“From the moment I began drawing, it was always animals,” says Peggy Watkins, this year’s Southeastern Wildlife Exposition’s featured artist. “They captured my imagination like nothing else.”

Her imagination may have been captured, but it would be years before Watkins fulfilled her dream of becoming an artist.

“I was very artistic growing up and always assumed that art school or a major in art would be in my future. My parents always supported my art as a hobby, but when it came time for college, the choices laid out by my very well-intended parents were nursing, computers, or accounting.” A dutiful daughter, Watkins acquiesced; she chose accounting and eventually became a CPA for a health care company.

Number cruncher by day, she continued to paint at night. “When I moved to Atlanta in 2000, I took evening oil painting classes at the Atlanta College of Art. I painted at night and on weekends, anytime I could really,” says Watkins, “I took private lessons with a phenomenally talented artist in Atlanta. I was determined to master color and painting the animals I was so awed by.”

By 2003 she was ready to move forward. She quit her accounting position and set to work painting full time. “It’s the best decision I ever made.”

And it’s a decision that the organizers of the Southeast Wildlife Exposition are surely glad the Atlanta artist made. Watkins’ piece “The Bachelors” features two male lions lying on a bank above the Luangwa River in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. The piece is the central image of SEWE’s 2008 commemorative poster. “My husband, Todd, and I visit the area every year, as we are lucky enough to have a house just across the river.”

Watkins, who spends the rest of the year at her home in Atlanta, divides her time with frequent trips to the African nation.

“Our first trip to Africa was in 2000. We went for our honeymoon and have been back every year since,” says the wildlife enthusiast. The bachelors in the painting “are brothers from the Luwi Pride. They are very close and seeing them together is the norm since they rely on each other to protect their territory. For our own amusement, we name the males of each pride. In this case, we chose ‘Fabio’ and ‘Blackie.'”

Watkins uses a self-dubbed, “painterly” style. “I always paint from reference material,” she says, “We frequently see these two on a cliff overlooking the Luangwa River; however, for the poster image, I created the exact scene using multiple sketches and photographs of the two fellows.”

However, it’s not just about capturing the beauty of the wild creatures for Watkins. She and her husband are dedicated to conservation and actively involved in preventing poaching at the South Luangwa National Park.

Historically, Watkins says, the nearly 20,000 people who call the park home have depended on hunting for food. While fishing and crops are available to the traditionally tribal societies, the preferred protein source is wild antelope. “They try to snare them illegally,” Watkins says, “Unfortunately, the snares kill or cause great pain and suffering to many unintended animals such as elephants, zebras, wild dogs, and sometimes the great cats. It is called subsistence poaching.”

With their Zambian partner Rodgers Shawa, the Watkins have developed the Kamana Meat for Conservation Program. “Our program is attempting to introduce another source of protein by the controlled raising of pigs,” she says. By promoting pig farming, the team has created Kamana Conservation Clubs in local elementary schools. The clubs consist of about 15 children and their teachers.

“We built them a sturdy shelter for the pigs, and they’ve successfully raised their own pigs and hence given two breeding pairs to another Kamana Conservation Club located in a different area,” Watkins says of the budding program.

She’s realistic about the conservation program’s success. “We know that poaching will never be entirely eliminated. Part of the problem is that it’s part of their culture,” Watkins says. “However, by concentrating on the children and trying to educate them on the value of their wildlife as something other than food, our hope is that the next generation will not poach.”

With any luck the animals of the South Luangwa National Park will live on in more than just Watkins’ painting. And perhaps her pictures will remind people to work toward conserving the planet’s precious wildlife.

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