Drew Abrahamson is the CEO of Captured In Africa Safari For Change. She is involved with various initiatives and organizations, for wildlife conservation and rehabilitation. Abrahamson’s purpose is to create greater awareness of the need to protect and preserve Africa’s wildlife, especially the plight of Africa’s big cats.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I was born in Johannesburg South Africa in a time when children were free to run around the streets safely, visiting their friends, and running riots. The word carefree comes to mind. Besides the obvious challenges childhood in general presents itself with, I can safely say that I grew up with incredible experiences, particularly in nature and with all thanks to my parents love for our wild places, although I suppose we didn’t really have a choice when very young, we were just thrown in the car like all the other children whether we liked it or not. The memories and unknown path I was to take on my life’s journey, were clearly embedded in these times. We spent the majority of our time in the Kruger National Park, with my parents being friends with the likes of Head State Vets and rangers, so naturally, all the experiences were wild animal related.
There is something to be said for sitting under a blanket of stars enjoying a braai (barbeque) listening to the calls of leopards while you have a pride of lions eyes reflecting back at you from the edge of the garden while enjoying your steak. I am quite certain they would have joined us given half the chance to scale the fence, and when you are a child the thought of a pride of lion with intent to come eat you or your supper, in no specific order, can be terrifying. None the less, I have ended up in the world of Lion conservation, who knows, it probably all started back when I was completely unaware of the impact they had on my life. Was it all written in the stars?
A traumatizing experience and in hindsight comical. The story is about a crazy, angry young elephant who charged me while I was on foot…not so funny at the age of 7. It scarred me for most of my adult life, only overcoming this fear as an adult by taking many a drive in open game drive vehicles with knowledgeable guides. On one such drive, I was almost getting over myself while we were sitting with a herd of elephants. This female was standing quietly about 20 meters away having a go at a tree, in the blink of an eye she decided to turn and head straight towards me sitting on the back of the vehicle. Baring in mind and making reference to my above comment of the vehicle being ‘OPEN’. The engine was off and thoughts of her ramming the side of us ran through my mind while I wondered how on earth the guide, as well as everyone else, were so calm? It was just way too close for my liking.
I held my breath and looked straight ahead with only my eyes moving sideways in their sockets. She was now about 5 meters away and even bigger, obviously. I was close to having a heart attack but couldn’t say anything as there were other tourists with us and I didn’t want to spoil their fun, I felt quite considerate considering the circumstances. She ambled closer, on purpose almost. It felt like she was staring into my soul…and as quick as she had made her decision to walk towards me, so too did she make the decision to turn 90 degrees when a meter away and ambled off slowly. This moment changed my outlook towards elephants who for the most part of my childhood and adult life had been my nemesis. Having learned their behavior and body language since then, I now feel mesmerized by their presence.
It is safe to say, that the largest impact ever made on me was when I was employed as PA for Dereck & Beverly Joubert, the National Geographic Explorers and documentary filmmakers I mentioned previously. Dereck and Beverly are about all things conservation and spearheaded National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative. My time spent with them cannot be explained in words as what I have learned you cannot find on paper. My time with them ended in 2012 when I stepped up into the world of lion rescue and relocation with the knowledge I had gained from working closely with them. I quickly realized that life gives you certain opportunities for personal growth, these are meant to help you move forward, even if the situations are sometimes uncomfortable, being pushed out of your comfort zone while learning valuable life lessons. I honour and owe a lot of my success to having them in my life.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Difficult question as I believe you never stop learning. Lifes journeys form cycles. You have moments to learn and moments to savour. It is always providing you with the tools you need, possibly only years down the line. Looking back, however, I would probably say that I wish I had learned to trust my gut more and had belief in my own self-worth.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
It totally depends on the person giving the recommendation but I have great working relationships built up over many years in the conservation industry whose opinions I trust & value. I may have received a few in this time but they are so few & far between that they have escaped me.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
Tough one. I think it is was when my father died. My parents divorced when I was 12 and my father moved to Durban, which is about 600kms away. I spent many happy holidays and teenage years with friends I had made and I often put my time with them in front of the time spent with him. While back in Johannesburg, I had spent time at a dam and was so excited to get home and tell him the weekend news on the phone, but that chat never happened. My mom sat me down and told me that my father had passed away from a heart attack. I was 16. Only in moments such as this do you begin to understand the consequences of your actions and I ended up convincing myself that everyone was lying to me. It took me a very long time to come to terms with him being gone forever and the only thing I could do in all of this is work through my pain and emotions one year at a time. My lesson – value and gratitude. See the value in, give quality time and have gratitude for the people in your life that you love, show them, tell them…as you never know how and when it will be time for them to leave. In adopting this attitude, another lesson has been learned – you cannot trust everyone, even those close to you – a bit of a contradiction I know, which has taught me discernment.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Keeping a cool head in a volatile situation. The conservation industry is a mix of scientific, in-field-hands-dirty types of people, as well as activists and as I call them, extreme activists. It involves highly emotive online discussions on social media and on occasion, face to face debates between people who don’t particularly like each other and don’t always agree on the topic at hand. Professionalism is a must in any situation.
