Why are we starting an African safari company dedicated to saving elephants, rhinoceros and lions when our own country is in crisis? That’s what we’ve been asking ourselves at Cowgirls & Pirates.
The short answer? Because commitment to biodiversity means, in the words of Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich “saving all the parts.” At Cowgirls & Pirates, we’re just as passionate about phone-banking U.S. politicians to save health care as we are about bringing travelers to meet African conservationists and Maasai warriors working together to save lions.
Cowgirls was founded by Susan Zakin, author of Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement. Burned out after a decade of trying to sell stories about the extinction crisis to New York editors whose experience of the outdoors was limited to weekends in the Hamptons, she signed up to teach journalism in Madagascar. As she came to know the country, she realized that the truism about Africa was indeed true: nature and culture felt connected, more so than we perceive in the U.S., where “development” insulates us from nature.
Zakin started spending more time in Africa. After marrying a Kenyan guy, she helped him start a fair trade safari company on the island of Lamu off the Kenyan coast. Last year, she decided to reinvent the business with an ambitious goal: connecting travelers with the best and the brightest African conservationists.
“In some ways, African conservation is more advanced than ours,” Zakin said. “I see these trips as a way for people to share ideas and experiences, and to learn from each other.”
In the 1980s, Zakin said, people in developing countries changed the game for conservation, insisting that local communities had to be involved in efforts to protect wildlife, land, and water.
“This wasn’t simply a matter of social justice,” she points out. “It was practical. When people are struggling to survive, a park boundary isn’t going to matter. Wildlife had always been a means of subsistence for Africans, and wildlife has to provide income or poaching goes out of control."
While community conservation, as it’s called, doesn’t necessarily work in the U.S., it’s been successful in places like Kenya and Namibia. With those realities in mind, Cowgirls & Pirates updates the traditional safari - the word simply means “journey” in Swahili - by working with people like Namibia’s Garth Owen-Smith and Maggie Jacobsohn, winners of the Goldman Prize for international conservation. The couple, world-renowned for their successful efforts to stop poaching in the 1980s, recently started a safari business with the Himba people in remote, rugged northwest Namibia, a true wilderness region that’s off the beaten track for tourists.
They’re hoping to ensure the long-term survival of rare species like desert elephants and lions along with the Himba themselves, whose lands have suffered from drought.
Joining One Percent for the Planet was right in line with the company’s ethos, Zakin said. “African hotels and safari companies often consider it an obligation, as well as a form of insurance, to give back to the community. My husband and I were doing this on Lamu already, but One Percent gives us a way to be organized about it.”
Choosing the recipient of One Percent for the Planet funds led Zakin back to Madagascar. For nearly 30 years, American biologist Steve Goodman has been inventorying Madagascar’s biological diversity. Described by the Chicago Tribune as “a graying bohemian who traipses through the forest in cheap rubber sandals” Goodman has helped identify more than 300 species previously unknown to science, including a flea, a tick, and a sucking louse that he discovered on his own body after his legendary forays into the farthest reaches of the African bush.
In 2007, Goodman and Malagasy biologist Achille Raselimanang co-founded Vahatra, Madagascar’s first homegrown conservation NGO. With both men now in their fifties, they want to ensure that Vahatra will continue providing field training for Madagascar’s biologists and drawing a roadmap for protecting the island’s biodiversity.
“Steve is one of the world’s great scientists,” Zakin said. “But what’s endearing is that he’s essentially a dirtbag - a genius, but also a guy who could easily live in his pickup truck. We organize all kinds of safaris, from basic to luxury, and we’re as fond of great food and wine as the next folks. But at heart, we’re dirtbags, too.”