It’s an unimaginably tragic, looming loss. The Northern White Rhinoceros, charismatic, monumental, elemental, once ranged by the thousands across East and Central Africa, but now stands at the very edge of a chasm, somewhere between warm, moistly deep-breathing life (existence) and the finality of an eternal vacuum (extinction). It’s entirely, infuriatingly, due to human selfishness – and, confoundingly, in defiance of gargantuan efforts to save it.
The message from Grace Williamson read: “I represent a photographer based in New York, NY who specializes in travel/destination photography and is invested in wildlife conservation. She recently photographed Kenyans working to protect and conserve wildlife from poachers– specifically, the three remaining Northern White Rhinos. Her photo series from this trip, Watchmen 20, has been recognized as a finalist in competitions with National Geographic and Shoot the Frame. Photos will be used as a supplement to a film documentary interviewing the men on the front lines protecting Kenyan wildlife. Would it interest you to set up a time to speak about this American group working to shed light on the poaching crisis in Africa?”
Full disclosure here: The Wildlife Conservation Examiner worked, hands-on, with Black Rhinos at an accredited zoological park. The love this writer feels for rhinos runs deep, as does her concern for the future of these imposing, confiding and completely captivating animals. So Williamson’s invitation to interview Tierney Farrell on her photo-documentary triggered a commotion of eagerness and nausea – Nausea because the impending extinction of the Northern White Rhino signifies the gut-punch failure of the best of humanity, despite our most heroic efforts, to stop the worst of humanity from completely erasing one of the most iconic animals ever to grace the Earth.
In 1919 there were between 2000 and 3000 Northern White Rhinos left in the wild. Not a hefty population. They’ve been struggling against human encroachment, habitat loss, hunting and poaching for a long time. By 1970 there were only 500. But now – Now there are just three left in the entire world, a tragedy made even more debilitating by the lingering question of whether or not the Northern White Rhino is actually an entirely different species than the Southern White (not ‘just’ a subspecies) – a suspicion framed by morphological and genetic studies.
How much more unforgivable can human self-interest be, than to annihilate an entire species for personal gain? Is a living animal merely a commodity? Even if rhino horn (made mostly of the keratin, the same substance as our fingernails and hair) actually did have any medicinal qualities (which it irrefutably does not), is a cure for headaches really worth genocide? After all, when all the rhinos are gone, what then?
Will this documentary end up being an epitaph – or spur a heart-pounding turnaround in the Northern White Rhino’s eventual recovery? What does it take to stand guard over the most important, most critically endangered creatures on the planet – and just who are these warriors we’ve entrusted with their futures, cradling high-powered rifles in their arms, putting their own lives on the line in a criminal war-zone of international wildlife trafficking? As scientists consider extreme last-ditch scenarios like in vitro fertilization of collected rhino eggs (since all the rhinos left are now beyond natural breeding age), subsequent embryo transfers to Southern White Rhinos and even stem-cell manipulation to prevent the species from slipping away forever, Tierney Farrell documents those who stand guard over the last three Northern White Rhinos on Earth – buying us time to figure out (how to) if we can save them.
The Wildlife Conservation Examiner asked Tierney about her experience, and why she was so drawn to shoot portraits of the men who guard the rhinos.
WCE: Tierney, how did you get involved in this photography project?
Tierney: I was incredibly honored to be invited alongside a film documentary crew, for the film When Lambs Become Lions, to do an independent photo series during film production. Without them, this project would not have been possible — thank you Ragtag Tribe Films! As it stands now, the film follows men on both sides of the poaching crisis – rangers and poachers. It’s definitely a unique approach. With this kind of thing, the story can always change so I’m excited to see what it becomes.
My project mainly consists of portraits of the men and I captured some daily life as well. I named the photo series Watchmen 20 . I got to spend 5 or so days with the rangers from Ol Pejeta, where the last three northern white rhinos on earth live, including Sudan, the last male. I also spent about a week in southern Kenya near Big Life Foundation, but only had a day to photograph with the rangers. Everyone I met was great.
WFC: What first ignited the spark to become involved with rhino protection?
