next, I travelled to Lilongwe National Park – the biggest national park in Malawi – where I worked for an organisation called Carnivore Research Malawi. This is where I applied my science degree – this wasn’t a voluntary animal care experience, it was more of a research project, and this opportunity is only given to people with science backgrounds.
I spent four weeks tracking hyenas across the national park, surrounded by hippos, elephants, snakes, baboons…
I then left Malawi to travel down the coast of South Africa by myself… it was incredible!
What was your most challenging moment?
Definitely having to completely shift my opinion on poaching… Before I went to Africa I was like, “how can people poach?” How can people find it in their heart to kill such magnificent animals? For example, elephants. As we know, elephants are smart, they’re so like humans…
But then I witnessed the poverty. Imagine this… Your wife has malaria. Your children are starving. Your crops failed because of the drought. And then you see this animal you know nothing about, you assume it’s common, and you know you can get USD $50,000 for its tusks… why wouldn’t you kill it? I would kill it. I think you would kill it. I think we all would kill it.
Human-animal conflict is such a big issue in Africa. To so many people in Africa, animals are a source of trouble. They trample on crops, they eat plants, they kill people accidentally…
Most people in Africa think that there are elephants all over the world – they don’t realise they’re endangered. If you think an animal is as common as a sparrow, why would you see the need to protect it? This experience inspired me to start my blog, Eyes of the Elephants.
My biggest challenge was to see poaching from their perspective. I’m not talking about the organised, malicious poaching – that’s an industry. I’m talking about desperation poaching… because people are trying to survive.
That’s big. There are so many cultural barriers… What do you view as being the solution (at this point)?
Education. Honestly, my opinion is that education would solve 99 per cent of all the world’s problems. And I don’t mean high school education – I don’t mean like learning maths. I mean awareness education. For example, educating people that elephants have social systems, that elephants have emotional capacity. If you think an elephant doesn’t have emotion, why would you empathise with one when it gets killed? You wouldn’t.
I saw people strap live goats on the back of bicycles to transport them between villages, and I just couldn’t even look at them… I nearly bought a goat, just to set it free. And it’s not that people are cruel, it’s because they don’t know… and this is why I feel it’s like my duty to raise awareness.
It’s so heartwarming to see people like you are fighting that fight. On a more positive note, what was the most rewarding experience?
Hand-rearing the baby monkeys. They were like my children. I came back to the wildlife centre for two nights just before I left the country, and they remembered me, and they went insane… they clung to me, they groomed to me, they were almost kissing my face and they wouldn’t let go of me… to see how far they’d come, from these trembling babies that were terrified of humans to these boisterous monkeys that were the cheekiest little things, really healthy… that was amazing.
Let’s change tack slightly and talk about solo travel. You mentioned you travelled down the coast of South Africa on your own. What was this like?
I am a very independent person. Most people that I’ve talked to have said “I could never travel a dangerous country by myself”, but I really thrive off it. I think everyone should travel by themselves in their life at least once… you learn so much about yourself, you get to do what you want, and you’re forced to make friends.
As for travelling in Africa as a female… it ranges from country to country. Malawi is one of the safest countries in Africa (even though it’s the poorest), and I never felt unsafe. There is a little bit of sexism, as in ‘women stay at home and look after the children while men go to work’.
In South Africa, I was more worried because I was a woman alone… a woman alone is vulnerable, especially in a country where there is violent crime and sexual crime. Luckily I met great people along the way.
Do you have any advice for woman looking to volunteer with wildlife in Africa?
Do your research. There are so many organisations that are unethical, that are expensive and use the money on admin, that support terrible things like lion canning, elephant riding, drugging animals for photos… irresponsible breeding…
The only way to volunteer is ethically, otherwise all you’re doing is feeding money into corruption and animal cruelty.
It’s important to educate yourself… educate yourself about what you’re going to be getting into, do your research, talk to as many people as you can. So many people get photos with baby tigers or ride elephants without realising the damage this causes.
There are things I’m still learning too. For example, I was going to go cage diving with sharks because I love sharks – and I was in South Africa, the best place in the world to do it. But then I started to do my research and I realised that cage diving with sharks is very, very bad.
By chumming the water the sharks get extremely aggressive, they injure themselves on the cage, and it’s very bad for their bodies to be aggressive, calm, aggressive, calm, they then learn to associate people with food, so they start to attack surfers and they start to attack fishermen… and it’s just this big tourist trap that’s actually exploiting the animals indirectly.
With a little bit of research you can find out so much. Everywhere in the world, people are going to try and make money, and they’re going to exploit – whether it be resources, animals, the environment, other people… exploitation is a fast way for people to make money, and unfortunately the animals don’t have a voice to speak out against it, and that’s why there are people like me having a voice for animals.
So your goal is to spread this attitude far and wide?
Absolutely. I saw firsthand how devastating a lack of education can be for people, and for animals. New Zealand seems so removed from Africa, and yes we have our own conservation issues, but if people are aware of what’s going on globally, attitudes change. People always say to me, you know, you’re just one person, you can’t make a difference. And I’m like, if one girl from New Zealand can go to Africa and save the lives of hundreds of animals, then we can all make a difference, in some way or another.
We all are living on this planet, therefore we all have a responsibility to do something. However you decide you want to contribute, we all have a responsibility.
Our last question is, what does the word travelher mean to you?
For me, Travelher is women following their passions and travelling wherever they want to go without being stopped by conventions, or people telling them they shouldn’t go there.
People used to say to me “You’re a girl, why are you in Africa by yourself…?” and I’d reply “Yes I am a girl, and I am in Africa by myself, and isn’t it awesome!”