Tessa Gerlach, co-founder of Elephant Gin, grew up in rural north-west Germany lacking many wildlife specimens, but as a child she always dreamt of becoming a marine biologist or a film producer. Her favourite toy – a stuffed elephant called Dumbo – was just a mere indication how different her life would pan out…
After graduating from Boston’s Emerson College and University College London, Tessa worked in the film industry, including Universal Pictures and Working Title Films in Los Angeles and London. She visited South Africa for the first time with her film crew whilst shooting a project. Almost as soon as she got there she realised she “just didn’t ever want to leave”, and her planned one-month stay was extended to three months. She left the filming behind, travelling widely, taking photographs and getting up close to some of the country’s incredible wildlife. This included a stint helping out at Space for Elephants, one of the wildlife foundations that Elephant Gin now supports.
As Tessa recalls “In 2011 I traveled to South Africa for some photography work and met Digs Pascoe, the CEO of Space For Elephants, on one of my weekend trips to a local village called Thonga Village in KwaZulu Natal. At an evening campfire in an otherwise pitch black night, he started talking – about elephants, his love for the African wildlife, the wonders of the African bush and the plight, the dangers and challenges that will cause the extinction of elephants and rhinos in 10 -15 years if poaching continues at this rate.”
She adds “I had never heard anyone speak with such passion about the intelligence of these animals, their importance in the ecosystem and the intricate ivory trade (…I even saw his eyes well up with tears which broke my heart). I doubt I will ever meet someone again who will leave such a mark on me as Digs Pascoe did that evening. I truly believe that I left the campfire a different person – and this encounter changed my whole life around as since that day I had been determined to help support Space for Elephants and wildlife conservation not only on a personal, but business level.”
Back in London, Tessa and her husband-to-be Robin met up along with friends, including Henry Palmer, who had shared similar experiences and reminisced about their adventures. Robin had travelled around Kenya, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and explored around Serengeti in the company of a guide who was very passionate about the region’s wildlife, which sparked a desire in Robin to get more involved in helping to protect it. Tessa remembers, “we would spend nights and nights talking about the African land, the wildlife, what we experienced there, the people – various different ways that we engaged with the locals, schoolchildren – but, for me, especially the wildlife.”
Indeed, this deep interest in and increasing involvement with African wildlife foundations led Tessa to the conclusion that she had to find a way to help them in their work. “Initially I didn’t want to go back to London at all, I wanted to stay and help out,” she says. “Then I thought – maybe there is a way to do something even from Europe, to give back and to make sure that other generations will be able to encounter the same wildlife and have the same experiences that we had.
“Then in 2011, when I met with Space for Elephants, I did actually say to them ‘I will go back and I will do something that will help you and will help this foundation because I think it’s such a great thing’.” With the promise made, there was no turning back. But she still had had to answer the question of how?
As Tessa and Robin discussed the conundrum with their friends, they realised that the answer was right in front of them: gin. “After a day out in the African bush,” Tessa explains, “the drink to have is usually a gin and tonic, and it’s called a sundowner. So you meet for a sundowner drink, around a campfire or just at night with friends, and we tried to keep that tradition when we were all back in London. So when we met we would have our gin and tonic and think back to the time that we were there travelling. That’s how the whole gin thing started.”
Not only were the couple both fans of a nice G&T, Robin also already had a keen interest in distilling, and had taken a range of courses on the subject in his spare time. In addition, his trips to the African bush had sparked a fascination with the local plants and herbs used by the locals to make everything from food to tea and even brandy, and he relished the idea of being able to use these ingredients in a product that he could develop himself. Gin was the perfect solution.
“Gin obviously gives you the freedom to work with botanicals that other spirits cannot use,” he explains. “It is this beautiful spirit where you have the freedom to be more expressive on the flavour side than with, say, wine or other spirits.”
And so Robin, with the help of other distillers in Germany and the UK, began working with these botanicals to develop a recipe – something that allowed him to indulge his inner science geek. He embarked on a process of trial and experimentation, initially on lab-style distilling equipment and at two different distilleries, before moving onto the current Arnold Holstein copper pot still (albeit only filled to one-tenth of its 400 litre capacity).
Tessa was, she admits, impressed by Robin’s dedication to and swift mastery of his subject. “I’ve never seen anyone who got inside a topic so much from the level of it being a hobby to really understanding the chemistry behind it,” she says. “It shows how through research, interest and huge passion, there definitely comes real knowledge.”
The whole development process, which their friend Henry very much became a part of, took almost two years – although at this point, there was not a real sense of urgency as they weren’t even thinking of their venture in commercial terms. “It was all passion,” Tessa says. “Robin just had such a clear idea of what we wanted, that time wasn’t really a factor that we considered. It was more just really trying to find what matched Robin’s vision.”
