Natural World Hero

Ruth Powys

Chief Executive of the charity Elephant Family, the UK's biggest funder for the endangered Asian elephant

CEO of ELEPHANT Family - Ruth Powys

Ruth Powys is the Chief Executive of the charity Elephant Family, the UK's biggest funder for the endangered Asian elephant.

After reading Early Modern History and later Public Relations at university, Ruth joined forces in 2004 with the travel writer and adventurer, Mark Shand, the co-founder of the conservation NGO Elephant Family. Ruth has been instrumental in putting the plight of the Asian elephant on the map.

Ruth's creative campaigns include Elephant Parade London, The Fabergé Big Egg Hunt in New York and The Animal Ball, involving 150 fashion houses and 50 artists, raising £500k for Asian elephants. Elephant Family has worked with over 800 artists in the name of creative conservation, and has put on London's largest art exhibition on record, raising a total of £8 million from these campaigns.

We are delighted to recognise her work in the field of conservation by selecting her as one of our ten Natural World Heroes.

Interview with Ruth Powys 

Tell us more about the work that you do and how it helps support front-line conservation efforts.

Elephant Family essentially does two things; empowering in-country elephant conservationists and doing a massive PR job for Asian elephants that are often overlooked on the world stage. We make their plight known to the world and fund a range of vital projects to protect them. We run education programmes, create publicity through huge events and work with governments and corporations encouraging them to take action.

Habitat protection for Asian elephants is our number one concern; their habitats are like an ice cube in a cup of boiling water, rapidly shrinking. Economic development, such as the building of railways or electricity suddenly reaching a remote area is a real threat to their habitat. A significant part of what we do is looking at how we can connect these little green islands of habitat through the creation of elephant corridors, allowing them to safely migrate, ensuring gene pool diversity.

We fund in-country conservation, supporting innovative solutions to make conservation and habitat protection work. It’s important to us that we empower local conservation efforts and provide education so that communities look after and care for the wildlife on their door step.

What have been the biggest success stories for the Elephant Family to date?

Since our launch we really have put these animals on the map, generating over 2,000 pieces of media coverage through our large scale public art events. We’ve created an army of supporters and gained political support for the species; the Asian elephant was specifically mentioned in the Conservatives manifesto this year; the first time their plight has been politically recognised.

Our Elephant Parade London in 2010 saw a herd of 260 brightly painted elephants taking up residence in neighbourhoods and landmarks all over the capital winning a number of fundraising and cultural attraction awards. We reached an audience of 25 million people and raised £4.1 million at the auction at the end of the event, really pushing the Asian elephant into the spotlight.

We also managed to get the plight of Asian elephants recognised by CITES as a direct result of our lobbying after funding research which highlighted how elephants are being smuggled out of Myanmar into Thailand for use in the tourist trade.

On the ground we’ve been involved in a number of successful projects. One of these was the creation of an elephant corridor in Kerala, India connecting two areas of forest home to the largest stronghold of Asian elephants in the world. This was an extremely complicated project which involved the voluntary resettlement of four communities who had been living and farming in the corridor. The elephants can now move freely through the area and camera traps have also shown the benefit to other species, including tigers who also use the corridor.

What are the biggest challenges faced by the Elephant Family as a charity and how do you overcome them?

Last year our co-founder and public figurehead Mark Shand tragically died. He was hugely influential in generating support using his vast network of contacts. One of our biggest challenges is maintaining and growing this support without him.

We need to ensure we have a place at the table amongst the governments and major economic players of the world who have development as their priority and ensure that we have a voice. As a small charity we can’t achieve our goals alone if we are to protect the world’s last remaining wild spaces. Relationship building and support is key.

What do you feel are the best ways to diffuse human-wildlife conflict? How can they live in harmony more effectively?

This is one of the biggest problems faced by the Asian elephant; but it’s important to refer to it as co-existence and not conflict. As species we need to learn to live together. Across Asia each landscape has its own unique issues requiring tailored solutions so there is no easy answer to this.

Essentially it comes down to good planning – which sounds so bland – but taking the wildlife into account when planning new mines, plantations, transport networks etc is vital to peaceful co-existence. It requires lots of communication.

A project we funded has recently won a Whitley award for its novel and pragmatic approach to elephant-human co-existence. In India’s Western Ghats the Nature Conservation Foundation, NCF, have established an Elephant Information Network where people report and receive information about elephants in the area. A rapid response team of forest watchers communicate elephant presence to local people using SMS text alerts. The warnings also go out to volunteer wardens, who operate red warning beacons. This helps alert people against dangerous encounters while elephant and crop protection groups work to ensure that elephants are deterred before they enter croplands.

Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely helps preserve the natural world?

We also need to be less cynical about conservation NGOs and get behind them and support them. They are a major part of the effort to bring about change, and it is not always easy what they do.

As individuals we need to stop consuming so much and learn that less is more; from the goods that we buy to the size of our families. Consumerism has gone crazy and fuels the loss of habitat in many fragile ecosystems. For example, the demand for palm oil has resulted in large-scale deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, pushing species to extinction. The development of oil palm plantations in these countries occurs at the expense of vast swathes of fragile habitat.

Do you have a single most influential or defining moment when you knew that you wanted to work within conservation?

There was no great defining moment but my background installed an enduring interest in the natural world. I grew up surrounded by missionaries in a slightly ‘happy-clappy’ environment and was enthralled by their stories and slides of jungles; as a six year old child it seemed very exotic and exciting. My father was a gardener and I spent most of my childhood exploring the great outdoors. I wanted my own opportunity for adventure and found that the most exciting and interesting people work in this field; I wanted to be part of that.

What has been your best natural world experience to date?

My best natural world experience would be my first trip to Borneo, tracking a herd of elephants. Making our way through the steaming, damp jungle we were following deep elephant footprints – it felt very ‘Jurassic Park’. I was very aware that every square inch of the jungle was simply teaming with wildlife; a myriad of insects, shooting tropical plants and a flock of rhinoceros hornbills flapping overhead, adding to the prehistoric feel of the expedition. Then suddenly we come into a clearing; face to face with a herd of Asian elephants, standing nine foot at the shoulder. It was an immense journey to find them, and incredible coming face to face with these magnificent giants.

Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

The late, great Mark Shand who tragically died last year.

Mark was a travel writer and conservationist who co-founded The Elephant Family in 2002. He took my inspiration as a 26 year old and put it into orbit; I wouldn’t be where I am now without him and I’m forever grateful our lives crossed paths. He really was the most charismatic ambassador – funny, energetic with a drive for getting things done that was off the chart. He really set the standard at building support and making people care about conservation. He sacrificed a lot making a unique and real contribution to the conservation of Asian elephants.

What is your dream natural world destination, somewhere you haven't yet travelled to?

I would love a holiday in Antarctica to see the world in black and white. I’d love the opportunity to see the wildlife and the untouched landscape – the more remote the better.

What is next for Elephant Family?

Our Travels to my Elephant campaign launches today, 1st June 2015 – a global rickshaw race to save Asia’s magnificent elephants. Backed by Selfridges, it scooped the front page of the Evening Standard and will soon see a 20 strong fleet of brightly painted rickshaws take over London’s roads this summer before racing to India to meet Tara, the Asian elephant made famous by Mark Shand’s epic tale ‘Travels on my Elephant’.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

Exploring the natural world is a magical adventure with meaning. There is nothing more exciting or that makes people happier than seeing wildlife in its natural habitat. It is our wildlife that makes our world magical.