Charles Mayhew: ‘Ultimately, it’s about people’

Talking with the founder, Chief Executive and ‘chief fundraiser’ of wildlife conservation charity Tusk

Charles ‘Charlie’ Mayhew has been fighting the good fight of wildlife conservation since way before it became the new religion of dedicated young environmentalists. 

He started Tusk as a hobby when he fell in love with Africa, as so many of us have and do, during a gap year tour of the continent. Being ‘bitten by the Africa bug’ and developing an all-consuming passion for the continent seldom translates into a life-long commitment in action; but it did for him.

Charlie tried out various career paths, the most useful being a good stretch as a financial adviser, providing him with a wealth of useful contacts, as well as helping him adopt a business approach to operating the charity. In this line of business he met one of the original and pre-eminent ambassadors of Tusk, Ronnie Wood, and organised the Woods’ first family safari in Kenya.

Serendipitously, young Prince William spent his own gap year at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, one of Tusk’s key beneficiaries. This was the start of a royal patronage history that has transformed the fortunes of Tusk both in terms of visibility, awareness and project funding. 

Today, the charity has evolved to champion a broader environmental mission, well beyond the boundaries of deterring tusk poachers. In mid-June I had the pleasure of conversing with Charlie on wide-ranging topics: from conservation to current environmental issues, and the future of Africa and its population.

Caroline: I present the poachers’ hypothetical argument in support of their trade: namely, that the profit from a single tusk could feed an entire village.

Charlie: For us, the long-term success of conservation depends on successfully engaging communities, using conservation as a tool to alleviate poverty and to improve livelihoods. A significant proportion of the projects we support across Africa have a strong human dimension to them: a strong community outreach programme that is tied to wildlife protection.

This argument that a poacher might make – when it comes to the poaching of ivory or rhino horn for the illegal wildlife trade – is not really underpinning the livelihoods of communities at all. That trade is being exploited by international, organised criminal networks; the same organisations that are involved in human and drugs trafficking, arms dealing, or rebel groups in certain parts of Africa.

The argument you’ve put forward has been more relevant during the COVID crisis. When you have communities that are really struggling with their livelihoods, who are tempted to go and poach for the pot – for food – as opposed to supplying the illegal wildlife trade, the position against it is a lot more difficult to defend.

During the pandemic, there was an immediate economic impact and loss of revenue going to those rural areas surrounding wildlife reserves – which provided employment through the lodges and the supply chains supporting the tourist industry – and a lot of people were made redundant. Africa doesn’t really have social security, so there is a temptation to poach for survival. We saw a significant rise in that form of poaching; conversely, we saw a downturn for ivory and rhino horn. They weren’t able to move this contraband around and export it to the Far East.

A lot of the programmes that we support are community-based initiatives whereby they own and manage their own conservancies. Here we have been able to establish tourism ventures and other nature-based enterprises: micro-credit schemes for women’s groups and so on. All are designed to be compatible with conservation and allow communities to really realise the benefits and value from preserving their natural heritage and the environment around them; and viewing the elephants – or whatever species it is – as their assets and not as a threat.

It’s basically converting that natural heritage – that natural capital as we often refer to now – as being a source of income.

Personally I am ambivalent about photo-safaris and tours, although they are important as a source of income. I always feel as if we are trespassing there, like having someone in your backyard coming to take pictures of you. Do you not get that feeling yourself?

I know exactly what you’re saying. I think that, as in everything in life, there’s a balance to be struck. Earlier this year we hosted a symposium of all our conservation partners across Africa, and we did it in the Masai Mara –

– I have a very good friend there who has adopted elephants, Anthony Russell. He’s a local artist. [Editor’s note: profile published in Issue 7/Summer 2012.] Do you know him?

I haven’t seen him for ages, but yes I do know Anthony. So the Masai Mara, as we all know – or those of us who know Africa – is undoubtedly in danger of overexploiting its reserves. I was pretty dismayed by the number of vehicles and minibuses and tourists who were crowding the animals.

But it has become a cash-cow for that part of Kenya and it’s very difficult. Who are we to say to the Kenyans or the Masai that they can’t exploit this natural asset that they have? But on the other hand, from a conservation perspective our concern is the damage that is being done to that environment and to the wildlife. The issue is that they are taking a short-term view: they risk damaging it to the extent that its value and popularity diminishes.

And exposing wildlife to so much human interaction is no longer quite as wild. Again I have this uncomfortable feeling that, from the animals perspective, we are trespassing. At the other end of the scale you have places like Nigeria that are not associated with tourism. Do you do anything in west Africa? The region must be difficult to manage because it’s still the wild west (in terms of conservation).

