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Inspiring people: He came to hunt them and he stayed to save them

Translated: Original article appeared on Le Huffington Post.

From an early age, I knew that my native land near Albi (France) would never be enough to satisfy my curiosity. I was already thirsting to explore the rest of the world. At the age of 5, I was overcome by a profound sense of being born in the wrong era, and growing up in a place that was foreign to me.

Reading was the only thing that stopped me from kicking my heels, and enabled me to find new points of reference. Very early on, I immersed myself in stories of explorers, particularly Jean Sebastien Galaup de La Pérouse (from the Tarn area of France), who soon became my role model and whose adventures I read about eagerly. Every morning, it was with him that I wandered the narrow streets, or rather through the godlike statue of him which stood in Albi city centre. I would stare at it for great lengths of time before heading to school.

But how boring school was, compared to the amazing lessons in adventure and discovery taught by these extraordinary men, full of courage, determination and above all passion!

Worried about my lack of interest in school and my rather eventful time there, my parents did all they could to motivate me to earn the diploma that was so important to them, “Le Bac” (the French baccalaureate). I finally passed it a little late before attending Toulouse Business School (ESC).

That’s when everything changed. Was it because the high-quality courses at the ESC finally helped me to find my vocation in life? Not at all. Sitting on the ground in a library, I had just discovered the world of Livingstone, Tarzan, Speke, Stanley and Rahan, who transfixed me and swept me away to a new dimension, the magical and enchanting world of Africa, the place where I should probably have been born and grown up.

Every night I fell asleep dreaming of hunting, exotic places, discovering distant lands and islands, and expeditions departing from Zanzibar to travel up the rivers of Africa, all the way to the Ngorongoro Crater in Masai country.

In June 1994, I graduated and was therefore able to decide what direction I wanted to take in life by myself. Without further ado, I headed to deepest Africa, to the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, one of the last great virgin territories the size of Belgium (55,000 km2). This reserve is also the last place of refuge for elephants, lions, immense herds of buffalo and hippopotamuses.

The Selous is where it all began.

Very early one morning, in the savannah with some amazing trackers from the Ndorobo tribe, we discovered fresh elephant tracks accompanied by droppings that were still warm. We decided to follow the tracks that would lead us to the pachyderms. We spent the day with them, travelling through a thick forest, crossing long stretches of swamp land, and climbing the hills to reach the depths of the giant grasses.

Dazzled like a child by the beauty of this world which was new to me, I stayed for hours watching three large male elephants resting under an acacia. I listened to them talk to each other. When the heavy, muffled rumbling sound rang out, I was surprised by a new sensation, a feeling of fulfilment which confirmed to me at that exact moment that I had finally found my paradise on earth. This awe-inspiring and deeply moving encounter with the elephants would lay the foundations for the next twenty-five years of my life.

I decided to drop everything to settle permanently in the Selous and become a hunting guide. I learned the art of tracking and Swahili, and the Ndorobos taught me how to avoid the wiles of a lone elephant, how to respect a lioness with her cubs, how to outsmart a mean buffalo and how to live and survive in the bush.

For the first time in my life, I felt myself grow, mature, mellow and become a man. I had new points of reference, thrived and experienced a simple and authentic way of life.

I was living a dream, but unfortunately I soon experienced the harsh reality of the illegal trade in bush meat and the traffic in ivory and rhino horn. Rhinos have been extinct on most of Africa’s territory for many years. I never had the chance to meet a single one of them. As if electrocuted by a sudden awareness and a deep sense of guilt, I decided to leave the world of hunting for good.

Aimlessly I wandered in the bush, exploring the Selous for nearly ten years, discovering lost regions, climbing every hill after walking endlessly in the burning sun, scaling every valley possible in the hope of meeting THE big elephant.

I couldn’t shake off this feeling of guilt mixed with an urge to take action. But how could I do anything without resources? That’s when I came up with the idea of building a safari lodge. After many months’ hard work, I created Chem-Chem Lodge in Northern Tanzania, around Tanragire National Park, quickly followed by the second safari lodge, Little Chem-Chem.

After the tribes and local people took me to their hearts, I started the Chem-Chem Foundation, whose main activity is fighting poaching. I am desperately seeking funds so that I can fight for and alongside the elephants.

Living in the middle of the savannah, I am sad to witness the massacre of the animals in the bush. Between 2007 and 2014, in African and particularly Tanzania, a veritable genocide unfolded as we looked on helplessly. In Tanzania the elephant population has dropped from 100,000 to 40,000 living specimens. 60% of the elephant population is slaughtered for its ivory, which is sold illegally in Asia. Today’s figures remain alarming, with an elephant killed every 15 minutes by poachers for the same reasons.

Today the Chem Chem Foundation has over forty staff specialising in the fight against poaching. With more funding, we could hire many more. It descended into armed warfare, cracking down on poachers, a tooth for a tooth. Despite all the efforts made, the problems have just worsened and the poachers have just grown bolder. Violence has of course never been the solution to this problem. We needed to raise awareness among the population of the dramatic consequences of these acts, properly manage the ecosystem and identify the region’s needs, economically and socially.

We felt that it was important to develop education campaigns through the Chem-Chem Foundation, because awareness and understanding are an essential part of enabling respect for the environment and the shared heritage, with the hope of being able to change people’s habits. By building schools, giving young people access to education and making them aware of their endangered environment from an early age, we can still hope to make a contribution to changing things.

Supporting local populations and finding solutions to their daily problems with living and surviving was a far better approach to helping improve attitudes. Awareness-raising and education for the populations is thus an essential part of protecting fauna and flora, and measuring the potential that they offer for people’s future.

At Chem Chem, I fight day and night to save the last of the great elephants. My dream would be for the whole world to wake up and join us in this fight, for the elephants’ survival of course, but also for the survival of the villages and populations. Together, let’s protect one of the world’s greatest examples of biodiversity heritage.