But @StevesLeftEye, how do you go from being a photographer to saving wildlife from poachers internationally?
In September of last year, I was speaking to an old friend of mine whom I had met in Alaska about 11 years ago. He was telling me about a new nonprofit anti-poaching/wildlife conservation project he and a South African pilot were starting, called Rhino 911. After hearing about just how bad the rhino poaching issue had become since 2007 (over a 9,000% increase in poaching incidents), I decided I should try to play my part in helping ensure the survival of this and other endangered species. After a few more conversations I got more involved and started helping with marketing and serving as a conduit between Rhino 911 and other organizations and donors.
In January of this year, I was in Las Vegas attending Shot Show for a separate project with some Navy SEAL buddies of mine. It was my last night in town after spending an entire week in Vegas and I decided to stop by the Hard Rock to catch up with my friends Joanna Angel and Small Hands who were attending the AVN Awards. Before I could meet them I got a phone call from Rhino 911's pilot in South Africa asking if I could fly out the following day. It was now about 10:30PM and in order for me to fly to South Africa the next day I needed to drive back to San Diego to return the rental car I was driving and to pick up my passport. I hopped in the car and started my 5-hour drive before I had a chance to catch up with my friends from Burning Angel.
After arriving at home I threw my camera gear together, slept a few hours, returned my rental car, and then proceeded to the airport. 25+ hours later I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was picked up from the airport and dropped off in a field where our helicopter pilot was assisting a team from NatGeo that were trying to locate a cheetah. Within 45 minutes of my arrival, I was flying in a helicopter on my way to the farm, which is Rhino 911's base of operations, and my home for the next 6 weeks.
For the following 6 weeks, I spent a good amount of time flying in helicopters to assist with locating injured rhinos, tracking poachers, and documenting what the Rhino 911 team does on a regular basis. I was with veterinarians that specialize in reconstructive surgery, riding in the back of trucks with APUs (anti-poaching units), and even piloting the chopper on occasion.
During my time in South Africa, I witnessed firsthand just how brutal and savage these poachers are, not only to the animals they're slaughtering, but also to the people that have dedicated their lives to protecting them. We were able to save a rhino named Vrystaat after he'd been shot through the face and through both of his lungs prior to having most of his face hacked off by a panga (machete). Somehow this rhino was able to survive this brutal attack which took place just so poachers could take its horn. The horns are valued at $30,000 per pound, more per ounce than gold and platinum combined and believed to have medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. The reality is that rhino horn is made of keratin, which is the same substance as human hair and fingernails, having no benefits when consumed. These animals are being killed for something that has no real value to humans.
The case of Vrystaat is just one of many I witnessed while in South Africa. When you see one of these giant animals trembling in pain as you try to save its life, it really changes you. These incidents happen multiple times a day with some rhinos surviving the attacks, but between 1,100 and 1,600 per year that don't. At this rate, the entire rhino population on the African continent will cease to exist within the next 10 to 12 years. The poachers are thieves, murderers, and rapists and kill an average of 100 park rangers each year as they try to protect these animals from an armed and dangerous enemy. Two weeks before I left South Africa a rhino orphanage was attacked, the staff beat up, a young volunteer caretaker was raped, and two baby rhino were killed. In order to slow down, and hopefully one day stop these incidents from happening in the future, we need to help to raise awareness and donations to help fuel our efforts.