Exactly. We have a very broad portfolio of projects that we support across Africa. I hasten to add that it’s not just about elephants: it’s everything from marine to gorilla conservation. We cover the full spectrum of Africa’s fauna and flora. Historically we’ve found ourselves having a larger footprint, if you like, of projects in eastern and southern Africa but we do support a small number in central and west Africa. You are absolutely right, it is much more difficult to operate in west Africa successfully. The appetite – the interest – in wildlife conservation and the issues, is not so high.

I have to tell you I was on a safari in West Africa some years ago, and assumed this was going to be a drive through. It was organised by a local, very well established party. I was horrified because, in the space of three days, they were shooting out of their jeeps at everything that moved. It was pointless preaching to them about conservation. I suppose, ultimately, your work starts with education.

Yes, education is another very significant part of what we do. We have quite a significant environmental education programme that we have been promoting across Africa. It has been translated into French, spoken in a lot of west Africa.

If you look at a country like Kenya, something like 12% of its GDP effectively derives from tourism. Therefore the government – notwithstanding all its faults – understands the value of its natural capital and the tourism that underpins a basic part of their economy. During COVID, it was interesting that the Kenyan government was one of the only African governments that put in place some form of financial support for the tourism industry, attempting to prevent its collapse.

Your job must be primarily focused on raising funds.

That’s absolutely right. Primarily I am a fundraiser. I have a passion for Africa and I’m going out to Kenya next week to see some of the projects. We have a big event that we’re doing, an annual marathon [Editor’s note: The Lewa Safari Marathon, 25th June] that we run in a game reserve in northern Kenya. It’s a significant fundraiser, so I’m going out for that.

‘Ultimately people, when they meet me, they often think that I spend a huge amount of time in Africa. I wish I did, but actually my main role is fundraising.’

Ultimately people, when they meet me, they often think that I spend a huge amount of time in Africa. I wish I did, but actually my main role is fundraising.

How did you manage to garner this formidable support for the charity?

It took many years. I was lucky, when I founded the charity in 1990 I had previously been working in the financial world. So I sort of came to it, if you like, with a network of quite wealthy people.

If you can afford to go on safari in Africa, that puts you in a certain level of affluence – by and large – so our donor base is pretty well-heeled. We’ve been lucky enough not to have to rely on people going out on the streets shaking a tin.

Was conservation an equally glamorous cause in the 90s, or did you have to proselytise a lot? Now, of course, you have the millennials who are very passionate about all things environmental; but it hasn’t always been so.

This is true. Thirty years ago, I had friends who would question my raising money for conservation in Africa rather than for sick children. It wasn’t a trendy cause, if you like. Having said that, we were lucky in attracting committed patrons even in those early years.

Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, for example, has been our most long-standing ambassador and patron and a fantastic supporter. In those early years I used to rely on people like Ronnie, the one or two famous faces, to be the mouthpiece of the charity. Nobody knew who I was, so that was the way in which we slowly built up.

We were also very lucky in 2003 when the Daily Telegraph selected us as one of their Christmas charities. The publicity that we got from that campaign over 2 to 3 months was fantastic. It raised a lot of money, but what it did most of all was help put us on the radar of Prince William. It also coincided with his gap year: he spent part of it in Kenya working with the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which happened to be one of Tusk’s key project partners.

He learned about Tusk there and in 2005 he chose us, alongside Centrepoint, to be one of his first two patronages. One reason he supported us – rather than opting to be a patron of one of the big conservation groups like WWF, which his grandfather was already involved in – was the opportunity to support a charity that could grow with him.

He also appreciated the fact that we had a strong ethos of using conservation to support communities and livelihoods, and that very much appealed to him. He is part of a generation – including my children – who are so much more aware of the threats to the environment and biodiversity, and the impacts they will have.

Hopefully we have started to see the public viewing the environment as being much higher up the agenda than it was back then.’

We keep talking about East Africa where you are well-established. Do you have any projects in West Africa?

We do. In Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Mali and also in central Africa, the DRC.

The perennial issue for us – and any charity, however big they are – is that we’ve got limited funds. Last year we raised £13 million, and that was a record year for us. £13 million, invested wisely in Africa, can go a very long way; however it’s still limited in the overall scheme of things. We sadly turn away quite a few conservation projects we’d love to fund, but we can’t spread ourselves too thinly: that’s the trouble.’

You have this money in the pot, how do you decide where it goes? Do you decide personally, is it the team? What’s the process of selection?

The first thing to say is that conservation is a long-term goal. It’s not possible to have a quick fix. Our reputation has been built on our ability to identify and get behind new, innovative projects in a way that the big conservation organisations might not feel able to do so.

Over the years we have built up a portfolio of projects that we view as long-term investments. That portfolio is broken down into three categories.

