Lifestyle

'Mission: Wildlife' raising funds for human and animal prosperity

Over an illustrious 40-year career as one of the world’s foremost wildlife ambassadors, Julie Scardina has paraded an innumerable list of species before televised audiences all over the world.

So far, she’s being tight-lipped about which of Africa’s wildlife she’ll have on hand next month at the annual fundraiser for the nonprofit, Mission: Wildlife, she co-founded in 2013 with some of her former SeaWorld colleagues — maybe a crested porcupine and a few birds of prey, maybe a cerval or even a sloth.

But when it came time to wrangle up a cheetah, she had no such luck.

“If anybody knows how to find one, it’d be me,” she joked.

That infectious energy belies the dire straits cheetahs and giraffes — the two species that Mission: Wildlife is focusing on this year — now find themselves in, a plight that is getting disproportionately slight attention despite being two of Africa’s most beloved creatures.

“People don’t hear a lot about how only 8,000 cheetahs are left, or that giraffes have plummeted by 40 percent in just the last few years,” she said. “These are iconic species that nobody realizes are disappearing.”

Each year, Mission: Wildlife benefits a pair of wildlife conservation groups in Africa — small agencies that are having an outsized impact through research, rescue and educational programs that try to forge lasting solutions by involving human communities as part of the remedy.

The Cheetah Conservation Fund, based in Namibia, focuses on habitat restoration, research and ways to abate human-predator conflicts. The Giraffe Conservation Foundation, also based in Namibia, is the only NGO (non-governmental organization) in the world focused exclusively on giraffe conservation and research. Their efforts include genetic research and anti-poaching patrols.

“Up until maybe five years ago, even most people who paid attention to this type of stuff didn’t realize giraffes were in such steep decline,” Scardina said.

With lead sponsors that include SeaWorld and the Annenberg Foundation, the Oct. 7 fundraiser Scardina is throwing at her Poway home will be a family-friendly affair that will feature a live auction and raffle. Attendees who buy the VIP ticket will be able to go early and get up close to the wildlife. SeaWorld’s auction items will include a behind-the-scenes tour. Piper and Heath — the company that helps Scardina plan her trips to Africa — will be auctioning off a safari in Namibia.

Also up for grabs: the chance to tag along with the Giraffe Conservation Fund on a week-long field expedition.

“That’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Scardina said. “Groups like these don’t do that very often.”

Scardina witnesses those conditions first-hand in annual excursions to Africa, which she calls conservation safaris. The first came in 2013 when she and several of her SeaWorld colleagues went to Uganda and Kenya. Seeing the pressures wildlife faced from rapidly encroaching human populations and climate change, they made a pact to find a way to help NGOs devoted to on-the-ground impact in African ecosystems and communities. Within a few months they had created Mission: Wildlife.

Their first year benefited Ewaso Lions and Save the Elephants. Their second year benefited bonobos and the Uganda Conservation Foundation. The third year came back to Ewaso Lions, as well as the group Painted Dog Conservation.

It’s a rotating cast because the crises, Scardina said, are scattered all across the massive continent.

“The Africa we all picture in our minds is absolutely still there in certain places, but to ignore everything else that is going on is to not help the problem,” she said. “I want Africa to be prospering 50 years from now, not continuing to lose habitats and have humans suffering along with the animals. That can only happen by helping not only the species thrive but the humans as well.”

That’s why Mission: Wildlife reaches out to groups that emphasize getting humans into a mindset that wildlife’s survival can be a source of prosperity.

One of the challenges the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) is taking on is that habitat loss and a shortage of prey is forcing cheetahs to hunt outside their protected territories. That increasingly means livestock on ranchers’ land. CCF builds relationships with those ranchers to relocate the cheetahs instead of killing them. With dwindling numbers and a shrinking range, every cheetah they save has far-reaching impact.

“Even those ones and twos and threes, for a species that has so few, it makes a huge difference in the future,” Scardina said. “From every cheetah they save, there could be a half-dozen repopulating those areas a few years later.”

Thanks to that shift in attitudes, villages bordering the cheetah reservations are forming conservancies that act as a sort of buffer zone, where ranchers are realizing they can run their cattle enterprises while at same time reaping revenues from a boom in eco-tourism.

“This is one of the only types of employment many of the locals have without having to turn to illegal hunting,” Scardina said. “It really changes the life of these communities.”

Mission: Wildlife started small, but has grown each year. Last year’s fundraiser collected $27,000. This year’s goal is $50,000. Scardina wants to double that again for next year. That’s major money for the small organizations they choose to benefit, which take on everything from rescue and relocation to veterinarian care to habitat restoration.

“For an organization here to do that much work, we’d think it was a multi-million dollar operation. But there it’s not. These guys are running on a shoestring, so every little bit helps,” she said. “Every amount we get, they can do that much more with — they can take that many more kids to bush camp, they can train that many more warriors to be lion protectors, they can educate that many more farmers about not needing to kill animals that roam onto their land.”

But because the pressures will only continue to grow, she is determined to expand Mission: Wildlife’s reach. Fortunately, she can pour even more of her energy into doing just that now that she retired from SeaWorld this past December after a 40-year career that included several positions with SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, of which she’s best known as their lead Animal Ambassador. She is still on the board of the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.

“It was time. I’ve been wanting to branch out and try some other things,” she said. “But it’s still all about animal welfare, conservation and education. That’s who I am; I’m never going to retire from that.”

Tickets and more information can be found at www.facebook.com/MissionWildlifeSD/.

Scardina, along with Jeff Flocken, co-authored the book, Wildlife Heroes, highlighting 40 people around the globe who have dedicated their lives to saving species.

According to her biography on the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund website, Scardina was the most frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and appeared on NBC’s Today Show more than 100 times. For years, she traveled the world with Jack Hanna for His weekly show Animal Adventures.

Scardina is also a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Animal Welfare Committee, the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders Board, and a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Marine Animal Trainers Association.

To learn more about her life and work, visit juliescardina.com.

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