I remember touching down in Johannesburg with excitement and curiosity of what might happen over the next few weeks. I knew we’d be traveling a few thousand miles through the Southern African bush but I wasn’t aware of how much this trip would change my outlook on life. We planned to meet with teams who were dedicated to fighting the battle against the illegal rhino horn trade. The ecosystem itself can be one of the most dangerous places on earth. But now bring in the armed syndicates. The issue itself isn’t pretty and nerves were definitely high. But our goal was to tell the story of the people who are standing up against the greed and corruption that fuels the trade.
I knew what I was about to see as we touched down but somehow it didn’t seem to dampen the initial impact. We were instantly overwhelmed by the intoxicating sickly, sweet smell that’s associated all too well with death. In that moment it became clear how real all of this was. Sure… we had heard the stories.. but the issue became much more evident once the problem was right in front of our eyes and there was nowhere else to look.
I shot for about an hour and then it was time to race to the next meeting. Coffee with a high level South African official directly in charge of the governments efforts to combat the problem. And when I said race, I meant, sprint! And it wasn’t until we sat down that I realized I’d picked up some of the smell from the carcass. I don’t know if anyone else noticed and if they did they were too polite to tell me. But I couldn’t get over the irony. This is what brought us here. This is the issue. Even if it’s not in front of our eyes at all times. It still stinks…
We arrived at the orphanage conveniently at feeding time and were welcomed by the sounds of distant excitement. The team walked us into the boma and we were introduced to their youngest calfs. I couldn’t get over the fact of how much they reminded me of puppies clumsily running around, squealing and knocking into each other with the thrill that their next meal was about to arrive.
It wasn’t long before we were handed bottles and at last all their worries were finally over. They drank every last drop … But in the chaos and excitement I hadn’t had a chance to really look around. What I saw struck a chord in me I haven’t been able to unsee. The sheer amount of orphans…. And the unfortunate truth that each of their mothers had been killed or injured by the harsh environment they inhabit or more likely…
By the end of the three weeks my view of the pandemic had certainly changed. We’d travelled through four countries to understand the issue from as broad of a perspective as we could. We’d shadowed rangers on daily patrols through the bush. We had visited the schools where the rangers trained and we met with some deeply concerned citizens who weren’t willing to look away from what’s happening. But what I couldn’t get over the most was the overwhelming positivity we saw. The hope and perseverance that became contagious from everyone we met.
It’s easy to sit in the office and be consumed by thoughts of the next meeting, or the next job, or the next vacation. But that wasn’t at the top of their mind. None of that was important. And I think there’s something deeply admirable about that. When I said they’d become heroes in my eyes, it really wasn’t an exaggeration.