It was on a whim that Penn Medicine nurse Heather Smith made an offer for an African wildlife safari at a charity auction. His 2015 trip was an experience beyond the wildest dreams of animal lovers: giraffes! The Lions! Elephants! But the rhinos – so huge, yet so silent with those stunning horns – particularly captivated her.
âThey were beautiful,â she says.
When Smith returned home, she brought with her not only great photos, but also a passion for the welfare of African animals.
âI wanted to help somehow,â she said. âI wanted to make sure that what I went through would still be there. “
Soon after, Smith attended a talk at Penn given by famous animal filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, who also lead conservation efforts in nature. Afterwards, when Smith asked the couple how she could support their work, they told her about the plight of the rhinos she had been so taken with – how the creatures were killed by poachers for their horns. Along with other conservationists, the Jouberts had founded Rhinoceros Without Borders, a project whose mission was to move rhinos from heavily poached South Africa to safer Botswana. And, they told Smith, they would need help.
It was all she needed to hear.
âI said, ‘OK, if that’s what you need, I’m totally okay with the rhinos. “
Within a month, Smith and a few colleagues from Penn Medicine who had also attended the Joubert conference managed to raise $ 10,000 to cover the cost of securing their first rhino.
Six years later, Pennsylvania rhino conservation advocates (PARCA) – a nonprofit organization founded by Smith in 2016 with a board comprised mostly of his colleagues at Penn – has raised more than $ 250,000 to support rhinos in multiple ways.
This included funding the movement of two additional rhinos from South Africa to Botswana, via a joint venture with Rhinos Without Borders and the Great Plains Foundation & Beyond, another pro-conservation organization started by the Jouberts (PARCA named the rhinos Franklin and Liberty, which befits recipients of a Philly Jawbone.)
PARCA also financially supports Ribbon, an orphan rhino who lives in Caring for the wild rhino sanctuary in South Africa; their sponsorship pays for Ribbon’s food and veterinary needs and helps fund the salaries of the rangers who care for her. They partner with various conservation organizations to fund equipment and supplies for park rangers, animal reserves, and activities like dehorning, a practice that successfully discourages deadly poaching practices.
And they partnered up with the Great Plains Foundation and the New York organization Wild Tomorrow Fund to organize trips to South Africa and Botswana to ignite the passion of more people for the protection of wildlife.
All from a group without paid staff and a volunteer board of directors whose members have fairly demanding day jobs.
“We are small but powerful,” said Smith, 51, who is now administrator of the neurosurgery department at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.
Dereck Joubert, who is also a Explorer General National Geographic, said the basic PARCA turned out to be the real deal.
âFrom the moment we met in Philadelphia, PARCA took action and started supporting our work to an unprecedented degree,â Joubert enthused. âIt involved trips to Africa, fundraising and public screenings [of the Joubertsâ wildlife films] in the United States, and hosting rangers and guides’ who visit here. âThey have become true conservation partners working for the future of African wildlife. “
Smith would be the first to admit she was an unlikely wildlife hero.
Raised in Pottsville, her mother loved animals, her father took her on horseback, there was often a family dog, and her grandparents were fans of the old TV show Mutual of the Wild Kingdom of Omaha. But the closest she’s ever had to a savannah before that first safari came via trips to zoos in the Bronx and Philadelphia.
Yet African wildlife had always captivated her – the idea that one could actually move among all these huge royal animals.
âIt’s always been a kind of mystery and intrigue for me,â she said.
And from what she learned shortly after her first safari, there was no doubt the rhinos needed help.
Between the loss of habitat and the activity of poachers, the number of rhinos has been decimated, with some species on the verge of extinction. At the start of the 20th century, around 500,000 rhinos roamed Africa and Asia. Today, fewer than 27,000 rhinos exist in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Federation.
Consumer demand fueled an illegal but lucrative rhino horn trade, resulting in black market prices higher than the price of gold. In Asia, powdered rhino horn has become in demand as a party drug, health supplement, and hangover remedy. In Vietnam, desperate cancer patients have even shelled out a lot of money for rhino horn, mistakenly believing it to be a cure for the disease.