The bottom level of our pyramid – if I can call it that – is our Catalyst Fund, where we look to provide seed money to kick-start an idea and to develop it. At the next level is what we call Evolution, which is where a conservation initiative or idea has been proven and is now ready to be scaled up: they will start to receive larger grants. At the top is what we call Keystone, and these are quite significant projects with significant funding. More than that, the concept is that we use the Keystone partners and project managers to help mentor, where possible, those at the bottom of the pyramid.

‘Our reputation has been built on our ability to identify and get behind new, innovative projects in a way that the big conservation organisations might not feel able to do so.’

That’s the way the portfolio is structured. The decision for each of those grants is made by a committee, made up of the executive team and our trustees here; including a couple of former trustees who are very knowledgeable about conservation. Our director of programmes and her team are also monitoring the projects on a regular basis. That all feeds into the decision-making process. 

Frustratingly, I’m always being presented with projects where I’m tempted to say, ‘oh, we must support this’, but you can’t do it all. You just can’t do it all.

Has the way you’ve talked to philanthropists and individual donors changed since founding the charity? Do they have different expectations?

The larger philanthropists and big donors are rightly wanting to see demonstration of impact. I think that’s the one thing I’ve seen change over the last 30 years: that the expectations of donors is that they want to ensure that their money is delivering real impact.

Actually, a lot of the work we’re doing at the moment is to try and constantly improve the way in which we monitor and evaluate the projects we’re funding.

How do they see the impact? You take them to Africa I suppose.

We are always keen for people to visit a project, if they’ve got the time. Hopefully we can demonstrate impact through a lot of our reporting, but we’re always encouraging donors to go to Africa. 

Which is why this event next week, the Lewa Safari Marathon, has become sort of a Trojan Horse, if you like, to get people out there. We’ll have about 1,500 people running.

Wow! Rather them than me.

I did it many years ago. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again!

Given the size of Africa and the scale of the challenges, how does Tusk identify projects that allow the most impact?

Africa is a vast continent, and there is a limit to what we can do. We feel that what we have developed, over the last 30 years, is a very effective and efficient way of identifying where our hard-earned dollars and pounds can have the most impact. 

For us, it’s all about identifying the best conservation investments, and the best conservationists and wildlife project managers who have a track record of delivering, and getting behind them. 

This is the essence of the business model that Tusk operates on: unlike quite a few of the very big conservation organisations we don’t seek to manage or own or run any conservation project. We have taken a view that we want to basically get behind the best individuals on the ground and support them and build their capacity to deliver. 

I sometimes liken it to fund management, but really it becomes a partnership.

Is there a role, current or future, for legal wildlife hunting as a conservation tool?

No.

Let me expand on that. You only have to look at the statistics on the horrifying number of elephants and rhino that have been poached – in the latter case almost to extinction – over the last 50 years due to the illegal wildlife trade. It is a complete misnomer for people to think that the trade in ivory could be controlled and regulated. CITES has attempted to do that twice, where they allow stockpiles to be sold, and it immediately stimulated the black market. Prices rapidly rose and poaching followed suit. In this day and age, we as human beings do not need ivory to adorn ourselves. 

‘I sometimes liken it to fund management, but really it becomes a partnership.’

The lion in Africa is now rarer than the rhino. There are fewer than 25,000, possibly 20,000, lions left in the wild today. The main drivers of that are the loss of habitat and human-wildlife conflict. What has also, worryingly, come into play now is an increase in the trade of lion parts.

Why is that?

I really don’t understand it, some markets in the Far East want to have these parts. Because they can’t get tiger bones and parts, they seem to have turned their attention to lions.

Can you re-wild a zoo animal, for example, is it possible?

Yes. We took 3 rhinos from the Port Lympne Reserve back to Tanzania and successfully reintroduced them. Later this year we are supporting a project to take a lot of bongos, a very rare animal, from a place in Florida that has successfully bred them. They are donating 25 to go back to Kenya to attempt breeding there.

We’ve seen the arts play a role in fundraising and raising awareness. Do the arts play a role on the ground?

Three or four years ago we did a rhino sculpture trail around London. Painted by different artists, they were exhibited across London and then auctioned by Christie’s, and raised a substantial sum.

Last year we repeated the exercise but with lions, to raise awareness of the issue surrounding them. Instead of just London we had 47 sculptures in cities around the world, including the US and Dubai, Sydney, London and Edinburgh. These were sold through Bonhams and at an auction in the Hamptons. We’ve used art very successfully in that sense. For the Lion Trail we had 3 African artists contributing, with two sculptures on display in Nairobi.

