Tami Calliope: Speaking for the Wild

by Nat Frothingham and Tami Calliope; photos courtesy of Tami Calliope

One of the world’s foremost scientists, Edward O. Wilson, who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for his work, explains in his newest book that because the planet has lost so much of its necessary biodiversity, half the world should be set aside for wilderness and wildlife.

David Brower (1912–2000) the great American conservationist and thinker, noted in a 1992 speech that the Earth, by that point, had used four times as many resources in the 80 years since his birth than in all previous history. In closing, he asked his audience if they would be willing to volunteer one year out of 10 of their lives to restore and heal the Earth.

Tami Calliope with Senator Bernie Sanders at the Climate Change March

And the poet Goethe wrote, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, do it; boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Tami Calliope, a Montpelier wildlife activist and writer (also named Mama Tembo, or Mother Elephant by a close friend and Maasai ranger) expends her energy, intelligence and a large part of her heart for hours each day helping to save the deeply endangered African elephants, rhinos  and lions.

Roots of a Vocation

In a series of intense conversations with The Bridge over the past several days and weeks, Tami discussed the frightening crisis facing Africa’s threatened animals: Extinction within our lifetimes.

Even as a child, Calliope preferred stuffed animals to dolls and was most engaged by books like “The Wind in the Willows,” “Babar the Elephant” and C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” in whose realm of talking animals, God is portrayed as the Lion Aslan who sings creation into being.

At 18, living on a boat with 10 cats, a rabbit and several tame mice, she raised an orphaned raccoon (Merlin) from the age of two weeks to almost four years when she re-introduced him gradually to the wild.

During her mid-30s, she lived off the grid on the Oregon coast with her husband Victor. At Free Flight, a raptor and seal rehab center, they worked night and day with other volunteers to rescue, feed and care for orphaned and injured harbor seals and elephant seals.

Most of these infants were orphaned by malice. Already the large corporate fisheries had radically reduced the catch for small fisherman who, disenfranchised and angry, routinely shot pregnant and nursing seals or fed them fish stuffed with dynamite. Most of our harbor seals were born prematurely.

Many succumbed and died in her arms — yet most survived, grew fat, were tagged and released to the seas.“The euphoria and sense of reward on release is indescribable,” said Calliope. “Overall it was a time of great joy and great love.”

“Eventually,” said Calliope, “the Fish and Wildlife Service started bringing us all kinds of creatures. We raised twin fawns and a fledgling turkey vulture — what a loving, amazing being! We saved a tiny beaver, whom I fed with a baby doll’s bottle.” Although Calliope didn’t work with them, she was surrounded by hawks, eagles  and owls in the Raptor Center. “It is the highest feeling I know,” she said of her work saving animals, “Nothing comes close to it.”

Mama Tusker with a newborn


Although the plight of marine mammals and the swiftly vanishing wildlife of the North American continent — what Calliope calls, “the merciless war being waged on our most beautiful, intelligent and ecologically necessary species such as the wolf and the grizzly” grieves and enrages her — and although Calliope has felt compelled to write letter after letter and sign petition after petition demanding their protection, her deepest engagement is with the endangered elephants, rhinos and lions of Africa — all of whom — along with the giraffe and the pangolin (the most trafficked mammal in the world) now face extinction during our lifetimes unless we act.

“It is not easy to speak about the situation facing the wild animals of Africa,” Calliope says, “because there are so many sticky, interwoven strands of complication, so many conflicting forces and influences, that are destroying Africa and her wildlife.


The story of the elephant staggers the imagination. In the early 19th century there were at least 27 million elephants roaming across most of the continent. Now only a few African countries have elephants at all, and their estimated current population is about 352,000. This year The Great Elephant Census was conducted by aerial survey, and the scientists and biologists involved were shocked to find 144,000 lost to poaching and habitat destruction in less than a decade. That’s 27,000 Elephants slaughtered every year.

In fact, an elephant is murdered for its tusks every 15 minutes, night and day.

“This is tragic not only in itself,” said Calliope, with tears in her eyes. “But please understand, elephants live in matriarchal societies. At the head of the herd stands the matriarch, the wise leader, the decision-maker, the holder of memories, the passer-on of knowledge, the great mother of all. When a matriarch is killed, the family panics and scatters, loses coherence and many babies die, which is why even one death can be ruinous to the herd.”

Since females gestate for almost two years (22 months), give birth to one offspring every three to nine years, and since young elephants nurse for two to three years and are, in human terms, little children bonded to their mother until the age of 14 to 20, dependent all their lives on the comforting presence of other familial and friendly elephants, the death of one affects them all profoundly.

