As I fly, on the very final leg of my journey back to New York, I am reflecting on everything that I’ve learned since starting this trip at the end of August. So many things have happened to me, and I’m assuming most of them will affect me, and the way I move forward, for the rest of my life.
People keep asking, “How can I help.” I even read something the other night on one of my social media accounts where someone was yelling at me for being a fraud because I hadn’t told her a definite way she could help yet. So I want to address this today. But before I do, I want to touch upon some of what I learned in Africa and what I feel like the plight of the animals really entails.
Zimbabwe is a bit different than South Africa. Their laws are different; therefore their threats are a little different. But man still seems to be the biggest threat to the animals in either place.
It all comes down to money and greed, but also the will to survive and care for your family.
TWO TYPES OF POACHING
There are two clear types of poaching. There’s the poaching of endangered animals, like you may hear about everyday. This includes animals like rhino, elephants, pangolin (which you may have never heard of, but I’ll cover that in another entry), vultures and even abalone from the oceans. But then there’s also what called subsistence poaching. This is when someone kills animals that they can use for food to feed their families or sell to people in their community. Their most common weapon of choice is a snare. But they also use guns, knives, spears…anything. The animals they are commonly after are impala, kudu, antelope, birds, bushpigs, warthogs, porcupines…whatever they can eat or sell. Snares are especially brutal to the animals, but I’ll have to cover the problem with those another time.
Let’s just talk about the endangered animal poaching right now. There’s what’s called a syndicate. A syndicate is often 9-11 levels deep. The highest level of a syndicate is considered to be the boss, the head honcho. This person usually lives in the East and is very wealthy. Most of the demand for this type of illegal poaching is currently coming from Vietnam and China. So, like a lot of bosses, they have employees and rarely want to get their hands dirty, especially if they can pay other people to assume all the risks and take the fall for them in the event something doesn’t go as planned.
The bottom of that syndicate is the person who actually enters the game reserve or property and kills the animal. Bottom doesn’t mean they’re getting paid the least though. This person might actually be the most qualified of the whole team. Once upon a time the actual poacher might have just been a random guy in the local village who needs some quick cash in order to feed his family. And in some cases, this still holds true. But now, because this has become such a lucrative business, these poachers are often ex-military or very highly trained in some way with very expensive equipment. They must be able to get in and out of the reserve quickly, quietly and completely unnoticed. Some properties have animals close to the borders, while others consist of many miles of hiking and sometimes camping overnight just to find the animals they’re after.
In Zimbabwe, the laws allow for the rangers and anti-poaching units to shoot any poacher they find. In South Africa, nobody is allowed to shoot at anyone unless you have been shot at first (this even includes if someone breaks into your own home-self defense is not an easy alibi there). So the threat to the animals is much higher in South Africa because the poachers know they have a great chance of getting out of there alive, and if they do get caught their consequences are usually very minimal. I believe the stats are that in South Africa, less than 10% of the poachers actually get caught and arrested, and less than 3% of that 10% actually get convicted. This can be because the proper procedures weren’t followed during the arrest; it could be because the syndicates have enough money to pay off the lawyers and judges trying the case; or it could be any number of people along the way who are corrupt and can easily be paid off. And the majority of the arrests are low-level syndicate members. It’s the kingpins that ultimately need to be taken down.
In Zimbabwe, I’d say their problems are often more internal. For example, the elephants in Hwange that were recently poisoned. Rumor has it that it was an inside job, funded by a syndicate who could afford to purchase cyanide from a local mining community so that the rangers would poison the watering holes. Many animals have died from this, not just elephants. Poison in water, just like snares, is non-discriminatory. And it seems to me that the poisoning was a power play, a warning. I haven’t heard that the dead elephants had their faces chopped off for their tusks. But I am still awaiting official word and confirmation on all of this. Another issue in Zimbabwe has to do with their hunting and hunting permits being issued. Again, I’ll tackle this another time.