We’ve been very fortunate in having the support of artists who have been very generous in donating work for the charity. It was fabulous that we managed to get those well-established Kenyan artists to participate last year.

Are you seeing more donors, funding opportunities or ambassadors from within Africa itself? Do they offer a different perspective?

That is a really important direction that we want to pursue: increasing awareness among African people as to the value of their wildlife and wildlife territories, and through that attract African contributors and donors. The marathon next week is supported by African donors and companies and we encourage them to enter teams and get their staff to participate. 

For a lot of them, getting up to Lewa from Nairobi is their first opportunity to visit a wildlife reserve: it opens their eyes to the issue of conservation. It’s hugely valuable because we desperately need the support of the urban elite, the majority, in these countries. Comparing 30 years ago to today, there’s a really significant and successful African middle class, entrepreneurial society. There is increasing wealth within these communities.

Are they receptive towards conservation?

I still think it’s at a relatively low level, and that’s something we need to focus on. The marathon is one way we can do it.

We previously had an Anglo-Nigerian businessman on the board, very successful and passionate about African conservation. He has taken on the challenge of getting fellow Nigerian businessmen and partners to take an interest; it’s a struggle.

I can imagine it’s been difficult, partly because they’ve been left out to some extent. In the case of Nigeria they have oil revenues, so they don’t need tourism like Kenya.

However, you are increasingly getting wealthy African businessmen who are investing in lodges and tourism businesses. So they understand the value of it.

A recent publication funded by Tusk suggests that large animal conservation can also contribute to climate change mitigation. Do you foresee Tusk (or conservation charities in general) shifting their mission from ‘charismatic megafauna’ to a more holistic environmental mission or message?

Yes, we commissioned a paper with Oxford University and other scientists to look at the impact of larger species on the function of their ecosystems. What we know is that, in terms of carbon sequestration, a healthy ecosystem is far more effective at being a carbon sink. 

What this paper demonstrated is that you need the megafauna, such as the elephants, which are often called the engineers of the environment. You need all the tapestry of life to be in place for biodiversity to flourish, and to provide that incredibly valuable function as a carbon sink.

I don’t think it will shift our mission because we’ve always taken a holistic approach to conservation. Ultimately, it’s about people.

The future of Africa’s wild places is going to be dependent on the human population. We know that the human population is projected to double in Africa – from 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion by 2050. A lot of this land and wild areas are going to come under increasing pressure, and increase the challenge of human-wildlife conflict. These are the big pressures, and what we now view as the bigger challenge than the illegal wildlife trade.

For so many years we were focused on the crisis of the illegal wildlife trade – poaching – but actually, the bigger train coming down the track is this loss of habitat. If you don’t have that, you don’t have the wildlife; and if you don’t have the wildlife, then you’re not going to have the tourism and the income it generates.

We have always taken a holistic view to wildlife conservation and all the parts that make it up: and it’s complicated.’

I did an interview with Mark Shand shortly before he died and that was his major preoccupation creating these corridors.

For Mark and that part of the world he was operating in, the population density is such that so much of that habitat had already gone. At least with Africa, thankfully, we still have some very huge and vast areas.

‘A lot of this land and wild areas are going to come under increasing pressure, and increase the challenge of human-wildlife conflict.’

Apart from funding, what are the biggest challenges facing the projects and programmes that Tusk supports?

Loss of habitat, the pressure on land. We are increasingly seeing reports of higher incidence rates from all of our project partners. Promoting the value of wildlife becomes an insurmountable challenge if people lose their crops overnight to wildlife.

We’re funding quite a few programmes to mitigate these conflicts; there’s some clever stuff going on. Beehive fences, for instance. Elephants don’t like bees so we string the hives on the fence as a first line of defence. If an elephant is still determined, he touches the fence, which causes the bees to come rushing out and creates another deterrent. Chilli fences are also effective. The great thing about these is that they generate a byproduct which the farmer can then sell to generate revenue. 

Climate change is another challenge; increasing droughts, that’s a real problem.

COVID-19 has highlighted the emergence of zoonotic disease outbreak. Is Tusk seeing more projects related to this type of issue?

COVID has highlighted the importance of halting the illegal wildlife trade because that appears to be one of the vectors – these wet markets in Asia that we’ve been learning about. They’re a real concern for the transmission of zoonotic diseases into the human population. Ebola, SARS, MERS – they’re all zoonotic diseases. 

Interestingly the COVID virus didn’t impact Africa nearly in the same way as other parts of the world. The impact has been primarily economic.

You can read more about Tusk’s work, including a couple of recent projects that they have been supporting, further in this issue (‘Practising philanthropy: Tusk’). The charity also has an annual magazine, Tusk Talk, which provides an update on the year’s challenges, achievements, and strategic developments.