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Supermodel has soft spot for wildlife

Preview Of "The Lipstick Portraits" Exhibition
Veronica Varekova was  named one of the first Goodwill Ambassadors to the African Wildlife Foundation in 2009Jason Kempin / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we speak with supermodel Veronica Varekova about her work with the

Varekova moved to the United States from the Czech Republic at age 19 to pursue a degree.  She was quickly recruited by a modeling agency and has since appeared in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue eight times.  In 2009, Varekova was named one of the first Goodwill Ambassadors for the African Wildlife Foundation.  In that role, she helped the foundation in its mission to conserve large landscapes, protect endangered species and empower local communities throughout the African continent.

Varekova's first mission took her to Rwanda in December 2009, with fellow Goodwill Ambassador Ben Stein. While there, they both helped AWF conclude their celebration of the "Year of the Gorilla." We spoke with Varekova about her love of nature and her upcoming projects.

Interviewed by Elizabeth Chang

Q: You were just named the first Goodwill Ambassador for the African Wildlife Foundation.  How did you become so passionate about the foundation and Africa?

Varekova: I was enchanted by my first trip to Africa, which was years and years ago. I’ve been going there pretty much every other year. If it was for work, or for a trip, I just really look forward to it, and I’ve never had a boring or uneventful trip. It’s just such a beautiful, beautiful continent, and every and each country of Africa has shown culture, such a profound culture, and obviously the wildlife, something that you really have to be there to experience it.

You can take pictures, you can see it on the TV on "Animal Planet," but once you’re there, it just takes you in. I think, to me, it happened… my first trip when I was there in Tanzania.  I was in Africa for a totally different purpose. I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and somebody who knew about African Wildlife Foundation and is a friend of mine had put me in touch with them. So, I spent one week, once I descended from Kilimanjaro with the African Wildlife people in Tanzania in Tarangire (National Park), and we continued to go to the Serengeti National Park, where I met with lion researcher , and he explained his work in the field.

Then, the people were introducing me to the philosophy and the mission that African Wildlife has in Africa. I was amazed and when I returned to New York, I went to visit them in Washington, D.C., and we were talking and talking. At the end, we realized that I could learn so much and be part of something that really inspired me, and they could benefit from it by me raising the profile of their foundation and illuminating the mission that they have in Africa, and so basically we began our journey.

Q: What will your duties be as a Goodwill Ambassador?

Varekova: It’s pretty much what the description of ambassador is. You really want to bring the attention to African Wildlife and their work in Africa, and pretty much illuminating what they do there, and introducing them to, whether it is, media or friends. Just raising profile, and also hopefully, help them make some funds, too.

Q: Some say that the widespread poverty in Africa contributes to the destruction of wildlife there. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Varekova: I think the last thing people worry about when in desperate poverty is wildlife, and this is where African Wildlife really steps in to spur development through conservation. They provide really tangible benefits to the community.

Q: Have you had a particularly moving experience while in your international travels, especially in Africa or working for the foundation?

Varekova: Every time you go to Africa and see the wildlife there, you just never come back home without a story, an amazing story. On my last trip to Rwanda, we were tracking the mountain gorillas. The largest silverback they have there walked toward me, and when that happens you just can’t move. You have stay still and don’t move, although your every instinct wants to start running away, but that’s when you would get injured. So, I had to stay still, and he really sort of smeared off on my legs. Just talking about it, my heart is still pounding, just remembering that sensation from that moment.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Varekova: I just think that it’s a fantastic foundation. They educate their people; they’re using local Africans from each individual part that they work in, sending them to the United States. They’re here for … four, five years, they get their Ph.D.s. They send back into their country and they proceed their research, whether it is the lions or the gorillas. Really, I’m intrigued by the approach, and there’s no place for feeling that it’s a version of colonization. It’s really run 88 percent by Africans, and that was very inspiring to me.

Q: Since you’re a Goodwill Ambassador for the African Wildlife Foundation, do you have a favorite animal?

Varekova: When I went there for the first time years ago, I thought that the chimpanzee was my favorite, favorite animal. Now, I just feel … mountain gorillas just became my number one. But then, I might go back and I will see. I’ll go to Botswana on my next trip hopefully, and I will see the rhinos. God knows, maybe I’ll answer a different thing next time. All these animals are incredibly special, and I love them all.