For the past few months everything in Kristin Bauer van Straten’s life has been about getting ready to shoot her documentary in Kenya. Elephants and Rhinos are in crisis. Rhino in the wild have now gone extinct. Poaching for Elephant ivory and Rhino horn is at an all-time high. In 2011, more elephant tusks were seized than in any year since 1989 when the ivory trade was banned.
Kristin has decided to stand up and try to do something about it in the form of producing and directing a documentary about the poaching of these magnificent animals and what is being done locally to stop them from becoming extinct. On August 23rd Kristin flew to Kenya with her South African husband Abri van Straten and a camera crew, where they were joined by Abri’s mother Cicely. Cicely Luck van Straten is a widely published South African author, who grew up on a farm in Kenya.
I spoke with Kristin just days before her departure to Africa. When I asked her how she was doing, she answered: “Exhausted, panicked and stressed. All day long I am either in meetings, pitching the project, trying to get funding, doing press and getting organized for the trip.”
You may have noticed that Kristin was online tweeting and Facebooking at odd hours and she admitted that she slept only about four hours a night for the past month. “The moment I think we are set and I think I can start focusing on elephants and then something goes wrong”, she explained to me during our Skype call. “Fifteen minutes ago I learned that maybe we will have to change airlines. This is the thing of producing, directing and funding yourself in this amount of time; it is probably not the best idea [laughs].”
Why did you decide to make a documentary? Why didn’t you collect money and donate it to one of the organizations that fight for the elephants and rhinos? That would have been a lot easier.
“I wish you would have asked me that 3 months ago and I wish I would have taken you up on it”, Kristin answered with a smile. “I’ve been asking myself what this compulsion is to go and film it. I love the film medium and I wanted to do something on my hiatus from True Blood that was more “me”. With acting you have this enormous support, the actor comes in last, after the writing and the costumes have been done and the sets have been built. With this it’s more like my painting, I sink or swim on my own. I wanted more of my voice, this is my journey. We’ll see when I get back, when I am editing if I am still glad that I didn’t just raise money for other groups. But I have a love affair with an African, they have this love affair with their country, and I have a love affair with all life and species, so it kind of dovetailed into me to take this on.”
Out of all the endangered animals why did you pick the elephants and rhinos to support?
“I could be doing this every hiatus, unfortunately, for the rest of my life. Everywhere I look from the oceans to our rivers, to cats and dogs in rescue; it’s all the exact same syndrome. And I am doing elephants and rhinos in Africa this summer because Abri’s family is from there. We are going back to the park where his mother Cicely grew up, watching her father save elephants and rhinos. Her father, with two others, formed the first group of people to do research on tranquilizing large animals in order to be able to treat them and relocate them. That is still the protocol used today by the groups we are going to visit, like the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi. The orphanage takes care of the baby elephants whose mothers have been poached, they would die without help because they won’t leave their mother’s side and are still milk dependent. At the orphanage they raise the babies for five years, 24/7 care and then release them again.”
Isn’t it amazing how all the pieces are fitting together from the moment you sat down and listened to that CD of The Lemmings? [note: Kristin’s husband Abri van Straten is the lead singer of The Lemmings, she discovered the band by accident, tracked Abri down and married him six months later.]
“Isn’t that crazy?! I think about that sometimes when I am so tired and broke and putting all my energy into this, and I think OMG it all comes back to that damn CD on that one day.” [laughs].
And what were the chances that the singer of the CD you listened to was from South Africa? He could have been from anywhere in the world.
“Right! Also, that he happened to be from South Africa and this happens to be his family’s history and passion. If he were from the Amazon, we would probably be going to save orangutans, because they are in as much trouble too.
As humans we think of our own species first, but all life is valuable and beautiful and I believe created by some magical force. Life is special. I want to try to raise the awareness that the things we are doing are affecting other life. A lot of the times, unfortunately, it’s the locals who care the least about their own wildlife. Besides the threat of poaching, overpopulation is also a huge part of the problem, having more children than you can care for. As we have passed the 7 billion mark, and nobody seems to wants to talk about it and nobody wants to touch it, but the problem is that at the efficiency level that we are operating at and the level of care we are taking with other life forms we can’t have 7 billion people. We are going to run into big problems if we don’t change. All we have to do is care a little more.”
You are leaving for Africa in just a couple of days.
“I know!” Kristin covered her face with her hands in a gesture of theatrical desperation.
Are you all packed and ready to go?
“Shad, I have no idea how the hell I will actually be getting on that plane on the 23rd. My house is a mess, I got papers everywhere, I haven’t packed, I’ve got to get enough cat and dog food for an army, organizing my personal and the filming stuff, it is so overwhelming. It is not actually doable for me to be on that plane on the 23rd, but I probably will. Every time I can get WIFI in Kenya I will try to send a message to the supporters. I can only do this with the help and support of others. There is no way I could take on something like this alone. My first priority is to connect with the supporters. Without the power of the Internet this wouldn’t be happening.”
Beside snakes, what do you fear most being out there?
[Laughs out loud] “I have these odd, isolated thoughts about snakes and Tsetse flies and bush planes. I came across one story of a tourist being bitten by a Tsetse fly in the area where we are going and she got sleeping sickness. Abri had to talk me down.”
It will be the experience of a lifetime!
“It really will be. I guess that’s one of the other reasons why I wanted to do this instead of just fundraising. I wanted to learn for myself what’s happening and what we could possibly do and to try to understand it and to try to share that vision with others, so we would go on this trip together.”
What comfort or luxuries will you miss the most?
