Connecting the dots to elephant conservation

The Elephant Project is creating new communities in developing countries that will provide jobs, housing, education and health care to the people. We will create real estate investment opportunities for those who want to own a home or invest in a business in an exotic location near an elephant sanctuary, and we will create a safe and secure home for captive and wild elephants in need. Does this sound crazy? Innovative? Both?

Recently, I was talking about The Elephant Project with a potential donor and this was my opening line. I went on to say that these are new ideas and new solutions that will address the threats to the long-term viability of elephants. We discussed how our innovative free and fair market solutions will foster new dynamic and humane economies that will create a safe new future for elephants and by extension other imperiled species. I closed the discussion by saying that our efforts will create sustainable revenue streams which will fund solutions that address the short and long-term needs of elephants, the communities in which they live, and their environment - fostering an economy where a protected elephant is worth more than a dead one.

After the pitch and on the way out of the building, I turned to Adam Roberts, one of our Advisory Board members who was with me and asked what he thought. In Adam’s typical funny yet serious manner he simply said – “Dane, people can’t see inside your head. You know the idea but you can’t assume others do. You have to do a better job of explaining the complexity and innovative aspect of your vision and the transformative impact that it can have. You must connect the dots.” It was a great point and forced me to take a long and hard look at how to explain The Elephant Project – a project that has never been done on this scale before.

But what else I realized is that when talking about The Elephant Project, there are really two distinct audiences. The first are the people who understand the plight of elephants and the importance of finding solutions to end this epic struggle and who know that finding a model that can bring a fiscally sustainable solution is critical. The second are those who simply have no idea why it is important to invest such substantial time and money into protecting elephants. Though through our educational component, The Elephant Times, we will work to educate people on why they should care, this initial blog regarding our efforts will focus on those that already are sold on the need to protect and not if they should be protected.

But let’s take a step back and look at how this all began since I believe it will help explain the underlying premise of the project. I have been lucky to have an amazing life filled with phenomenal people and experiences. I have worked in politics, animal welfare, democracy building, architectural design, residential development, was a builder and a carpenter, have traveled the world, have a strong belief that a great cause should be able to fund itself (my inner fiscal conservatism showing through) and most importantly love elephants and feel strongly that saving them is the ultimate test of our humanity. These experiences and guiding principles were the driving force behind the creation of The Elephant Project - a project that allowed me to use my diverse experience to help protect one of the most amazing animals ever to walk on this earth. It is a project that is immense in scope and will require the support of people of many disciplines – architects, environmentalists, builders, land planners, city planners, elephant care experts – both captive and wild, anthropologists, elected officials, retail experts, veterinarians, health care experts, and educators. We aren’t building a traditional elephant sanctuary that is funded by ongoing donations and ecotourism. We are building a sanctuary that is fiscally supported by a community that will be built in proximity to the sanctuary where 100% of all the net profits generated by the developing, building, and operating of that community and the businesses within it will go into a perpetual trust that will cover the cost of protecting the elephants within the sanctuary. We will build upon five pillars: Communities/Sanctuaries, Research, Retail, Education, and Collaboration.

In literal terms:

We will build sanctuaries where there is a need and communities consisting of high-end residences, commercial property, and resort facilities in proximity to the sanctuaries when conditions allow based on economic, security, environmental, and market studies. The size of the sanctuaries will be developed by elephant care experts who understand the needs of elephants and the carrying capacity of the land. We will make certain they have the land they need to live, grow, and prosper.

As to the community, it will be small compared to the overall size of the sanctuary and will only encompass 100 - 300 acres (40 – 100 hectares) so that it will have minimal impact on the environment and existing communities in the area. Seaside in Florida; Depoe Bay in Oregon; Southlands in British Columbia, Canada; Bolshaya Izhora in St. Petersburg, Russia; and Jindee in Perth, Australia are just a few examples.

Some great books that will help give you a better understanding of the underlying philosophy of how the community will be designed can be found in Garden Cities: Theory & Practice of Agrarian Urbanism by DPZ, The Smart Growth Manual by Andres Duany, Jeff Speck and Mike Lydon, and Africa Drawn a book taking a look at the urban design of Africa’s top 100 cities.

We will build sewer and water systems, housing, schools and medical facilities for those already living in the area. We will work with the existing inhabitants, villagers, and communities to ensure that every stakeholder is involved in the design and implementation of the project. This project is about empowering the people and bettering their lives and this can only be done by engaging them and listening and understanding their needs. This is a critical component of this project - in order for it to succeed, it is imperative that all the people impacted by this project are supportive.

