Kate Lewis
Written by Kate Lewis
Published on 2nd December 2019
9 min read
Holly Budge’s passions for adventure and conservation have been the driving force behind her inspiring efforts to help combat elephant poaching in Africa. As she tells Kate Lewis, with a combination of self-belief, determination and a bit of daydreaming, anything is possible

Holly Budge is a force to be reckoned with. She has two rather extreme world records and is an adrenaline junkie and wilderness lover. But more than that, she is also a passionate conservationist. She founded How Many Elephants, a devastating visual campaign to raise awareness of the elephant poaching crisis, has worked with an anti-poaching group the Black Mambas and has raised over £300,000 for charity. 

Did your love of adventure inspire you to become a conservationist or vice versa? 
I started life as an adventurer at an early age and spent a lot of my childhood in the outdoors, so it was on the cards I would get involved in both adventure and conservation, but it took me a while to figure how my passions for both would align. 

At 21, I did my first skydive whilst backpacking around New Zealand and was blown away by the experience and the fact that people were getting paid to jump out of aeroplanes for a living. My careers advisor at school definitely hadn’t mentioned that as a possible career path! I decided there and then that that was the job I wanted. Six months later, with lots of training, dedication and hard work, I achieved my rather far-fetched goal and became the third woman to work as a freefall camerawoman in Lake Taupo, New Zealand. 

On reflection, I refer to this as the ‘boldness of youth’ as, when I set myself this goal, I knew nobody in New Zealand, I knew nothing about skydiving and I knew nothing about filming, but none of that mattered. I knew I could learn all the skills I needed to get the job, or I could at least try! Achieving my goal and getting my dream job at the time, gave me immense confidence and self-belief that I could try and achieve whatever I set my mind to. I continued with this positive mindset, and I now have two world records under my belt, including being the first woman to skydive Everest and race semi-wild horses 1,000kms across Mongolia in just nine days. 

However, as much as I loved the adventure side of things, I found my creative itch needed to be scratched. I enrolled to study for a Masters in Sustainable Design and this led onto founding my How Many Elephants charity. My adventures now provide a platform to raise valuable funds for charities.

To date, my adventures have raised over £300,000 for various projects.

What's the story behind How Many Elephants? What prompted you to set it up?
The inspiration came from vegetable ivory, a sustainable plant material from the South American rainforests. I have worked with this beautiful, robust and versatile material for over a decade in my professional practice as a jewellery designer and formally researched it whilst studying for my Masters in Sustainable Design, taking a field trip to Ecuador to meet the farmers and artisans working with the material. The similarity of vegetable ivory in both colour and texture to elephant ivory was the starting point of the campaign. 

I was shocked and horrified to learn that 96 elephants are poached each day in Africa for their ivory.

At this astonishing rate, they will be extinct in the wild in the next 10 years. I wanted to do something to help so I turned this disheartening poaching statistic into a powerful and award-winning piece of jewellery and a hard-hitting art installation, which displays 35,000 elephants, the annual poaching rate, to raise awareness of the sheer scale and devastating impacts of the elephant ivory trade.

I’m using design to bridge the gap between scientific information and human connection in the field of African elephant conservation. Over 2,000 school children have now visited my exhibition for workshops. Part of the originality of this exhibition is in my approach to avoid gruesome and shocking imagery to portray the facts. To actually see this data visually is very impactful. It is not about scaring people or assigning blame, it’s about raising awareness of the enormity of the poaching crisis.

'I was shocked and horrified to learn that 96 elephants are poached each day in Africa for their ivory'

Can you tell us more about working with the Black Mambas? 
The Black Mambas are an all-female anti-poaching team in South Africa. It was a privilege to immerse myself with the Black Mambas for several weeks to intimately learn what drives and motivates these pioneering women to pursue their multifaceted roles as protectors, educators and beacons of hope. 

I accompanied the Black Mambas in their day-to-day work and observed them from afar, too. I accompanied them on morning and night patrols, checking the fence lines for incursions, dismantling snares and monitoring the wildlife. Armed only with pepper spray and handcuffs, these women patrol hunting grounds of armed poachers who pose an imminent threat to the elephant species. The shared and intense passion I witnessed was inspiring, humbling and powerful. Everyone has their own fight in this tangled web of wildlife conservation, with most striving for a common goal to preserve and conserve. Not only are the Black Mambas on the front line of conservation, they are also role models in their communities and to women around the world. Their presence on the ground is making a huge impact and the poaching numbers in the area have dropped.

I also learnt that these women not only nurture and look after the wildlife but each other, their families and communities too. They run a programme called the Bush Babies and have over 800 children enrolled, teaching them to respect and appreciate their natural surroundings and observe and conserve wildlife. They also try to show them an alternative to poaching. Many of these women are victims of poverty, abuse and disease. Becoming a Black Mambas has empowered them, allowing them to improve their lives and those in their communities too. They wear their uniforms with great pride and inspire many young women to want to join the Black Mambas. These women really align with my life motto: Think Big, Dream Bigger.

Do you think that more women are becoming adventurous? What challenges do women still have to overcome? 
Yes I do. It is great to see female adventurers are increasingly being recognised and acknowledged for their talents and achievements, which is inspiring others to give it a go. It is so important for girls and women to be able to identify with ‘real’ role models who encourage others to pursue their own journeys with passion and purpose. I am a firm believer that great role models do not have to have elite qualities of physical or mental advantage. I think women being increasingly more prominent in the world of adventure is making a positive contribution to gender equality in society as it is showing women breaking new ground and the capability of females, often in traditionally male roles. 

Through my own adventures, my vision is to inspire others to daydream, meander, run, climb and jump into their own adventure of self-discovery, and in doing so, learn that with self-belief, determination and resilience, even the biggest of challenges can be overcome. Women need to have the belief that they can get out there and give anything a go. Don’t listen to the naysayers.

How can others use adventure as a platform to do good?  
Adventure is a great platform to raise awareness and funds for social and environmental projects.

Make sure you do your research. We all have the power to make changes through the choices we make. Be proactive, find out what the situations are in the places you are planning to visit. Look at adventure options that take you off the beaten track and the possibility of visiting out of high season too. Often when people have the opportunity to volunteer and directly support conservation efforts, they come away wanting to help even more to preserve and protect the places they visit.

'It is great to see female adventurers are increasingly being recognised and acknowledged for their talents and achievements'

Take that first step. It doesn’t matter how small that step is, simply doing it is huge. I promise you will be amazed by what opportunities present themselves because you took action, put yourself out there and showed up. 

What's next for you? 
I’m currently training hard for the infamous Kathmandu Coast to Coast Race in New Zealand next February. I will attempt to traverse 243kms of seriously rugged terrain across New Zealand in just two days using nothing more than my feet, a paddle and some peddling. Grit, sheer determination and a serious sense of adventure are just some of the skills needed to even make the start line of this iconic multi-sport race. It will push me way out of my comfort zone and challenge my every fibre. I’m not a natural runner and I’m learning to kayak, but I feel confident I can transfer the skills I’ve learnt in other extreme challenges to give me the persistence and sheer determination I will need to pull this off.

Find out more about Holly on her website or via Instagram 

How Many Elephants also has its own website and Instagram and you can listen to Holly speak at a TED talk about the campaign. 

Holly has recently launched an ambassador programme for people who have passion and skills and want to help make a difference. If that’s you, she would love to hear from you.