But, back to South Africa. On salary within a syndicate might be a guy who gives information from a local village; a ranger who turns a blind eye and lets someone get close to the animals; a guy who hides a cell phone for the poacher to grab and communicate with until the job is done; a guy who picks up a rhino horn in a hidden location after the job is complete and leaves money for the poacher; a guy who transports the horns or ivory to a higher up; a guy who puts the products into a diplomatic bag to transport them through an airport without the worry of being searched; a guy who hides the products in a shipping crate that’s on a boat sailing East…the list goes on and on. In a nutshell it’s the receivers, couriers, buyers and exporters. Everyone is getting paid. And most people in Africa make an extremely low monthly wage. For example, they might be making a monthly wage of $100. But then someone comes along and offers them 3K just to give up information, or hide a weapon, or carry a product. They think that within 1 night, within a few minutes, they can make more money than they currently make the entire year. So unless they have extremely strong moral values, their survival instincts tell them they must do this. Nobody will know, it’ll be over quick and they’ll be financially better off for it. And if they have a family, this could feed their children for a very long time. Then, if all goes well, they might be asked to do it again…and again. So now, someone who might have just been wanting to do right for their family is now deeply involved in one of the darkest, most illegal cruel professions on the planet and they might not even realize it until they’re in too deep.
So how do you explain to a local villager who struggles to survive a harsh, often unjust, life in Africa that they should morally love the animals in the nearby game reserve? Let’s break this down. The small local villages are often black. The game reserves are often run by wealthy, white men. The local villagers, more often than not, don’t know what the animals in Africa consist of, haven’t ever seen many of the animals, and see the white man as the enemy. The white men come in and buy up land, sometimes tear down communities to expand their properties, and pay very little when they do hire people from the nearby communities. So why would these communities ever want to help? THIS is one of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed. PLUS, South Africa has very strict labor laws. If you hire a local and they don’t do a good job working for you, you can’t just fire them. It doesn’t work that way there. So because of this, people will come in from surrounding countries, often Zimbabwe, and get hired. They are very good workers because they know they can get fired anytime without consequence. This is part of where Xenophobia comes from. I can’t break down Xenophobia now, but I understand it much better since going there. In a nutshell, it’s violence against foreign nationals for taking the local jobs.
I visited a few reserves that have figured this problem out and are, pretty successfully, addressing the issues. They have implemented programs that employ entire surrounding villages, bring clean water to communities, feed the locals, etc. When this is properly managed, then the local communities are able to see these reserves as their friends and saviors. Not their enemies. When the reserves educate the communities on the animals and how important they are to their culture, and even ultimately survival of the human race, then they start to understand. When villages can see that these animals bring in tourism, which at the end of the day allows them to be employed and put food on the table, then they start to take pride in their culture.
Education is a big thing, but it can’t be the only thing. If we only educate, the animals will all be long gone before enough people get it and start to care. And this holds true whether we’re saying to educate the locals, or to educate the children in the East to grow up understanding that there is absolutely no use for rhino horns as medicine or a status symbol or anything. It will be very hard to kill that demand anytime soon. We must try though. It’s a start and we have to start somewhere, and every little bit helps. Every mind we change is huge. But we can’t rely on that alone.
Maybe you can go over there and help a reserve implement a custom program to start involving their community so that they become their protectors and not their demise.
So, what can be done?
That’s is the million dollar question. And there’s no one answer. It would be irresponsible of me to give everyone the exact same answer to this question. But let’s talk about a few things.
Number 1 is of course money. But where do you put your money? How do you know it’s going to the places you want it to go? That’s where I am trying to come in. My charity, Animal Avengers, will be a curator of sorts for organizations and people I have personally met and believe to be doing good work. I will soon be rebuilding my charity’s website and plan on creating pages for each organization I like, explaining who they are and what they do. This is a very hard topic and it’s easy to get spun in many directions trying to make sure you are doing the right things with your donations. So we can talk more about this soon.
