The girl who played football with elephants

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The little girl with the rhinoceros is Sarah Brikke. She is five years old and fearless, though never complacent in the company of Africa’s creatures.

“A healthy respect was a priority. We had cobras and boas in the garden,” she recalls.

A couple of decades later, admiring a 16th storey view of the Brisbane skyline while sharing stories about growing up in Kenya, the guiding forces in Sarah’s life are revealed.

She has much on her mind this July day, not the least of which is the honour of representing former US Vice President Al Gore at the 20th Asia-Pacific Model United Nations Conference in Brisbane.

She is also anxiously waiting to hear from Griffith University about the results of her PhD in Environmental Education and Environmental Psychology.

All of which makes Sarah’s next comment even more memorable.

“I used to play football with elephants,” she says.

Sarah Brikke with a baby elephant

Sarah Brikke enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Kenya

To explain, in 1977 the Nairobi-based David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was founded by Dr Daphne Sheldrick in honour of her naturalist husband. A pioneering conservation organisation for wildlife and habitat protection in East Africa, it has since become the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world.

“My family often visited the orphanage when I was small and I just loved the baby elephants. I seemed to have a rapport with them,” recalls Sarah.

“I used to play football with them, kicking the ball from one to the other, running around with them.

“They were so playful and affectionate, but I was also aware of how they had been orphaned through activities like poaching. That reality hit home to me as well, about how precious and vulnerable and innocent they were.”

The daughter of Francois and Helena Brikke – he a French water, sanitation and hygiene expert working for the United Nations; she a Dutch medical anthropologist – Sarah describes herself as a global citizen, a student of human behaviour and an agent of change committed to providing leadership and education in the areas of environmental sustainability and climate change.

Her Masters in Development Studies from Victoria University of Wellington (NZ) was awarded for her research on women and the forest in Vanuatu. She also has two Masters degrees from the esteemed La Sorbonne University in Paris, one for her research on local perceptions of the sea turtles of French Polynesia, and the other for her work in the Peruvian Amazon.

Sarah Brikke, adult, smiling

Sarah Brikke’s environmental passion started early in life

From 2010-11, Sarah was based in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta where she interned at UNESCO. She has also co-convened and/or addressed several international forums, among them the 2013 World Environmental Education Congress in Morocco, the 2013 Earth Charter meeting at the University of Peace in Costa Rica and 2013 World Water Week in Sweden.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s PhD through Griffith’s School of Environment researched the relationship between young people and the environment, exploring the factors influencing environmentally caring behaviours in Indonesia.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I think the course of my life was clear. It was clear to me anyway,” says Sarah.

“The relationship I had with the natural world as a young person in Kenya, Peru, France, the Netherlands, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Australia and Indonesia was fundamental in developing the person I am today.

“I look at the photographs of me as a little girl with the rhinoceros and the elephants and I joke that I was probably talking to them about the environment.

“I’ve always had that way of thinking and it drives me today to keep working towards systems and solutions in the name of sustainability.”

It was precisely this kind of drive that found Sarah in Melbourne in June, training to be a Climate Change Leader through former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. Her ensuing appointment as his representative at the Model UN conference was embraced as a privilege and an opportunity.

“This is where I see my future, working with the United Nations and international NGOs, running my own consultancy on sustainability, writing about climate change and taking on the challenges that arise no matter where in the world they might be,” says Sarah.

“Despite some political reticence and cynicism regarding sustainability and climate change, there is a green revolution happening in the world and it is built on commitment, education and respect.”

Now living in the Sydney seaside suburb of Manly, Sarah is ready to take the next step in the life and career she plans to pursue.

In other words, it may be a long time since Sarah last played football with elephants, but she has her sights firmly set on a world full of goals.

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