Vietnam is either the final destination or the conduit to other markets for more than 90 per cent of contraband rhino horn (the only sort there is). The role that Vietnamese people, especially the younger generation, will play in the future of rhino is therefore of critical importance. So what happens when you take 11 city-dwelling Vietnamese youngsters into the middle of the South African wilderness, with no cellphones, no modern conveniences, and only the sun and the moon as timekeepers? The answer might surprise you, even bring a hopeful smile to your face.
“We can make a difference,” say Vietnam’s youth.
The continued senseless killing of African rhino for their horn, is driven by the demand for horn in primary consumer countries in Asia, such as Vietnam and China. More than 90% of horn goes to or through Vietnam. With the older generations for the most part set in their ways, much hope lies with changing the hearts and minds of the 10-24 year olds who make up almost 25% of Vietnam’s 94 million population. The Wild Rhino demand reduction campaign focusses on tapping into these young minds and motivating change before it is too late.
Television. Websites. Magazines. These are the only places where most of the young people living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, have ever seen African animals. Finding their way in the world as part of a bustling city that is home to approximately nine million people, very few of them have had the opportunity to even explore the natural beauty and come to understand the role of conservation in their own country – yet South Africa is placing hope for survival of its iconic rhino in these children’s innocent hands.
What does then happen when you place 11 of these city-dwelling teenagers in the middle of the South African wilderness, with no cellphones, no modern conveniences, and only the sun and the moon as timekeepers? At first, fear and apprehension … followed by amazement, rapture, quiet reflection, and then a sudden responsiveness to nature – a sensation so new, so powerful, and so immensely empowering.
Lying in their sleeping bags on a rocky ledge as darkness fell over their very first night in the bush, one of the young people pointed up to the sprawling stars lighting up the sky.
“What is that?” he asked the guide keeping watch close by.
“Those are stars. And that is the Milky Way,” replied the guide, slightly confused at the obvious answer.
Tears welled up in the guide’s eyes as he was met with the response: “We don’t see stars in our city. We don’t have a night sky. Even if we don’t see rhino this week, at least we can say we’ve seen the stars.”
As South Africans, we can barely imagine a reality in which someone has never seen an animal in the wild, or has never experienced a sunset or a sunrise because the sky is permanently disguised by smog. Our appreciation and respect for our natural environment comes almost naturally – because of our proximity and our constant exposure to the wondrous biodiversity of our country. But it is shortsighted to think that everyone in the world is blessed with the same opportunities.
Realising the challenge that lies ahead for the next generation of Vietnamese in halting illegal rhino horn trade in their country, the Wild Rhino campaign reaches out to schools in Ho Chi Minh City with initiatives that aim to educate, empower, awaken and inspire. This campaign is implemented in 11 international schools throughout the city by Wilderness Foundation Africa, in partnership with Peace Parks Foundation, Olsen Animal Trust, and Soul Music and Performing Arts Academy.
As one phase of the multi-faceted campaign, this year’s Wild Rhino competition invited junior students to enter by submitting a poem or a picture and senior students entered by submitting an essay on the topic of rhino horn consumption and demand reduction. Nearly 1,000 entries were received, with 22 junior winners and 11 senior winners. These 11 seniors have spent a week deep inside Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province.
The transformation of these driven and bright young people during the trail is undeniable. Sleeping out in nature, bathing in the river, cooking on an open fire, and even taking turns standing watch in the darkness of night – there was little option but to entrench themselves in the wild world of the rhino. They entered the wilderness wanting to learn and to help on an intellectual and moral basis, but were to exit inspired and ready to engage on an emotional and a personal level.
It cannot be better explained than through the words of one of this year’s young participants: “I have never felt so connected in my life. To the ground beneath my feet. To the air that I breathe. To all living things around me, big and small. Even to the other people around me. This is what life is all about.”
Coming from a generation that claims to be the most connected generation ever through their technological devices and advancements, this statement about the power of nature brings even the most detached of us right back down to earth.
After the trail, the youngsters visited a rhino orphanage and also had the opportunity to learn more from leading wildlife crime, rhino veterinary and rhino protection experts during a full day workshop at the Wilderness Leadership School in Durban. As part of this workshop the young people brainstormed ideas on how they – as Wild Rhino Youth Ambassadors – could help the campaign to facilitate demand reduction initiatives in their schools and communities. The best of their ideas will be used to develop a peer-led awareness and education campaign in their schools next year.
This is the second time that the Wild Rhino campaign has brought a group of young Vietnamese citizens to South Africa for a wilderness experience. The first group visited in 2015 and went on to be true ambassadors for the cause in their home country. The Wild Rhino campaign aims to continue with this process over a period of eight years, thus empowering a whole generation of young people who are committed to conservation and rhino protection. Plans are also under way to extend this project to Hanoi in 2018.
When asked whether they think the youth of Vietnam can actually make a difference, one can only hope that the words, straight from the mouths of babes, ring true: “The thing about young people is that we are eager still to embrace our world. We are open to the truth. On this trail we have learnt the most beautiful word Ubuntu, which means ‘to help others without expecting anything in return’. We will show the rhino Ubuntu. Our people have driven the rhinos over the precipice of the cliff, and we are the ones who will bring them back.”