Founding Soldiers For Wildlife and working to protect some of the world’s most vulnerable wildlife was not something John Garcia expected to be doing. Now, it is all he can think about doing.
Born and raised just outside New York City, John always took a keen interest in wildlife and loved watching animal planet and National Geographic. That was translated from the screen to real life when at the age of 20, John ventured to Africa for a family holiday – something he says changed his life forever.
“All the sudden, all of the beautiful scenery I had seen on nat geo and animal planet was right in front of me. I was mesmerized. I could stare into the distance and observe these creatures for hours without looking away,” John said.
However, hearing the reality of the situation on the ground in Africa, John was absolutely devastated.
“The criminal enterprises that were thriving at the expense of these beautiful places and helpless creatures ignited a fire inside of me that has only grown bigger over the years. In a moment I knew this is where my life would be as long as it was needed.”
After returning to the USA and time in the US military, the pull of Africa did not cease, and it became more apparent to John that he was needed more elsewhere. Researching and educating himself on the current wildlife situation followed by contact with a well-respected team on the ground that had been fighting the good fight for years, armed John with a good starting base.
Where Wild Things Roam editor, Kate Webster, caught up with John to discuss his conservation efforts and what Soldiers For Wildlife is doing on the ground in Africa, and around the world.
How and why was the idea for Soldiers For Wildlife born?
Soldiers For Wildlife was born when I realized that without the start of very serious efforts from an international body to save our world’s most iconic wildlife, it was clear that we would be saying goodbye to many species in the near future. The idea that we could lose our natural world and thousands of species that have been here for millions of years due simply to greed did not sit right.
After I began to witness the sheer beauty of Africa’s wilderness and what was happening behind the scenes with the illegal wildlife trade, the human and wildlife conflict, and the explosion of the human population, I knew I could not waste any more time standing by. It became real that thousands of rangers were losing their lives defending our natural world and most people had no idea.
Therefore, I knew something had to be done and to me, and for the human race, it seemed there was no fight more important than the one to save our natural world.
How does Soldiers For Wildlife help?
Soldiers For Wildlife is an initiative focused on both conservation and community work through creating elite anti-poaching units, education for locals and an international community, preserving wild land, and community upliftment.
To further explain, we purchase and/or lease vast pieces of land to protect under the SFW umbrella to ensure their future and create elite Anti-Poaching teams through the use of our highly trained military and bushcraft veterans. We host conservation through education courses for anyone who would like a more authentic learning experience about the African bush, its wildlife, and the current crisis’ plaguing the continent. In this experience, students will not just be in a car doing an ordinary safari, but each day, putting the learning experience to the test on foot in the African wilderness.
Uplifting the local community is one of our key elements of this project. SFW believes it is just as important to support those human beings that live amongst the wildlife as it is to support the well-being and future of the wilderness. Soldiers For Wildlife has a very strict policy on whom it chooses to employ for jobs on the ground in Africa. If they are located in a given area, that area is where we will find and train our employees. Each year, we will also commit to one, or various projects (depending on budget) in the local community to provide basic infrastructure, healthcare, and access to the proper tools they need to create a better life for their people.
Why was South Africa appealing for the organisation?
Since education is a key element in Soldiers For Wildlife core values, we partnered with a man named Les Brett in South Africa. Les runs a school called ‘The Dung Beetle Bush School’ that suites anyone eager to learn more about African wildlife and true conservation. Dung Beetle has been operational for over 20 years and hosts a number of courses ranging from Anti-poaching, scouting, day in the life of a ranger, ethology, ecology etc. Les was a former SA special forces soldier who was raised in Zululand, SA.
Aside from his time spent fighting for his country, he has spent his life in conservation running his school and managing a number of anti-poaching units across South Africa. His enthusiasm and eagerness to teach people about African wildlife and conservation is unmatched. It comes from a place of deep care and appreciation for nature that is contagious which lead us into a great relationship. Because of this, we decided that his school is something we would love to send people through and replicate on all pieces of land that come under our control. Our conservancies will all be based on education.
What are the challenges of what you do in the field?
There are many challenges we face in the field on a daily basis. First and foremost, lack of manpower. Due to the amount of funds generated by not just us but many initiatives in the field, it is very difficult to cover the large land masses with effective enforcement to entirely prevent poaching. With that being said, our team has not experienced an incident in over 6 months for bush meat, ivory, or keratin. Lack of proper equipment is a close second. The illegal wildlife trade is worth billions of dollars. With that being said, many syndicates involved in high level poaching (rhino, elephant, pangolin etc.) are well equipped with semi-automatic weapons, night vision goggles, silencers on their weapons and vehicles. As long as the criminals we are up against are more financed than those trying to protect these species, we are fighting an uphill battle. All in all, it boils down to funding that results in our issues in the field. Some of these syndicates are violent criminals, so there is always worry for our rangers in the field getting killed or injured. And that is not to mention the daily threat they face from the surrounding wildlife.
Zambia has a big project coming up, can you tell me more about that?