“I am not good at packing light. I think I’m going to eliminate high-heeled shoes and corsets. I am going to miss by blow dryer; my hair will not look so good in this movie. I am going to forgo some changes of clothing for my protein bars that I live on, one of my diet things trying to be a vegan. But of all the things I will miss my pillow the most. I always travel with my pillow; I have this neck pillow that has transformed my life. It’s called Pillo1 and I have not left home without it for 15 years. But at least I will have Abri with me, right?”
But he takes up a lot of space.
“He does”. [laughs out loud]
How will you fit him into a bush plane?
“I don’t know how to fit him in and his guitar, because he is doing the music for the movie. He wrote this song called ‘Gardens Of Sand’ and it is so perfect because where we are going there are miles and miles of red sand; the song is the perfect theme for the movie.”
In your work as animal activist you often come across horrible images of animal abuse. How do you deal with that?
“I see horrible images almost every day and I cry a lot. And I think that if somebody else had to live it, if somebody else had to suffer it, if that baby elephant had to lose his mommy, the least I can do is look, if my looking will possibly help me change it. I never post on Facebook or Twitter anything we can’t take an action to change it, because I think we are so inundated by bad news that it actually makes us not want to look and makes us shut down. So one of the things I wanted to make sure of, with this documentary, is that we focus on the positive and what we can do about it. We have to understand what is happening but I don’t think that shock will help people to continue to communicate with the problem; I want to communicate with the solution. That’s why I am going to meet the people who live the solution and are actually making a difference but they just need to do it on a bigger scale. If they had more support, this could actually turn around.”
As long as there is a market poachers will continue to kill. What is the largest market for the ivory?
“It’s China and Japan. In China it’s a status symbol called White Gold. The growing middle-class in China wants to show they’ve made it and culturally ivory is the way to do that. They are very far from where the poaching is happening, so IFAW did a survey in China and found that 80% didn’t know that ivory meant a dead elephant. In Japan they use ivory for their signature stamps. Further there is also the American and European trophy hunter and tourists that bring back a piece of ivory.”
Former NBA star Yao Ming is dedicating his time to work the problem from the Chinese side. China’s best-known sportsman, who carried his country’s flag at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, traveled to Kenya earlier this year to film a documentary about poaching. He is one of a dozen of China’s most famous actors, athletes, talk-show hosts, and musicians lending their names to recent conservation campaigns inside their homeland. Learn more about what is being done to raise awareness in China from this article about Yao Ming’s visit to Kenya.
You visited South Africa for the first time two year ago. What was that like? Did you feel at home?
“I did. It is such a beautiful place. There is a part of me that think that if I ever retired from acting, which would be very difficult for me since I just love it, that it would be a good second choice to go to a country like South Africa or Kenya and have a very different life. In Plettenberg Bay where part of Abri’s family lives there is so much space and I grew up with a lot of space in Wisconsin. Talking to Gran who grew up in Kenya and Uganda and married the man working to save elephants and rhino and hippos in Amboseli, hearing her stories and the life that she has lived and looking through the photo album of her peaceful coexistence with the Masai was really quite something. She is in her eighties and that country is very different now with the large population explosion of China and Africa, the two countries that are connected to this poaching market. The image that we have of this beautiful land and nature is going away. “
How have the fan reactions been so far to the Out for Africa project?
“I am constantly amazed at the loving generosity of humans and more specifically our fans. And you know that even better than I do: the True Blood fans are the best fans. I receive so many emails, not just donations, from people offering their professional services for free. Every day it’s been the most incredible outpouring of love and support that is actually keeping me propped up.”
The Kickstarter campaign raised over $64,000, is that enough to cover the cost of the whole project?
“It covers about half the cost of just the filming. It’s incredibly appreciated because when I set out to do this I thought that around $60,000 would be the cost of the shoot and it doubled. It is definitely an exciting project, but there is a huge amount of vulnerability for me, because it is my energy and passion and finances that are on the line. It’s all incredibly nerve-racking and incredibly exciting. I can’t thank the people enough for helping me on this project.”
Another vampire, Ian Somerhalder, is also an animal activist and environmentalist. He started his own foundation. Can we expect the Kristin Bauer Foundation in the future?
“People have been asking me about that because the nice thing about a foundation is that with the money I bring in I could just give to IFAW or other incredible organizations. It could be an option as this thing goes and I find myself fundraising more and more.”
If Kristin Bauer had the ability to glamour. Who would she glamour and why?
“Whoever is president… of every country. First I would definitely start with the head of China. And I would say: stop harming our animals and be kind to other life forms. Africa is being purchased by the Chinese because it’s a resource rich country and I am sure we will start seeing the US moving in there saying it’s for diplomatic reasons, but the bottom line is that it’s because it’s full of resources. There will be a fight for Africa. I don’t involve myself in politics, I just care about preserving all species including our own. “
I’d like to thank Kristin for making me care a little more. I too wanted to do something and I am now the proud foster of Kinango, the youngest elephant orphan at the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi.
Fundraising for the documentary Out for Africa continues on eBay with several unique pieces of True Blood memorabilia now up for auction, such as a signed True Blood script. Upcoming items include a female modesty patch signed by Anna Paquin, an original Authority necklace worn on the show, signed magazines and DVD and Lucy Griffith’s who plays “Nora” signed shoes, to name just a few. Visit Kristin’s eBay page here to see what’s up for auction: http://tinyurl.com/cewfry4
For more information about Out for Africa visit: www.outforafrica.com
Kristin Bauer on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PamfromTrueBlood
On her journey through Kenya Kristin visited:
Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi – http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy – http://www.lewa.org
Amboseli National Park
Tsavo East National Park
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