At 21 years old, Holly Budge threw herself out of a perfectly good aeroplane for the first time. Plummeting over Taupo, New Zealand, it was 60 seconds of pure adrenaline that changed her life forever. Little did she know, this first taste of adventure would lead to launching worldwide conservation campaigns and her own UK registered charity, How Many Elephants.
‘As soon as I landed, I decided I wanted to work as a skydiving camera woman,’ says Holly. ‘There was just one issue though… I didn’t know how to skydive.’
Lack of experience didn’t stop Holly. While working as a graphic designer in London, she managed to save enough money to return to New Zealand and learn how to skydive professionally. The training paid off and soon she was being paid to jump out of aeroplanes up to 12 times a day loaded with bulky film cameras (pre-digital era) strapped to her body. She then went on to become the first woman to skydive over Mount Everest and subsequently summit the north side of Everest, fundraising over £450,000 to much media acclaim.
While most would be happy to retire following those achievements, Holly’s thirst for adventure only grew and she turned her head to conservation, a passion ignited by a safari in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa that she went on, at the age of 17 years old when she first encountered an elephant.
‘The first memory I have, before even seeing the elephant, was a low pulsating rumble and a putrid smell. As we turned a corner, I saw a lone bull elephant taking his surging testosterone levels out on a nearby tree. My guide explained he was in musth (a condition due to the dramatic rise in reproductive hormones), hence the aggressive and unpredictable behaviour. It was magical to see such an iconic animal displaying such primitive behaviour. I was hooked!’
Holly began researching the plight of the African elephant and was shocked by the poaching statistics, with on average 96 elephants poached on a daily basis across Africa. Her mission turned from achieving world firsts to educating a worldwide audience about the importance of protecting these phenomenal creatures.
‘Humanity needs elephants now more than ever. For us to tackle and mitigate the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss we need healthy and thriving elephant populations. Elephants are a keystone species that play a critical role not only in balancing natural ecosystems but in ensuring the future well-being of humanity. One of the biggest threats to elephants is the exploding human population in Africa, which is likely to double – or more – by 2050 so the relationship between community and conservation is crucial.’
In 2013 Holly turned to her graphic design roots and studied for a Masters in Sustainable Design. Soon after, the idea for her charity How Many Elephants was born offering grants to direct-action wildlife conservation organisations mainly in Africa. Using her design skills, she fashioned a showpiece necklace made of 96 miniature elephants (the daily poaching toll) carved out of vegetable ivory.
‘My goal was to create an awareness campaign with very clear specifications: it had to be 100% non-gory and non-political. I then designed a hard-hitting exhibition displaying 35,000 elephant silhouettes to represent the annual poaching rate. The visual representation of this shocking data struck a chord with the public and proved to be an impactful way to gain engagement in the cause.’
It was this charity work and passion to make a difference that took Holly to Africa’s front lines patrolling with anti-poaching ranger teams. But it was the female rangers by whom she felt most inspired, admiring their ability to strengthen those all important relationships between conservation and communities, and ease local tensions all while performing this vital wildlife patrolling role. She spent time with groups such as, ‘Akashinga’, meaning The Brave Ones, wielding AK47s in Zimbabwe’s vast wilderness. In Kenya, she was part of an ambush ranger team with the Mara Elephant Project which resulted in the arrest of a bushmeat poacher.
‘My experiences in Africa have blown my previous adrenaline adventures out of the water. It’s pretty scary at times –seizing snares and coming face-to-face with poachers, but it’s totally real and meaningful. I am in awe of the female rangers at the forefront of conservation. But they need allies.’
In 2022 Holly launched World Female Ranger Week to share their stories and raise funds for these inspiring women. Donations provide essential health products, better-fitting equipment (as this is usually designed for men) and allow for more security in their work as well as help to tackle the effects of social stigma.
Holly’s work continues to gather momentum with praise from HRH Prince Edward and Sir David Attenborough saying “Thank you for all you are doing to protect African elephants” – high praise indeed. Her fundraising adventures still take her to other corners of the world. Next she will attempt to solo traverse 1880kms of hardcore rugged and mountainous terrain across Kyrgyzstan in under 14 days with nothing more than a gravel bike, a tent and GPS. As a motivational and keynote speaker at institutions such as TedxBrighton and Oxford University, her influence in the travel industry is similarly significant.
‘We all have travel choices. Where we go, how we go, with whom we go. I spend a lot of my time working closely with those in the travel industry such as Alfred& by Kuoni who promote collaboration between conservation and tourists. Going beyond the safari experience to visit local conservation and community projects is just one way of supporting this vital work and then bringing those stories home and educating others.’
If, like Holly, you’re hooked on elephants a good place to start is the Sheldrick Wildlfe Trust in Nairobi National Park. A real success story, its mission is to rescue and rehabilitate orphanded elephants and release them back into the wild.
Many of our partners on the ground across Africa are doing incredible work within their local communities that you can experience. In Kenya you can visit an anti-poaching unit at Mugie Conservancy where blood-hounds are trained from puppies to sniff out poachers, or meet Mary Milanzi, at Lemala camps in Tanzania, who now leads tuk tuk tours in her hometown of Mto wa Mbu having attended their guide-training school. Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana has Africa’s first all-female safari guiding team and a biogas-fuelled kitchen and glass-crushing plant that have won many eco-accolades.
Meeting the white rhinos reintroduced into Hwange National Park after nearly 20 years is an incredible conservation achievement to witness in Zimbabwe. As are the enthusiastic youngsters from villages along the front-line of the national park who work the 19 manmade waterholes located across a 120km stretch of remote wilderness to pump up water during the long dry season needed to sustain the animal population. You can see these pumps in action by joining supply runs from Bomani Tented Lodge.
Our Alfred& experts can weave these and many more meaningful experiences into your safari allowing you to travel responsibly and contribute to the sustainability of the areas you visit.
To find out more about the projects that Alfred& by Kuoni support alongside our parent company’s not for-profit association, the DER Touristik Foundation, you can visit www.dertouristik-foundation.com.
Your journey will start with one of our UK team – someone like Malcolm, who's travelled extensively in your chosen destination. They’ll shape your ideas into the trip of a lifetime. But they won't do it alone. They'll draw on the expertise of our contacts on the ground, connecting you to the people who'll make your holiday one you'll always remember - guides who can give you genuine insights into local life and culture, chefs who can teach you how to rustle up the local cuisine and safari rangers who'll ensure you'll spot the best wildlife.
Freephone an expert 01306 744 656