Wildlife Heroes

40 Leading Conservationists and the Animals They Are Committed to Saving


By Julie Scardina

By Jeff Flocken

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With one-third of known species being threatened with extinction, wildlife conservationists are some of the most important heroes on the planet, and Wildlife Heroes profiles the work of 40 of the leading conservationists and the animals and causes they are committed to saving, such as Belinda Low (zebras), Iain Douglas-Hamilton (elephants), Karen Eckert (sea turtles), S.T. Wong (sun bear), Steve Galster (wildlife trade), and Wangari Maathai (habitat loss). Since we all should have an interest in conservation, there is a chapter providing information on ways people can get involved and make a difference. Chapter introductions are by author Kuki Gallmann, actor Ted Danson, actress Stefanie Powers, Congressman Jay Inslee, and TV personality Jack Hanna.



The wildlife heroes featured in this book are forty individuals we admire and respect—acclaimed for their vision, determination, and success. Some of them we have known for many years and worked closely with, while others we only knew before this book through knowledge of their impressive accomplishments, or from their stellar reputations in the field of wildlife conservation.

Admittedly, the assemblage of species we chose to highlight show a bias of the authors, as we have our own personal love for certain animals and direct experiences working in particular conservation arenas. So while we both have great fondness for critters like the obscure dwarf wedgemussel and the underrated dung beetle, and understand their important roles in their habitats, this book tends to feature the big charismatic species, the same ones who rightly or wrongly tend to receive the most conservation resources and public attention. Luckily these same high-profile animals frequently serve vital roles as keystone, flagship, and indicator species, thereby arguably deserving the lion’s share of adoration they receive.

These individual species, like the heroes selected for the book, were also chosen as being best suited to bring a broader message of conservation need, and inspiration for action, to readers. We are compelled to feature these heroes, species and issues as we both feel the heartbreak of what is happening to the wild animals and wild places we love. Unless more people help fight the war we are currently losing to save species, wild lands, and ocean habitats, there will be far less of these incredible creatures and environments left in the world.

The heroes in this book have dedicated their lives to preserving these creatures; animals that are beloved by the world because they are both compelling and fascinating. We are proud to shine a light on them all. And we sincerely hope that this book will result in more support for the heroes’ critical efforts and in meaningful gains in the struggle for existence of these amazing species.

Julie Scardina and Jeff Flocken





Caring for Eden

It was about forty years ago that I moved to Kenya and acquired the responsibility to look after a piece of heaven on the Eastern Great Rift Valley, Ol ari Nyiro, a biodiversity oasis of rugged, dramatic landscapes, with a relic forest and natural springs, gorges, and ravines, where endemic species of wildlife and flora survived and still do, in stark contrast with the now degraded landscape surrounding us, from where most indigenous vegetation has been removed.

In the very early ’80s, after the tragic deaths of both my husband and my son within a short space of time, witnessing the tragic environmental degradation and loss of habitat and species occurring all around Kenya, I resisted attempts from friends and family to get me to abandon Ol ari Nyiro to its destiny and return to my native Italy, and actively joined the great world environmental movement. I decided to dedicate my life and resources to making a difference and to make Ol ari Nyiro an example of coexistence between people and the wild.

I became a Kenya citizen and a spokesperson for my adopted country on matters of environment, and transformed the place from an operating livestock ranch into a nature conservancy with no domestic stock, where all life is nurtured and protected.

What was happening at that time? With the collapse of Somalia and deserters from that country’s army infiltrating the northern parts of Kenya—their only wealth their weapons—the killing of rhino and elephants became an unprecedented issue in Kenya, and, having lost nine black indigenous rhinoceros in Ol ari Nyiro in less than one year, I decided to do something about it. I started the first private antipoaching unit in Kenya.

What was beginning to happen—and has happened since—all around us, and throughout Africa and the planet, is the drastic restriction in wildlife habitat, pressures of all kinds due mostly to population increase, change of land use from pastoral to agricultural land, consequent interruption of migratory routes, deforestation, pollution, overgrazing, erosion, siltage in lakes, climate change with subsequent droughts, lack of job opportunities for growing populations of tribal youth and the concurrent growth of demand for wildlife products in the surging markets of the Far East, insecurity, tribal conflicts, and, in Kenya, the proliferation of small weapons from the troubled neighborhood of Somalia and the Sudan.

This, in conjunction with the soaring black markets stimulated throughout the Continent as a consequence of the sales of ivory allowed by CITES in 2007, after the twenty-year moratorium in all sales initiated by the ivory fire in Kenya in 1989, has signified an increase in poaching and illegal trade of animal body parts throughout the continent of Africa, and in particular from elephants, rhino, lions, snakes (pythons), tortoises, in addition to leopards, and plants—African sandalwood, a once-common shrub, has become rare—just to mention the most dramatic and tangible species loss. As an honorary game warden with the Kenya Wildlife Service, I have committed to do all in my capacity to fight the illegal trade that is at the root of the cruel and senseless killings that I witness continuously in the African bush.

