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Wild And Free: A Conversation with a Conservationist

Wild And Free: A Conversation with a Conservationist

Geraldine Morelli started her own charity in support of wild animals in 2014, and after connecting with her through Instagram, I asked her if she would do an interview with me. Art intersects with so many aspects of life, and finding ways to not only create but to make a difference in the world is what we’re all about here at The Heart and Mind. It is my hope that through her story, many of you will see the urgency of working towards the conservation of all species on this planet.

I’m fascinated by your work and would like to know more about how it all began. Was it a moment where you said, “I need to start an organization to help wild animals” or was it a slow process or how exactly did you come to the idea of starting this charity?

In a nutshell, the decision of starting the charity happened after years of volunteering in a primate rehabilitation centre in South Africa and observing some issues that I believed needed to be addressed.

I fell in love with the African wildlife after a two day safari in Kenya in 2005. When I had the opportunity to take some time off between a change of job in 2006, I knew I wanted to go back to Africa. I wasn’t very familiar with the concept of volunteering as it isn’t as common in France as in the UK but I was encouraged to work with animals since I have always loved them. After a bit of research, I decided to go to a specific primate rehabilitation centre in South Africa because unlike many places I had looked up, they rehabilitate and release primates back to their natural habitat. Little did I know that it would change my life!

I went volunteering there for a few weeks and completely fell in love with Vervet monkeys and Chacma baboons. I loved working everyday to help the centre care for 600 monkeys and even had the chance to go on a safari again. I then went back every year with a break when I had my two children, but returned again with my daughter when she was three and kept going regularly. I learnt so much there but also came to realise that the way they rehabilitate and release those primates wasn’t necessarily the same way that other centers did. And it appears that there are some failures, which translates in the death of animals as they aren’t ready to live and fend for themselves once they are released back to the wild. So I started to research a little more about what other centres did worldwide and was quite shocked to see very low statistics of release success. Some mentioned 45% survival rate and others 30% while the centre I volunteered at had a 98% survival rate of their troops after one year of being released! The other issue I noticed was that it is incredibly costly to care for all these animals in the rehabilitation centre. They need food everyday, the babies needs milk or formula, those injured need treatment and special diets, veterinary costs, the enclosure needs to be maintained and there is always something unplanned happening! A car breaks down and suddenly it is a huge cost that needs to be covered. This is without even considering preparing the animals for the release when the perfect release site needs to be found, temporary enclosures need to be erected, volunteers need to be monitoring the troop and therefore live away from the centres. Everything is so expensive but in most cases, these places rely on voluntary donations. This seems so unfair to me!

So I decided to do something about it at my pace, at my level of capacity, but at least to try to help. I set up the charity and looked for the rehabilitation centres that successfully rehabilitate and release primates, and I fundraise for them so they can release those beautiful animals to where they belong, which also has an impact on their ecosystem as they play a major role in maintaining healthy habitats. I have a longer list of centres than those I have helped so far, but with little funds I can’t help everyone at once, unfortunately. The idea, which I haven’t yet implemented fully, is that the centres working with the same species talk with each other about the issues they face and the solutions they have found. In other words, I would like them to share best practice. Too many of them work in silo or see competition with each other and I think it is a real shame. They could really benefit from learning what others do, and at the end of the day the animals are the ones that should be the focus. I don’t restrict the charity scope to primates only though, I have helped a project working with the Iberian Lynx and I am very interested to help centres that work with pangolins too. I have been able to put some people in contact with others who work with the same species and I am very happy that they are willing to help and listen to each other.

I am running the charity on the side of my work and family (I have 2 children) so I am not making as much progress as I would like, but again, every little help makes a difference and it is an amazing feeling. I am meeting such amazing and inspiring people along the way, both professionals or volunteers. I am learning something everyday, I love it and can’t see myself ever stopping from doing this!

Could you please tell me what you find interesting or fascinating about the vervet monkeys and chacma baboons? 

My fascination for Vervet monkeys is probably directly related to my experience as they were the first species I learnt about through caring for orphans and I have some stories that I hold so preciously in my heart. Needless to say that a woman’s maternal instincts kick in the second these tiny fluff balls look at you in the eyes and reach out to you to fall asleep in your arms. Add to this the fact that they are traumatised as they have likely seen their mother killed. It is impossible not to be touched, moved and fall in love. Spending time with babies is of course incredible. When they fall asleep on you, suck your finger or nibble your ear for comfort, play and be cheeky, you realise what incredible personalities they have. They are so beautiful with their grey fur tinted of many shades, their fluffy white bellies, adorable black faces. The adult males are particularly striking. And they are so clever.

