March 27, 2012

How the tragedy of 9/11 inspired one man to Follow his Bliss.

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One of my favorite aspects of this crazy journey called “life” is to see where people end up and what they do with their lives.

I am so fortunate to have had so many incredible friends and colleagues throughout my life: people who are doing amazing things, people who are taking risks and often going against the grain and as a result are living breathtaking adventures, people who are truly living their dreams. One such friend is David Youldon.

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I know David through a former career in the international student travel industry. As colleagues at The American Council for International Studies, our job was to organize and implement educational student tours throughout the world. It was an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling job. David was one of the charming and witty Brits that managed our London office. As did I, he worked at this company for many years. So years later, after I had left this company, I was shocked to learn that David was now working with lions, with this organization in Zambia: African Lion & Environmental Research Trust (ALERT).

How on earth did David go from being a manager in the tourism industry in London, to running a lion conservation organization in Africa? It was such an unusual and unexpected shift. But what made this story even more interesting to me personally was my own background.

Many people who know me now don’t know this about me, but my high school friends certainly do: it was always my dream as a child to be a wildlife biologist and to go to Africa to work to save the wildlife. In fact I’m looking at my high school yearbook right now and under my senior photo it says, “Ambition: To protect and save all endangered animal species of the world.”

Though I myself did major in wildlife biology and zoology for half of my college years, my life path took me in a completely different direction in the end. So when I learned, to my complete surprise, that David Youldon had ended up doing exactly what I had set out to do, I was beyond thrilled and delighted!

Since 2006, David has been the Chief Operating Officer for the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust (website, facebook, twitter), and I can see just from the outside looking in, that it has completely changed his life. He is living his passion and following his bliss every single day, working to save this beautiful creature, the magnificent lion. I am so excited to share his story with you here:

Jeannie: As I personally know you from a well-established career in tourism in the UK, how on Earth did you end up taking care of lions in Africa? Was there a pivotal event in your life that led to this huge shift?

David: September 11th, 2001 was a date that had a significant and long-lasting impact on the tourism industry in which I was working. Whilst I was fortunate to keep my job amidst mass redundancies, the effect of that day contracted the industry to such an extent that I started to consider other options. Since I was a young boy I had always wanted to work in conservation and in 2002 I traveled to Namibia to volunteer on a cheetah research program. This trip gave me an opportunity to find out whether the reality of working in Africa lived up to my dreams. Needless to say, it did, and on my return to London I decided to find the means to make this huge shift in my life. At the end of 2003 I, as they say, jumped off the cliff, and left England for a new life in Africa.

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Jeannie: Why Africa? And why lions? What was your special connection to this beautiful creature?

David: Africa has always captured my imagination. To keep me quiet as a child I was placed in front of wildlife documentaries, and this far off land full of big cats and elephants found a place in my heart. Although I had already visited Egypt and Morocco and caught “the Africa bug,” it was not until 1997 that I got the opportunity to travel to South Africa and the Kruger National Park.

Spending days driving through the bush to stumble upon a leopard laying out on a rock, herds of elephants at a waterhole and rhino ushering their young was such an exhilarating experience, and I wanted more of this feeling. I had no specific interest in lions. If anything it’s the leopard, with its stunning rosettes and unsurpassed hunting prowess that most interested me, but when I had the opportunity to visit Antelope Park in Zimbabwe it was the African lion that took centre stage in my mind.

The lion is a powerful animal but it’s the complex social structure that makes this species so fascinating. Getting to know individual lions brings some understanding of their characters. Each have strengths and weaknesses; some are bold, some inquisitive, some shy and some lazy; each is unique and each has a role to play in the success of a pride. As I began to understand their role in an ecosystem, their impact on the communities of Africa and the threats the species face to survive my respect for the African lion grew and I decided that I wanted to do something to help.

Jeannie: Did you have any educational background/training in wildlife biology/zoology? How did you get the appropriate credentials to become the COO of a lion conservation project?

David:  Having decided that I wanted to work in Africa for a conservation organization the next step was to work out how. I did not study a related degree so I have put myself through a variety of courses (such as wildlife management, vertebrate zoology and ecology), and gained practical experience in Africa in order to make myself employable to a prospective organization. Eventually my opportunity came and although I still have much to learn, and continue to study to improve my knowledge, I had done enough to be given a chance.

I have been very fortunate to be able to converse and learn from some of the most experienced people in conservation, and this, coupled with my on-going study and practical experience has allowed me to hold the position I now do. I see my job as presenting conservation management options to ALERT’s trustees and technical board who actually make the decisions, that I then ensure are carried out. As time goes by I am more and more involved in that decision-making process and I shall continue to study and learn more to take an even more active role.

Jeannie:  What would you say are the largest threats to the wild lion population?

David: Lions are in trouble, that is for sure. As the human population continues to grow more and more land is being converted to agriculture and livestock farming to provide enough food. The habitat for lions is being eroded, whilst poaching of the lions’ prey base removes their food source. Inevitably lions are coming into conflict with people as they move out of wildlife areas and into community land to find food. It’s a conflict the lion cannot win.

Another aspect of the loss of habitat is that sub-populations of lions are becoming isolated from each other leading to inbreeding problems as declining lion populations are unable to recover through natural re-colonization and suffer reduced gene flow.

As lions and humans come into more frequent contact we are also passing disease from our domestic animals into wildlife populations. Canine distemper and bovine tuberculosis are diseases that can have a devastating effect on lions and several epidemics have caused huge losses over the past two decades. This situation can only get worse as humans, and their animals expand across Africa. As the climate changes in Africa we can expect disease, both endemic viruses such as the high prevalence of FIV in lions, the feline equivalent of HIV, and epidemic viruses, to become an even bigger issue for lions.

