Becoming the CEO of one of the world’s largest conservation organizations is an instance where life, for this former English major, is better than fiction.
The CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) often likes to challenge skeptics with a word association game. He will ask you to tell him the first thing that comes to mind when he says “Africa.” Answers he usually gets are impoverished, Darfur, AIDs, or child soldier. But when you ask Patrick Bergin for his word, he says rich.
“I mean that in every sense of the word. Rich: economically, financially, culturally, and rich in terms of its heritage. Africa is a continent that most scientists overwhelmingly believe is the mother ship. It’s where we all came from. It’s where humanity began and when people go back to the east African savannas, it has this really dramatic effect on them. I somehow think the human spirit recognizes it as its birthplace because it resonates so strongly with most people.”
The Illinois native son who grew up near Bloomington in minuscule Merma and went on to earn his bachelor’s in English and his master’s in agricultural education at the University of Illinois never imagined he would head a $20 million conservation organization. Yet, looking back on his academic experience, Bergin sees some obvious links.
“I’m communicating with either leaders of African governments, international aid agencies like the World Bank, with our membership—we have about 70,000 members—people who give $100 a year to be members of the African Wildlife Foundation, and I’m dealing with large grant-giving organizations like Ford, Rockefeller, Google, and all those sorts of people. It’s all about language. It’s about whether you can build and convey a powerful vision for what you’re trying to achieve.
“My major was in English. What I always felt, and what my parents always felt, was that the liberal arts in general—and, hopefully, a good use of the English language—form a powerful foundation for all sorts of careers. Almost regardless of what you want to go into, the ability to think critically, read, and use language in a powerful way is going to help you.”
Bergin’s ability to communicate (he speaks fluent Swahili, the lingua franca of eastern Africa) is key to his job. The African Wildlife Foundation began in 1961 as a creation of the Washington Safari Club. Today, its goal is not only to create and preserve large tracts of habitat for animals, but also to empower local Africans to be that continent’s stewards of their own resources. A stint in the Peace Corps left Bergin well aware of the dismal track record of colonialism and the condescending way in which the rest of the world practices conservation in Africa. Now in his 18th year with the organization and sixth year as its CEO, Bergin is determined to not make the same mistake.
“There is this perception that conservation is a white man’s game and that it’s a western priority. When people think of conservation in Africa they think of Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey, or Dian Fossey. Even today when you turn on Discovery Channel, National Geographic, or Animal Planet, it’s always about someone from the West who goes in to save Africa.
“Our staff is over 85 percent black African. It’s very unusual in the world of conservation. Our own president [of AWF] in Africa is a black African woman, Helen Gichohi. In most of the countries where we work, the senior representative is a black African with a PhD who is an experienced conservationist. We think this is real important because African people and African governments are suspicious of always being preached to by western organizations saying, ‘Well, you should conserve your wildlife, you should do this and this and this.’”
Two retired African heads of state are on the AWF’s board of trustees: Sir Ketumile Masire, the former president of Botswana, and former Tanzanian President Benjamin W. Mkapa. Bergin says both Botswana and Tanzania serve as great examples of successful African-created conservation areas.
Recent successes include establishing the 890,000-acre Lomako Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The reserve is the only place on the planet where the pygmy chimpanzees, “bonobos,” exist. Bergin did what he does best: bringing together government and local communities. Recently, the AWF has also brought private ranches in Tanzania under conservation.
A typical year for Bergin is six months in Nairobi, Kenya, and six months in Washington, D.C. A “normal” day might be negotiating land deals with African heads of state in Tanzania or setting up a partnership with his counterpart at John Deere in Moline.
“I’ve gotten so used to it that I just wake up in the morning and it doesn’t faze me at all. When I’m in Washington I do things the Washington way; if I’m in Congo and the lights don’t work and there’s no water in the faucet, it just doesn’t faze me. Both of those experiences have become part of my reality.”
The reality is that it’s a good thing Bergin is single. Fundraising is a constant. He pulls out his date book and recounts the following for a two-month period: “I had conversations with the people at Google Foundation in Mountain View, California. I met with the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. I went to Tunisia to meet with the African Development Bank. I went to Stockholm to meet with the Swedish government. I went to Seattle to meet with Starbucks.
“You’re talking to very interested and engaged people in their own fields and the travel can get hard, but talking to people about what we do is far from drudgery.”
When Bergin needs to enjoy family life, all he has to do is visit one of his eight brothers and sisters and their children. Younger brother Michael is an Illinois alumnus who works with computer software, and sisters Molly and Kate work in Chicago in the banking industry.
Although conservation is a big component of AWF’s goals, Bergin is at heart a rural sociologist who is adept at informal methods of educating adults in rural areas. That interest has led the organization to adopt the Charlotte Conservation Fellows Program, which provides funding for master’s and doctoral degrees to the next generation of African wildlife experts.
Africa stands at a critical crossroads, Bergin says. There is no doubt the continent wants to modernize, but how to leave the Third World while still preserving Africa’s critical planetary inventory of flora and fauna is perhaps its greatest challenge.
“I am optimistic that we will convince a growing number of African countries that they can have it both ways. That they can have modernization in their cities and farms and still set aside through careful planning areas that protect wildlife.”
By Stephen J. Lyons