I was introduced to baboons a little later but they have also stolen my heart big time! The first word or image that comes to my mind when I think about Baboons is their eyes. They have the most amazing intense orange eyes that say so much about their intelligence. They never stop thinking, planning, listening and of course, looking. Never.

In the end, what I really learnt is that although they aren’t the most popular primates in Africa, through my time caring, observing and learning about them, you can totally fall in love with them. And this is the attitude I have with every animal now, especially the less known or popular ones, because I genuinely believe they each hold some amazing facts. If only we gave them a chance. I think we are incredibly blessed to be surrounded by wildlife in all parts of the world. This way of viewing wild animals is, I believe, thanks to Vervet monkeys and Chacma baboons. Considered as pests and persecuted, yet totally winning my heart over.

How have you gone about promoting your charity?

I am so grateful for Social Media as it is a great way to reach people across the globe, which is important as our projects aren’t limited to one country or region, and the news we share concerns all wildlife. However, not everyone is on Social Media, especially the younger generation who I believe are crucial to address and educate on wildlife matters, or the older generation who may have seen the decline of species over time and therefore more likely to understand the urgent need to support and share messages.

Facebook was the first tool I used to promote the charity as well as with my friends on my personal page. The way I use Facebook is to both inform on charity news and raise awareness. I follow many wildlife rehabilitation centres on Facebook, but  also receive news based on key words from the web every morning so I scan and select the relevant ones.The content is always related to wildlife rehabilitation, rescues, threats, successes, new species. I also use twitter and Instagram but really need some help as social media can take up a lot of time! And there are a lot of charities out there doing great work and also needing support, so it may be a little overwhelming for people.

That is why I am also working on new ways to use technology and get people closer to the cause, especially as my background is in this area. I am preparing something quite exciting involving Virtual Reality, I can’t wait to show it to people when it is ready!

In the end, my preferred way of communicating is by talking directly to people about the charity. It is a lot more personal and I think that people like establishing a connection with the person behind a charity. I find that passion and emotion are better expressed when I talked rather than when I write, perhaps due to English not being my native language or simply because I don’t overthink what I say as much.

I had the great opportunity to do a TEDx talk, which has also generated some support and interesting discussions. What an experience it was! Another amazing feedback is to see the audience’s reaction. It can be really touching. I presented to young children in primary schools and older ones at college. They had great questions and many were genuinely interested and willing to support us, which is really wonderful.

I have done a few fundraising events, always accompanied by a speech, which are also a great way to promote the charity. It is hard work though, takes time to prepare and may involve some costs, which although minimal, I want to try to avoid as we are a small charity.  Luckily I did have some help from volunteers, which made them great and fun events.

Finally, I tried to partner with relevant organisations or those whose objective is to help small charities, and this proved really efficient.

Although being a small charity can be quite tricky at times and has obvious downsides, it is easy to be transparent about the work we do, where donations go etc, which I think is very important for people. Also, I do love the fact that I am able to directly contact and communicate with people, so it is more personal and the bonds we create are stronger.

How can we (as the readers) help you achieve your goals?

Thank you so much for asking this question, it would be impossible to achieve my goals without help, so I really appreciate it.

I feel that I need to explain what the goals are before explaining how to help me achieve them. So my answer contains both aspects: what and how

First of all, it would be great if you could follow us on Social Media, mainly on Facebook as the main purpose is to raise awareness but also on Instragram or follow me on Twitter.  We will hopefully make you appreciate the beauty of nature and its wildlife and inform you on some issues and successes you may not be aware of or help you see them from a different angle. Awareness, education, inspiration, are all very important to making the world a better place.

Then, to be more involved in the work we do, it is important to break it down into different types of goals.

The short term goal of the charity is to continue supporting successful rehabilitation centres in their work through grant making and to start building a “pocket of funds” for new projects so they don’t have to wait for months until we reach our target for them. Donations and fundraising activities are very welcome of course. When doing so, you can choose for the funds to go towards a specific project where 100% of the amount is sent to the centre with the reassurance that it is put in good use for the animals, or to the charity in general and we allocate the funds where it is most needed or across a few projects. It doesn’t matter where you live or how much you can raise, we live in a world where we can all be easily connected and donations add up quickly. We don’t need millions to help rehabilitation centres (though that would be quite awesome!), because remember that these centres rely on people like us to be able to do their wonderful work, and 1 euro goes a long way in some countries. I want people to be proud of saying “I helped in giving freedom and increasing the population of this or that species,”and therefore be a part of conservation success stories.