The commitment to active conservation of the wild parts and inhabitants of our Earth demands time, stamina, vision, dedication, and daring. It can be dangerous, but in my case, despite several physical attacks (one of which crippled my left hand) and endless threats, this is one battle that I am determined to keep fighting with all the means at my disposal since I passionately believe in our responsibility to protect what has never been easier to destroy.

I am honored to introduce this impressive list of wildlife heroes, all leaders in their chosen fields, men and women of extraordinary expertise, talent, and courage, who spend and often risk their lives in the front line of conservation in remote and often lonely parts of our planet, to ensure that today’s species will not become tomorrow’s dinosaurs.

Your contribution is incalculable, and with deep respect and gratitude, I salute you.



“Learning about [their] loyal behavior has made a big impression on both those who work with African painted dogs and even those who previously hated the dogs, but now are willing to share their land with them.”


African Painted Dog

Scientific Name: Lycaon pictus

Range: Painted dogs formerly occupied a wide range of habitats throughout sub-Saharan Africa; however, they are now extirpated from 25 of 39 former range states.

Population Trend: Declining. There are an estimated 3,000 to 5,500 painted dogs left on the entire African continent.

IUCN* Status: Endangered

Gregory Rasmussen

Education: PhD from Oxford University, United Kingdom

Nationality: British

Organizational Affiliation: Painted Dog Conservation

Years Working with African Painted Dogs: 24

Honors: Whitley Wildinvest Continuation Award for Conservation (2001); Wildlife Society Annual Award (2000); Whitley Runner-up Award for Conservation (1999); and Research on Ocean Currents in the Atlantic (1978)

Notable Accomplishments: Appointed to the IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group; selected to join North and South Poles Transglobe Expedition; founded the Painted Dog Conservation organization; named a Wildlife Conservation Network partner; helped double the African painted dog population in Zimbabwe

*IUCN here and elsewhere stands for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

GREG Rasmussen hates the name many people have given his favorite animals. “They are not simply ‘wild’ dogs; they are not feral domesticated canines with which people confuse them because of their name. When people know nothing about them, they fear them. Instead,” Rasmussen counters, “they are beautiful and endangered ‘painted dogs’ which need our understanding and assistance if they are going to continue to survive in Africa.”

Rasmussen is particularly sensitive about misperceptions of these social and wide-ranging canines—known not only as African wild dogs and painted dogs but also as “African hunting dogs,” “Cape hunting dogs,” and “spotted dogs.” “When my mother first read about the animals I was intent on studying many years ago,” he says, “she was fearful for my life, as there were so many awful and false descriptions of the dogs in books she read.” Today those myths carry on in many of the animal’s range countries. “Most people grow up being told to shoot the dogs on sight because they think they are cruel, bloodthirsty, savage, and no good to anyone.”

Rasmussen started working with painted dogs in 1989, when he was overwhelmed by the human-induced carnage to this highly endangered species. “No sooner than I had identified the presence of this rare animal did I find that shortly afterwards, they had momentarily left the sanctuary of the national park and were either shot by ranchers, killed on the road, or caught in poachers’ snares set for bush-meat. These senseless mortalities distressed me deeply, and so I decided to make the species my flagship in the hope of ‘making a difference.’” He started with neither funding nor accommodation and precious few savings, and he was distrusted by just about everyone—the local Africans, ranchers, and even safari operators who did not recognize the dogs’ potential value. Winning confidences—without falling off the track—became the issue.

What You Should Know about African Painted Dogs

Painted dogs are not domesticated dogs that have run wild, but rather a distinct species that evolved separately from other canids. Their scientific name translated from Latin means “painted wolflike animal.”

Between 43 and 70 percent of wild dog hunts end in success compared to lesser success rates of many other predators, such as lions, which are successful only an estimated 27 to 32 percent of the time.

Painted dogs have been shown to mourn for deceased pack members.

The loss of just one adult pack member—whether to a snare, a vehicle, or a gunshot—can spell doom for the entire pack, as every dog is needed to hunt and protect the pups.

Painted dogs allow pups to feed first after a kill and will bring food back to any pack member that, due to injury, illness, or “babysitting duties,” cannot participate.

To combat this, he started a major awareness campaign alerting people to the truths about the species and the problems they faced. Rasmussen’s vehicle, which also served as his home in the beginning, frequently touched ranchland areas where it was not welcome, and he was seen as much a problem as the dogs themselves. Rasmussen and his programs became a point of vociferous public discussion. He recalls being delighted at receiving a call from a rancher who said he was going to “bury him” because the dogs had expanded to the point that they were now on his ranch and Rasmussen was “responsible.” The very fact that he called said one thing; the fact that the dogs had expanded into a new area said even more. Years before, the rancher would simply have killed the dogs and not considered calling. Rasmussen translocated the animals to a safer area, thus demonstrating his ability and willingness to do whatever was necessary to keep them alive.

