By Debbie A. McClure
Someone told Canadian ex-radio host, Jacquie Gauthier that we all need to “Find Your Elephant!” When I heard that quote, I had to laugh. After all this is a woman who has literally learned what that means. Imagine falling in love, leaving your country of birth, and starting all over in a foreign country, and in the process, finding yourself. For many years I listened to Jacquie on the local radio station in London, Ontario, Canada, and worked with her on a local Make-A-Wish Foundation fundraiser. However, I never dreamed she’d roam so far, or that one day we’d be talking about elephants and writing books. Welcome Jacquie!
Q: Tell us a little about your books and how you got started.
A: My first book, The Gift Of An Elephant: A Story About Life, Love, and Africa, really came as a result of my Uncle Ernest, who was a missionary in Africa. When I was a little girl, he gave me an ebony elephant carving. I loved that little carving, and it sparked my life-long love of elephants and Africa. In fact, little did I know that my love for him and the seeds he planted, would sprout much later in life.As a result of my great uncle, I’ve always had an affinity for Africa, and for helping other people.
I’ve had what I believe is a pretty bumpy ride to where I’m at now, living in Africa with my husband, and my passionate involvement with elephant and African wildlife conservation. I wanted to share my own personal experiences in Africa and Canada, and the journey that’s lead me here, in an effort to remind people that anything, literally anything, you feel deeply about can happen. But change isn’t easy—I don’t think it’s supposed to be. There is a lot of pain along the way, but if you keep going, keep believing in yourself and pursuing what’s important to you, you can create the changes you need in your life. I also know that Africa changes how you view life, yourself, and others. It’s an incredibly unique place on this planet, and I wanted to share some of what I’ve experienced with others.
Q: Explain how you went from London, Ontario to South Africa, and why?
A: A few years ago, when I was at my personal lowest, I decided to go on a mission trip with Canadian Aid For Southern Sudan. My job there was simple. I was to help the kids create art, assist with the music camp, and help work on plays for the kids. I have to tell you, I loved every minute of it!
One day I went with a group of people to deliver some medicines and interview refugees not far from where we were staying. That’s where I met Johann, a South African paramedic who was working on a U.N. contract at the time. He is such a wonderful man, and we connected immediately. After we got married, Johann came to Canada on Permanent Residence, but he couldn’t find a job. Oddly enough, he landed a job in Mozambique, so returned to Africa to work. We absolutely didn’t want to deal with a long-distance marriage, so I moved to Africa with him, but I didn’t have the documentation to work. This meant I was going to have a lot of time on my hands, which worried me a bit, but I figured something would come along.
When we were preparing to move to Africa from Canada, I contacted the television show, House Hunters International. What followed was a crazy, fun experience of having our massive life overhaul and move to a new country, filmed. It was a great experience, and we still get stopped on the street by people everywhere who have seen that episode and recognize us!
The problem for me with moving to Africa was that Johann was required to be gone for as much as a month at a time. Because I had the time, I decided to pursue a long-held dream of writing a book. With the success of The Gift Of An Elephant, I was encouraged to write my second book, Twenty-Eight Elephants: And Other Everyday Miracles.
I won’t say much about Twenty-Eight Elephants right now, except that this book talks to the many experiences, happenstances, and yes, miracles, I’ve had or heard about throughout my life that have changed me irrevocably for the better.
I also have to say that I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to observe, first hand, the unrelenting, inspiring resilience of the people of Africa who’ve been misplaced by famine, war, and drought, yet are happier than many North Americans. Why? Because they value each other. They pay attention, and care for each other—that’s all they have—each other. I’m convinced that miracles, serendipity, God, the Universe, whatever you want to call it, happen all the time.
Q: You now collaborate on a highly successful new artistic venture with a remarkable artist in Africa to raise funds, awareness, and build a brand new business. How did you and your artistic partner, Alicia Fordyce, meet?
A: Alicia and I met at an art show in far off and exciting Hoedspruit Limpopo. Alicia was an exhibiting visual artist, and I fell in love with her work. Long story short; we chatted, clicked, and continued to run into each other socially on several occasions after that. Then I had this crazy idea to do fine art and photography on elephant dung paper, which is an amazing product that really isn’t as gross as it sounds. I’ll explain in a moment. The key thing is that Alicia thought it was a great idea too, so we decided to collaborate on this new art project, which we entitled; Two Girls And An Elephant (see link below). The plan was to start a new business by creating original art, sell it, and at the same time, raise funds and awareness of African elephants and rhinos, who are at an alarming risk of becoming extinct if people don’t do something, like NOW!
Q: Tell us about your artwork.
A: Well, we started out thinking of doing prints of Alicia’s paintings and my photography (another passion of mine) on high quality art paper and elephant dung paper . We planned to sell the prints to tourists visiting the area. Of course Alicia and I have the original art, but we weren’t sure it would be as big a seller as it is. Actually, it’s doing exceptionally well! Some of our original art has been exhibited at the Lion Sands Ivory Lodge in Saubi Sands, an absolutely incredible hotel that’s often called “one of the best hotels in the world”, which sits right on the banks of the Sabi River .