For people in the UK, there is a platform called Give as you Live where a percentage of your online shopping (pretty much anything you can think of from buying a pen to booking a holiday) goes to the charity at no extra cost to you. I often insist on this because it is very clever, costs nothing and if we could have a lot more people on board, it would make a huge difference.

The mid term goal is, in addition to the above, to develop this community of rehabilitation centres that can share information and best practice, and of course we want to be there to help with funds to support improvements. I believe in cooperation and not competition, especially when it comes to the lives of animals! I have started putting people who work with the same species in touch and it is working well, but it is all behind the scenes and I would really like to make it accessible to more centres. For this, I really need a developer volunteer who can build this community and forum for the charity on the website. So if anyone is interested, please let me know!

The longer term goal is that all existing rehabilitation centres are successful at rehabilitation and releasing or reintroducing wild animals, and new ones are created where currently there are none in regions with endangered species. How can those animals stand a chance with no facilities to help them? Based on my own research among countries that have indigenous primates, there could be a staggering 33% of countries with vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered primates that do not have a facility to rehabilitate them!

Releasing wild animals has an impact on other species sharing the same habitat. Globally speaking, this goal has to work hand in hand with other organisations focusing on habitat protection, local awareness and involvement in wildlife management, the relentless fight to end poaching and the illegal trade and other conservation activities that make up the conservation effort. We are one piece of the conservation puzzle, but one piece that many are not aware of and actually a really important part.

In the end, people will want to help if they feel an emotional connection to the cause. And the best way to achieve this is to either see them in the wild, or to go volunteering in rehabilitation centres and experience first hand how to save some species and the work that is involved in doing so. If I could, I would spend my time doing this! It is so incredible to work with animals, get to know them, their behaviour, and be a part of their journey back to the wild. It is hard work but way more rewarding than one may imagine. Then, I am sure that someone wouldn’t think twice about supporting us ;-). Immerse yourself in Virtual Reality experiences that brings you closer to wild animals in their natural habitat. You won’t regret it!

Finally please do get in touch if you want to ask a question about the charity, need some advice about places to volunteer with animals, would like to volunteer for the charity even if you have limited time available or simply to say hi. I am quite a social creature and will reply shortly 🙂

What is the most rewarding aspect of running an NGO? 

I’ve come to realise that no matter the size of a non-profit organisation, no matter how much is raised, when you help in making a positive impact on the cause you care about, it is worth doing it. So to me, knowing that every penny raised and sent directly to the projects we select makes a difference to each animal benefiting from it is extremely rewarding. For example, when we raised funds for Wildtracks rehabilitation centre in Belize, it helped release three troops of critically endangered Yucatan Black Howlers monkeys back to their natural habitat. After a year of their release, it was observed that 11 babies were born in the wild, increasing their population by 5%. What can be most rewarding than hearing this news?

There is another very rewarding aspect of running a non-profit that needs to be mentioned as it is related to the above: people. Since I’ve started the charity and in particular in the past year that I was able to dedicate more time to it, I have felt really lucky and grateful to meet like-minded people, inspiring individuals and passionate souls who wanted to help and/or support me and the charity. I made new connections, and new friends. we are all in the same boat and it is very heart-warming to see how each individual makes a difference on the achievements we target and in boosting my energy so high! There have been some difficult times both in my personal life and with the charity, but by keeping the focus on animals and those who support me always helped me to quickly get back on my feet and keep going. One step at a time, but always moving forward. It is such an exciting and rewarding journey.

Running the charity also had a side effect, as it made me a lot more compassionate to the world around me and I feel that I became a better person with simple and small changes like smiling more, helping, saying something nice out loud, and looking for the positive lessons in any experience. In general, being more turned out to the world than only to my inner circle. I makes me happier and in turn, it seems to translate in real kindness from the outside world.

I can genuinely say that the charity gave me a purpose and that I can see myself doing this all my life.

I smile everyday.

Thank you so much Geraldine for your time. We wish you continued growth and success in your conservation efforts.

If you want to find out more on how you can help support her charity, please check out her website https://www.wildnfree.org/

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