What is your morning routine?
Oh goodness. Life is complex but in a good way so it is all dependent on where we are within the month. Being in our industry we travel frequently and when out in the field it is very early mornings and as early as possible nights unless there is an emergency situation that would require us to sometimes stay awake for 24 hours or sometimes longer in a stretch. Tiring. While at HQ which is based in Johannesburg, the day starts at 6 am and is a little chaotic as we have 4 kids that need to get to and from school and all the other responsibilities of being parents. It doesn’t matter where we are though, the morning ritual starts with copious amounts of good coffee and either throwing some shorts & a t-shirt on to do a school run while drinking more coffee in a travel mug, or throwing on my uniform for meetings while drinking the good coffee.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
There are a few, I can’t pinpoint exactly which is more relevant than the other. My entire life I have always thought myself to be very positive but a little stubborn and patience was definitely not my strong suit. Positivity waivers in varying degrees as it does but I think I have it covered as not much will keep me down for too long. The stubbornness and patience on the other hand, difficult is an understatement. What comes with being stubborn is a lack of wanting to see another perspective and digging your heels in, especially when it isn’t justified. Patience is most certainly something that has to be worked on daily for me as I am impulsive. Coming to the realization that one needs to bend to be able to reach the desired outcome but never at the expense of morals and integrity. Life requires much patience, especially when you are working towards a goal or dream.
The past few years have been incredibly challenging both personally and professionally and I have had to muster up every bit of strength that I have had to keep pushing forward, delving deeper into my spiritual side, which has seen me through many tough situations. I try to look at things with a different, open-minded perspective, which allows for the lesson in the situation that was presented, to show itself. The words belief, tenacity, patience, strength, integrity are behaviors’ that have most certainly developed within me.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I am a list freak and a terrible e-mail hoarder. I am still to determine whether e-mail hoarding is a good or bad thing. I have lists for everything which I start at the beginning of the week for that entire week specifically. Ticking off tasks completed and adding anything else that needs to be done, making sure that all is prioritized. My e-mail inbox looks like the labeled shelves of a library allowing me to cross check, reference, and find documents easily when needed, which has all been duplicated on my computer. OCD on another level.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
I definitely have an affinity for non-fiction books that incorporate life’s challenges and overcoming them. Growing up & spending the majority of my time in the bush with my interest and passion lies in all things related, I love the real-life stories of Africa as I can relate on a soul level. One of my favourite authors on such life experiences has to be Kobie Kruger whose husband was a section ranger for specific areas in the Kruger National Park. Kobie has such a beautiful, expressive, and comical way of writing that one’s mind can’t help but conjure up images while reading her words which are filled with emotion that is easily felt.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
There are a few, but there is one that has impacted me the most. They are the words of Dereck Joubert, who along with his wife Beverly, are National Geographic Explorers In Residence. A number of years back, we were working together from remote locations hundreds of kilometers apart on a wild lion issue that involved a wild lion escaping a protected area and into the surrounding community. The situation did not end well, with me being distraught as I felt like we had failed this lion who was trying desperately to get to a safe place as hunters were in hot pursuit. The farmer whose property the lion was on for very brief respite, eventually gave the hunters access and he was shot, even after Dereck had found a place who would take him in Mozambique. Derecks words to me were – ‘Losses and not defeats’. I hang onto these words almost every day as I feel they cover most of life’s daily struggles but I relate it more to the challenges we have in the world of conservation.
The other quote I am proud to say is one of my own. I get to spend many privileged hours in close proximity to wildlife such as lion, leopard, elephant…and a host of others. In these quiet times I spend observing them, their natural behavior, and just how tolerant they are of the vehicle and people, I often delve deep into my heart as leaves me feeling…sometimes…helpless, but with a resolve to fight harder. It expresses how I see the abuse towards our wildlife and how they, as well as their wild space, is taken for granted. Hoping upon hope that if and when read, something in them stirs and they become more aware –
‘Animals offer up a trust that should never be taken for granted.’