A decade after Rasmussen started his painted dog work, Zimbabwe overnight became a turbulent mix of conflict, lawlessness, increased poverty, and starvation, and once again African painted dogs were in jeopardy. Snaring, a technique using wire to catch animals for meat and sale, hit astronomical proportions, and painted dogs often fell victim to these death traps. All the gains of the previous years were threatened. It was back to the drawing board for Rasmussen, though this time accompanied by Peter Blinston, who came from the UK to “help out” for a few months and ended up staying on. In a climate where few locals had much to rely on, the tenacity of the project carried through and the Painted Dog Conservation project (PDC) was expanded to include the community as partners.

As conservation ignorance is Rasmussen’s greatest enemy, the program of which he is most proud is the organization’s Children’s Bush Camp. The effort introduces local kids to native wildlife, as well as to the dogs at the PDC rescue center. “Zimbabwe children, as in many other countries, often never get the chance to experience or learn positive things about wildlife in their own nation. Once they do, they are forever changed,” relates Rasmussen. The children attend classes, perform skits, write reports, and visit Hwange National Park to see animals in the wild. The kids even get a “surprise” encounter with the normally elusive painted dogs by taking a nature walk down a long, raised walkway through the rescued dogs’ enclosure right before feeding time. The dogs are then released and come running toward their meal, right beneath where the children are standing, to their complete thrill and astonishment.

Painted dogs used to regularly roam over much of Africa, their range extending to thirty-nine countries. Now there are estimated to be fewer than fifty-five hundred painted dogs in all of Africa. Shooting, snares, and road strikes are the major threats, and the Painted Dog Conservation program is busy addressing them all. Besides education, there are concrete, practical solutions that can save individual dogs’ lives. For example, PDC places wide, spiked, reflective collars on dogs, which serve multiple purposes.

First, they can aid in freeing the dogs. The spikes on these collars help break or prevent tightening of snare wire, often placed to catch other game animals, but sometimes catching dogs instead when they investigate the bait. Reflective material on the collars helps warn drivers of dogs crossing the road at night. The collars also double as radio transmitters, helping to keep track of packs and their movements and add to the body of knowledge about these misunderstood animals. Coupled with road signs at common dog crossing points, radio collaring has reduced road mortality by 50 percent.

PDC is a popular employer of locals, who find careers as dog keepers, educators, researchers, anti-poaching patrol team members, bus drivers, facility maintenance workers, and cooks. “It has made a difference that we are a relatively stable provider during some of the worst economic times the country has ever seen,” Rasmussen says. “We take care of the dogs and the people.”

PDC has become somewhat of a regional phenomenon. Neighboring communities are impressed with the work Rasmussen has accomplished, and the dogs’ reputation has improved. “People around here are now telling us when they see dogs in the wild, and if someone finds an injured one—by car collision or snare, they will often alert us so we can try to save the dog.”

This lesson in compassion can be learned from the dogs themselves. When a pack member is injured, the rest of the pack, adults and pups alike, will take care of it, bring it food, and lick its wounds until it has recovered. “Learning about that loyal behavior has made a big impression on both those who work with African painted dogs and those who previously hated them, but now are willing to share their land with them.”

In 2003, Rasmussen found himself in a dire situation when he crashed his plane while helping the National Parks Service look for a rhino. Since he crashed outside of the search area, he spent more than twenty-four hours in the wilderness with broken legs, ankles, and pelvis before help arrived. The crash was made legendary by the retelling both in a Discovery Channel documentary and on a television series called Alive. Rasmussen has recovered, but is forbidden by his friends and associates to ever fly again. Many would have quit working in the bush after such a terrifying near-death experience. But Rasmussen remains committed to the painted dogs and their future survival. “Painted dogs have increased from just 350 to 700 animals in Zimbabwe since we started our programs twenty years ago. My colleagues and I have faced many challenges along the way—but the news is positive overall. Whether you call them painted dogs, African hunting dogs, or spotted dogs—there are more around today than there were when I started working with them, and that’s a great sign for their future!”

Why It Is Important To Save African Painted Dogs

Painted dogs are the only living representative of a distinct line of wolflike species of a lineage several million years old. This genetic uniqueness is very valuable to biodiversity.



“It was only when I started working with them that I understood the magnitude of their decline. I didn’t want these beautiful animals to disappear from my homeland”.


Grevy’s Zebra

Scientific Name: Equus grevyi

Range: This species was once found throughout most of Kenya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia but is now found only in northern Kenya and isolated pockets in Ethiopia.

