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Ambition that never falters, passion that drives us daily and ultimately, leaving our mark on this earth with resounding achievements of good is an idea many of us only ever entertain. But, Mark and Sophie Hutchinson – along with their remarkable team at WildArk – are two humans transforming the idea of doing good into a reality. And in turn, are inspiring others to do the same.

In early 2017, Mark and Sophie packed up their life in Sydney, Australia and moved their four children, figuratively speaking, worlds away; to the majestic wilderness of South Africa.

Like many, we envision days filled with gazelles leaping into an oasis of serenity, lion roars breaking the echo of a peaceful silence and herds of elephant kicking up clouds of red dirt as they roam freely. Sadly, the reality offers a far more grim insight – poachers run rampant leaving trails of destruction behind and conservationists continue to fight an arduous battle.

Now, WildArk – the conservation and education organisation founded by Mark and Sophie – has joined the fight. With their global mission gaining traction, they’ve dedicated the rest of their lives to doing their piece and restoring ‘a planet in jeopardy’.

Their humility in downplaying the sheer magnitude of their efforts stands testament to the fact that they’re just great people doing really great things. So, get ready – WildArks’ tenacity and truly inspirational cause might just be the swift kick you need to start doing your part, too.

Image: Corey Wilson Photography @corey_wilson

ACC: What was life like before WildArk?

When our two eldest kids were young, Hutch started an adventure tour company called “Untamed Tracks” – taking people to remote places worldwide to fly fish and experience nature. We found that people were in search of not only adventure and good fishing experiences, but the peace, tranquility and beauty that these remote locations offered – a chance to get away from it all and really unwind. We’d take the kids to most places. We even lived on a small farm in Argentina, in the middle of the Andes Mountains, for 6 months. It was a really special time for our family and truly cemented the kid’s love of nature.

In many ways, the same as it is now. We both grew up with the wilderness playing an important role in our lives. We were exposed to the bush from a young age and continued to grow our relationship with nature in our family life today.

In many ways, the same as it is now. We both grew up with the wilderness playing an important role in our lives. We were exposed to the bush from a young age and continued to grow our relationship with nature in our family life today.

Africa, itself, always held a special place in our hearts.  My father ran part of the family business from Zimbabwe, which meant I was travelling to Africa from a young age.  Mark spent a lot of his post-school years here travelling, working and guiding throughout Africa. So, there’s sentimental value that really draws us to the wildness of Africa too.

ACC: What was the moment that kick-started the WildArk journey?

Sophie: We were in a truck 2 years ago, watching a beautiful female black rhino and her calf walking along an open plain area – an uncommon sighting these days. The emotion we felt watching this scene, that was the real driving force and pivotal moment when we knew we had to do something.

Heartbreakingly, we learned that soon after poachers killed the rhino and her calf – which really drove home the importance of what we’re doing. We needed to do something, so we put our thoughts and feelings into action and created WildArk.

ACC: Was something similar to WildArk always an end goal?  

Sophie: It was more of a natural progression. From a love of nature as kids, to living, working in and enjoying the wilderness as adults, that then lead to a deep appreciation and sense of responsibility to protect it however we can.

ACC: How did your life before WildArk shape your passion for conservation?

Mark: I started a business called ‘Untamed’ in the early 2000’s that focused on ecotourism to some of the world’s most remote places. Sophie became a partner of my business and eventually, we took our family to dozens of countries like Alaska, Papua New Guinea, Argentina, Kenya and Mongolia where we made friends who we now call family. During the decade of experiences, we gained a broader understanding of what was happening to the world’s wild places and the dwindling wildlife therein.

ACC: Since WildArk’s launch, how has it gone?

Mark: All our focus and energy has been on our first land project ‘Pridelands’. The land was a former buffalo-hunting farm that we’re transforming into a wildlife conservancy, which connects a natural wildlife corridor and promotes the free movement of wildlife – which is our number 1 priority. We’re largely preparing for when the fences come down and the Big 5 (elephants, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lions) come to explore.

It’s critical that we prove ourselves on this first one to ensure we build confidence and legitimacy within people who do and hopefully, will support WildArk in the future.