It’s currently very expensive for anyone to own and properly protect a rhino. Right now, a rhino is worth more dead than alive. So why own one? There are reasons to own, but unfortunately there are more reasons not to own. We have to reverse this, fast. We have to make rhinos worth more alive than dead. How do we do that? This is also a very big topic I will tackle in another diary entry. It will be a big debate and discussion and I will welcome all feedback.
But for now, the people I work with who have rhinos are struggling to protect them. They need the proper surveillance equipment, fencing, anti-poaching teams, combat equipment and strategies set in place that must all simultaneously occur on a nightly basis. They might dehorn their rhinos as a layer of possible protection too, but even that is expensive and not foolproof. And this is just rhinos. They aren’t the only animals going extinct. I am just using them as an example right now because they are the biggest assets that Africa has in the animal kingdom.
After money comes a multitude of things.
You could pick an organization and volunteer. But in Africa, you also must be very careful with this. We saw instances where places would have volunteers who actually paid the reserve a lot of money to be there, and they were put to work basically as cheap labor around the property. So that makes me think that they are actually taking the place of a local villager who could be getting paid a salary to do that same job. The volunteers end up learning very little and mainly are there to socialize with each other, hook up like they’re at camp and do things like dig holes and paint fences. I don’t think any of you want to pay a lot of money to go work like that.
There are also cases where volunteers are unknowingly fueling crimes like canned lion hunting (watch Blood Lions). You should never go to a place where the volunteers are openly handling the animals and playing with the babies. When it comes to lions, you often see places where the volunteers go and handle the babies so that the cubs get used to humans and form a bond and trust with them. Then, unbeknownst to the volunteer, the cubs get sold to canned hunting facilities (look that up if the term is new to you-I can explain another time)-and because the lion isn’t afraid, they will walk right up to the hunters just to get shot continuously, so that the hunters can turn around and explain that they’re contributing to conservation by hunting captive lions over wild lions. This is a whole other heated issue not for today.
GO TO AFRICA
Go see Africa for yourself. This is my best advice if you really want to get your hands dirty and figure out what your path moving forward is. But I don’t mean necessarily to just go on vacation there and to go on game drives and look at pretty animals. Yes, you should do that too if you’re there. This does increase their tourism dollar and help the country and communities. But I will be introducing you to people (through my charity’s website) who can actually teach you a lot about Africa. Go and learn the history of the country, the history of the animals, their culture, bush craft, how to survive, how to track, go on patrol with an anti-poaching unit, feel the love of Africa, feel the very real dangers there, hear the stories straight from them…this is what I think will affect you the most moving forward, if you want to help.
MY QUESTIONS TO YOU
If you ask me how you can help, I have a bunch of questions I’d need to ask you back. I can’t just give you a one answer fits all solution.
I might ask you if you can help financially. Or how serious are you about going there and getting involved? What animals or issues there hit you the deepest in your soul? Who might you know that has a company or the means to help in a big way? Many of the rangers, reserves and anti-poaching units need supplies. They don’t have the proper technology to protect the animals and fight the syndicates who have endless amounts of money and weapons. Do you have a connection to get thermal imaging cameras, weapons, backpacks, tents, water packs, water filters, camping gear, thermal imaging infrared binoculars, thermal imaging scopes, etc.? The lists go on and on as to what they need. This is also something I’ll be breaking down more when I set up pages for each organization. I will be putting together Amazon Wish Lists for each group too and explaining in detail what they need and why. And I’ve learned that what they need can get very specific. Just binoculars don’t really help. They need a certain minimum strength. They need night vision. The night vision can’t have any kind of light shining off of it to give them away to the poachers. Thermal imaging is a huge plus, but very expensive. Every need has a reason behind it. And only being there and experiencing it for myself could I start to understand what they need and why.