Poachers usually kill rhinos to get their horns, but animals can be safely and painlessly dehorned (horns grow back in about three years), an effective anti-poaching strategy used by environmentalists to spare rhinos’ lives.
(The practice does not make rhinos vulnerable to animal predators, Smith explains, since the only true predators for adults are humans. Although they tend to use their horns in territorial disputes with other rhinos, dehorning does not interfere with normal charge and head butt. they self-inflict on each other.)
These conservation efforts need financial support, as the pandemic has had a huge impact, said Wendy Hapgood, co-founder of Wild Tomorrow, a New York-based conservation organization dedicated to protecting endangered wildlife. disappearance in South Africa.
âCOVID-19 is now an emerging financial threat to rhinos and all African wildlife,â she said. “It is not the virus itself that directly puts wildlife at risk” – although this is the case for critically endangered mountain gorillas and chimpanzees who are prone to the same respiratory diseases as humans. “It is the loss of revenue from tourism and philanthropic and government support that is the greatest fear for wildlife reserves and national parks across Africa today.”
To help, in July, PARCA partnered with Wild Tomorrow to lead a ten-day trip of eight volunteers to South Africa. Money raised from the trip helped replenish supplies for the wildlife sanctuary rangers and improve extremely low feeding levels at a government rhino orphanage. PARCA volunteers also provided practical help during dehorning – which PARCA partially paid for – and helped feed and clean one of the orphanages.
The âEight Intrepid Travelers, our first group of guests since the start of the COVID pandemic, have brought with them much-needed support for rhinos and wildlife protection in South Africa,â Hapgood said.
PARCA board member Andrew Wegoye, 40, a Penn Medicine nurse who grew up in Uganda, is a co-founder of Hornbill treks and safaris, a company that organizes wildlife and culture tours in Uganda and East Africa. He joined the PARCA board of directors because he understands how protecting wildlife and promoting tourism contributes to a healthy human economy.
âGrowing up and seeing in living terms the beneficial relationship between a thriving wildlife population and a thriving local population makes it clear to me that we need to protect wildlife from harm,â Wegoye said. “Ultimately, it’s good for wildlife, but it’s also good for these generally poor communities that live around wildlife.”
Of course, doing all this work with rhinos makes them grow on you. A lot, says Smith.
âThey’re iconic, with those big horns, but there’s a sensitivity underneath and they’re smart,â she said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that about them.”
And rhino calves, which stay with their mothers for two to three years, are as endearing as babies of any species.
âThey make the cutest little noises you’ll ever hear. They squeak, âsaid Smith, like Leko, an orphan the PARCA group met on their July trip to South Africa. They are also closely related: we know that orphans valiantly try to defend their mothers against attacks from poachers.
For all these reasons and many more, the Board of Directors of PARCA is committed to its work.
PARCA member Kathryn Gray DeAngelis, a Penn Medicine perfusionist who uses heart-lung machines during surgery, had never been to Africa when she went with Smith to attend the Jouberts conference in 2015. Now, she is addicted to rhinos.
âWe all wonder what it would be like to see dinosaurs roaming the earth. Well, rhinos are just that, and we’re killing them, âDeAngelis said. âWe have the opportunity to save them.
Smith believes that one of the best ways is to bring more people to Africa, where they will, like her, become passionate about the cause of conservation. (The media resident’s family members are among the converts. Her husband Steve has joined the PARCA board of directors and her daughter Lexi, 15, has already made three trips and shares her mother’s zeal.)
PARCA is planning a wildlife safari in November and another volunteer trip next summer. Smith is keen to give people the chance to experience animals firsthand to see the impact they can have.
âYou are helping,â she said. “You don’t just give money”
His work on behalf of animals, as unlikely as it may seem at first glance, has taught him about life.
âWe all have the ability to make a difference in something. I think the key is to recognize that you can, and to have the courage and the persistence to figure out how, âshe said,â then go for it. “