Interview with Ellen O'Connell


We Chat with Tusk USA's Ellen O'Connell


Today, wildlife and biodiversity conservation throughout the world faces many obstacles. But there are ways to help. We dig in with Tusk's executive director to find out how.


In 2004, Sandy and Chip Cunningham started Tusk USA, the American arm of the conservation organization Tusk Trust (UK).  20 years ago Africa was in the midst of a poaching crisis: Black rhino were on the brink of extinction (just 2,000 remained) and the African elephant population was being slaughtered at a rate of 100,000 each year, just for their ivory. Drastic times required urgent action.

Since its formation in 1990, Tusk has raised over $25 million for a wide range of projects across Africa which not only work to protect wildlife, particularly endangered species, but also help to alleviate poverty, through sustainable development and education amongst rural communities who live alongside wildlife. We’re proud of playing a vital and dynamic role in sustainable nature-based tourism. The people we work with around the world embody the kind of partnerships whose commitment to conservation will inspire you.


Our intern Olivia Lenfestey caught up with Tusk's executive director, Ellen O'Connell, to discuss the current status of conservation in Africa and what we can do to help. See her answers below.


Q: Being a conservationist is challenging. In a field that can feel like an endless, uphill battle what motivates and inspires you to continue to make a difference everyday for African wildlife?


Over the last 40 years, the world’s wildlife population has decreased by more than half and some of the planet’s most iconic species are on the brink of extinction. Fueled by the illegal wildlife trade, rapid population growth and economic inequality, the destruction of Africa’s natural resources has reached an unprecedented level. This threatens not only Africa’s wildlife but also the entire fabric of African society. The world is currently losing species at 1,000 times the natural rate, and experts believe that we are entering the 6th Great Extinction. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us—humans.” But we are at a turning point for conservation–both from the point of view of risk and opportunity. At this rate, there is incredible risk that our children and generations to come will live in a world where species such as elephant and lion only exist in storybooks and movies. However, there are also incredible opportunities for change.

Recent progress such as the ban on legal ivory in China are opportunities that can impact the future of our planet. According to a recent report, the price of ivory is now less than half of what it was just three years ago and China has begun the process of shutting down their carving factories as part of their promise to ban ivory by the end of the year. There is a quiet wave of change happening. And we should never underestimate the power of many voices coming together.

I remain and Tusk remains hopeful that there will be a paradigm shift and that attitudes towards our planet and wildlife will change. In order to keep us motivated at Tusk, we look to people like Richard Leakey and Jane Goodall who have dedicated their lives to this cause. We are also inspired by new voices for change like Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson, the filmmakers behind the Netflix documentary The Ivory Game and filmmakers like John Heminway, a Tusk USA board member, who is the director and writer of The Warlords of Ivory. We hope that we inspire people to keep up the fight with stories of change and impact in the field. When people see that we can win the battle, they know that it is not a lost cause.


"There is a quiet wave of change happening. And we should never underestimate the power of many voices coming together."


Q: As a young, female environmentalist, I am particularly fascinated by the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching unit. Can you tell me more about them and ways to get involved with their all women organization?


Comprised of women from local communities, the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit patrols the boundaries of South Africa’s Balule Nature Reserve and Kruger National Park to catch poachers and educate local communities about the importance of protecting endangered species. Tusk USA partners with the Black Mambas to provide funding. Donations can be made through Tusk USA–if you want to help you can set up your own fundraiser on our website


"I remain and Tusk remains hopeful that there will be a paradigm shift and that attitudes towards our planet and wildlife will change."


Q: How did you get involved in this field?


I graduated from Georgetown University with a BA in English but knew from the beginning that I wanted to work in the non-profit arena. After graduation, I started my career at a homeless shelter for youth and completed a Masters In Public Administration focusing on International Development. I worked with youth in the United States and Latin America and while working went back to school for a second Masters in Anthropology and did PhD work on post-Rwandan genocide reconciliation. After working for youth for a decade I moved to the International Rescue Committee where I traveled to war zones and worked with refugees on everything from resettlement in the United States to work in refugee camps, health programs, child soldier demobilization, and education for refugee kids in camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan and 40 other countries around the globe. Some of the work that I did internationally overlapped with the illegal wildlife trade (especially the black market trade in rhino horn and ivory). The illegal wildlife trade has connections to criminal syndicates, terrorism and is the 4th largest international illegal market in the world. I got involved in the prosecution and tracking of terrorist money and money candy side and learned a great deal about the illegal wildlife trade while still at the IRC. I was recruited in 2014 to head up Tusk to build the organization in the USA. My interest in wildlife however dates back to childhood; when I was young my mother worked with Wildlife Conservation Society and NY public zoo to try to make zoos more humane.


"When I was young my mother worked with Wildlife Conservation Society and NY public zoo to try to make zoos more humane."




1. Sign up for the Tusk newsletter.

2. Create a fundraising page.

3. Join Tusk and other organizations on social media (Facebook and Twitter are great places to start).

4. Keep an eye out for the new Tusk website which will be launched in a few weeks–including a toolkit for getting involved.

5. GO! One of the best (and most fun!) ways to give back is to go on a safari that is dedicated to sustainability. A portion of the price of each safari goes back to conservation efforts and trust.


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Ellen O'Connell Interview

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