After spending 10 days on safari with Geraldine, who is also an amazing photographer I might add, I was constantly in awe of her genuine love, knowledge and passion for wildlife. Wild & Free is an extension of Geraldine’s beautiful personality and when she talks about the projects she’s worked on, its from a deep place inside her heart that never fails to fill you with emotion. I’m sure you’ll love her story, a reminder that things don’t have to be big to make a difference…
What lead you to creating Wild & Free Charity?
It all really started by chance when I went to Kenya and ended up on safari almost by accident. I was a bit bored at the beach and the hotel offered excursions, so I thought why not. This was when I had a big wow moment and fell in love with the wild and I knew I needed to come back, not to sit and and just look at animals but to do something really special. The following year I was on garden leave from work and so I decided to spend the time volunteering with wildlife.
I did a lot of research and there were some really great projects. I found a project in Sri Lanka with elephants and another project monitoring leopards but then I found a project about primates in South Africa where it specified that it was for rehabilitation and release of the animals that were rescued. This intrigued me and I wanted to know more because I really didn’t know much about the centres that were actually releasing animals after they’d rescued and rehabilitated them. I signed up and before I knew it I was on a plane to South Africa. This is when I had my second big wow moment because I completely fell in love with the baby monkeys I was helping when I became their foster mother.
All the volunteers came from different places around the world and even though there was a huge differences in age, nationalities and cultures, we just created bonds which actually turned out to be bonds for life. So far, it’s been more twenty years and I’m still friends with those people I met there. When you work with wildlife and you witness so many things together from the successes to the heartbreaking deaths, you realise just how important the work is we were doing together. I was completely in awe, and obviously I wanted to leave London and move to Africa but very soon after I had had my own beautiful babies so that then changed the plan a little bit.
I did find I was going back to this same project year after year simply because it was my reason to be, it was the one thing I was looking forward to every single year. I think I needed to have that trip to feel that I was contributing to something bigger than my daily work life in London, both financially and physically. I moved away from the oh, those baby monkeys are really cute and how sweet that they fall asleep on me, because I was much more interested in the bigger picture of the work the centre was doing in terms of conservation and the impact it had on the species, on the environment and the difficulties they met every day to do their jobs. You realise then how complex it is for people to actually just try and help save animals and the issues they have raising funds, so I decided to raise money specifically for the release of a troop of monkeys. When I came back to London after this trip I started to raise money, first just with friends and family which went really well.
I had already fallen in love with Africa and I was reading a lot of books, in fact every African story I could find. There was one or two that struck me and they actually were key in the creation of the charity. One was the Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony and the other was called An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick who sadly recently passed away. She was the first woman to invent the the right formula for milk to give to orphaned elephants when they’re rescued. She’s absolutely amazing and the book is her life story from when she was simply the wife of a warden in Kenya to her starting to help save injured animals in her back garden. It’s a heart wrenching story of what she had to go through to find the right mix and when she did, she went on to save more and more elephants which is now known as the David Sheldrick Centre in Nairobi The reason I share this is because it’s all thanks to her. After reading this book I just thought, oh my God, this is so amazing but this is never going to happen to me because I don’t live in Africa, although at the same time I was raising money for the project in South Africa whilst living in London. It was a real light bulb moment because I thought, hang on, you are helping, you are making a difference here, because if you raise these funds, these people can do their job. This is when I realised, instead of just doing one project, one fundraising, which is going to come to and end, and then what? I thought I have to make it an official thing, and that’s called a Charity. So this is how and why the charity, Wild & Free started.
There are so many centres needing help in the world it must be so hard to choose who to support. Is there a certain criteria you go through to decide who you will work with?
Yes there is actually. Initially it was only about rehabilitation and release where Primates were my main focus, because that’s where my experience lies, but then I started to learn so much about rehabilitation and supported other less known species. One main criteria is that centres I work with have to have the same work ethics as me and the projects have to be successful with methods that can be replicated by other centres working on similar projects because ultimately you just want success. You’d be surprised how many projects fail. We don’t hear about them, so this is one very important criteria I need.
I tend to avoid working with large organisations as I need to know exactly where the money is going to support the project and they don’t really work that way. I don’t want to just send money all the time. I could say, ok I’m raising £2,000 per centre but I don’t want that. I want to be sure I’m raising money for a specific project and I need to be able to communicate with the donors where the money they have sent is being spent and what it’s helping with. I think that’s the greatest reward of an internet donor is to knowing where the money goes.
