Our heroes and heroines

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Who do you look to for inspiration? Blog written by Steppes Travel

The spread of coronavirus, and the world’s response to it, has brought about a huge change to the way we live. We are endeavouring to share with you content that we hope will inspire in you some warmth and let you enjoy, at least in your mind for a short while, the sense of distance that comes with exploring our beautiful world.

The team here at Steppes Travel is not a number of 45 but a network of thousands. And when we are collectively searching for the drive to keep making the world a better place in difficult times like these, we draw upon the actions of those who have dedicated themselves to the planet and its communities.

These are our heroes and heroines, the extraordinary ones that we are looking to right now.

Liz Bonnin

TV presenter and wild animal biologist Liz Bonnin taking photographs from a beach in the Galapagos Islands
Liz Bonnin, Galapagos Islands

A biochemist and wild animal biologist turned TV presenter, Liz is the face of more than 40 primetime programmes that include the national favourites Blue Planet Live and Stargazing Live, alongside hard-hitting BBC documentaries like Drowning in Plastic and Meat: A Threat to Our Planet.

A passionate advocate for engaging broad audiences in meaningful planetary discussions, she gained an Honorary Fellowship of the British Science Association for her contributions to conservation and involvement in the ocean plastic crisis – which has raised the level of public debate and spurred thousands into action.

With her infectious enthusiasm for the natural world and inquisitive approach to travel, Liz proved to be a stellar travel companion to boot while hosting our private charter around the Galapagos in 2018. Hosting off-the-cuff Q&A sessions with expert naturalists and storytelling about the islands’ endemic species, she became a fast favourite with our clients while drumming up the inner activist in all on board.

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Angel Vendeline Namashali

Angel Vendeline, Dunia Camp Tanzania
Angel Vendeline Namashali, Dunia Camp, Tanzania

The safari industry has always been male-dominated, too often built around the macho image of guides taking on the dangers of the wilderness. It also operates in countries where female roles are still traditionally defined, and positions of power go to men almost by default.

That is why Angel stands out. As the manager of Africa’s only all-female-run safari camp, Dunia Camp, she has shattered stereotypes. Under her management, the camp has strengthened its reputation as one of Tanzania’s best camps, whilst also providing opportunities for female guides that might not otherwise have existed.

These opportunities are few and far between in Tanzania, as Angel is all too aware of. Before Dunia’s transition to an all-female staff, she was the only female camp manager in the entire country. Now, the camp she runs not only provides opportunities; it also acts as an example to other camps, showing through its success that prejudices in the safari industry have no bearing in reality.

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Sir Edmund Hillary

Five Dollar Note, Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealand
New Zealand five-dollar note featuring Edmund Hillary

Hillary is a hero of ours not just for his achievements, but for his humility. He also dedicated a tremendous amount of time and energy to bettering the lives of Nepal’s Sherpa people, who he loved, by building schools and healthcare facilities with that same restless energy that saw him reach the roof of the world.

We find him inspiring as he continued to explore and push boundaries long past his successful ascent of Everest. He became the first man to reach both poles and the summit of Everest; significant proof of his physical strength but also his mental strength. Hillary explored until the very end. Just a year before his death, and at the age of 87, he made a trip to Antarctica to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Scott Base research facility. For a man who described himself as an “average bloke”, Hillary achieved an awful lot and lived a full, inspiring life.

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Ashley Leiman

Clare Higginson, Borneo
Clare (left), Steppes Travel Asia expert, with Ashley Leiman (right)

Ashley’s first experience of the rainforest was in Malaysia in 1976 – a visit which affected her profoundly. In 1986, she went to Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, where she met with Dr Birute Galdikas. At that time, she was living in New York where there was plenty of focus on the rainforests of South America, a little on the Congo but the third-largest rainforest – Indonesia – received hardly any attention, and neither did its orangutans.

