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The Expat that African Elephants Will Never Forget

The Expat that African Elephants Will Never Forget

By Claire Bolden McGill 

Global Living Magazine – Issue 13 | July/August 2014

Some people are born into an expat life, some people achieve an expat life, and others have an expat life thrust upon them. For Dr. Kate Evans, 39, all three are true. Kate is a traveling expat, whose life encounters are determined by her passion for elephants.

Kate’s expat life started at a very young age – in fact she was due to be born in Turkey, but her mother decided that she wanted to give birth in the U.K. and so the Turkey departure was delayed until Kate’s arrival. Six weeks after, Kate was on a plane to Istanbul, from where she and her family caught a train onto Ankara.

When she was four years old, the family moved to Pakistan, and it was during her three years in Asia that Kate met her first elephant. She says, “I’m assured by my parents that I have always been an animal person, spending hours collecting earthworms, picking up frogs, looking after stray animals and peaking under rocks for bugs. I’m not sure when my love for elephants began; however, during a visit to an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, I met a young elephant that had recently been orphaned and its grief was all too evident in its body language and lackluster emotions. That was the profound moment when I decided that I would dedicate my life to elephants.”

Thirty-five years on from that encounter, Kate now runs Elephants for Africa, a charity registered in England and Wales, which focuses on elephant conservation through research and education and seeks to work towards a world of human/wildlife coexistence.

In order to run the charity successfully, Kate undertook another expat journey, embarking on a ten-year stay in Botswana in 2002. Based in the Okavango Delta Botswana, Kate’s life was all about the elephants, with the primary focus on research.

Kate literally set up camp in Botswana and describes the life as “very simple and challenging”.

She adds, “Each of the team members have a small tent and then we have a communal office space, lounge and kitchen. We have solar power to run computers and charge batteries, and a small fridge for food. We also have a backup generator just in case anything goes awry!”

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“The sounds we wake up to at night are very different. In Botswana my nights are disturbed by the roaring of a lion, the cackle of hyena or the rumble of an elephant, and I wake up to the sounds of the local franklin (a small chicken-like bird that is common throughout Southern Africa and very funny to watch running). In the U.K. and Europe the sounds I hear are ambulance, police or fire sirens, and dawn is broken by a flock of sparrows that live in the vines of the block of flats, or the bin man collecting the rubbish.”

Kate’s first love is being in the Botswana bush because of the basic way of living. She says, “I love being in the bush; it makes you think. You have to be aware of your surroundings and you take notice of the little things like watching out for snake tracks as you walk around camp; your ears are alert to any possible sounds of danger; and your smell becomes more intensified.”

Coming back to the U.K. to complete her PhD was a shock to Kate’s senses, and she recalls the intense feeling of being back in a city.

“I was commuting on a train from Bristol and after a while I realized that all my senses were still turned on to 100% so were being overloaded with information. I was noticing what the lady was reading next to me on the train, the color of the tie that the man was wearing in front of me, and the smells of people’s perfume. It appeared that over time my senses kind of turned off in the Western world, enabling me to survive in very over-stimulated scenarios that we have created. All this information was not relevant to my survival and it was quite an intense, difficult period. Everyone always asks how I cope with the culture shock of living in Africa but actually I find it harder coming back to the West.”

But of course, camp life also has its down side. Kate says, “The worst thing about being in camp is the dirty feet. I hate going to bed with dirty feet, but this is inevitable in the bush as we walk around in thick sand.”

“I obviously also miss friends and family, though when we moved to a new camp we had mobile phone reception. Eventually we invested in a satellite phone, which meant we could speak for 10 minutes to my husband, who was back in the U.K. (calls were a pound a minute!) every Wednesday evening.”

In 2009, Kate’s husband, Sim, also made the move to be with Kate and the elephants in Botswana, leaving his dream job of working for Jaguar-Land Rover in product development as a materials engineer. He chose to leave for a number of reasons, though primarily because the charity needed help on the business side. Sim says, “I wanted to answer the question, ‘could an engineer from an office environment move to Africa, live in a tent and build a charity in the conservation sector’ with a resounding yes!”

