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Lori Bergemann: Executive Director - Amara Conservation

Game Warden



Lori Bergemann, in Tsavo


Lori Bergemann is the Executive director of Amara Conservation, a US non–profit, and the UK charity Amara UK Trust, which she co founded and runs with her sister - Amara meaning ‘urgent need’ in Swahili. One of the key aims of Amara is to screen films from the African Environmental Film Foundation (AEFF) for audiences in the bush, comprised of schools and youth groups, to teach Kenyans about wildlife and the environment. To discover more about Amara's work, visit their website here - www.amaraconservation.org.



Prior to arriving in Kenya what was your background and what experience did you bring to the table of conservation?


I moved to Kenya in 2001. Prior to that, I lived in the United States, managing a high-end restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan for 17 years. I have family in the US and Europe, and started traveling at an early age. I gained new insight and experiences everywhere I went.


As a teenager, I went to boarding school in New Delhi, India. I visited the zoo often, where I would sit with the elephants that were chained up, with no barriers between man and elephant. They would stand and sway back and forth. Sometimes the keepers would throw food for them just out of reach and I would hand it to them. A few times they would unchain the elephants so they could go drink. One time they wouldn’t go unless I went with them. They were clearly so miserable.


I made a secret promise to myself that I would help them one day.


While at University I studied anthropology and biology, and planned for a career as a wildlife veterinarian or an ethologist. For many reasons, neither of those happened. I read every book I could find on elephants. I hadn’t imagined that I would come to live in Africa. I never thought I would set up an NGO – but when I did, it was like a dream come true. I was able to fulfill my promise I made years ago.


Amara - urgent need in Swahili: how did you identify in which areas you would focus, both in terms of conservation itself and locality in Kenya? What were the "urgent needs" you saw to be addressed?


When visiting Kenya in 2000 with my sister Heidi, I saw that poaching was happening much more than I had thought - even though I had read everything I could find about elephants - and I felt that, at long last, it was time to help. Over the next year, on subsequent trips to Kenya, Heidi and I made an effort to meet as many conservationists as possible, to get a better feel for what was really happening and who was doing what. When we met Simon Trevor of the African Environmental Film Foundation (AEFF) I knew that was something that Amara could do!


Initially, Amara supported the setup of AK Taylor’s desnaring teams in the Mara, and donated water tanks and schoolbooks to schools there – thinking that helping schools would make people more interested in conservation. I decided that was not going to be our focus as the result was not as direct as I wanted it to be for the wildlife.


Early on, it became clear that there was a need for information and education regarding conservation in rural areas, in order to get local people involved. This realization, along with the relationship with AEFF, led us to developing our Mobile Film and Education Unit – the first of its kind – to show AEFF environmental films to rural people, provide information and have discussions about conservation.


I wished that I could eliminate every poacher there is, but I knew that not only could I not do that personally, but that no one could do that. There are too many people, too much wild space. I believe that poaching will only stop when everyone realizes it’s wrong and when they have good reasons not to poach, and motivation to not allow others to do so.


Amara donated a vehicle to the David Sheldrick Wildlfe Trust to set up a desnaring team in Tsavo. I worked with them when they started out, and I saw what it was like to take out snares in one area, move to the next area, and return to find just as many snares set again. Simply removing snares is not enough of a deterrent to the poachers. This experience helped me realize that the only way to change the negative behavior, is to get the people to understand the consequences of their actions, and for them to want to change, not because it’s being forced upon them.


With our Mobile Film and Education Unit ready to hit the road, we worked in conjunction with Susie Weeks and Humphrey Munene of the Bill Woodley Mount Kenya Trust. We spent 3 weeks around Mt Kenya and Laikipia, including Lewa and up to Il Ngwesi. During that time we showed films to over 7,000 people. I saw with my own eyes peoples’ minds opening up to new thoughts and new realities about conservation and I knew that this was something that would have a solid long term effect.


I decided to focus our work in Tsavo, Kenya. I have always known about the wild beauty of the area, and focused there because it is extremely critical to wildlife, being a vast area covering over 45,000 sq km, the people living on the borders are dispersed and lack information. This area needed information more than any place in Kenya.