How can you help? Are you connected to politics in any way? I truly feel like changing the policies in South Africa will help. Actually shooting the poachers isn’t the answer. There will always be another poacher in line. And please understand, these poachers, and many local communities, currently see the animals as their saviors. They believe that animals were put on the planet so that they can take their horns, scales, ivory, etc., and sell them so that they can survive and feed their families. That is truly what they think. BUT, it has been proven that the threat of being allowed to shoot the poachers in a country does help deter them from taking the risk. Knowing someone who got shot trying to poach might make you think twice before attempting to poach yourself. Yes, they will always be driven by money. That will always be an evil in this world. But if you look at a place like Botswana, who has a shoot to kill policy on the poachers, then you’ll see that their statistics speak for themselves. Their poaching rate is extremely low compared to South Africa. Why should the poachers take a high risk to be in this horrible, illegal game if they can easily get shot and killed, when right next door is another country where the risk is much lower to do the exact same job?
So how do we get the government in South Africa to change this and implement an emergency policy to allow people to take whatever means they deem necessary to protect the rhino and other animals? Who’s corrupt and who’s not? The way I see it, the president there has no reason not to implement this policy unless he has his own ulterior motives. He just visited Kruger Park, where the majority of the rhino and elephants are getting slaughtered on a daily basis. Parliament just met regarding the rhino and elephant crisis. Rhino horn is one of THE MOST VALUABLE ASSESTS IN SOUTH AFRICA currently. So why aren’t they taking a stronger stance to protect this asset? I think the answer is clear.
So what do we do?
Maybe it’ll take pushing from other governments for them to do the right thing. Maybe we need to find the right people here in our own political system to debate this topic with and create a plan of attack moving forward. Maybe it takes enough daily pushing on the South African government to wear them down and get them to even TRY to temporarily change this law and see what results come of it. Even allowing this in the Kruger Park area alone would make a huge difference. So WHO you know might be how you can help.
Run your own fundraiser for the cause and organization you want to help. Become active online sharing the cause you believe in and why. Maybe we need to find a way to get every ranger, reserve owner and anti-poaching unit in South Africa to sign a petition asking their government to help them by changing this law. One of the responses I got at Parliament was that they felt the rangers didn’t want to shoot to kill because these are their brothers coming in from Mozambique and why would they really want to kill them? But I don’t accept that as a response. I spoke to many people while I was there, and the majority said that changing the law would help them protect the animals. If we could get signatures of everyone there supporting this law change, I could present this to the Minister of Environmental Affairs and all of Parliament. It could support the case. That MIGHT help. It definitely can’t hurt.
So, how can you help? What are your strengths? People say they want to go over there with their guns and shoot the poachers themselves. But it doesn’t work that way there. How are you getting your gun into that country? Then what happens when they arrest you for shooting a poacher? And if you miss or just injure him, he will not hesitate to come after you and either sue you for everything you have or quietly have you disappear never to be heard from again. Going to prison there is a very real threat. In all honesty, every poacher combined has more rights in South Africa than one rhino.
So, how can you help? The quick answer, unfortunately is, I don’t know. You tell me. I’m still trying to find the ways I can best help. Going there and understanding what is happening and why was my first step. Sharing my findings with you is another. Running my online fundraiser was another. Taking supplies into Africa was another. I am always trying to find ways to help. But as we try, everyday, more animals are suffering, becoming orphans and dying slow, painful deaths.
It haunts me everyday. I ask the Universe for guidance constantly. Sometimes that guidance comes in the form of meeting someone, reading something or getting hurt by someone…it can literally be anything. And looking back on this past year, I can see why certain people were brought into my life-only to guide me to something or light a fire under me-but then they were ripped away. At the time it might have really hurt. But now I can see what their purpose in my life was, and how, once that was fulfilled, there was no need for us to be acquainted anymore. That’s just the way things work out sometimes.
Maybe an answer happens because someone reads this and gets inspired and their actions lead to more action that lead to a new way of thinking that hasn’t been explored and it literally changes the world. I just don’t know.