Then came the elephant conservation part. Tessa explains: “Elephants have always fascinated me and with horror I realised then that poaching, and ultimately the prevailing poverty in this country, drives the African elephant to extinction. Elephants are one of the oldest species of animals, fascinating and intelligent, that lived in this area of southern Africa thousands of years ago and have survived many natural disasters and natural predators. It’s frightening that that the only species which threatens this gentle giant is humankind. That’s why from the very first bottle sold in September 2013, we have given 15% of bottle profits to Big Life Foundation and Space for Elephants that are devoted to the conservation of the African elephant.”
“At Big Life Foundation, we have been supporting 35 anti-poaching rangers”, Tessa says. “These brave individuals are out in the wild every day and working tirelessly to protect elephants and other animals from poaching and retaliatory killing due to human-wildlife conflict. Through the funds, Elephant Gin is directly contributing to their salaries, rations and equipment (such as tents, rucksacks, sleeping bags etc.).”
“Since the launch of our 50ml miniature bottles last year, we have been supporting a third organisation that is close to our hearts, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – known as the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world. Its elephant orphanage near Nairobi nurtures baby elephants who have been found in the wild – often either left behind when their mother die due to poaching or other human intervention. Each baby elephant has a dedicated team member to nurse them back to strength and to rear them to join their own herd of ex-orphans. 15% of the profits from our new miniature bottles go to the Sheldrick Trust to support these initiatives.”
The elephant conservation and education support didn’t stop there. “With Space For Elephants Foundation, we have recently funded and opened an education centre focused on elephants,” Tessa says. “The aim of the program is to teach locals as well as tourists about the threats elephants face today, the important ecological role of elephants, and the demand for conservation. The education centre was built and is run by members of the Zulu community; providing jobs for people who otherwise would be tempted to work or trade on the black market. Unemployment is rife in the area, which is attractive for poachers in getting information and assistance from the local communities. We realised that even with strong anti-poaching units, community members will assist poachers for a small amount of money where they can. Think about it, if you were so poor and unable to provide for your family, it would be unbelievably tempting to go hunt wildlife in exchange for great sums of money.”
The strategy of Space for Elephants is to get the communities involved by creating employment opportunities and make them aware of the value of wildlife by showing them how to earn a living from protecting, instead of killing it. This strategy is coming to fruition as people are taught how to attract tourists, and offer tours around the landscape. By educating them that living elephants could be a source of income for the long term, they start to listen and even protect the elephants from other dangers. Ultimately, poachers nowadays find it more difficult to make use of these communities to assist them.
Tessa and Robin also keep a close eye on foundations and their funds. As Tessa explained: “Robin and I fly to each foundation at least once a year to to check in on ongoing projects, learn about difficulties, new opportunities and meet new team members. Working in South Africa and Kenya is way different to what we know from Germany or the UK; so visits are absolutely detrimental (and so worth it!). Every year we take the team to visit the foundations and allow them to make their own ‘African’ experiences”.
How does she remain positive despite the gloomy forecasts for wildlife conservation? Tessa has some advice: “The way we remain positive about it is that we do see a change. Prior to Big Life in Amboseli, the question was not if an elephant would be killed, but when. Since their multiple fully-equipped teams of rangers have been placed, Big Life has made over 1,030 arrests and experienced only a handful of poaching incidents per month within their area of patrol that spans almost 2,000,000 acres.”
“And that’s not all”, she continues. “In South Africa by contributing to Space For Elephant’s Relocation Fund, we have supported the move of a herd of elephants that was threatened to be killed in South Africa to Swaziland, where they are safe for the time being. China, the U.S. and Hong Kong have also declared widening their ban on ivory imports as the topic is getting more and more attention from the press and politicians. I cannot stress the importance of spreading awareness of the dangers that are threatening not only the elephants, but our entire planet. Absolutely everyone can get involved today, by firstly informing themselves about the topic (watch the film THE IVORY GAME!), follow the foundations’ activities and spread awareness.”
Her personal highlights often revolve around foundations work and achievements. To date, Elephant Gin has been able to increase its involvement and started to make a real difference in the elephant conservation projects they it has set out to support. Tessa proudly admits: “So far, we have donated over EUR 500,000 to our partner foundations through the sales of our bottles as well as fundraising events. With that, we have been funding 35 anti-poaching rangers in Kenya, built and opened a wildlife education center in South Africa, helped translocating an elephant herd from one area to anther – and much more.”
And this year’s goals? Tessa reveals: “We are looking to open our own distillery with a focus of being able to show our passion and craft in action. It is another beast of a project, but one that we have been dreaming about for a long time – and with very little space at our current production site, we are thrilled for this to take full fruition.”