How a Dallas Art Framer is Changing Lives in Botswana
For decades, Debra Stevens has been one of Dallas’ top framers for galleries, museums, and artists. While that’s a career she doesn’t plan to relinquish any time soon, she’s added an intriguing side gig to her resume: elephant whisperer.
In 2017, Stevens co-founded Elephant Havens Wildlife Foundation with her husband, Scott Jackson, a real estate attorney. The couple has been trekking to Africa since 2000 on safari, but their foundation‘s mission isn’t focused on tourism: It’s about protecting and preserving African elephants. Often this means caring for defenseless baby elephants left orphaned by poachers or other circumstances.
Their remarkable adventure started in 2013 during a safari trip to Botswana. The sparsely populated country borders South Africa and is home to 135,000 elephants, the largest concentration on the continent. The couple had been staying at Abu, a luxury safari camp in the Okavango Delta owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. While there, Stevens fell in love with a six-month-old orphaned elephant named Naledi, whose mother had died when Naledi was just six weeks old. The elephants had been part of a herd living nearby, so workers at the camp began caring for her themselves. Rather than participating in the camp’s scheduled safari excursions, Stevens spent her days caring for the tiny pachyderm, including bottle-feeding her by hand. As Naledi grew stronger, she was eventually returned to the herd.
In 2016, Allen made a documentary about Naledi’s remarkable story. Although Stevens isn’t featured in the film, Abu camp managers brought an uncut version of it to her tent before it was released, along with popcorn and a box of Kleenex. “It was very emotional,” she remembers. Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale is currently available on Netflix.
Stevens has continued to travel back to Botswana every few months to help rescue and care for other orphans. Each time, she looks for Naledi’s herd in the bush; the elephant, now seven years old, always runs to greet her when called. “I think somehow they know you helped save them,” Stevens says. “An elephant never forgets.”
A LITTLE HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS
In 2017, Stevens’ life changed in ways she never imagined. She and her husband had been staying at Abu camp and were scheduled to depart for home. It was always gut-wrenching to leave the orphans behind, but the elephants were in good hands with Boago “Bee” Pokolo, the camp’s licensed safari guide and a naturalist. A third-generation elephant handler, Pokolo was an expert at raising orphaned baby elephants, although the camp had no formal facilities to do so.
“Before we left, Bee approached me and Scott and told us how desperately Botswana needed an elephant orphanage, and he had a plan to build one,” Stevens recalls. They were thrilled to hear the news and wished him well with his new endeavor. Pokolo immediately corrected them: He didn’t have any money to build an orphanage — he wanted their help doing it.
The couple boarded their plane, heads buzzing with conflicted emotions. Such an undertaking seemed impossible on the surface, yet it also brimmed with potential. The more they discussed it during the flight, Stevens became convinced they could raise the cash needed to build the orphanage. “If anyone can do it, you can,” Jackson told her. Back in Dallas, she wrote letters to their friends and business acquaintances, telling them about the idea. Jackson was skeptical at first, doubting that anyone would donate to an orphanage that didn’t yet exist.
“But the checks just started coming in,” Stevens says.
Elephant Havens has since raised more than $750,000 for the orphanage and its programs. Most of the gifts are from Dallas contributors, including the Dallas Zoo, she says. Located on the outskirts of the lush Okavango Delta, the foundation is focused on habitat protection, community outreach, and the rescue and hand-rearing of young orphan elephants.
The Dallas Zoo provided the orphanage with its own on-site lab for simple blood work, urinalysis, and fecal testing. The zoo also sent lab technicians to Botswana to train their employees. Currently, four orphaned elephants are under care at Elephant Havens. “It’s a lifelong commitment for us and them, too,” Stevens says. “We will release them back into the wild, but that’s 10 years away. And we put tracking devices on them, so it’s a relationship that lasts forever.”
The orphanage has also been a lifeline for nearby villagers, providing jobs and life-saving infrastructure. Elephant Havens employs 17 people from the area, including Pokolo, who is a partner in the foundation and runs it full time. They’ve also built the community’s first septic sewage tank and fresh water well, basic sanitation essentials that help prevent disease. The well was dug after Stevens saw a woman drinking dark, dirty water from the river, previously the village’s only source of water.
A GLOBAL PANDEMIC HITS
In late March, Botswana closed its borders in an effort to stave off COVID-19 infections — a move that’s been largely effective, Stevens says. Because tourism is the number-one source of income for the country’s more than 2.2 million people, the shutdown has devastated the economy. Elephant Havens continues to pay all its employees, but many people in the delta area don’t have jobs.
By mid-May, the situation had grown desperate. “Bee emailed me and said people in the community had no food,” Stevens says. There’s no money to buy groceries, and to make matters worse, a drought last year meant villagers couldn’t plant crops, so there was nothing to harvest. “They were starving.”
Elephant Havens quickly became an impromptu food bank, buying and distributing 50-pound bags of maize meal, flour, and rice, along with dehydrated soup, meal mixes, cooking oil, salt, and other staples of Botswana cooking. A little goes a long way in Botswana — $25 feeds a family of six for a month, Stevens says.
Some of the foundation’s priorities, including buying solar-powered strobe lights to keep wild elephants off farmers’ land, have been put on hold because of the food crisis. Strobe lights are effective elephant deterrents that protect both the crops and the herd, she explains. “Now we are dealing with hunger, so that’s a new goal, an urgent focus.”
With flights canceled and borders closed, Stevens hasn’t been back to Botswana since February — her longest absence in eight years. Daily morning Zoom meetings with the staff keep her connected, and Pokolo puts his cellphone to the orphans’ ears so they can hear her voice. “I’m poor because all my money goes to these elephants, but richer in so many other ways because of them,” she says. “You’re never the same after you’ve had an elephant trunk lovingly wrapped around your neck.”