Chief Kaindu, and owner of the land which occupies Chilala Conservancy, has officially granted Soldiers For Wildlife a long-term lease plan to occupy this territory with the objective of a community and conservation based initiative. We have reached our first big goal but need immediate assistance now to protect it as it is right in the heart of the most poached region in the country of Zambia. The area is over 45,000 hectares in size and borders the Kafue river and the Kafue National Park.
After years of loyalty and dedication to the community, we have been awarded this land which will only be used for conservation through education purposes and the employment of the indigenous. This is where we will replicate our Dung Beetle Bush School that exists in South Africa. This will not serve, nor will it ever, as long as it is in our name, as a trophy hunting concession.
Each year Soldiers For Wildlife will pay a lease for the ability to occupy the land freely. On an annual basis, an agreed sum will be used to pay for this. However, instead of the money going to the leaders of the community, SFW will create a board around members from both the Kaindu community and ourselves. Each year, this board will decide on projects that will benefit the community as a whole. It will be this board’s responsibility to see these projects through and keep strict records of all finances.
It is estimated that this new project will also give jobs to over 70 individuals from the local community. Given the amount of funding going towards the community and the amount of jobs that will be created, we are extremely eager to begin this project. Kaindu has never seen such a project and we are the first to do it in the region. It is too common that many initiatives only focus on one aspect of this fight. We believe without helping the people, one will never be fully effective nor respected. Creating a community that thrives off the protection of its wildlife is the main goal of Soldiers For Wildlife.
This is a project we would like to replicate across Southern Africa to ensure the safety of wildlife and upliftment of local communities as the human population continues to explode in the region.
What do you hope to achieve in the Zambia community? And what is the proposed time frame for this?
Because this is as much a conservation as it is a community project, not only do we intend to see dozens of jobs open up in an area that is extremely high, our goal is to see our efforts affect the community as a whole. Our lease payments for the property, for this particular project, will not go to one person or shared among community leaders, but instead a chosen project that will benefit the masses. Our goal is to see the quality of life increase in sectors such as healthcare, transportation, sustainable farming etc. This will begin as soon as we begin to receive for annual lease in 2020. Jobs for the locals will begin this year as well as long as we are able to raise the funds necessary to not only pay salaries but for the equipment we will need to begin our work on the new conservancy.
How can people get involved with Soldiers For Wildlife?
Soldiers For Wildlife welcomes any help we can get. With that being said, we hope to have field volunteer opportunities for those that have skill sets on the ground that is valuable to our efforts. One of our core values, as mentioned earlier, is education. The true key to change is education. For years, dedicated conservationists and students have been attending our partners school ‘Dung Beetle Bush School’. These are the people we consider to some of the realist conservationist we come across. Not only do they come out to see the African wilderness, but them attending shows their eagerness to learn about a variety of relative subjects. These people are the ones who go on to share their experience and become a voice for these species and their last remaining habitats. This school will never something that the average person cannot afford. The idea behind it is to get as many people to experience the African wilderness untamed, the issues it faces, and how and why we must save it for generations to come. We encourage everyone to come out for the experience that will change their life.
What is your ultimate goal and dreams for the future for Soldiers For Wildlife? Next destination/project?
The ultimate dream for SFW is to secure as much land as possible that during this time, is under severe threat. Due to the rapid growth of the human population and the illegal wildlife trade, it is imperative we cease this opportunity to take control and protect as much wild land as possible for these species whose last remaining regions are drastically shrinking.
Conservation initiatives also must expand their focus to working with communities as well. Not only is it disrespectful to show up in someone’s backyard and help everything else but them, but it becomes a glass half full type of situation. The respect of the community is an essential ingredient, and if done properly, it not only affords you loyal employees, but friends. In a way, these people that live within and around the wilderness become your first line of defence. Essentially, they become your radar.
We continue to replicate what we are about to undertake in Zambia all over Southern Africa. I mean, heck, if I were handed a billion dollars it would all go to similar initiatives all over the globe that needed help supporting communities and endangered wildlife they live amongst.
We hope as well to begin working closely with intelligence communities and law enforcement. We are not only focused on protecting the wildlife at ground zero but climbing the ladders of these syndicates to get to the top dogs. That is where you will begin to see numbers decline. The actual poacher themselves are all expendable and will never stop coming unless it is stopped from the top.
We hope to be able to assist anyone who needs help in any sector; whether it is training rangers, catching poachers another team is having a hard time with, connecting the right people to make their initiative stronger etc.
However, the most important thing we hope to do is set such a good example that it inspires people around the world to give back in such a critical time. We live in such a consumeristic and technological world that we have lost touch with our natural world and its importance. We have a lot to go, Zambia being our first big project. But, like I said, this is something I would like to replicate if I can find the tools to do so.
Is there anywhere in the world you have yet to explore and why?
There are plenty of places in the world I have yet to explore. Frankly, with the work we have going on now, it is definitely limiting the amount of traveling I can do aside the countries I am presently working in. As we grow, I would hope to expand and lend a helping hand wherever we can.
To find out more and help support, visit www.soldiersforwildlife.org
List to John speak more on the Hike Or Die podcast