Intercontinental connections: uniting young people to save the rhino

After a nine hour flight from England to Kenya and another five hour drive north of the capital Nairobi, I arrived at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. This is the largest sanctuary for black rhinos in East Africa, and is also home to four of the world’s seven remaining northern white rhinos* – one of the rarest mammals in the world.

I was lucky enough to get my first sighting of three of the northern white rhinos grazing on grass, with their enormous heads and square lips lowered to the ground.

Northern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Northern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Credit: Trang Nguyen

These gentle animals and four of their relatives – the black rhino, Sumatran rhino, Javan rhino and greater one-horned rhino – are on the verge of extinction due to poaching fuelled by the high demand for rhino horn in Asian countries.

I am here to work with community schools surrounding the conservancy to raise awareness about how special the rhino is and its role in the ecosystem. I am also hoping to explore the opportunity of creating ‘sister school’ relationships between community schools in Kenya and those in urban cities in Vietnam – my hope is to foster a mutual understanding between young people in both countries about the rhino crisis and promote conservation.

Finding fun ways to engage with Kenyan kids

I held my first workshop with 30 local teachers at the meeting hall in the conservancy. After a general introduction of the conservancy and its wildlife, my presentation on the consumption of rhino horn in Vietnam sparked an interesting discussion among the Kenyan teachers over the use of the horn and the effectiveness local efforts to conserve their rhinos.

Kenyan teachers create a 'rhino survival web'. Credit: Trang Nguyen.

Kenyan teachers create a \’rhino survival web\’. Credit: Trang Nguyen.

We then created a ‘rhino survival web’ together, based on the threats and solutions to rhino conservation that the teachers identified. The purpose of this was to show the teachers that the rhino’s survival depends on the efforts of all sectors of society, including education.

I also had a lot of fun working with the local students. They are very bright, very determined and their love for local wildlife can be seen in their eyes. After playing a fun game called Rhino go home!, the students were divided into small groups to draw their vision of the rhino’s future. They were then asked to present their vision and their own solutions for conserving these animals.

Learning through games - Trang with Kenyan school kids. Credit: Trang Nguyen.

Learning through games – Trang with Kenyan school kids. Credit: Trang Nguyen.

The students were also involved in a role play activity, where they play the parts of government ministers, local wildlife officers, rangers, farmers and students to discuss their roles and responsibilities in wildlife conservation and what they can do to help.

Raising rhino awareness through art in Vietnam

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, my colleagues and I have been running a Rhino Art Vietnam campaign, to raise awareness among Vietnamese students and teachers of the impact of rhino horn consumption and why this must stop.

We have visited 20 schools in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, reaching almost 5,000 students and teachers. Through the Rhino Art Vietnam competition, we selected six Vietnamese students to participate in the World Youth Rhino Summit held at iMfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa in September 2014.

The Rhino Art Vietnam campaign has reached almost 5,000 teachers and students. Credit: Trang Nguyen.

The Rhino Art Vietnam campaign has reached almost 5,000 teachers and students. Credit: Trang Nguyen.

The summit’s mission was to engage young conservation leaders from around the world in rhino conservation and protection strategies, and to empower young people to become ambassadors for wildlife and conservation.

Building bridges between continents

Currently I am designing educational materials to be used by Kenyan community schools in Nanyuki, thanks to help from Fauna & Flora International and Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Together, we are hoping to create more opportunities for students across Kenya to get involved in conservation, partly by establishing sister school relationships with those in Vietnam.

While anti-poaching effort is crucial to conserving the rhino, I believe that education is the key to stopping the rhino crisis in the long term.

We can win this war, but only when communities that live on the borders of rhino reserves understand why rhinos need to be conserved, how they can benefit from rhino conservation and why poaching is unsustainable; when consumers in Asia understand that consuming rhino horn not only means pushing the rhino to extinction but also putting the lives of many African people at risk; when the youth of both continents get talking to each other and speak out together.

Only then will we truly succeed in saving rhinos.

* UPDATE: since this article was written, one of Ol Pejeta’s northern white rhinos has died, bringing the known global total down to just six individuals.