Q: Okay, I gotta ask; what is dung paper, and how do you use it?
A: *laughs* It’s made from elephant dung, or poop. You see, elephants have poor digestive systems, so what remains is mostly grass. The grass is boiled in caustic soda, then water is added to make a paste, which is then spread out on a screen and left in the sun to dry. As you can imagine, it’s a very organic look and is an amazing medium. We work hand-in-hand with a local paper-maker to have the it refined to our precise design specification, which is thinner than what they would normally produce.
The advantages of this product is that it has such an organic look and texture. This makes it completely different from anything else out there. We like to tell purchasers that this is a great way to bring an authentic piece of Africa home with them, and it is!
The disadvantages of the dung paper are very few. Alicia loves painting on it, however, I will say that printing on it is a bit more difficult, and supply is limited. In addition to larger pieces, we also do greeting cards, book markers, etc., all at different price points of course.
Q: Who benefits from the sale of the artwork?
A: We donate 10% of the proceeds from sales of the artwork to Elephant’s Alive South Africa.
I’ve also become very involved with a local (African) organization, Wild Shots Outreach, which teaches kids how to use a camera to create beautiful images. It’s imperative we educate the country’s youth about what’s happening in their own backyard regarding the elephant, rhino, and other wildlife populations. They’re the future, so if they can learn to connect to nature, they’re far less likely to be swayed into becoming poachers later in life. They’re also taught the importance of preservation, and where each animal on the planet fits in with it’s natural habitat. Every animal impacts the environment and other animals around it. It’s a domino effect that’s in serious jeopardy of collapsing in several areas.
Q: Tell us a bit about the importance of elephant conservation. Why should people outside Africa care?
A: 36,000 elephants are brutally murdered every year. That’s 96 elephants A DAY, or one every 15 minutes, which is completely unacceptable!
You see, the elephant is what is known as a “keystone” species. In other words, it’s survival impacts the other animals and habitat. When an elephant knocks down a tree, leafy greens are accessed by smaller animals who otherwise wouldn’t have that food source, and the tree itself becomes a nest or hiding refuge for other animals. When an elephant walks in mud, then that mud solidifies, it creates a natural water bowl for smaller animals. Their droppings mean new seeds are delivered to new locations, conveniently encased in fertilizer.
There are so many ways the African elephant impacts it’s habitat in a positive manner. That’s why I’m doing what I can to raise awareness and funds to help out. Did you know that elephants cry, form complex matriarchal societies, and mourn their dead? These animals matter in a very significant way, and people can definitely do a lot to help end poaching. Can you imagine a world without these majestic, intelligent creatures?
Losing any species off our planet is scary, and potentially dangerous, in ways we can’t even predict yet, but time is our enemy. Things have to change, or in 15 years—15 years, we won’t have wild African elephants at all! A few years ago, scientists predicted that we had maybe 20 years left to protect and preserve the African wild elephant, but it’s happening much faster than originally thought. Awareness from the rest of the world is part of the answer. After all, if people don’t know there’s a problem, we don’t know how or why we need to correct it. I think the answer is in educating young people about nature and the ripple effects. The fact is, many children living close to Kruger National Park have never seen an elephant. This means they have no affinity for the animals. For the adults of a community village, poaching means money—more money than they’ve ever seen before. It’s hard or impossible to say no to that kind of offering, especially if you have a family to feed. When there’s no understanding of why the elephant is important, there’s no reason not to take the money. If people the world over would stop buying ivory, there’d be no demand, and no need to slaughter the animal. Again, it’s about education on many levels.
Another organization that’s doing its part on behalf of education is “Nourish”. They’re working on building self-sustaining communities to banish poverty. By focusing on early childhood development, food security, English literacy, environmental education, conservation experiences, and entrepreneurial training, they’re making significant inroads with the people living in and around the wildlife areas and game reserves. Teaching the people about how they can benefit from tourism for years to come by helping to preserve it, is a key factor.
Q: How can people reading this help?
A: *laughs* Donate! Support a charity, buy a product, (like our art) that helps the people living in and around the African elephants and other wildlife, to become more self-sustaining. When you do, you create your own ripple effect, even though you may not necessarily see it first-hand. This actually goes for all wildlife anywhere in the world. What you see us doing in South Africa, can be adapted for other areas of wildlife in need. This our planet. We created these serious problems, but we can fix it too. We just have to do it together.
By sharing my personal experiences in my books, I hope to inspire others to take on new challenges, and recognize the connectivity we are all a part of.
Elephants Alive: http://www.elephantsalive.org/
Wildshots Outreach Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wildshotsoutreach/
Ivory Lodge Game Reserve: https://www.sabi-sands.com/lion-sands-ivory-lodge.html