Natasha Anderson – Risking life to save rhinos

In Natasha’s words…

Who/what inspires me: Wild places. The world needs to hang on to the wild places we have left – we need them in more ways than we realise.

Best advice/motto: Think about the consequences of your actions. If we all made a bit more effort in this regard we could make the world a much better place far more easily than we think. Lots of little actions add up – both positively and negatively. It is in our individual power to choose.

It was August 2008 and Natasha Anderson received a call from the field. Poachers had shot a mother black rhino in the shoulder. The rhino was injured but likely to survive. She had a two-month-old calf at foot.

Natasha and her team leapt into land cruisers and sped to the site. They captured the duo and put them in pens. While not mortally wounded, the mother wasn’t producing enough milk to sustain her calf. So Natasha embarked on a mission to save him. For 10 to 12 hours a day she’d sit just outside their enclosure wooing and attempt to bottle feed the infant.

As if sensing that Natasha was trying to help, the mother rhino, Teressa, positioned her enormous form in a way that forced the calf towards Natasha and the bottle. The hungry calf, reassured by his mother, took to the bottle and regained strength. Over three weeks Teressa’s wound healed and the duo was returned to freedom in the vast African bush.

Bottle feeding a rhino calf.
Bottle feeding a rhino calf.

Natasha watched the calf grow over the years like a proud mother herself. She delighted in seeing new offspring Teressa produced. Here was a good news story in the intense battle to save black rhinos from the poaching menace that is threatening their very survival.

Today only 5000 black rhinos remain, their populations decimated to provide horn as status symbols, herbal medicine, even hangover cures, especially in Vietnam and China. Natasha and the team at Lowveld Rhino Trust are endangering their own lives to save the rhinos, dodging bullets in gun battles with machine-gun wielding poachers, dealing with enormous and incredibly agile wild animals and operating under challenging political and economic circumstances.

So how is it that an Aussie lass from Melbourne finds herself in shootouts in the Zimbabwean bush for the sake of a wild African animal?

Today only 5000 black rhinos remain.

Falling in love

Natasha was fresh out of university when she applied to join Australian Volunteers Abroad in Africa. She ventured to Zimbabwe to work with communities on resource and catchment management programs. However, given the volatile politics in the early 2000s, Natasha’s work in the rural communities became too dangerous to continue.

While friends from the villages risked their own lives to save Natasha by warning her of planned youth militia attacks, she knew she had to be careful. She had to avoid taking the same approach and exit routes to avoid being attacked and, at the same time, funding support for her projects dried up.

As her opportunity to work on community development declined, a new need arose – helping to monitor critically endangered black rhinos helplessly caught in the politics of the time. New clearing of land for subsistence farming spread through roughly 60,000 hectares of a 120,000-hectare private black rhino conservancy posing risks to both human and animal. Wire traps were killing and injuring black rhinos and the endangered animals need to be moved to safer areas before they were wiped out. It was in this role that Natasha set eyes on her first wild rhino – and fell in love.

“I was offloading water and out of the corner of my eye I saw this magnificent black rhino bull,” she recalls. “He just stepped out and we both sort of saw each other at the same time. He was fabulous, just magic.”

Natasha set eyes on her first wild rhino – and fell in love.

Teressa, the mother Natasha helped save, and her calf after release.
Teressa, the mother Natasha helped save, and her calf after release.

Rescue quest

The sighting sparked Natasha’s quest to help save these magnificent animals. Working with Lowveld Rhino Trust and conservancy staff, Natasha helps monitor rhino populations, de-horn rhinos to reduce their attractiveness to poachers, educate locals about rhinos and their plight, translocate rhinos from high-risk areas, organise treatment for rhinos with snare and gunshot wounds, rescue orphaned rhino calves and work with authorities to stamp out poaching.

So what is it about a rhino that drives Natasha’s work? “They are magnificent and fascinating animals,” she says. “Even the cows can weigh 1.2 tonnes and they are socially far more sensitive and bonded to each other than we fully understand. And there’s the fact that they are critically endangered. If we don’t make an effort to save them they will go extinct. I just don’t think we’ve got the right to keep writing off species.”

Smitten by these enormous beasts, Natasha embarked on an awareness-raising program that would help educate school children about rhinos and encourage them to support rhino conservation. That program operates in 140 Zimbabwean schools today.

But by 2008 the rhino poaching had flared among the Lowveld rhino populations. Poachers were slaughtering nearly five rhinos a week for their horn. Driven by such circumstances, Natasha was forced out of the classroom to take up arms to help support the anti-poaching patrols.

Poachers were slaughtering nearly five rhinos a week …

Ear notching a rhino.
Ear notching a rhino.