Tierney: I was asked to be on this project I think partly because I had previous experience shooting portraits of a tribe in Kenya. Also, I love animals so much – I’ve always been passionate about them. So when I heard about this project I was very interested and intrigued; I wanted to be a part of it immediately. Fast forward a year and a half, I now have a very heightened awareness and passion for this issue. I want to continue to be involved somehow.
WCE: Did you also get to meet/interact with the rhinos?
Tierney: Yeah, I did, I was able to get really close to the rhinos at Ol Pejeta because they stay in a protected area, and the caretakers are around them all the time. I gave Sudan (the male) a hug. Big Life Foundation was very different, they don’t interact with animals on a daily basis; it’s more wild and they monitor areas to make sure all is good. So I really just spent time with the rangers themselves and went out on their trucks a little bit. But mainly I snapped portraits of them around their base. Ol Pejeta was more interactive in terms of their daily life. I saw their daily activities of what they do to take care of the rhinos, the feeding, going around playing with them, etc.
WCE: What about the prospects for their future and whatever conservation plans that they have for the Northern White Rhino right now? Do you think there’s any hope?
Tierney: Ol Pejeta is amazing and they’re doing everything they can. They have highly trained men monitoring the areas 24/7. Even though they have slowed down poaching, at this point the extinction of the northern white is pretty inevitable, being that there’s only three. Sudan is the only male left and he’s very old. That is really devastating. I believe they’ve tried artificial insemination, but there hasn’t been success with that. It’s heartbreaking that they have these wild animals living in a place where they have to watch them 24/7 so poachers don’t kill them. I think just the other week that a black rhino was poached and killed at Ol Pejeta, you know, so it happens. These poachers are still trying. It’s really sad the extent at which the protections have to happen – And seeing the last three northern whites all together is just a very sad, emotional thing to see. What a magnificent species that they are, and to see them, all three, just standing there – it’s overwhelming.
WCE: So you’re using your photography as a tribute to the rhinos, and to respect and honor the rangers who are actually putting their lives on the line to save them –
Tierney: Yes, definitely. That’s why it was one of the most special things I’ll probably ever do. This is a very rare case; to have just three of a species left due to poaching. To me, the photographs really just empower the men in the uniforms who are putting their lives on the line. It’s powerful to see what they do for a living.
And it showcases their relationships with the rhinos; they love the rhinos, the rhinos trust them. It’s a really unique thing that a lot of people don’t know about, and it exists. I feel very honored to be able to have such access to be able to get to know them and also take portraits for them.
WCE: Did you ever feel, at any point while you were out there, that you were actually in danger from the poachers?
Tierney: No, I personally didn’t. We stayed in safe places. We were in great hands, between our actual crew, the locals we worked with and the organizations. We were staying at the research center at Ol Pejeta, and at Big Life we were at a little camp where people can stay. So no, I never felt threatened.
WCE: What about other wildlife? Did you get a chance to meet black rhinos, as well, while you were out there?
Tierney: At Ol Pejeta I saw black rhinos mainly from a distance, and I saw one of them up close, Baraka; he is blind. I didn’t actually work with any rhinos, I really just observed the daily routine of the caretakers and the rangers – what their roles are, and what they do, and how they interact with them.
One interesting thing is that a few of the rangers I met at Big Life Foundation are actually former poachers. I’m not sure of every ranger’s story and what their specific motivation to change was, but some of these rangers do have that in their past. Having a poaching past makes them very effective rangers, and they all really care for the animals now.
WCE: That sounds like a fascinating story, if you have any stories about that. You’d expect that going from being a poacher to a protector would have to have transformed their belief systems –
Tierney: Everyone’s just trying to survive. The animals are trying to survive, the people are trying to survive. It’s just heartbreaking that not everyone can with how far things have gotten. I would imagine that having a job as a ranger definitely transforms their outlook on life and they develop a deeper appreciation for the animals..
WCE: So the living rhinos in a way converted these former poachers into carrying the torch for the cause? Having worked with rhinos myself – once you get near them, everything changes. So I’m thinking the animals touch these people’s hearts.
Tierney: I think every case is different. A lot of it probably has to do with income and opportunity. People are doing what they feel is necessary to provide for their families. Protecting the animals is what keeps their families fed, so it definitely transforms their appreciation of them. Many of the rangers have a deep love and appreciation for them that goes beyond a connection with their job. But you’re right, the animals are so incredible, it’s easy to be touched by them.