At the time of starting our Mobile Film and Education Unit, the only others showing the AEFF films were the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya and they only showed films in schools that had wildlife clubs. Having a wildlife club required money; therefore, most of the rural schools of the Tsavo region did not have wildlife clubs, and had not seen the films.


Tsavo, if left alone, is perfect land for wildlife for perpetuity. The animals do not need to migrate, other than elephants in the dry season. It is not a good place for humans to grow food - or even live - due to the severe droughts, lack of water, and poor soil quality. It is perfect wild animal habitat.


By concentrating your resources and efforts over a large area as opposed to focusing on just one localized zone, what are your objectives, do they change depending on circumstances and how can you aim to meet them?


We focus on certain areas at a time with our work in the field. We work closely with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in order to determine the best areas to focus – in terms of biggest human wildlife conflict, critical wildlife areas, and park protection issues – so the decisions are based both on community needs and park needs. The Taita Hills area in Tsavo has been a main focus spot, and we have added the Maasailand areas west of Tsavo West National Park.




How do you set about educating the younger generation with regard to wildlife conservation and habitat preservation when perhaps they have had no real exposure to such issues in the past?


Children want to learn about animals. They want to understand how important wildlife is to Kenya, to themselves and their futures. They get it. We explain the economics of the situation. Through the AEFF films we grab their attention - they learn a great deal. Following the film, we have discussions and show diagrams of how tourism money is spent in Kenya. Present all of the private sectors that gain employment and earn an income because of tourists. Explain that it brings in 20% of the governments money that helps pay for roads, services, hospitals, and even their school fees.


Several times, we have taken school children on game drives. Most of the students have never seen any real wildlife, and seeing the animals in their natural habitat really makes an impact on their understanding of their importance. This is extremely beneficial in our work of ‘Education for Conservation’. Taking busloads of school children through parks on game drives is extremely expensive, so we cannot do it as frequently as we would like.


Children think of wildlife as only harmful and dangerous – destroying crops, causing harm to people and livestock. When they are able to be inside the park, in a bus, seeing wildlife in their natural habitat away from human settlements, they are always thrilled. They see and know the beauty and majesty of what their country has to offer.


We are always looking for sponsors so that we can provide more trips to get as many children as possible on game drives in the parks and really embrace the importance of wildlife and ecosystems. The kids are eager to find ways to help with conservation matters once they realize how important it is.


What are your expectations and hopes upon setting up an education program in a village, and in turn what expectations do you believe the local people have of your work?


Working in rural villages with a goal of ‘Education for Conservation’, you must be flexible and approach every situation with an open mind, just as we hope the community members do with our film shows. We provide information in areas in which information isn’t always readily available, helping people develop an understanding of the benefits of conservation. They don’t always recognize that wildlife directly benefits them through tourism. With the new understanding, we then support them in making changes to their behavior to benefit both themselves and the environment.


The community members have come to know us, and are eager to see films and get new information. In the beginning, some people thought we were going to bring in money, but soon realized that we were there to help them better their lives by providing information. An aware group of people, who want to make changes, will find their own answers. This is undeniable.


What does your educational approach consist of, how long does each session last and how do you integrate the whole community into your teachings?


When we take trips to show films, it’s typically an all day affair, showing films to schools during the day, and in the community at night. We go from school to school, visiting 4 or 5 a day. We schedule the shows in advance so the word spreads. When we are at schools during the day, we tell the students about the night show, and they share this with their parents and community members. It’s hard to get the word out to large groups of people dispersed throughout the community, but through the children, word travels fast!


Each film is about an hour, and we have discussions before and after the film. At night, we have to wait until dark to show the film as it’s done outdoors. That very darkness can make it difficult for people to stay late and get back home safely – especially if there are elephants or other large animals around, so the discussions are shorter than during the day with children.


During the day, in schools, we are able to do more comprehensive discussions using chalkboards and with ambient light! We are developing Powerpoint presentations to reinforce and support the information they learn in the films. We will be able to use the presentations anywhere we can project a film and this will help us have more informative interactive sessions.