 

Gun battles

The anti-poaching units stage armed patrols in certain areas to protect rhinos from the well-armed poaching menace. But they must cover vast areas with limited resources, and the poachers are hell bent on their prize. Often the units don’t find out about poaching presence until they receive a call about shots being fired. Sometimes they receive the call too late, arriving only to find the rhino’s massive bulk lying prone in the dirt, its horn sawn from his face. Sometimes they turn up in time to rescue a calf orphaned by the shooting. Other times the poachers are still on the scene, bullets from their AK47s whistling through the air around the anti-poaching unit. Mostly the poachers fire and run, but sometimes they dig in for a gun fight.

“I’ve been shot at a number of times and I don’t like being shot at,” Natasha says in typically matter-of-fact tone. “But (when fired) the AKs tend to kick up and to the right. Poachers aren’t disciplined military people so they shoot most of the bullets into the air.”

Despite the high-risk nature of the work, Natasha knows of just one fatal injury among the anti-poaching teams in the Lowveld – a scout from an anti-poaching unit who was unarmed and fleeing the scene when the poachers opened fire.

Other times the poachers are still on the scene, bullets from their AK47s whistling through the air around the anti-poaching unit.

Hope amid horror

Natasha is adamant the risk is worthwhile. “I believe in what I’m doing,” she says. “A lot of it is really positive. We’ve managed to re-home a lot of animals – that’s incredibly rewarding. If we are not going to stand up and help them they will be gone. I feel a responsibility to help them. They didn’t do anything wrong.”

Natasha believes rhinos stand a real chance of survival. She gives the example of markets for rhino horn that have closed – places like Yemen and China which once demanded vast supplies of rhino horn but have since closed down the horn trade thanks to enforcement of trade regulations.

“There is hope,” she says. “So often the rhino situation is presented as completely hopeless but that’s not true. The trade has been shut down repeatedly in the past. I think they will make it if we can get on top of the poaching. We have to keep enough rhinos alive to provide a viable genetic base for them to survive long term.”

“We have to keep enough rhinos alive to provide a viable genetic base for them to survive long term.”

Rehoming rhinos

Charged with such a hope, Natasha gains immense satisfaction from seeing rhinos safely re-homed away from high-risk poaching areas. But moving an enormous wild beast is, of course, no easy task.

Natasha cites the case of a typical rescue a couple of days ago. A mother white rhino was injured with a calf by her side. They called a vet in Harare who embarked on the eight-hour drive from the Zimbabwean capital to the rescue site. Along the way he received a call – the mother rhino had died but the calf was too young to survive alone in the lion-rich area she found.

The vet had to backtrack to pick up a trailer to transport the calf but the bearings in the trailer were ruined. He spent two hours repairing the trailer before continuing the journey. Uncharacteristically drenching rain had turned the earth to mud and soaked the rescue team as they battled their way to the calf. They finally found the calf terrified, sheltering behind its mother’s carcass. Despite the conditions, no one in the rescue team uttered a word of complaint, all intent on rescuing the calf before them.

In other cases the rescue team will approach a rhino by helicopter and dart the animal with anaesthetic. They then rush to the fallen beast and lift it aboard trucks with cranes in a frantic bid to move it as fast as possible. Too long under anaesthetic and the rhino’s heart could stop. Too long lying in one position and their legs could become damaged. It’s literally a race to save them.

It’s literally a race to save them.

Passion and heartbreak

Exhilarated by successful rescues, and in love with the beauty of the bush around her, Natasha would never swap her job. “It’s rewarding work. I work with such a great team. And it’s unbelievably stunning here,” she says. “It’s my home now. I think I gain far more from this than I give up.”

And yet there are times that test her resolve. Take the case of the mother rhino, Teressa, whose calf Natasha bottle fed all those years before. Four months ago Natasha received word of a rhino killed by poachers. The carcass had been there some time, its flesh ripped off by hyenas. Inside the carcass she discovered a fully-formed but unborn calf. At the fallen creature’s shoulder was sign of the bullet wound Natasha had tended all that time before. Teressa, the mother she’d help save, was gone.

“They live up to 40 years so you really get to know the individuals,” Natasha says. “She was a real sweetie. But you just have to face it, deal with it, gather all the information you can. What bullet was it, what style of horn removal, where did they get in, where did they get out – clues that can help you build your understanding of the poachers’ modus operandi and hopefully be ahead of them next time.”

Natasha also takes solace in the knowledge that Teressa’s children live on. They found the two-year-old calf at Teressa’s side when she died without bullet wounds. He was old enough to survive on his own. He now lives beside a young female rhino, whose mother was friends with Teressa. Together such rhinos provide hope for a population that, without the work of people like Natasha and her team, may otherwise already be gone.

Inside the carcass she discovered a fully-formed but unborn calf.

 

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Teressa, the beloved rhino that Natasha helped save, only to lose her to poachers years later while she was heavily pregnant.

 

Get involved

You can support Natasha’s work with the Lowveld Rhino Trust in saving the black rhino from extinction by donating to the Perth-based Save African Rhino Foundation Australia. Visit: www.savefoundation.org.au. In the USA, visit the International Rhino Foundation (www.rhinos.org) and in the UK, visit Save The Rhino International (www.savetherhino.org).

 

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