Sim enjoyed his time away from the office environment. He recalls, “Working together was great, since we had clearly defined roles. I also learned a lot about myself, natural history, how to identify trees and animals, bush craft. We experienced a wonderful new culture and made a lot of friends.”

“The contents of my daily pockets changed from wallet, phone and keys to simply torch, Leatherman and camera on a belt – I think that sums up the changes I made. Life was a huge change from owning a house in Byfield, opposite a pub and around the corner from the village shop, to moving into a tent for two in the wilds of the Okavango Delta, 30 minutes flight (8-9 hour drive) from the nearest shop. It certainly made training for the New York City marathon quite challenging (part of our Tri-Continent Tri-Athlon fundraiser for the charity) – one of us had to drive whilst the other ran alongside the car at dawn or dusk – too hot during the day – to avoid being eaten by a lion or trampled by an elephant.”

In 2012, Kate and Sim relocated again – this time to Berlin for Sim’s work. Kate is happy in Berlin. She says, “I have to admit to loving having all my things around me. I find comfort in having physical things reminding me of places I have been and people I have met. Living in a small tent does not give you much space to have such comforts; however it does make life much simpler.”

“As much as I love Berlin, I wouldn’t say I feel completely at home here. We have a sanctuary in our lovely little flat, but when I leave the flat and join the hectic lifestyle of the West I still do feel quite uncomfortable. I do feel home in the bush amongst the elephants.”

So, what is it about Botswana that makes this nomadic expat feel like it’s her true home? Kate describes why living in camp, the elephants and even going to bed with dirty feet are all part of her true expat lifestyle.

“Botswana appeals to me because when I first visited there in 1997 I had a sense of being welcomed, and here was a country dedicated to wildlife conservation. Over a third of Botswana’s land has been turned over to wildlife through protected areas and wildlife management areas, so for conservationists this is heaven. My initial 10 years there was spent amongst the animals, and whilst I was near to safari camps, I was not exposed to the traditional culture of village life. When we moved to a new camp, we lived very close to villages and had much more contact with the village chiefs and villagers with whom we work with on many of our projects. We are also lucky that our local project leader was very willing and able to share and discuss lots of the cultural differences and the fascinating history and beliefs of its people.”

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE“What I’ve learned is sometimes it is best to go slowly; we tend to rush in the West and I know that I worry that if I don’t make the most of the day it is wasted. However, a day spent in good company mulling over difficult issues is a day well spent. I have been humbled by the wonderful friendships I have made because the Botswana people are generally very quiet and reserved.”

Kate’s expat life means that she has been able to keep a promise she made to an elephant at the age of seven. She says, “As we all know, an elephant never forgets. The promise I made was to help work for the survival of elephants throughout the world. So a life in the U.K. was never really on the cards for me. I’m not sure many people would have believed a seven-year-old; however, I was very lucky and I’m still lucky to have the continued support of my family and friends in the life that I have chosen. The biggest gift my dad gave me was allowing me to make my own choices and supporting me all the way.”

Kate’s family has been her greatest supporter in all her travels, and when Kate and Sim decided to get married, Kate was adamant that they would do so in Botswana. She says. “As well as a conservationist I am also a feminist, and the rules of marriage in Botswana are slightly behind those of the U.K., and so there was the very pragmatic choice to get married in the U.K. because as a woman it gave me more rights. It also meant a lot more friends and families were able to attend. We did have a ceremony in Botswana – in fact we had two – so we always joked that if we were ever to get divorced we would have to get divorced three times as we have been married three times!”

So, what’s next for Kate and Sim, and where will the future take them? Kate is expecting her first child this summer and would dearly love to bring up her child in Botswana amongst the wildlife. But she’s also practical about this issue. She says, “Whilst we won’t be there permanently for the foreseeable future, I’ll be traveling back and forth, so my hope is that my child will be able to come with me to experience life in Botswana, the wonderful country that it is, and the work I do with and for the elephants.”

For more information about Elephants for Africa and the work Dr. Kate Evans does, or to make a donation, please visit www.elephantsforafrica.org.

Images courtesy of Elephants for Africa

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