Holly Budge is the founder of How Many Elephants, an award-winning campaign raising awareness of the plight of elephants in Africa and funds for anti-poaching projects. A passion for fund-raising adventures has seen Holly gain two world records, including being the first woman to skydive Everest and race semi-wild horses 1000 kms across Mongolia in just nine days….
Your campaign, quite originally, seeks not to shock people with gruesome imagery, but rather to confront them with statistics – what prompted your approach, and why do you think conservation is so important?
How Many Elephants uses design to bridge the gap between scientific information and human connection in the field of conservation. My campaign is giving a voice to the critical African elephant crisis. Few people know the extent of the problem; 96 African elephants are poached each day for their ivory. At this astonishing rate, they will be extinct in the wild in the next ten years. I have turned this disheartening statistic into a powerful art installation that presents a physical commentary on the devastating impact of the elephant ivory trade, to raise awareness and funds to support anti-poaching projects. Part of the originality of this exhibition is in my approach to avoid gruesome and shocking imagery to portray the facts, because 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.
Tell us about your experience working with the Black Mambas, the all-female front line anti-poaching team in South Africa?
I immersed myself with the Black Mambas to intimately learn what drives and motivates these pioneering women to pursue their multi-faceted roles as protectors, educators and beacons of hope. The Black Mambas’ work takes them away from their young families for weeks at a time, challenging the traditional status quo. Armed only with pepper spray and handcuffs, these women patrol hunting grounds of armed poachers who pose an imminent threat to the elephant species. They also strive to change attitudes towards the role of women in Africa and beyond.
You’re quite the adventurer, but what made you first decide to step outside your comfort zone?
I started life as an adventurer at an early age and spent a lot of my childhood in the outdoors. When I was 21, I did my first skydive whilst backpacking round 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 career’s advisor at school definitely hadn’t mentioned that as a possible career path! I decided there and then, 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 free fall camerawoman in Lake Taupo. 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. This gave me immense confidence and self-belief that I can try and achieve whatever I set my mind too. I love the outdoors and the adventures that go with it. Being an adventurer has allowed me to travel to some of the world’s remotest and most inhospitable places. I have met some hugely inspiring individuals on the way and I really love the unknown element of adventure and travel!
You were the first woman ever to skydive Mount Everest, something I didn’t even realise was possible! What made you decide to take on such a challenge?
As a skydiver, I knew skydiving next to the highest mountain in the world was an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss out on. On October 6th 2008, I became the first woman to skydive Everest by successfully jumping out of a plane at 29,500ft, looking onto the summit of Mount Everest and getting a bird’s eye view of some of the most breath-taking mountain scenery before landing on the world’s highest drop zone at 12,350ft! It was an incredible experience. Jumping next to Everest – in excess of 140 mph – was a very different experience to any other skydive I had ever done and indeed, different to other high altitude jumps, because of the inhospitable terrain and conditions. The first difference, besides the exit altitude of 29,500ft as opposed to the normal 12-15,000ft, was the temperature. I was jumping in -40 degrees. To help with the biting cold, I wore a full-face neoprene face mask and a special insulated jump suit, so none of my skin was exposed. The second difference was jumping with oxygen. I had never jumped with oxygen before so this felt strange! I had oxygen in the plane for the 45 minute ascent from 12,350ft and then I switched to an oxygen bottle for the free fall. The third difference was the size of my parachute. It was three times the size of my normal chute but landed at the same speed due to the 12,350ft elevation of the landing area and the thinner air at that altitude. The last difference was the landing area. On two sides were 1000ft drop-offs to the valleys below. There were very few, if any, alternative places to land in this treacherous terrain, so it was imperative I made it back to the designated landing area. Thankfully, I made it back in one piece!
What challenges have you had to overcome to get to where you are today and how did you address them?
Listening to the naysayers who told me I lacked direction and purpose. Being an entrepreneur is tough; there is often no road map and sometimes this is hard to convey to others. It can be lonely too. I sometimes felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall and not making any progress but a small voice inside kept whispering, ‘‘keep going.’’ I did keep going and then started picking up momentum. Now I regularly receive public recognition for my work and I’ve learnt to be proud of the life I lead; being entrepreneurial, being an alpha female and living an unconventional life, rich in purpose, experience and passion.
What keeps you motivated when things get tough?
I’m going to answer this question looking through the lens of mountaineering. Life in the mountains is not for the faint-hearted! Everyday is a personal challenge and a reward. Keeping warm and in good health are up there but it’s the little things like feeling constantly grubby, putting grubby clothes back on after you do finally wash, valuing wet-wipes like gold, ridiculously bad hair days, broken nails, trying to accurately pee in a bottle in a tent in darkness, eating hairy spam, the list goes on! A positive mindset and an acceptance that nothing is perfect, normal or even comfortable at times is essential; however, the rewards are huge! The views, the fresh air, the intense sunshine are all spectacular but for me, the reward is knowing you can do it, knowing you can live for long periods of time very simply, without materialistic needs or familiar comforts and pushing yourself in ways you wouldn’t have thought possible before. Learning, growing and experiencing new things is my biggest reward.
What advice would you give to other women who want to have more adventure in their lives?
Think big, dream bigger and go climb your Everest, whatever that might be. Put in the time beforehand to get physically and mentally prepared so you know you can give it your best shot. I describe myself as sort of pretty normal, with a down-to-earth approach to life, and I do not consider myself to have a greater physical or mental advantage than most, so that begs the question – if not you, then who? If not now, then when? Act now!
Where is your favourite destination to escape to?
To the Himalayas. I could lose myself there for a lifetime; wandering, climbing, hiking, day-dreaming, sketching, writing and just being. I have spent a lot of time in the Himalayas already, with some big mountains under my belt, including Ama Dablam and Everest. I love the people, the culture and the energy.
Who inspires you and why?
I’m constantly inspired by people who are following their passions, as this takes courage.
For more information about Holly’s How Many Elephants campaign, go to www.howmanyelephants.co. Holly will be speaking at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 6th June 2019, sharing stories from the frontline of conservation – tickets are available here.