All I can do is what I can do. I am learning everyday. I learn from you guys, from social media, from old friends, from new friends. I wish with all my heart and soul I had more definitive answers. What I do know is this. If everyone who wants to get involved in this fight followed their hearts and guts and did something, anything, every single day to help find answers, spread awareness, raise funds, explore solutions, then we can win. I do believe that good can always defeat evil. Light wins over the darkness. But there is strength in numbers. And it unfortunately cannot be done without a lot of funding and donations, whether it’s monetary or physical product.
Companies need write-offs and many big companies have social responsibilities they must fulfill every fiscal year. If you know of a big company who has this responsibility, lobby for them to help join this fight, this cause. Until I can break down all of the organizations I met and love, I am funneling everything through my non-profit (501(c)(3)), Animal Avengers. I will always break down for you guys what funding we receive and where it goes. I will always try to buy the supplies that people need to help them in their fight for the animals rather than just giving funds. But understand that sometimes the supplies needed might be diesel for the cars and trucks the vets and rangers use to patrol or get to the animals in need. It might be food and water for the rangers who might go into the bush for a solid week with no access to anything until they come out. These rangers are sent into the darkness on minimal salaries, away from their loved ones, and expected to take their own food and water and camping gear, in addition to their weapons, in addition to gear to protect them from the cold or rain, etc… From this part of the world it’s easy to forget about these things.
People sometimes yell at me for wanting to help the animals when there are people that need help. After reading this I hope it is clear that we’re all connected. In order to help the animals we must help the people. One is not mutually exclusive of the other. We are all one. And we all have a fire within us that is fueled by some cause in this world. We all have a passion for something meaningful. If we all pursue that passion and try to help whatever cause is our true purpose for being on this planet, then I believe everything gets covered. No one thing is more important than any other. Just fight for whatever it is that gets you heated up and lights a fire in your soul. Just do something for others-anything. This world is much bigger than us. We are a tiny grain of sand on this planet. But that grain of sand can still make a huge impact. You have it in you. We all do. Just believe in yourself!
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
So, now you tell me…how CAN you help? How can I help you be able to better help? I will happily share with you any contact I made, any person I met, any organization. If you want to go and see things for yourself, I am trying to set something up with my friend Charlie (@Rhinosaverz) where we can help send you to any of the people and places I just visited and we can give you whatever experience it is that you want. I know it’s easier to go there when you have local contacts and you know you’re being directed to real people doing real work. If we can help you with that, we will! Charlie is from Zimbabwe and lives in South Africa. His contacts are vast, especially after our last journey. We’d be happy to help and guide you.
I’m sorry this is so long, and as you can tell, there’s still so much I want to cover. I will try to get to every topic as quickly as I can. I want to explain everything I learned while trying to build my new charity website, while trying to post daily on social media to raise awareness, while trying to edit footage I got while there for you to somehow see, while trying to also continue my real life job of acting and directing. That’s how I make a living so that I can continue to do this work. I don’t take a salary from my charity and never plan on doing so. I understand that some charities are so big that they have to employ people to run them full time. And if I have to hire an employee one day, I will and I will be open about that. But for now, I need you guys to know that every donation will go towards winning this war that we are in for the animals. It is a war. I am determined to win. I will keep learning. I will take clear stances on what I believe in. I will make mistakes (I’m human). I will always be honest with you guys about everything. I will apologize to you when I am wrong and rejoice with you when we have a win for the good guys.
Thank you to all of you who support me, support this journey we’re all on, fight for the animals and fight for the planet. I will try to read any comments or questions you guys have and get back to you with answers. If I don’t know an answer, I will tell you and try to find out. We didn’t get to this place overnight, and we can’t get out of it that quickly either.
If you want to read a book about some past poaching in South Africa, read Poacher’s Moon. I will recommend more books as I read them. I was given a list and it will take me some time to get through them all. But I am almost through this one and it paints a very clear picture of what 3 reserves went through that have rhinos…and are still going through. This war is ongoing and very real. The threats on human, as well as animal lives, is clear and brutal. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight. We can’t just let them win. I won’t at least. I hope you won’t either.
Sending you and every animal on the planet lots of love, light and protection.
All the best,