WCE : Others are still poaching rhino horn for the ‘traditional’ Asian medicinal trade, though – Taking the horn and selling it to oversea’s markets –
WCE: Do you know how they find those channels, those routes? Is it pretty clear cut or is it –
Tieney: You mean the channels through which they distribute?
WCE: That, and how do they get paid? Who pays them?
Tierney: I’m not really clear on that; it’s all very ‘insider’ information. They have their people but I don’t know how they find them, my work didn’t get that far. I do know it’s a secretive and sticky situation and they go about it very carefully.
WCE: What final thought would you like to leave with readers?
While it’s extremely difficult to imagine tackling huge crises such as poaching, the road ahead always begins with awareness. I hope that my work can bridge a gap of awareness ultimately to connect people across the world to encourage positive change.
WCE: Thank you so much for your time, Tierney.
Tierney: Thank you.
Looking at some of the photos, one can’t help but notice how tiny and insignificant humans, even fully armed ones, look next to a massive White Rhino – And yet, a tick can fell a wolf. ‘Tiny, insignificant’ humans will be either the rhino’s salvation, or their doom.
The rangers, and those former poachers who have turned their moral lives around, are to be deeply commended. They have become true heroes. Yet the question of whether poachers are villains or victims remains fertile ground for thought.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of evil is (1) morally reprehensible <an evil impulse>, (3) causing harm <the evil institution of slavery>. According to this definition, if we can agree that driving an entire species to extinction merely for personal gain is evil, then anyone who poaches or in any way aids the trafficking in, and/or poaching of, endangered wildlife, would be considered evil – or at least, to be doing evil.
Which raises a disquieting question: Is it dangerous to empathize so strongly with people’s ‘reasons’ (poverty, lack of opportunity) for performing horrific acts that it somehow diminishes the severity of their crime? We could rationalize the illegal drug trade the same way. No matter how we might try to excuse it, the overall effect of endangered species poaching (genocide) is of the deepest evil.
The slippery slope of wildlife trafficking is as seedy and convoluted as any mafia story. It encompasses more than just the poachers, of course. It thrives on corruption. Poachers tend to live in the same communities as rangers, guardians, farmers, adding another layer of complexity. Middle men, many of whom are actual terrorists, may fund their agendas through sales of contraband. Traffickers and distributors of illicit products feed the ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ trade; merchants sell to buyers, who are arguably most important link – In the end, it’s the buyers/end users themselves, who, knowingly and willingly, fuel the trade in death and extinction by purchasing contraband.
Somehow getting through to these true drivers of extinction is an important (albeit challenging) step in saving rhinos – and even pangolins (the next species being driven to extinction because, among other reasons, their ‘scales’ are composed of the same stuff as rhino horn). Through legal and social pressures, the hope is that by removing demand (the market), by destroying the culture of myth and disinformation surrounding rhino horn as a health tonic, maybe the whole purpose of poaching rhinos to supply this dangerous international criminal/terrorist network could be unraveled. Much stronger penalties for poaching, international laws with real teeth in them, would help, too. If defending the innocent and most vulnerable last of a species is not worthy of strong enforcement, what is?
Last (but perhaps most important of all), is educating people about the rhino’s unique place in the world, how every single species matters in this complexly interwoven and interconnected planetary tapestry. Biodiversity is maybe the most important resource and gift we have. Saving it means saving ourselves. Plus, it’s just the ethical thing to do.
Sadly, though, considering the dangerously precarious position it’s in, even this is not enough of a solution for the Northern White Rhino. It seems the only thing that might be able to snatch the rhino back from the brink of the abyss, now, is innovative science – And a healthy, God-given dose of good luck. We can only pray that this chilling premonition from African Wildlife Foundation spokesperson Kathleen Garrigan doesn’t come to pass: “The subspecies disappeared right in front of our eyes, and we didn’t realize it until it was too late.”
The portrait series “Watchmen 20” was completed during the first phase of production of the feature documentary film, “When Lambs Become Lions”, which is currently still in production. More information can be found on www.whenlambsbecomelions.com and on the film’s Facebook page.