She moved back to the UK in 1989 and, a year later, the Orangutan Foundation was born in her upstairs bedroom. It was the first UK-registered charity working to save the orangutan and its habitat through conservation, research and education. To this day, Ashley is one of the leading figures in orangutan conservation and has been guiding trips for Steppes Travel for over a decade. Her in-depth knowledge and passion for the Indonesian rainforest and its residents have long inspired us, and many of our clients, who have travelled with her over the years.

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Roberto Plaza

Roberto Plaza, Guide, Galapagos Islands
Roberto Plaza, Guide, Galapagos Islands

More than a guide, Roberto is an ambassador of the Galapagos and sits at the forefront of conservation efforts in the archipelago. A local Galapagueno who saw problems developing in the islands in the early 2000s, he was recruited by Conservation International to recalculate the capacity of visitors that the islands could sustain.

Assigned the task of juggling conservation and tourism, Roberto took the wildly unpopular stance of placing the archipelago before his own livelihood by recommending a complete overhaul. In implementing a new structure, wherein boats could visit each landing site just once every fortnight, Roberto became the self-professed “most unpopular person in the industry”.

From then on, anyone sailing around the archipelago would have to choose from two itineraries, A and B, with no exceptions. Today, owing in large part to Roberto, the islands are pristine, and what was once viewed as deterrent transpired to improve both tourism and this vital biome.

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Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka
Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Bwindi National Park, Uganda

The founder of an NGO focussed on the coexistence of mountain gorillas and people, Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is based in Bwindi National Park, in Uganda. She has been recognised for her pioneering approach to gorilla conservation, receiving the Whitley Gold Award in 2009 and becoming a Tusk Award for Conservation finalist in 2019.

The NGO that she established and now leads, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), promotes conservation by improving the quality of life of people and wildlife to enable them to coexist in and around protected areas in Africa. It is this unusual approach that places local communities – and their wellbeing – at the heart of conservation that has gained Gladys and CTPH many plaudits.

CTPH came into being thanks to a scabies outbreak in Uganda in 1996, which spread from humans to the gorillas, resulting in the death of an infant gorilla. It was then that Gladys realised that the survival of this critically endangered species was inextricably linked to the health of the local population, given how easily diseases transfer between humans and gorillas. Since then, CTPH has focused on poverty alleviation and improving rural public health as a tool to aid conservation.

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Carol Buckley

Carol Buckley in Asia
Carol Buckley, Elephant Aid International

Carol Buckley, a visionary and conservationist, decided to dedicate her life to changing the centuries-old culture and practice of brutalising elephants – and she is doing it one elephant at a time.

As a young college student, this extraordinary woman met Tarra, a young Burmese elephant imported to America as a pet for a local store. Carol was so appalled by Tarra’s living conditions and treatment that it triggered a lifelong commitment to improving conditions for elephants in captivity. Carol created a sanctuary for elephants, providing refuge for needy elephants from zoos and circuses.

Aware of the issue with captive elephants in Asia, Carol went on to establish Elephant Aid International. And today is making a big difference. She has worked tirelessly for chain-free captivity and has taught others to train elephants humanly and out of chains. Carol Buckley has recognised and implemented a new standard of care for captive elephants.

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Chris Packham

Chris Packham, television presenter, photographer and naturalist

An accomplished photographer, cameraman, writer, conservationist and presenter, Chris Packham has become synonymous with natural history in the UK. His photography is innovative and has been shown at various exhibitions around the world and in numerous books. His TV work started with the award-winning Really Wild Show in 1986 and has been prolific ever since – with his most recent work including SpringwatchAutumnwatch and Winterwatch.

Chris has explored many habitats, including the Antarctic islands, rainforests, deserts, the Everest range, the deep oceans and some of the planet’s most notorious nightclubs and drinking dens. He has the honour of being a proactive President, Vice President and Patron of some notable conservation charities. And regularly expounds his entertaining, pragmatic, enthusiastic, and occasionally controversial view on the environment and its care.

Chris has led trips to both Papua New Guinea and Alaska for Steppes Travel, as well as being part of our Steppes Beyond Festival in 2018 at the Royal Geographic Society in London.

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