I also need to be able to have a regular communication with the director of the centre I’m supporting. I need them to be able to give me regular updates so I can communicate this. I once made a big mistake with too big of an organisation. I don’t want to name it because they’re doing an amazing work, but they are quite well known and I never really heard from them. It’s a shame because it just didn’t feel very personal but I do know we had an impact because I did visit the project.
So another thing I do is always try to visit the project. There are only two projects I haven’t visited yet, one is because of covid and another one was really at the start of the charity. I only focus on helping small projects, where the centres and /or he species are not very well known, they’re a little bit of an underdog kind of thing. That’s a project I really like because I know we have a big impact and I will have a close relationship with the director.
I think by looking at your current and previous projects you can see the passion and commitment that goes into them. Your heart is in definitely in everything.
What is a recent project you’ve been working on?
The project I’m supporting now is called ‘Save Elephants with Bees’. Elephants and bees are not friends, and this is precisely what can save those gentle giants. Elephants do not care about borders and cross the boundaries of National Parks by breaking down fences into the farmers’ lands to feast on their crops. We’re installing the beehives along the borders of the National Parks to protect the elephants from being killed by farmers, and to protect the local communities too as Elephants are dangerous!
It costs £55 to build a beehive from scratch, from sourcing the material to installing it with donors’ names on them. Just before Christmas, we raised £1950 and the team in Tanzania were able to install 36 beehives on the border of Arusha National Park and the village of Nkwasenga.
The second phase of the project has started and we are now raising funds for 100 beehives for another area in Arusha National Park currently identified as ‘at risk’ for both elephants and people.
It’s an amazing project because we are then protecting the farmers, the cattle and the crops and saving the elephants. It also creates an extra revenue for the communities because of the amount of honey the bees are producing. This creates a massive impact, I mean you never hear the big charities talking about raising £2000 being WOW. I had regular communications with the Director of the organisation on the ground and he sent me many photos to show all the stages of building the beehives, which I was able to share with donors. Each person sponsoring a beehive also received a certificate and they have now received the photos of their beehive in the park, with the name they chose to be painted. Some people ‘offered’ a beehive as a Christmas present, others for a friend, or remember a lost one. Now people can go and see their beehives should they wish to travel to Tanzania. A really beautiful thing.
What’s your next project? Or is this is an ongoing project with the bees?
Every project that I’ve raised money for with the charity is a project that I will continue supporting on an ongoing basis so people are free to keep donating and then when there’s enough money, let’s say £200 or an amount agreed with the centre, then I can send it to the project and it always makes a difference.
This year I have started a new project at the Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary, it’s the only rehabilitation centre in Liberia and its neighbouring countries. They currently care for baby pangolins called Pangopups, my favourite animal, monkeys and other animals. Due to the lockdown, their funding has dropped to zero and it costs £1200 per month to feed the animals at the centre, there are around 120 to 140 animals, a number that rapidly change over night sadly. Julie, the woman who runs the centre is amazing and she communicates to me what she’s using the donations for and again it’s why I hope to make my supporters really feel part of my projects.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since you started starting the charity?
There are two things, the first one is that when you do something you’re really passionate about, you can never go wrong following your heart. For me the charity has been something very personal. I just feel so grateful for because I’m going to have it for the rest of my life.
The second lesson is you don’t need to raise hundreds or thousands of millions of pounds to make a difference. If everyone can do something similar to what I do, which are small projects, raising awareness, helping to make difference, then you can go really far. It can be overwhelming when you read the headlines about big fires spreading, species being extinct, there’s always something big and dramatic and it’s very scary. As individuals you may think you can’t do anything but even by giving £5 to the right organisation, you are really going to make a difference. There are no rules when you want to help make a difference and there are many ways to do it, sometimes just sharing a post, reporting an animal abuse or signing a petition has an impact and can save lives. But you have to ‘do’ something.
Have you any plans to grow the charity?
I want to keep the charity small because it’s just me running it and my Trustee who is managing finances. I am the person having conversations with everyone. If we were 20 people with a company hierarchy and maybe a trainee that would answer the phone, it wouldn’t be the same. I love talking about what I do to people and so this personal touch is something I’m not willing to sacrifice.
Saying that, there is so much to do and whenever I have a little bit of help, it makes the charity go one big step forward. I am currently finalising volunteer roles as I’d like help on very specific tasks that I’m sure many have the talent to do. I would also like some people who are passionate about a species to be in charge of their own fundraising plans to support the associated project in the charity, given all the tools they need and manage their own ‘Mini Wild&Free’ charity in a way. So this requires some time to organise but I’m getting there and should be able to advertise soon!