Wildlife vs humans: how do you teach the importance of compassion over conflict, restraint opposed to retribution / defense to a village that may suffer from livestock loss through predation or crop losses through rampaging unmanageable elephant herds? Indeed in the communities you serve what is your answer to human vs wildlife conflict and how can such an approach be applied?


Human wildlife conflict is a complex, and extremely critical issue. There are many different ways to address it, depending upon location and species involved. We do not espouse wildlife health over human health – we help people find ways to benefit from wildlife, and understand the animal’s contribution to each of their lives, as well as to mitigate the conflict that comes through predation and/or crop loss. In some areas, people actually benefit directly from tourism. In other areas, they can make improvements to protect crops and livestock, that also help protect wildlife.


It isn’t only a matter of teaching compassion, it’s actually financially responsible to care for the wildlife and environment. People will realize real benefits from protecting their resources.


Humans need a healthy environment just as much as the animals. But it’s only humans who can choose how we impact that environment.


What differences can you see being made by what you do, in terms of how the people react to your presence, and how their perception changes of both you and Amara Conservation's message?


With providing information, I see people’s perceptions change on a daily basis. From initial curiosity about why Amara is around, to riveted attention to the films, to active conversation about what is being presented. Actually witnessing people’s minds change and become open to new concepts is very powerful. The African Environmental Film Foundation films are unique. They combine important facts with great footage - explaining ecosystems functioning in a way that is entertaining and informational. Our staff is adept at answering all questions that arise from a film show, and at engaging viewers in active discussions.


It’s seeing these changes that keeps me going, for I believe that the only way to make a sustainable change is by changing minds.


What happens when you leave a village behind, having spent time working there? What kind of communication is maintained with those whom you have worked with?


Getting to as many areas as possible is useful – there are so many areas that can benefit from our work; however, it is also extremely beneficial to focus on certain areas that we know are very critical to make an impact, whether it be from a highly populated wildlife area, or a known poaching or human wildlife conflict area. It is a balance incorporated into our work plan to ensure we focus on the right areas.


After working in an area, we keep in contact with most places, and we return later to have more shows. We would love to have more shows, and always be in the field, but unfortunately, our resources are limited. Transportation and staff are expensive, and this restricts us to a smaller footprint. If we had 5 fully equipped vehicles, and enough money to operate them regularly, we would never be far from any village.


You work with Simon Trevor from the African Environmental Film Foundation: how did Amara's relationship with him begin and how do you work in conjunction with his project?


We met Simon Trevor and his daughter, Tanya, in 2000, having been referred to him by Mike Rainy, a long-term conservationist in Kenya. Once we saw what they were doing with the African Environmental Film Foundation (AEFF) we knew straight away that we wanted to assist them any way we could. Helping people understand how to better protect their resources is utterly critical to conserving the wildlife and environment.


Initially, we donated speakers to AEFF so they were able to show their own films, but we quickly realized that the best thing we could do was create our own dedicated Mobile Film and Education Unit and get it to work showing their films on our own.


We share the information that we gather from the evaluations with AEFF to let them know the effectiveness of the films and shows.


(Matt's Note: to read the Safaritalk interview with Tanya Trevor Saunders of the AEFF click here.)


Amara is involved in anti-poaching measures. Talk me through the differences between sustainable poaching vs commercial poaching. What is it that drives both types and how can one begin to address the problem of poaching, whether it be the root causes, to dealing with the poachers themselves, to the removal of snares and so on?


Amara’s focus is ‘Education for Conservation’. We work with community members to understand the importance of wildlife, and want to protect their lands. While our focus is not anti-poaching work, we occasionally assist with desnaring with groups such as KWS.


I’m not sure what you mean by “sustainable poaching”. Poaching, no matter what way you look at it, is illegal. Maybe you are referring to the bushmeat trade. I believe the only effective way to deal with the people poaching for bushmeat is to stop people from setting snares, eating, or buying and selling bushmeat, because they know that it’s wrong. That involves other, better, means of living, and a strong understanding that by engaging in the trade people are destroying much more than they are gaining.


If you mean “subsistence poaching” - people killing wildlife just to feed themselves - it is not the major problem right now. The big issue we are facing today is the commercial bushmeat trade. It’s people killing animals to sell for profit. Meat is dried and sent far and wide, even overseas. That’s money and greed taking over. It’s simply not sustainable.


