WALK WITH ME (PART II): FINDING AUTHENTICITY
“I must be here to constantly evolve,” says Nadya Hutagalung, “If not, I am simply wasting my precious time on this planet.” The Yoga School speaks to the beautiful “earth mother” who’s a United Nations Environment Goodwill Ambassador, eco-activist and wildlife advocate, on embracing life’s challenges and finding her authentic self
Nadya Hutagalung needs no introduction – she is the beautiful face behind the hugely successful wildlife conservation campaign, Let Elephants Be Elephants (LEBE), which she co-founded with Australian zoologist, elephant conservationist, and best-selling author, Dr Tammie Matson. A heavy weight herself in wildlife advocacy and environmental activism, Nadya has, to-date, taken on various ambassador roles for NGO programmes including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Earth Hour.
In 2014, the mum-of-three was acknowledged as one of Asia’s most powerful eco icons for her hands-on work with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) in Indonesia. “I was delighted to have a baby Sumatran orangutan named after me,” she says with a smile. “What a cutie, and what an incredible honour.”
LET ELEPHANTS BE ELEPHANTS
Elephants have always held a special place in Nadya’s heart.
“One of my earliest memories of an elephant, actually, was when I was about 21 years old, in Thailand. I was there on a modelling assignment, and we did a shoot with the elephants. At that time, I was not aware of the torture that elephants go through in order to be tamed so that they can perform,” she recalls. “There was another time in Sri Lanka when I was shooting another magazine editorial, and they had me ride the elephant.
“Although these are my earliest memories of being up close with these majestic beings, they are not memories I’m particularly proud of, nor would I repeat them – but we all learn along the way. The most important part is that we always continue to educate ourselves.”
In 2013, Nadya travelled to Kenya to learn first-hand about the realities of the ivory trade, which is primarily driven by Asian demand. “At that time, 80 percent of the Asian public had no knowledge that elephants actually have to die for their ivory to be acquired,” she says.
The Kenyan trip was intense, filled with extremes of both beauty, and brutality. “I was shocked at the severity of the situation and the sheer number of animals being killed,” she reveals. “Elephants have close family bonds. Female elephants may stay with their mothers and aunts their entire lives! Boys head off when they get old enough to join other males.”
In Kenya, Nadya spent time with Tim, an African elephant she jokingly refers to as the “love of her life”. “He’s one of 100 big tuskers left in the world. The time that I spent with Tim could only be described as something deeply spiritual. It’s something that’s very hard to explain,” she shares fondly.
“Even after an elephant dies, it’s not forgotten,” Nadya continues, rooting around for a suitable metaphor, “When elephants find bones of their own kind, they use their feet and trunks to fondle them, as though remembering the life once contained in those bones.”
Nadya’s experience in Kenya spurred the birth of the LEBE campaign and its namesake documentary. “It started out as a regional campaign, and ultimately, we had great support from the US, UK, and Australian government,” she beams.
The LEBE team used traditional and new media platforms to spread awareness about the ivory trade. The campaign culminated with Nadya addressing the UN General Assembly, but it got so much traction that Nadya’s life was threatened.
“The initial campaign that we ran focused on reducing demand for the ivory trade. Our efforts paid off as we saw the demand for ivory diminish greatly, not only in Southeast Asia, but in Wudang, China, as well. Post-campaign studies reported that 90 percent of the Chinese surveyed said they would no long buy ivory.
“But the campaign was so successful that I had to stop because I was informed that my life was in danger – thrice,” she reveals, explaining, “The same cartels that run the ivory trade, also do drugs, guns, and human trafficking. It’s a billion dollar industry.”
SHIFTING FOCUS WITH HEART
Pensively, Nadya continues, “I’m no longer working on ivory trade issues, but I’ve shifted my attention to the welfare of elephants. Right now, I’m building bridges, trying to find ways to harness support from my contacts in Africa, to bring help to the Sumatran Elephants.
“The most successful conservation work is done when there is a great focus on the community. You can’t just go into an area and save elephants or orangutans without the support of the community. That’s the reality,” she points out. “Whether it’s about education, building sanctuaries, or caring for captive or orphaned elephants, you need the support from the people on the ground. So I’m taking a really holistic approach to the issues at hand, and looking at connecting the Sumatran community with organisations that have had greater success because of the work they’ve done with their communities.
“My work at the moment doesn’t require that additional campaigning or awareness,” she adds. “I know it looks like I’ve been in Africa a lot, but that’s just the beginning bit, where I’m developing relationships and opening doors to bridge a bigger vision.”
THE PERPETUAL QUEST FOR TRUTH
Even as a child, Nadya was fueled by the desire to understand the purpose of her life. “I was always questioning the concept of a creator God”, she says. “As young as eight or nine, I remember lying on our trampoline at home in the Australian countryside. At night, the sky was so clear that I could see satellites – they looked like shooting stars in the sky!” she recalls, a far off look in her eyes.
