Wild Life

Dick Houston has been fascinated with Africa since childhood. Now, he's working to protect one of its most visible symbols for future generations.

Dick Houston led his first safari at the age of 7.

It was 1951, and the Ashtabula first-grader had just seen the 1950 film King Solomon's Mines. Captivated by its images of African adventure, Houston convinced nine classmates to follow him during recess on an expedition into the woods a mile from school.

They got lost, and it started to rain. When he finally returned the drenched and crying crew to the schoolyard more than an hour later, he found himself grounded and banned from recess.

But such punishment wasn't enough to shake Houston's childhood obsession with Africa, and by the 1970s he'd traded the shores of Lake Erie for the deserts and savannas of the continent.

"[In early childhood is] when dreams are planted," Houston says. "Unfortunately, sometimes people forget them."

He made a living in his 20s and 30s running overland safari expeditions across the Sahara Desert, teaching English and writing about African issues for Smithsonian, Reader's Digest and other publications. Houston remembers it as a time of turbulent change in Africa as its nations adjusted to independence, expansive population growth and the rise of the ivory trade. But Houston found one trend most troubling.

"I noticed less elephants and more elephant carcasses," he says. "Between 1979 and 1989 alone, Africa lost half of its elephant population to poaching. I witnessed the destruction."

Houston saw elephants and other wildlife maimed by poachers' razor-sharp snares, baby elephants orphaned when their mothers were killed for ivory and bush meat, and locals raised to fear elephants and resent their crop foraging.

He returned to Northeast Ohio more than a decade ago, determined to take action against the threats to African elephants, and met a kindred soul in Cleveland lawyer Bruce Lowe, a partner at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister.

"I was impressed by Dick from the outset," Lowe says. "He was a very charismatic chap who was dedicated to doing good works, and I wanted to help."

The pair sat down over dinner at an Ashtabula restaurant and hammered out plans for Elefence International, a nonprofit that supports elephant conservation projects in Africa. Growing up in Great Britain, Lowe had a similar childhood fascination with colonial Africa. "Most young British boys growing up have a pretty deep grounding in the old days of the empire," he says.

Today, Houston splits his time between Africa and Ashtabula, working with Lowe and a small team of local volunteers to raise funds for elephant conservation projects and raise awareness of the plight of the African elephant here.

Elefence has funded a conservation ranger base in Zambia, provided education for African children about elephants' importance in the local ecosystem, and supported the Chipembele Wildlife Education Centre, which fosters orphaned elephants.

Houston's latest effort is Bulu: African Wonder Dog (Random House, $15.99), a kids' book that tells the true story of a Jack Russell terrier named Bulu who became a foster parent to orphaned elephants and other wildlife at Chipembele. Houston has accompanied the book's release with school visits throughout our region and sees the elephants' greatest hope in Bulu's young fans.

"I tell the students, 'You will be the last generation to make a decision about [saving] the African elephant.' They get it right away," Houston says. "I'm a great believer that Bulu will become a symbol for elephant conservation."

Now 67, Houston has no plans to end the adventure he began as a 7-year-old. And there's still plenty of work to do in defense of the African elephant.

"We can turn the tide of what's happening," he says. "You might be that one person who will help change the tide. We're the springboard."

More Info: elefence.org

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