Amara hosted Bushmeat Awareness Meetings in the top poaching hotspots around Tsavo in 2004-2005. KWS estimated that there were 16 poaching hotspots. If there are 100 people setting an average of 10 snares each - per night - and even a 10% success rate (one animal caught per person) with 365 days/year – that adds up to 584,000 animals killed per year – in the Tsavo ecosystem hotpsots alone!


Our work is to inform community members of the repercussions of poaching and destroying the environment, help them understand the benefits of wildlife, and to support them in changing their lifestyles to benefit themselves, the wildlife, and the environment.





What are the major problems facing small rural communities and what complaints do you most hear from the village elders? What is their opinion of wildlife conservation and habitat preservation when they are unable to benefit from the income it generates?


The major problem is poverty. This is exacerbated by population growth, extreme lack of potable water supplies, poor soil conditions for farming, and lack of transportation for crops when they are able to be grown.


There is always an initial opinion that it’s always ‘others’ who benefit from wildlife. There is a common misconception that it’s only Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), lodge owners and safari guides who make money from tourism. This is far from the truth. Tourism brings in so much revenue to Kenya that it supplies over 20% of the GDP. Many people are employed in tourism industry, and it’s supporting services like petrol stations, taxi drivers, employees of lodges/airlines/mechanics, and suppliers of food, transportation, construction, and so on. All those employed also pay income tax. The government provides free primary school education, hospitals, roads, and other services from those taxes. A great deal of benefit from the tourist industry is seen by each family in Kenya.


How would you propose to integrate such communities that border the national parks and reserves (yet receive little or no financial benefit from them), into the conservation effort and make them not only an integral part of the tourism industry, (through Community based tourism) but also work towards protecting the environment in which their community is based?


This is the main focus of what Amara does - working with the communities that border national parks and reserves to protect the environment and become an integral part of conservation efforts. Simply helping people see and understand their role in the ecosystem forms the basis upon which integrating into the conservation effort can happen at all.


People truly benefit from a healthier environment. More trees mean more rain, which means better soil for growing crops and feeding livestock. Not all good results need to be in the form of cash in hand. The thinking that money is that direct cash is the only good result is oversimplified. It’s counterproductive.


If people get cash from alternative livelihoods, but still see wild animals as ‘free meat’, they will take the money and the bushmeat. If they instead understand the very good reasons why killing and eating bushmeat is a harmful activity, they are more likely to stop the negative behavior.


Aside from Simon Trevor and the AEFF how do you interact with other agencies, both at a governmental and NGO level? When there exist so many organisations how do they target their approach so as to achieve the greatest level of success? In fact what is your perception of the quantity of NGOs operating on the ground? Do you feel that perhaps there are too many with limited resources, both financially and logistically and by combining their focus more would be achieved?


From some perspectives it can seem that there are a lot of conservation NGO’s operating on the ground in Kenya. From an honest community perspective, there are not many that actually have direct impact.


In an ideal world, it would be best if everyone could work together and supplement one another’s skill sets and activities. We find that it is important to link up your goals with like minded people, working towards the same goals, which is why we work closely with KWS - as they are mandated with caring for Kenya’s wildlife, and I believe that all the NGO’s working around Tsavo should do so.


The number of organizations working towards the same goal isn’t the issue; the issue arises when organizations have competing efforts and work against each other. As long as organizations work together, there will always be enough work in the world of conservation in Kenya.


On your website you mention the setting up of a rural radio network which covers a huge area: how is this project working and what difference is it making to the communities it covers? What is your hope for it as a communication tool in the future?


Radio Tsavo – a community radio station – is an idea that Amara Conservation had when recognizing that the communities in remote areas have little access to pertinent communication. Through education and information, Amara is helping humans and elephants to coexist and support each other, ultimately protecting this beautiful land. The intention of the radio station is to provide a venue for the community to share their knowledge. Locally produced programs will cover topics including the environment, local conservation issues, women’s issues, health and agricultural information; and to bring distant communities in contact with one another, sharing experiences and information to improve the lives of all inhabitants. It will be very community oriented, and will engage people in open discussion about issues that are important to them and to their livelihoods and the environment.