 

Image: Corey Wilson Photography @corey_wilson

 ACC: Were there any constraints or difficulties securing your first property ‘Pridelands’, in South Africa?

Mark: Mostly, capacity and knowledge. We wanted to secure a piece of land that we were capable of managing from a human resource and financial perspective. Pridelands offered this and having our local partners involved, Anton and John Lategan, was critical to get this first project off the ground.

ACC: Any moments where you thought you may’ve bitten off more than you could chew?

Mark: Definitely. The sheer scale of some of our aspirational developments – such as converting the existing housing block into an education and ecotourism facility – is still daunting. Oh! And, nearly getting killed by charging buffalo and charged by a male leopard is definitely up there.

ACC: How’d your 4 children adjust to life in a wildlife reserve? (Sounds pretty amazing to us!)

Sophie: They love Africa! Our youngest children run into school with bare feet, they’ve made new best friends over a shared love of dung beetles, lizards and frogs and they come home every day covered in dirt and smiles from ear to ear.  They’ve got the natural curiosity of any child – they look at the ground first to see what’s crawling around, they climb trees, track for animals, play in the dirt and help make the fire at night.

We have to keep reminding them to use their hushed “Africa voices”, which is big struggle for two very energetic and loud 6-year-old twin girls. There are leopards where we live too, so we have a “no outdoor policy” early morning and evening as this is when the leopards are most active. It is a paradise for kids, but we also have our eyes on them constantly.

Mark and Sophie with their four children. 

Source: Kirstin Scholtz – Head of Content, WildArk @kirstinscholtz  

Our eldest children, at 18 and 20, have both completed their safari field guide courses and also work on Pridelands. They have learnt to distinguish bird species and birdcalls, identify all about trees and how the whole ecosystem works. It’s wonderful to see our children genuinely get so much out of the experience. We’re over the moon.

Source: Kirstin Scholtz – Head of Content, WildArk @kirstinscholtz  

ACC: What role has nature played into your families overall health & wellness?

 Sophie: I think nature is as important as much as eating a healthy diet is – we need it in our lives. It plays such an important role and the absence of it, I believe, is detrimental to our quality of life. The feeling you get when you dive in the surf, climb a mountain, swim in a stream or trek in the forest – it’s unparalleled to anything else.

Our family is always happiest when we have no Wi-Fi, lots of trees, and lots of animals around us – even if they are baboons that break into your house 4 times in a row. When we wake to the African fish eagle in the morning or hear the leopards and lions calling, there’s absolutely nothing like it.

 

Image: Corey Wilson Photography @corey_wilson

 ACC: With Wild Ark on a global conservation mission, do you have any other projects based around the world & what do they involve?

Mark: We’re definitely on the hunt! We have feelers out in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Alaska, Australia and PNG. We’re getting close to our second land project, which hopefully we can announce soon. Our science-based projects, the WildArk 100 with Macquarie University, are ongoing. Hopefully we’ll see our first results by the end of the year. We’re also working on some exciting digital initiatives launching before Christmas as well, which will help us gain access to a wider audience for specific campaigns around future projects.

ACC: Any pinnacle moments where you’ve stood back and thought ‘wow- we really did this’?

Sophie: I think it’s yet to come. When ‘Pridelands’ fences come down, it will probably be the first elephant that wanders over and when the local communities come and experience the wildlife. I hope there’s many pinnacle moments to come.

ACC: You have some amazing ambassadors for WildArk. What’s their involvement and how are they helping bring awareness to conservation?

Mark: Our ambassadors are legends! We pinch ourselves that they are involved. Dave and Em Pocock – the most genuine and passionate people you’ll ever meet. We’ve spent a lot of time with them in Africa this year and learnt a great deal. They’re fiercely determined to make a difference in social justice and conservation, including tackling the really difficult questions around poverty and wildlife. They’re truly inspirational.

And well, Mick Fanning speaks for himself. He’s an Aussie icon and probably the most humble person we know. He’s passionate about wild places being protected and also, getting people out there to enjoy them. He once said something that really stuck with us – essentially, that whilst our conservation mission is really serious, we shouldn’t forget that getting out in nature is enjoyable and good for the soul – And he’s so right! That’s easy to forget when we have another dead Rhino on our fence line or trudge through hectares of logged rainforest. Mick helps bring the fun!

