“There is that saying, we haven’t inherited the planet from our parents, we borrowed it from our children. But borrow means you plan to pay back, and we’ve been stealing. That is why I am working so hard with youth to create a critical mass of young people empowered to be guardians of our natural world. They are my hope for the future.” – Dr Jane Goodall
A few months ago I had the honour of sitting down with Dr Jane Goodall to discuss Africa’s poaching crisis, and whilst she exudes vast wisdom such as that of being in the presence of a great elephant matriarch, it was those words above all us that seemed to imprint on me. The Good Doctor is one of a kind, supported by millions of people around the globe who see her as an oracle for the future and an inspiration for all.
Fortunately her absolute belief in empowering youth to save the wild is a mindset that is shared by many, including me, and that is why I was so thrilled when I met Dex Kotze, strategist for the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos, the grassroots movement that erupted last month in a march for justice across more than 130 cities worldwide.
South African entrepreneur and conservationist, Dex Kotze is also the brainchild behind Youth for African Wildlife, a four week internship directed at young adults between the ages of 18 and 29. The internship is a unique opportunity to live and learn amongst Africa’s iconic species, but what really piqued my storytelling soul was that this internship integrates conservation with communications; social media, photography and documentary film making.
Media as we know it today is failing to communicate to the world that the war on poaching is in fact a war on people. The illegal wildlife trade is valued at up to 20 billion US dollars, it is run by global syndicates, and it is fuelling conflict and terrorism. On top of this, the slaughter of Africa’s elephants, rhinos and lions will dismantle tourism industries, creating more unemployment and poverty. Humans are also very dependent on keystone species to maintain a balance throughout ecosystems, and so no matter where you are in the world, it would do well to remember that everything is connected.
The good news is that it’s not too late to save our precious wildlife. Nature is the mother of us all, and the earth has lessons – if you choose to listen.
The lifelong objective of the Youth for African Wildlife Internship is to empower young adults with the necessary tools to become global conservation ambassadors so that they can be a voice for the voiceless through meaningful storytelling – every story a ripple in this much needed wave of change.
Last week I got a sneak peak of the internship curriculum when I spent ten days in the magnificent Waterberg in South Africa’s Limpopo province. I arrived around 4pm, just as the scorching sun began to cool, casting a shimmering glow across the savannah. We headed straight out for a game drive and within five minutes the engine was off, but my heart was racing. About 50 metres away a female cheetah had just killed an impala and was guarding her kill, looking left and right between mouthfuls, acutely aware of her neighbours. She could see us, and we could see her, but so long as we kept a respectful distance she would continue to enjoy her dinner in peace. And so is the code of the bush.
Jaco, our game ranger, guided us through the late afternoon’s theatre; describing the patient hunting style of a cheetah, the pride mentality of lions, the fascinating family structure of elephants, and the acrobatics of a baby hippo. And then we came across two white rhino. I asked him how many rhinos were in the Big 5 reserve and his answer was “Some,” followed by an ominous pause. “We’re not allowed to say,” he continued, “because of the poaching crisis.”
Rhino poaching is at its worst levels ever, and South Africa is home to the largest population of rhinos. This reserve (not named for security reasons) has only ever suffered the loss of one rhino, but that is one too many. Just a few hours away the massive Kruger Park National Park has become a killing field, and every carcass is testament to man’s greed and stupidity. Rich folk in China and Vietnam continue to pay obscene amounts of money for rhino horn – and this animal product which is worth more than gold is made up mostly of keratin, the stuff in your fingernails. You can buy status, but you sure can’t buy class.
Some of the rhinos that are killed are mothers, and so my second day here was spent at a rhino sanctuary for the baby orphans, the brave survivors that arrive severely traumatised after witnessing their mother’s face mutilated with an axe. In stark contrast to this, the orphanage is in fact a bubble of love and peace, bursting with hope and triumph, and run by the most amazing, dedicated care givers – their human foster mums. Just like humans, rhinos are emotional beings; they feel pain and fear, and they feel sadness and grief. But, like humans, they are resilient, and they can overcome tragedy and go on to live happy lives.
This decimation of iconic species is happening on our watch, and so it is up to every one of us to communicate for those that cannot. Whether it’s sharing a story about the plight of endangered species, getting involved in lobbying governments to change legislation, or coming to Africa and arming yourself through experiential conservation, every one of us has the power to be a force for good.
Quotes from 2013/2014 Youth for African Wildlife Interns
“This is supposed to be a reflection back from the end of the internship, but the way I see it, this internship is a new beginning for me in rhino conservation. I can’t believe how quickly two months went by, and how much I’ve learned in that time. I always cared deeply for the environment and for conservation, but I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation and love for wildlife from this experience.” – Natalie, September 2013
“Coming to Africa from the mid-west of the United States brought a slightly significant culture shock, but I quickly adapted to the unpredictable routine of being at a game reserve. Every day is more and more fascinating. From experiencing an anti-poaching overnight shift to a brief cinematography course, there have been many great experiences here in the Waterberg.” – Steven, July 2013
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