Robert-Jan van Ogtrop
I started out as a businessman first and foremost, but spent decades coming to Africa from Europe, to experience the sheer spectacle and diversity of the continent’s wildlife and wild landscapes. I would feel uplifted after every visit, but I could never shake the deep concern of how fragile it all was. These ecosystems were being used extensively, supporting human and animal life, but were not being adequately protected. I was witnessing the chipping away of natural resources. Like a rising tide washing over, I could see how in my lifetime many of these places would be gone, and what would I tell my children and grandchildren?
I knew I needed to play my part, but I did not know exactly how. That was until I got involved with African Parks. Here I found an answer to how to meet the challenges of protected area management head on and safeguard the last important pockets of wilderness on our planet. There was a pragmatism, a clear approach, a defining of the problem. They had solid, solution-based actions that showed results along with how a well-run protected area could ecologically thrive while servicing the needs of people, and in turn gain the support of the communities who are also the parks’ greatest stewards.
Joining African Parks has come full circle for me. It was hope that brought me here but having spent a large part of my life in business, my real passions are protecting wildlife and finding sustainable, economic solutions to improve people’s lives. Take Akagera National Park in Rwanda for example – a park that has seen the near complete halt of poaching and the reintroduction of lions and rhinos. Today it is 90% self-financing from tourism revenue alone. Cooperatives are forming where local communities are sustainably fishing from the stocks provided and managed by African Parks, to feed themselves and for sale. Akagera, like all of the parks under African Parks’ management, is the largest employer in the region. In fact, when you look at the numbers from across the parks, besides our nearly 6,000 full and part-time staff employed by African Parks, there are over 10,000 community members invested in some form of enterprise development. These parks are supporting if not creating a sustainable and green economy, which can be the greatest force for good of all.
Since joining as a board member in 2008, and then as Chairman of the Board in 2009, it has been a privilege to do all I can to support African Parks in reaching its ambitious growth targets. Every year I am moved by the impacts made and inspired by the refreshing response to challenges and failures. With the African Parks model of 100% accountability, which is rare in the NGO community, the failures are ours and ours alone. How we face those and address them makes us better, stronger and better prepared, especially during these most challenging times. I can only hope that we are waking up to our role in protecting our planet, for our own survival. In this global awakening, I see African Parks playing a pivotal role, as a relevant and considered player, in showing how our work contributes to a healthier planet through climate change mitigation, countering biodiversity loss, providing environmental and economical sustainability, and contributing to the overall realisation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
As Chairman of African Parks, I believe more than ever that we must continue to do all we can together, to stay the course and protect these natural systems for countless people whose lives depend on them – which includes all of us. Thanks to all of you for your support, but also a special thanks to our incredibly dedicated and passionate staff.