Finally, unsustainable trophy hunting practices are a significant threat to lions and yet the hunting industry seems unwilling to get its house in order to ensure the “sport” stops having a negative impact on lions. Whether the practice is able to have a positive impact on lion conservation is a hotly contested debate.

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Jeannie:  What are the biggest accomplishments that the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust has achieved as a conservation organization?

David: ALERT is a relatively young organization, and our development reflects that at the moment. We have however defined our approach to conservation in Africa and are working hard on dozens of proposals with various governments to bring about relevant and long-term solutions to the challenges facing Africa. We work to a principle of responsible development that broadly says that the only solutions that will generate the necessary success will be cooperative ones between government, community, NGOs, academia and business. Only together, working at a locally relevant level, will we find solutions that meet the needs and aspirations of these diverse groups, and produces security for wildlife populations at the same time. But, also, these solutions need to provide benefits to each group to generate the motivation towards sound conservation management that also promotes social and economic development. It’s a complex approach, but we feel it’s necessary or we, as a society, will continue to pour funds into conservation programs that will ultimately falter.

One of our projects is to find a way to reintroduce lions back into parts of Africa from a captive origin. Again, it’s a complex program and many people have said that it cannot be done. But we have two captive bred lion prides that are now self-sustaining in what we term managed-wild areas (meaning that they are fenced). One of those prides has produced cubs which are being raised naturally and can be released into the wild when they are older. This is an amazing achievement, and with additional funding we believe that this program can add significantly to the conservation of the species.

Jeannie:  How would you characterize the support of the local population in Zambia?

David: When we first expanded our program into Zambia there were concerns that our lions would roam around the countryside threatening rural communities, or that we would raise lions only to provide them to the canned hunting industry where they would be shot in small areas, for cash.

Over time, these fears have obviously been proven to be false, and as our neighboring communities continue to gain benefits from the presence of lions in our release areas the support level has grown. In addition to the lions, we invest substantial funds into community development programs including building additional classrooms for schools, providing materials to clinics to assist their work, offering fully-funded work and research placements to Zambian university students, and many other programs. This is part of our holistic approach to conservation that seeks to empower our communities and provide benefits to link livelihoods of human populations to the health of wildlife populations. In doing so, communities will have reason to support conservation efforts.

Jeannie: As a non-profit organization, from where do you receive the bulk of your funding?

David: Most of our funding has come from commercial programs that we operate, however our continued development is now compromised until we can expand other forms of funding. We accept donations, grant funds, equity investments and generate our own funds through commercialism. Some people take issue with commercialising conservation; however we see these carefully managed programs as necessary to broaden the funding base and provide sustainability to projects. A conservation solution that is 100% reliant on donor funding is not likely to succeed long term as donors are fickle and donations rise and fall with economic realities.

Our issue is that the set-up cost of programs are often large and need to be funded by donations. But once established we have shown great ability to provide sustainability through our award-winning commercial programs. We need people to help with those initial investments.

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Jeannie:  If you could pick three major life lessons that the lions have taught you, what would they be?

David: 1. The strength of a pride is vital to its success, as is unity between stakeholders to generate the necessary conservation solutions. We can achieve anything we want if we will work together (although human nature does not always make this easy).

2. Never let an opportunity pass you by. You have no idea when the next one will come.

3. The African lion appeals to something primal in each one of us, no matter where we are from. We all are able to associate with this species somehow. So, this species, more than any other, has the ability to draw us together and bring our attention to the needs of our planet.

Jeannie:  If people would like to volunteer or intern with your organization, what are the steps?

David: Very straight forward, and extremely rewarding. There are three programs: The facilitated research program is for students of any discipline who would like to undertake their study in Africa. Interns are people with skills and experience that they feel can benefit the people and wildlife of Africa. Volunteers need no experience but must have energy and a drive to make an impact. On these programs you can do anything from animal welfare, to marine research, study gorillas, work in a human rights organization, help in a rural clinic, build a school, or walk a lion. The list goes on and on. Simply visit our web site (http://lionalert.org/page/view/page/join-us) to explore your options.

Jeannie:  If there is one thing you would like people across the world to know about the state of the lion population, what would it be?

David: The most iconic animal that has ever lived on this planet is in danger of disappearing from our world; and with it will go many aspects of our culture. Just take a look around your home town – I’ll bet you will find a lion within minutes; be it a statue, a logo, or an image in an advert. This species can provide substantial social, cultural, ecological and economic benefits within Africa. We have time to save this species, and in doing so can tackle some of the fundamental challenges facing the people and wildlife of this continent. But no more talk, no more just hitting “like” on a Facebook page. The lion needs action. All of us, if we come together, in partnership, have something to offer to ensure a future for this species. So having read this I ask people to visit our web site and get involved. Africa needs lions.

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I don’t know about all of you, but after reading that I am left with nothing but goosebumps. If you do not think that you can follow your passion in this lifetime, think again.

David Youldon is a shining example that you can do not only that, that you can go after your passion and follow your dreams; but he is also a brilliant example that in doing so you can make a huge impact, and in fact you can even change the world.

The lions need your help:

To donate funds to help ALERT to maintain and expand its programs, please visit this page: http://lionalert.org/page/view/page/support-us.

To have an experience that will change your life, please click here to volunteer: http://lionalert.org/page/view/page/join-us

I will leave you with this inspiring video of David with his beloved lions. It’s an episode from a British made TV series called Lion Country that has now been shown all over the world. In this episode it is release day for the Ngamo pride, and David’s favorite lion: Phyre:



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