Image: Corey Wilson Photography @corey_wilson

ACC: No doubt your workday is ever changing. But, what could a typical day look like for you both?

Mark: It’s pretty much like farm life. Up before dawn, cold outdoor showers, work kit on and into the bush we go. We share taking the girls to school, which involves a game drive past giraffe and zebra each morning and then, usually meet up with our farm team to discuss the day’s agenda. Of course, there’s the usual admin happening during the heat of the day or late at night to get the right time zones.

I’m also completing my Masters of Conservation Biology at Macquarie University, Sydney, and my conservation pilot’s licence. So, I’m spending a lot of time with textbooks in hand, at the airfield or out over the Greater Kruger with the anti-poaching flyer teams.

Image: Kirstin Scholtz – Head of Content, WildArk @kirstinscholtz  

 ACC: Conservation & protection is your mission, but would you say WildArk has also positively impacted the surrounding communities near your projects?

Mark: We really hope so! WildArk has provided 7 full-time jobs for local people and as we grow Pridelands, we want that number to grow significantly. Whilst in these early days our impact may not be much, we anticipate the impact to be far greater in the future.

We also want to make Pridelands accessible to anybody who wants to enjoy and learn about the wildlife and ecology. Our plans for an education centre will allow local communities to visit, learn and immerse themselves in the bush.

ACC: What’s your thoughts on the disconnect between humans & the environment and animals in today’s world?

Mark: It’s huge and ever widening. This is the most frequent comment we get – how can we get involved in conservation? It’s very easy to feel isolated from the natural world these days, especially with such an urban centric society and technology driving our daily habits.

But, when you look around, there’s still splashes of green even in the most urban places and although we are pretty technically challenged, the wonderful thing about social media is you can still get a “nature” fix by consuming amazing images and stories from the wild, from anywhere in the world.

It’s so crucial to remember that as we further evolve into techno-urban creatures, we still need to build connections with nature for our mental, cultural, physical health and overall wellbeing.

Image: Kirstin Scholtz – Head of Content, WildArk @kirstinscholtz  

ACC: What’s been the most challenging aspect of Wild Ark?

Sophie: Definitely poaching. We’re really inspired by how local people tackle poaching head on. Our whole team is dedicated to doing our best but it would be naïve not to expect challenges along the way. All our efforts are going into making sure Pridelands is as safe as it can be.

ACC: If someone wants to get involved big or small, how could they go about it?

Mark: We offer Eco-training adventures through our website, where all profits go towards securing land for species protection. We also anticipate that getting involved in WildArk will become easier as we launch more ideas later this year. People will be able to have direct impact physically, digitally or financially to help our projects succeed.

ACC: What can we look forward to in the future from your brilliant team?

Mark: We’re working on several exciting things – our next land project, a digital platform, some new ambassadors and some longer feature video production projects. We can’t say too much right now but watch this space.

ACC: Any advice or message you want to get across to the ACC readers?

Sophie: I’m not sure we’re qualified to give advice – we’re still learning on the job! But, get out into nature as much and as often as you can. There’s so many ways to engage in the wilderness, even if you can’t always get out into it. We’re developing ways for people to find this connection. If you’re interested in conservation – there’s so many courses, books and ways to foster an interest or career in it. It’s a space that needs passionate people to get involved and we love watching that happen.

If you want to know more head to:

wildark.com

@wild.ark

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author

Kaitlyn Smith

Kaitlyn’s an avid traveller & foodie, who when not off spontaneously discovering new parts of the world, is often busy with her nose buried in books & eyes glued to documentaries. Having a passion for writing since she was a teen, Kaitlyn dabbled in other industries, but truly found her voice, confidence & creativity when she was living in NYC & LA. She’s a health & wellness lover who credits her sanity & day-to-day functioning to her daily exercise routine. She’s a believer in a balanced life so, when she’s not sweating it out, she can usually be found cooped up in her favourite cafe with her best girlfriends, turmeric latte in hand & a smile from ear to ear.

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