Durban - The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a sharp rise in international and local audiences taking virtual wildlife tours around game reserves and “escaping” into the African bush.
Founder of the Durban-based Blue Sky Society Trust, Carla Geyser said this trend could translate into a surge in tourism to South Africa, and had also helped to increase global awareness of conservation and wildlife issues.
Geyser was named the Innovator of the Year winner of the Resource Alliance Global Fundraising Awards for the first live broadcast of an elephant collaring, with conservation organisation Elephants Alive.
The collaring operation took place on August 20 in Hoedspruit.
Geyser, whose entry was up against the likes of humanitarian organisation Oxfam, said: “With the world where it is at the moment, animal conservation needs to carry on now more than ever. Poaching has increased along with jobs lost and new levels of poverty.”
Geyser raises funds for conservation projects by bringing people from all over the world to join her Journeys With Purpose, which allow them to see conservation work across Africa.
“We had two collarings planned, but when the borders closed, I had to come up with something new.
“There are a lot of internationals who love coming to our country who couldn’t get here, so I decided to take the first virtual animal collaring for everyone to watch during lockdown.
“It’s been a hell of a challenging year. With all the negativity around, people are scared and frustrated and want to escape to the bush.
"There’s nothing like nature and that connection to nature to ignite your soul. Our lives had become so fast, I think many of us had lost track of living,” said Geyser.
The main challenge to the live filming of the collaring was connectivity, so Geyser had a satellite fitted to her vehicle.
There were a couple of breaks in transmission during the live event, but Geyser said they even attracted “watch parties” where groups of people had gathered together around the world to watch the collaring.
“It’s fascinating to be part of a collaring and there’s an aerial and ground team. The helicopter pilot has to get close enough for the vet to dart the moving elephant, while they are also moving,” said Geyser.
She explained the delicacy of the operation, particularly if, when darted, the elephant went down on to his chest, and would suffer from “sternum recumbancy” and go into respiratory distress.
So the elephant needs to be rolled on to its side very quickly. The first collaring was on a bull elephant, General, and the second, also a bull, called Proud.
A twig is also inserted into the elephant’s trunk to allow it to breathe, because elephants don’t breathe through their mouths, which results in a snoring elephant – and it’s details like these which keep the audience glued to their screens.
The collaring team has to move quickly once the elephant is immobilised, with DNA being taken through filings and blood, a dung sample and tusks and feet measured.
“I have always loved elephants because they emphasise everything good about Africa, and how they look after each other,” said Geyser.
As an exciting process to watch live, the collaring attracted an international audience that day and she said: “Everyone has been watching virtual game drives and now they want to come here in person.”
Dr Michelle Henley from Elephants Alive called the elephants “intelligence agents” because the information gathered from the collars provided a great deal of scientific information, such as where they go to find food and water and their social habits.
“We do elephant collaring to get a window into their lives. That elephant starts telling us elephant stories which we could never cook up,” said Henley.
The Resource Alliance Global Programmes and Partnerships director Sarah Scarth said the 2020 awards recognised innovator fund-raisers and change-makers who were navigating the sector through the pandemic crisis, with entries from 86 countries.
The Resource Alliance is based in London and while starting as an international fund-raising group in 1981, its role has expanded to education and leadership training and to support collaboration in the global social impact sector.
Scarth said: “Some of the entries came from bigger teams and bigger budgets, but this was one woman’s determination to carry on and make it happen.
“It’s critical work and Carla Geyser’s entry showed that indomitable spirit to contribute and continue, and that’s the heart of innovation driven by need.”
The Independent on Saturday