Rhino Named SUDAN
Lens Magazine|January 2022
What has slowly emerged for me as a journalist covering conflict after conflict for over a decade is a conviction that these stories about the human condition cannot be separated from stories about the natural world.
Ami Vitale

We inhabit an intricate web, and the outcome of almost every story is always dependent on nature.

Today, I use nature as a foil to talk about our home – its past, present, and future. In a field that tends to emphasize difference and focus on conflict, my mission has been to tell stories that remind us of our interconnectedness, of how much we share, rather than simply emphasize our differences.

'' I can recall the exact moment when I truly began to understand how profound our choices are and the impact we have on one another and on all of life on this planet. It happened on a cold, snowy day in December 2009 in the village of Dvůr Králové nad Labem in the Czech Republic. On this day, I met a rhino named Sudan for the first time. Quite unexpectedly, this animal changed the way I see the world forever.

How connected I felt to the gentle, hulking creature sitting in front of me surprised me. When I got close to him, I had a strange feeling that I had just met a unicorn. He was mythical and other-worldly, larger than life. I recognized I was in the presence of a sentient, ancient creature. His species has been roaming the planet for millions of years, and up until the last hundred years, there were possibly hundreds of thousands of them inhabiting the planet.

But on that day in 2009, there were only eight of these rhinos alive and they were all in zoos. I was there because there was a plan to airlift four of these last eight northern white rhinos from the zoo in the Czech Republic to Kenya.

At first, I thought it was a story straight out of a Disney cartoon, but I quickly realized that this was a desperate, last-ditch effort to save an entire species. When I saw these creatures, it seemed so incomprehensibly unfair that we had reduced them to this remnant of what they had been.

We imagine wildlife roaming the open plains of Africa freely. The reality is that they have to be guarded and protected around the clock, twenty-four-seven, by heavily militarized guards. For hundreds of years, the rhino horn has been used by people worldwide to treat illnesses, such as fever and stroke. Traditionally fervently believed to have miraculous healing powers, rhino horn is actually composed of keratin – the same material our fingernails and hair are made of. Nevertheless, today rhinos continue to be killed for their horns. The horn is so valuable it can be sold on the black market for three times the price of gold. Illegal poaching is one of the primary reasons rhinos are so rare today. We are witnessing extinction right now, on our watch.

Poaching is not slowing down, and it's entirely possible, even likely, that if the current trajectory of killing continues, elephants and rhinos, along with a host of lesser-known plains animals, will be functionally extinct in our lifetime.

Much-needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife, but very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the frontlines of the poaching wars. They hold the key to saving Africa's great animals. The best protectors of these animals are the people who live alongside them.

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