The perilous 1,000-mile journey to save Africa’s endangered black rhinos
28 Oct 2022
“We are very excited to be in Africa for the first time, but we understand why we are here – we are here to learn so that we can take the message of rhino protection and conservation back to our country.”
These were the sentiments of a group of 12 Vietnamese school-going youth who, as winners of the Wild Rhino Competition, set off this week on a 5-day educational wilderness trail facilitated by the Wilderness Leadership School in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal. The purpose of the trail is to nurture awareness, insight, empathy and understanding – allowing these young students to return home as dedicated and informed emissaries for conservation and rhino protection. A second group of 10 young Wild Rhino competition winners will arrive in South Africa for the same experience on 28 June.
As they packed their backpacks with only the bare essentials on Monday (22 June), many of the young rhino warriors expressed their excitement, but also slight nerves, at the prospect of their first ever experience walking amongst wildlife and sleeping under the stars. However, with experienced guides and rangers at their side, nerves soon gave way to awe and wonder as the group made their way into the wilderness.
Adding to the excitement was the presence of Vietnamese popstar Thanh Bui who joined the young students on the trail. Thanh, with the support of Soul Music Academy, has been an ambassador for and integral part of the Wild Rhino Competition, since its launch in 2014. He was very happy to learn that the children had been requested to leave all manner of technological devices behind while on the trail: “Technology takes over our lives and skews our perspective. Most of our youth have never had the opportunity to learn how precious our natural heritage is. This is what experiences like this one is all about – it is much more than just about rhino, it is about focusing on and essentially reconnecting with nature as a whole.”
Besides attending the 5-day wilderness trail, the students and Thanh will spend time with rhino calves orphaned as a result of poaching, and also participate in educational workshops faciliated by the Wilderness Foundation, where the students will be assisted in developing strategies on how to share their message of conservation with their community.
“As part of their competition entry, the winners of the senior Wild Rhino competition have already crafted plans for reducing demand for rhino horn in Vietnam. We believe that as Rhino Youth Ambassadors for the Wilderness Foundation, their experience and the information they learn will allow them to refine these plans and take home a strong message to their family, friends and peers. We are tremendously excited by the opportunity presented by these young ambassadors to raise awareness, an instrumental part of our broader demand reduction strategy,” says Matthew Norval, Chief Operations Officer, Wilderness Foundation.
The Wild Rhino Competition, presented by Wilderness Foundation in partnership with Investec Rhino Lifeline and Peace Parks Foundation, forms part of a broader strategy aimed at curbing the demand for rhino horn in primary user countries such as Vietnam. 15 000 Vietnamese youth from 12 international schools in Ho Chi Minh City were invited to enter the competition, and nearly 1 500 entries were received. The junior entries comprised either a poem or a picture and the senior entries an essay on how the youth could educate their friends and family on the plight of the rhino. The 22 senior students who submitted the most substantial ideas, were chosen as winners of a rhino conservation experience in South Africa.
Through its Rhino Protection Programme (RPP), Peace Parks Foundation has made a significant financial contribution to make the launch and roll-out of this competition possible. The RPP is implemented under the auspices of the South African Department of Environmental Affairs in partnership with South African National Parks, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Peace Parks Foundation. The roll-out of the multi-faceted programme is made possible through funding from the Dutch and Swedish postcode lotteries.
Werner Myburgh, CEO of Peace Parks Foundation, reaffirmed that strategies to reduce the demand for rhino horn in Asian countries, is a key component in the war against rhino poaching: “The senseless poaching of the iconic rhino species will only stop once rhino horn consumers fully understand the devastating consequences of their actions and take responsibility for changing their behaviour. Peace Parks Foundation is therefore proud to be associated with an education campaign that empowers the future leaders and decision-makers of Vietnam with the insight, knowledge and passion they need to be a voice of reason in their society.”
Said Tanya dos Santos, of Investec Rhino Lifeline: “We chose to partner with Wilderness Foundation, as an established and credible organisation that is doing something different to save the rhino by proactively addressing the demand for rhino horn in countries that use it.”