“I used to lie there in the dark and look up at the stars. I visualised a ‘God’ coming out of a terracotta pot,” she describes, gesturing vividly with her hands. “And I wondered, if God created everything, then who created the pot?
“Of course, it’s not a logical question now, but it was an interesting starting point at that age in my quest for a truth,” Nadya shares.
“So I was always questioning and searching deeply for the meaning of life and the reasons behind why we’re all here,” she says. “In my 20s, my bookshelves were filled with works on all types of religions.”
Nadya explored aspects of each faith and eventually discovered Buddhism. She finds that its philosophies resonate with the concepts by which she lives her life.
Many consider Buddhism to be a religion, but Nadya says that it extends beyond that perception. “The teachings are deeply scientific and delve into the inner workings of human psyche”, she gently points out.
The core of the philosophy is kindness. But more importantly, it is the science of the mind.
Apart from its scientific basis, one of the first things that drew Nadya to Buddhism is its open-mindedness, and the way it encourages practitioners to question and chart their own spiritual path.
Her spiritual teacher, the well-respected Tibetan Buddhist scholar and meditator, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, once told her that she should not merely accept everything he said, but decide for herself. His advice echoes the instructions of the Buddha to his followers.
“I like that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been working with the world’s top mind scientists,” Nadya shares, quoting him, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change’. Buddhism is not rigidly set in age-old principles but by its very nature, is open to change.”
WHEN SPIRITUALITY MEETS PURPOSE
“In Buddhism, we try to do work for all sentient beings, be they friends, enemies, strangers, or ants,” she carries on, her eyes instantly brightening up at the memory of meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
“When I had an audience with him last September, he said, ‘You know, this work that you do with the environment is so important,’ then he literally gave me a big bonk on the head and a little slap on the cheek for added emphasis, before adding, ‘Education is so important – you must do this work. You know, we monks, we don’t have children, but you have children.’
“I thought, ok I guess what I’m doing is really important!” she quips, the fire in her eyes blazing. “I feel super blessed, and am even more driven to keep it up.
There is a central theme in Buddhist teachings which revolves around happiness as a reflection of dharma – in other words, living in accordance with one’s life purpose. When you create a life that is authentic for you, happiness becomes your natural state. And when your choices and behaviours reflect your truth, you feel authentic happiness.
Being true to who you are in all moments, regardless of whether you’re alone or in the presence of others, brings a certainty and confidence that frees you of the need from the approval of others.
Perhaps therein lies the secret to Nadya’s indelible zen.
But even with her nonchalant attitude to fame, personalities like Nadya come under public scrutiny all the time. When asked how she stays true to herself without feeling the need to succumb to public opinion or pressure, she replies without hesitation, “I just don’t feel the need to.” Subconsciously, her shoulders do a little shrug that says #sorrynotsorry.
I simply do what I feel is right to me. I’m not playing to anyone else’s tune.
“As a child I was always rescuing animals. And then as a teen, I worked in veterinary clinics. My dream was to be in zoology, or to be a vet.
She pauses to consider her last 30 years in the industry, aware of how fame has enabled her to highlight the causes close to her heart. “I’ve been doing this since the 90s,” she says. “I first realised that I had a platform when I was working on MTV. It began with me just talking about the things that I cared about. I didn’t start off consciously using it as a platform to create an impact – until I realised that it DID have an impact. So I thought you know what, I need to use this, I need to make a difference by talking about the things that I care about.
“I never had the desire to become a famous model – but without having started in the modelling industry, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to talk about the environmental causes that I’m passionate about.
“I’m aware that there are people who, you can tell, are totally fixated on being this or that, and they have so much attachment and so they think, ok maybe I need to do this, and I need to do that, and then they end up not feeling comfortable in their skin, right? I’ve never felt the need for that,” she explains.
Like attracts like, and when a person is authentic, they naturally attract others who are choosing to be honest and real. This certainly seems to hold true for the big-hearted eco warrior who continues to trudge on, connecting the dots needed to pull together the right resources required for the next chapter of her advocacy work.
For now, Nadya’s focus is on saving the Sumatran Elephants.
“The first step is really about getting the Indonesians over to Kenya to get them the training and support that they need, so that they can understand the possibilities of what it’s like to work with wildlife and community,” she says. “Wildlife in Indonesia is looked at as pests and an inconvenient ‘cost’ to the community and the government. Instead of looking at it that way, these parties need to understand the value in wildlife. These are the fundamentals that we urgently need to establish.
“As much as I love animals and it’s a fantasy of mine to run a sanctuary, I don’t think that’s a practical thing right now,” she admits matter-of-factly. “And it may not have the highest impact.
“Work with the Sumatran Elephants is difficult because I don’t have boots on the ground. So it really will be through me, kind of being like a broker between both sides, and then hoping that the Indonesian community will get the training that they need, to be able to carry through the bigger vision.”