I spent my childhood watching endless nature documentaries and listening to the relaxing tones of David Attenborough describe an incredible faraway land, filled with huge roaming animals I could only begin to imagine. These animals were elephants and rhino and this magical land was Africa. I knew that when I was older I wanted to go out there and help these stunning creatures but life, as it so often does when you let it, got in the way and led me down a completely different path.

 

Fast forward twenty-something years and I find myself on stage in front of over three hundred 4 – 11-year olds talking to them about what is happening to our incredible rhino out in Africa and ways in which they can help with not only African wildlife, but conservation in general. As I sit here writing this blog I can’t help but feel slightly emotional about all the experiences over the last year or so.

 

Back in April of 2017 I was lucky enough to be invited on the most mind-blowing trip to South Africa with my best friend and her amazing family. From the minute I stepped off the tiny propeller plane that flew us into the Timbavati Nature Reserve I had fallen in love. We stayed at the luxury Tanda Tula Safari Camp and I can’t even begin to describe how unbelievable this place is. Our guides Ant and Lloyd were two of the most passionate people I’ve come across and their love for rhino was infectious. Over the next week they showed us around the Timbavati and all the wildlife that inhabited it. It was here that I really learnt what was happening to Africa’s rhino population and after seeing my first crash of rhinoI was adamant that I would be back out here as soon as possible, but the next time would be helping in some form rather than just admiring from a distance.

 

Within a day or two of landing back in England I was scouring the net in search of ways to get back out there and help in the fight against wildlife crime. Up stepped Veterans for Wildlife who are an international charity committed to the protection of wildlife and the world’s critically endangered species. They deploy highly-skilled and experienced former service personnel to prevent wildlife crime. I was soon in talks about up and coming deployments to South Africa. By February of 2018 I was back in South Africa, this time with a reignited passion and a sense of purpose and about to visit Kruger National Park to work on a powerful radar system (the Meerkat) hoping to pick up any poachers wandering through the Park.

 

After spending a day learning how to work the system we were soon entering the gates of the mighty Kruger National Park, home to the largest population of rhino on the planet. For the next few weeks we would be the guardians of these prehistoric beasts, watching over them at night, as desperate, men scaled the fences on a daily basis, in search for the horns that stood so proudly above the rhino’s nose.

 

By day we would go out on game drives around Kruger, taking in the wildlife and scenery that the Park had to offer and learning more about the environment in which we were operating. By night we worked on the Meerkat system scanning for any suspicious activity.

 

On only our second day of operations, whilst out on a game drive, the radios suddenly went into overdrive. Shots had been heard not far from our location, so we promptly set up a makeshift OP (Observation Post) on top of a hill and scanned the area. Within minutes trucks full of rangers were kicking up dust as they flew down the tracks past us, a helicopter circled intently above and a fixed wing plane did laps of the sky in search for any poachers that may be hiding below. It was at this moment that I realised that this problem was huge.

 

Within two nights we had located a group of poachers heading across the Park and within a couple of hours of locating them the highly motivated QRF (Quick Reaction Force) had contained the poaching group. At least one rhino had been saved for the time being and it was an immensely proud and warming feeling.

 

A couple of days later I was lucky enough to have the most awe-inspiring experience of my life. The rangers invited me up on a helicopter trip to refuel the Meerkat’s generator. Seeing Kruger by air was truly extraordinary and it wasn’t long before we were flying over a huge herd of elephant.  It was like the helicopter scene from Jurassic Park, this place was out of this world, so green and beautiful and so vast. Excitement then filled the helicopter as a crash of rhino were spotted below us. We hovered along next to them as they broke into a gentle gallop and yet again we were the guardians looking down on them. Part of me liked to believe that deep down they knew.

 

Within two minutes, however, the mood had changed completely and as I looked down at the ground in which the rangers were scanning, I noticed to my complete horror, a rhino carcass laying on its back with all four legs pointing up to the sky. It was fresh, killed only the night before. My stomach churned and my heart ripped open; I wasn’t ready to see the carcass of an animal I had so easily fallen in love with and was determined to protect. Within twenty minutes we had seen two more. Three rhinos senselessly killed at the hands of human greed. I was done for the day, emotionally drained at what I had just witnessed.

 

The next day I woke up with an even greater sense of determination and I knew that even though the problem here was much worse than I could have possibly imagined, there were extremely dedicated men and women who worked tirelessly to protect their beloved rhino and it filled me with pride to be part of that team. The rest of the deployment passed pretty much event free and it wasn’t long before my second stint in South Africa had sadly come to an end.

 

The only way I can describe it was life changing. There is something about being stopped in your tracks by a herd of magnificent elephant taking up the road that you just have to experience to understand. Or being woken up in the night by the distinctive call of the mighty lion, heard from kilometres around only for your eyes to open and fix onto the Milky Way that fills the night sky above you. They are memories that will stick with me forever.

 

I didn’t want the deployment to be my only dealings with Veterans for Wildlife so I proposed the idea of doing a talk on my experiences and of conservation in general, in my son’s school. I immediately got the backing of the Veterans for Wildlife team so got to work on a presentation. After speaking to a few friends, it became clear that a fair few schools were interested and I soon realised this had the potential to be an ongoing project. A few weeks of coffee filled late nights on PowerPoint and the presentation was complete.

 

It went amazingly well and after getting over the initial nerves I was safe in the knowledge that I was talking to these kids about something I was extremely passionate about and hopefully putting the fire in their bellies too.  They were highly engaging, and you could tell that the story of the rhino had impacted them just like it had me. After I had finished the teacher asked the assembly if any of the kids would like to work in conservation when they are older. To my delight nearly every child put their hand up. Now of course, not every child is going to follow this path, but if just one does out of all the schools I visit then it’s been worth it. And for those who don’t then I would hope they will make an effort to look after the wildlife that surrounds them.

 

There are many factors that need to be tackled when discussing poaching, but education is definitely one of them. The more people that know what is happening to this magnificent creature the more chance we have of stopping it.

 

I just want to say thank you to Wesley Thomson, Andrew Crichton and the rest of the team at Veterans for Wildlife for giving me this amazing opportunity and I hope my connection with the charity stays strong and we can continue to fight the battle against wildlife crime for many years to come.