Population Trend: Considered stable now due to protection and conservation efforts. It is estimated that fewer than 3,000 Grevy’s zebras are left in the wild.

IUCN Status: Endangered

Belinda Low

Education: Master’s from Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, United Kingdom

Nationality: Kenyan and British

Organizational Affiliation: Grevy’s Zebra Trust

Years Working with Grevy’s Zebras: 10

Notable Accomplishments: Founded the Grevy’s Zebra Scout Programme; developed the Northern Rangelands Endangered Species Program; certified educator in holistic management used to improve habitat deterioration; founding member of Kenya’s Grevy’s Zebra Task Force

BELINDA Low, born and raised in Kenya, has nearly always regarded the Grevy’s zebra as one of the most spectacular large animals on the planet—and for good reason. It is striking, powerful, unique, and endangered.

Kenya is home to 95 percent of Grevy’s zebras, but it wasn’t until after Low began studying this limited-range species that they became her passion and focus. “It was only when I started working with them that I understood the magnitude of their decline. I didn’t want these beautiful animals to disappear from my homeland,” she says. “I had to do something.”

Low works as much with the people who share the same land and resources of Grevy’s zebras as she does with the zebras themselves. Where the zebras range in northern Kenya, people are mainly pastoralists. As keepers of livestock, they have an intrinsic knowledge of nature that has served them well for centuries; life-giving rain supplied regularly twice a year has helped them and the animals survive on the arid land. But things are changing. The rains are no longer predictable—or often, as plentiful. “The future of these peoples’ livelihoods and the survival of the Grevy’s zebra are inextricably linked.”

Today, Low is teaching a low-tech method of range management using the same cattle that once competed with the zebras, but now help till and enrich the soil and restore native grasses for wildlife. Cattle are kept in smaller but mobile grazing areas to rid selected zones of invasive grasses. In the process, the cattle provide natural fertilizer and a churning of the Earth by their hooves. Once indigestible, tough grasses are eaten to the root and tramped down, native seeds can naturally take hold. “Cattle allowed to roam widely don’t provide benefits for indigenous plants and therefore the wildlife,” says Low. “It’s when cattle are concentrated that improvements can occur, and that’s actually pretty easy to do. It’s such a simple concept and an all-around winning situation for locals, wildlife, and the environment. We just need to reach a lot more communities to set up these management systems.”

Low works across an area of more than ten thousand square kilometers (approximately sixty-two hundred square miles), transected by a huge mountain range. “We camp whenever we are away from the field headquarters, which gives us great opportunities to interact directly with the locals,” she says. “Some of the most significant conversations have taken place around the campfire!” As difficult as the terrain and the zebra’s challenges are, Low enjoys the work and the relationships she has built with her neighbors. She has worked to set up task forces and national strategies to ensure community commitment and long-term support for the Grevy’s zebra. “We must recognize the critical role the local pastoral people play in the Grevy’s zebra’s survival,” she says, “and help them manage the entire ecosystem effectively for all its inhabitants.”

What You Should Know about Zebras

Newborn zebra foals are ready to run with the herd just an hour or two after birth—a critical survival capability for an African prey animal.

There are three species of zebra. The plains zebra of the famous Serengeti migration is the only one whose populations are not of concern.

The mountain zebra is listed as vulnerable, with an estimated total population of 9,000 adults.

The Grevy’s zebra population is estimated to have declined by more than 50 percent in just the past two decades.

The Grevy’s zebra is the largest member of the wild equid family and unlike other zebra species, resembles a mule more than a horse, with a narrow head and fuzzy, oversized ears.

Grevy’s zebras have a totally different social system than the more numerous plains zebra, which served them well in their ecological niche until resources and numbers began to decline. Breeding males remain on their territories year-round—sometimes even in times of severe drought. Females and nonterritorial (bachelor) males will migrate to more habitable pastures. As fewer than three thousand Grevy’s zebras remain over thousands of square kilometers in northern Kenya and Ethiopia, the strongest, most territorial males are often left with a territory no females traverse. On top of habitat loss, water shortages, hunting pressures and human disturbance, this certainly makes a successful breeding season more difficult, so the downward population spiral continues.

Why It Is Important to Save Grevy’s Zebras


On Sale
Mar 6, 2012
Page Count
264 pages
Running Press

Julie Scardina

About the Author

Julie Scardina is the Sea World, Busch Gardens, and Discovery Cove Animal Ambassador. She serves on the board of the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund and is actively involved with several other conservation organizations including the World Wildlife Fund. Julie has appeared on Larry King Live and Dr. Oz . She is a monthly guest on the Today Show and a regular guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno as she has for the past 14 years.

Jeff Flocken is the DC Office Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). He also works on campaigns conserving whales, polar bears, elephants, lions, and a variety of other species through this position. Jeff worked for five years as an International Affairs Specialist in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation. He lives in Arlington, VA.

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