From where she stands, Petronel Nieuwoudt can see hippos wallowing in the dam and wild rhinos grazing peacefully. Beyond them lie mountains, and the African bush. As as office views go, it’s spectacular. But what’s not immediately obvious are the layers of security needed to keep it that way.
The rhino sanctuary Nieuwoudt runs, not far from South Africa’s Kruger National Park, cares for orphaned and wounded rhinos, many of them victims of poaching attacks. Sadly, the recovering animals are still targets for men with machetes.
“The poachers will come to try and get the horns off the rhino, they aren’t necessarily coming for us,” says Nieuwoudt, a former police officer who served in a specialized unit protecting endangered species. “But if you stand in their way, there will be trouble.” The horn, traditionally thought to have medicinal or status value in some countries, is worth more by weight than cocaine, and some will stop at nothing to get it.
If the killing and maiming of endangered animals for horns, tusks and other body parts was once driven by poverty or ignorance, these days it’s more akin to drug smuggling or sex trafficking ― a multi-billion dollar global business run by organized criminal gangs, bringing violence and corruption.
Petronel Nieuwoudt runs a sanctuary not far from South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which cares for orphaned and wounded rhinos.
But the threat it poses to biodiversity ― the rich variety of wildlife on our planet ― means it’s also fueling an environmental crisis that is arguably as serious as climate change. If rhinos, elephants, tigers or other trophy species are hunted to extinction, that would have a cascading effect throughout the plant, animal and insect world, jeopardizing the delicate ecological balance on which human existence ultimately depends.
Now, a new film by documentary maker Kerry David, “Breaking Their Silence; Women on the Frontline of the Poaching War,” celebrates the women like Nieuwoudt working to stop that from happening.
David, who grew up on a farm, has always been passionate about wildlife. But it was only on a research trip to Africa that she realized how many women were joining the traditionally male-dominated and physically grueling battle against poaching, serving as anything from game wardens and guards to veterinarians, conservationists and specialist prosecutors ― sometimes against considerable odds.
“When they say they’re trailblazers, they are,” says David, now based in Los Angeles. “When I got off the plane here, I was shaking just from being completely depleted of all the adrenaline. But they get up and do it every day.”
Raabia Hawa, also featured in David’s documentary, was working as a television presenter in her native Kenya when, on a trip to the Mara area with a wildlife organization back in 2008, she heard gunshots.
“Suddenly everyone was jumping into cars, and I was thinking, ‘Well I’m not staying here with lions,’ so I hopped in too. Then a few minutes of walking led us to a freshly poached young elephant carcass,” Hawa recalls. “That this was going on, and I’m leading this media lifestyle, a local celebrity lifestyle ― it felt very wrong, and it really shook me.”
Trips to the game reserves favored by Western tourists aren’t very affordable for Kenyans, Hawa explains, so at the time she hadn’t seen much wildlife.
But the very next morning, a wounded elephant stumbled into the camp where she was staying. “We had to wait for five hours for a vet, because they were treating a cheetah caught in a snare on the other side of the Mara, and I think all those experiences in 24 hours changed something in me. I felt that the rangers and others on the ground were having the most impact in terms of saving wildlife, and that’s where I wanted to be.”
Hawa now works as executive director of the Ulinzi Africa Foundation, a not-for-profit she founded to better protect and equip rangers, after six rangers she had come to know were murdered by poachers. She doesn’t draw a salary, but funds her work with occasional presenting jobs, using her social media profile in Kenya to promote conservation.
Hawa in front of the freshly poached, dying elephant that inspired her to act against poachers.
“As a Kenyan, our wildlife is the sovereign property of our people; I automatically feel very responsible for protecting them. And that goes for the rangers as well, they’re like my family really,” says Hawa. “We have gone through a lot together, we have had each other’s backs through thick and thin. It’s a very special kinship you form when you are out on operations ― you’re really on the frontline and anything could happen.”
Sadly for women there’s an extra dimension of risk, with poaching gangs known to resort to rape as well as murder.
“Women make really good rangers, but I feel apprehensive about putting them in high tension zones,” says Hawa, who has worked in areas patrolled by rebel militias and travels with armed security. Although Zimbabwe now has an all-female squad of armed game rangers, she doesn’t think that would work in Kenya, where rangers are unarmed. “Women are strong, but in some areas I feel like we should accept our vulnerabilities. It doesn’t make us weak, it makes us stronger.”
What’s striking about David’s film is that her female subjects aren’t afraid of showing emotion and vulnerability. Many see empathy with animal suffering as intrinsic to protecting them, or draw explicit parallels between their work and motherhood.
“I think a mom with her compassion and her persistence and her patience can make a very, very good anti-poaching operative,” says Nieuwoudt, who juggles work around her 15-year-old son (his elder brother is now away at university) and says both boys got used to doing their homework while sitting next to a rhino on an I.V. drip. “We don’t get tired easily. We’re really built for endurance.”
Yet the work remains incredibly dangerous. Rangers find themselves fighting not just poachers with guns, but also against the corruption from government and law enforcement. Across Africa, poaching gangs with deep pockets will seek to bribe and threaten police, judges, customs officials and politicians into turning a blind eye.
Hawa on her mammoth “Walk with Rangers” trek from Arusha in Tanzania to Kenya. The aim was to draw attention to the plight of rangers.
“It’s the corruption that’s sometimes getting to you, when you work very hard and then nothing happens,” says Nieuwoudt. “When another little rhino comes in injured and traumatized, then the whole system has failed him or her.” And ultimately, it may be failing humans, too.
Last month, the United Nations published a landmark scientific report warning of nature declining at rates unprecedented in human history. Earth has already experienced five so-called mass extinctions, a biological phenomenon where most species on a planet are wiped out by some kind of natural catastrophe. But some fear we could be heading for a sixth, threatening the complex ecosystem on which humans rely for everything from pollinating food crops to clean water and a stable climate ― and this time it would be man-made. Alongside the destruction of wildlife habitats or plastic pollution, poaching is considered a risk factor because of the domino effect on smaller species.
“Your keystone species’ activities really have an impact on the increase and decrease of other species,” explains Nieuwoudt. “If an elephant pushes a tree over it helps so many other species, that creates a whole new ecology ― for insects, for antelopes and small animals that can eat it, that’s where the whole circle of life in a small ecological community benefits.” And as she points out, the ultimate keystone species is humans. “We can make massive changes if we want to, but we don’t.”
Niewoudt with her favourite rhino, Lunar, who recently died.
Yet the message both she and Kerry David want viewers to take from the film is that they’re not powerless. These women have chosen to use their status as a keystone species to help and protect other species in an effort to prevent human-led destruction of the natural world.
“It’s an opportunity to just do something bigger, change someone’s life, change an animal’s life,” says Niewoudt, when asked why she loves her work. “Sometimes I can’t wait to wake up because there’s so many things to do.”
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