We will design the project from the ground up working with experts from around the world who know people, elephants, and the environment and who will ensure that the elephants are protected, the environment is preserved, and the people who live there have a better life. We will do this while building a world class community whose economy will generate sustainable revenue to support the people and the elephants.

We will develop extensive retail operations around the world, both through e-commerce and brick and mortar stores, that will sell products produced within the countries we operate in. We will build world-class markets within the new community, like the Indianapolis City Market, that will give local artisans and farmers opportunities to show and sell their products.

We will create skills training programs for the mahouts and their families to increase their opportunities for employment.

We will promote collaboration by providing free office space and housing within the community to the various NGOs and their staff who are dedicated to the protection of elephants and their environment. 

We will establish non-invasive research facilities that will develop systems that will help diminish human-elephant conflicts. Not only will we ensure that people who invest in the new community are protected, we will develop systems that will protect existing communities from elephant incursions. Our goal is to build strong relationships between the people and the elephants and addressing the issue of human-elephant conflicts is a critical step in building those relationships.

We will develop cutting edge technologies that provide solutions to end poaching and address the impact climate change has on their ability for long term survival.

This project is designed to be replicated around the world and will be tailored based on the needs and challenges of each country, and there will certainly be challenges – everything from land ownership issues, local ethnic conflicts, governmental restrictions to name a few. But every challenge is simply an opportunity for a solution.

But the question that most people ask, is how do we actually generate the revenue for all of this. In short, we will derive income from the development, construction, sale and leasing of residences, commercial properties, and resort facilities that make up the community; business revenue from the operation of ecotourism businesses that are part of the sanctuaries and communities, including restaurants, hotels, shops, and ancillary businesses; revenue from property taxes, dues and assessments collected from the owners of the residences and businesses located within the communities; and profits from the sell of goods manufactured in host countries through our retail operations.

We will simply use existing business models that are used by real estate developers all over the world when making the decision to invest millions of dollars in a project - but instead of a developer making the money, The Elephant Project will make those profits and invest them in the perpetual trust. We will give 100% of the net profits generated by our retail operations and community development back to programs in the host country to support the establishment and retention of a humane economy within that country.  This is in contrast to retail companies that sell elephant-themed merchandise and give an average of 10% of their profits to elephant protection efforts. In short, every profit dollar we get goes 100% back into our conservation efforts in that country.

This project is innovative in so many ways and those who donate or invest in a residence or business in the community will have the unique opportunity to not only live near the natural habitat of elephants and other wildlife, but actually witness the impact of their investment. They will see their investment protect elephants and other imperiled species, foster collaboration and fund research that will address the short and long-term needs of elephants, better the lives of the citizens of the host country through the building of a humane economy, and weaken the ability of terrorists to carry out their heinous acts by eliminating poaching as a funding source. 

Our goal is to replicate this model around the world, thus lessening the reliance on the unsustainable donor-based funding models currently used for animal welfare and other conservation efforts. Donor dollars will go further since the need to donate annually to solve the same problem will be diminished.

We are currently exploring opportunities in numerous countries to implement our plan including Malawi, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Even though each of these countries represent a chance to save and protect elephants, Myanmar is unique in that it is an unprecedented opportunity to help protect 3,000 timber elephants. It is also a perfect location – economically, environmentally, politically and geographically – to implement our plan. We have developed a great relationship with the Myanmar government and our efforts in the country will be the subject of my next blog.

The opportunity that exists in Myanmar is the reason that The Elephant Project was created – to be able to protect elephants on a scale that has not been possible before because of funding constraints. But even if the funding is available, this can only be accomplished collaborating with the right people. Since I started this journey, what has truly made it possible is the selfless support of so many. My goal has always been to create an opportunity to help elephants and then bring together the people who have the expertise to build a long-term solution from that opportunity. I am honored and humbled by the support of visionary leaders from all segments of society who have agreed to help The Elephant Project implement our vision to help end the senseless slaughter and cruelty of this majestic, iconic, and keystone species - and the list of supporters continues to grow longer and stronger. I encourage you to learn more about the people who are really making this happen by visiting the TEAM section of our website.

In these 2125 words, I hope that I have done a better job of connecting the dots and giving you a clearer understanding of what The Elephant Project is and what we are hoping to accomplish. Our tag line of New Ideas. New Solutions. A New Future sums up our efforts. But in addition to that, I hope you have a better idea of how we are actually going to do it. Our goal is not to talk about solutions but to create them, make them real, and by all of us working together we can connect the two most important dots - the elephants to a new safe and secure future.