“Males leave the warm and lovely circle of women at age 14 to 17,” explained Calliope. “They wander about in confusion until they find a father figure, a bull in his breeding prime and wisest age, from 50 to 75. These are known as The Great Tuskers, and their DNA is unique. Because each of their tusks generally weighs over 100 pounds, these indispensable fathers are a poacher’s dream. There are 100 of them left in all of Africa, 20 in Kenya. Without their guidance, young males run wild with hormones that spark too early and lead to rampages. But once in a great tusker’s herd, they become calm and learn the ancient lore of behavior, migration routes and the like from their elders.”

Calliope went on to explain the two kinds of poachers: organized, heavily armed thugs who work for terrorist groups across the world, trading ivory for arms; and poverty-stricken young African men who are desperate to make money.

“These young men are rather to be pitied than hated,” Calliope said. “The real villains of the piece, who no one seems to think about, are the buyers — the buyers and their middlemen — whose money makes poaching attractive to African youth.

Yet heroes rise everywhere, and they hold hope in their hands.”

John Kamara, ranger and rehabilitator. Photo by Ami Vitale


“I am honored to know many Elephant heroes,” said Calliope. “There are groups right here and all over the globe that you can join on Facebook and that do important work, not only for elephants, but for lions, rhinos, giraffes and pangolins. Perhaps the most powerful global activist group today is Global March for Elephants and Rhinos (and now Lions, as well.)

“But I am also honored to know many African heroes, who fall into four distinct groups: rangers, conservationists, mediators and orphan rehab workers

“Rangers put their lives on the line everyday to protect the wild ones. Across Africa, at least 30 rangers are murdered by poachers almost every month, leaving widows and children behind. Rangers need money more than anything else, and you can help immensely with a monthly gift to The Thin Green Line, United for Wildlife or whichever of the many ranger groups you choose. Google them. Donate. Write thank-you letters.

“Mediators work to reduce human/elephant conflict. Because many villagers are subsistence farmers whose small plots are right in the middle of ancient migration routes, and because the long drought has left elephants hungry they raid the farmers’ crops. Mediators work to discourage people from killing the great invaders with poisoned arrows and spears. Instead the mediators encourage beehive fences, spotlights and other non-lethal warning devices.

“I have a wonderful friend in Kenya whose name is Patrick Kilonzo Mwalua. He is a conservationist with an inspiring story. For years he has been a pea farmer living in Tsavo West National Park and his work with elephants is supported only by a GoFundMe campaign run by my friend Cher Calloway and me.

By means of this help, Mwalua hired a broken-down old truck with water tanks and drove many miles a day during the current drought to bring water to two existing waterholes in Tsavo West. Money came from donors in dribs and drabs for a long, long time. But the elephants, water buffalo, zebras, giraffes, antelope, baboons and ostriches stayed alive.

Then one day the vastly popular Internet show — DODO — showed a video documenting Mwalua’s water work. It went viral and money poured in from across the globe. Mwalua now has his own “Water Is Life” truck, he’s excavated 10 waterholes, and lined about five with concrete, and saved forever the Wildlife of Tsavo West.”

Last but far from least are the orphan rehab “keepers” who rescue infant elephants and rhinos and spend years raising them before they are reintroduced to the wild.

According to Calliope, anyone can be a foster parent to an orphaned baby elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for $50 a year.

“I myself have three foster babies: Jotto, Mbegu and Tamiyoi. These babies are the hope of the future.”

An Invitation

I asked Calliope how much time she devotes to her saving work for threatened African wildlife. “Four to 14 hours a day,” she said.

She suggested I watch a TED talk, now online, by Ian McCallum, a psychiatrist, author, wilderness guide and co-founder of the Wilderness Leadership School in the Western Cape, South Africa.

As part of his talk, McCallum explained the meaning of keystone species — species whose disappearance would threaten the integrity of critical earth ecosystems. Elephants are keystone species, so are beetles, so are termites,” said McCallum. But humans are not.

“If you and I were to disappear today,” McCallum asserted, “nothing would miss us — nothing.”

Pursuing this theme, McCallum proposed the idea of “keystone individuals.”

“Do you have it in you,” he asked, “to be a keystone individual, to dream big, to make a difference to the lives of others, to the Earth and to the animals, to be willing to be disturbed, to find your voice and to raise it — so that others may raise theirs, for the voiceless and the silenced — to stand firm in the knowledge that there are some things that are not for sale?”

In conclusion, Calliope said, “This is the concept that most inspires me. Let us be keystone individuals reaching out to other keystone individuals. If we all raise our voices, we can save the world.”

Then Calliope added a P.S. — “Thank you so much, Nat, for giving me this wonderful opportunity to speak out. I had meant to speak about the lions and rhinos as well. But an elephant wrapped her trunk around me and insisted I tell her story.”

“What can I say?” she said. “This is an elephant tale.”

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