It will also have a mobile component and be able to travel all around the area to record events, help produce local content, and give people in remote areas a voice in media. We will also provide training in media, presenting, programming, and technical skills.


We have done initial feasibility studies, local community surveys, and a very successful training workshop thus far. We have all of the equipment for the mobile station, and are working on the funding for the larger mast and permanent station and initial operating costs.


We hope it will become a buzzing hub of important and engaging information. We are very excited about getting Radio Tsavo up and running.





Image courtesy and copyright ofof the Woodley collection.


What is the greatest threat posed to wildlife and the environment at this moment in the areas in which Amara operates, and in the future from where will new threats come and how will they differ from those now?


Poaching and habitat destruction is threatening the wildlife – and deforestation - all of which is brought about by humans. Population growth, combined with outside influence (desire for ivory and charcoal markets) and relative poverty amongst the local populations all add up to less than ideal conditions.


I don’t think it’s worth worrying about future threats, as too much destruction will take place for that to matter unless the people are armed with the information and tools they need to combat the losses they face right now.


Something that angers me is when people express the notion that one ‘cannot preach conservation to poor, rural, or less formally educated people’. The truth is, the less wealthy people who live more directly off the land are the ones who need that healthy environment the most, and they are the very ones who can, and need to, protect it. I know this. I see it every day.


In hindsight, what have you learned in the 11 years or so since Amara Conservation began and how can you apply such lessons to make it function better in the future? Looking back, what mistakes have been made and is there anything you would have done differently?


I have learned a great deal in the 11 years I have been in Kenya, more than could be adequately described here.


One of the things that I have learned is respect for the knowledge and caring that the rural people we work with possess. When I came to Kenya I knew I was doing it for the elephants. Now I feel very strongly that what we do is equally for the people. I have learned to value humans as much as I do other animals!


Things do not move or change quickly in Africa, and consistency is very important. Making things happen is certainly a test of patience.


What would I do differently? Knowing what I know now, I would have taken a comprehensive course in mechanics years ago!


Success and achievement: what have been Amara's greatest successes thus far and why? And at a personal level for you, Lori Bergemann, since arriving in Kenya what has been your greatest achievement?


Amara has shown the films of AEFF to over 400,000 people. We have changed the lives of many people, by opening their eyes to things they did not know before. Changing someone’s mind is a very powerful thing.


In a clearly measurable sense, the Mbulia Group Ranch Conservancy is proof that what we do works – and it is a real success.


This area was ranked as ‘most in need of protection’ by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) due to human wildlife conflict and it is the most critical habitat for elephants during the dry season. The local people are poor subsistence farmers living in dispersed settlements. Focusing on this area, over time we were able to assist the community to decide to form a conservancy and then to find an investor and support them in setting up and running the conservancy.


The representatives of the Group Ranch (land owners) asked Amara to help gain agreement from all the members of the Group Ranch. It took time, numerous meetings, enlisting support from key elders and leaders, and showing more films. Hours, days, months of discussion and debate. We provided logistical assistance, transportation, brought in experts from KWS and other community conservancies, took the leaders to visit other community owned conservancies. Every member of the Group Ranch finally agree to create a conservancy to protect the wildlife, and to generate income on their under utilized land.


Amara found an ecotourism company - New African Territories - to invest in the wildlife conservancy. They lease the land, giving a regular income to all Group Ranch members. New African Territories will build and operate a lodge, they will employ local people and bring tourists who will pay conservancy fees. The conservancy fees will fund community projects including improved water sources, new businesses, better schools, and additional projects that are identified throughout the relationship.


From Amara’s work with the members of the Mbulia Group Ranch, they now have a completely different outlook on wildlife. They now realize that they benefit more from protecting the area and wildlife than they did by destroying it.


(Matt's Note: to read the Safaritalk interview with Nana Grosse-Woodley from the Mbulia Group Ranch Conservancy, click here.)


For me personally, starting Amara and living in Kenya to grow it, has given me the opportunity to fulfill a promise I made to myself as a teenager. I can’t save every elephant, but knowing that what I do has a clear direct positive impact on their possibility for a future, is a real gift. This is a fight worth fighting.








The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.

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