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Students find passion for rhino rights in S Africa

Update: August, 02/2015 - 19:46
Making friends: Tran Ngoc Anh (Catherine Tran) pets a baby rhino that has been raised in captivity, as its mother was killed for its horn. — Photo Wilderness Foundation

Vietnamese high school students who won a writing contest flew to South Africa to see rhinos in their natural habitat. They returned home with a message: stop buying rhino horn. Phan Thuy Dung reports.

A group of high school students visited South Africa as winners of a writing competion to call on wealthy people to stop using rhino horn as a medical remedy.

The alarming decline rate of the rhino population has sent an outrage wave across the world as poachers from Viet Nam used to be caught killing the African creatures for their horns.

These youths had seen with their own eyes the natural habitat of the rhinos, the young cubs being raised in captivity as their mothers were killed. The trip is supposed to nurture awareness, insight, empathy and understanding among these youths, hopeful to become public opinion trend-setters when they are back in the country.

"Don't let the rhino' calves become orphans; don't let the rangers' children become orphans" was the message created by 22 senior students in HCM City.

The students were the winners of the Wild Rhino Competition held earlier this year; their prize was a 5-day trip to South Africa.

"After returning home, we distributed leaflets with our message at a musical event held at Hoa Binh Theatre, with the participation of parents and other adults," Nguyen Minh Tam from Saigon South International School, one of the Vietnamese winners, said.

The 18-year-old girl spent her time immersed in the beauty and harsh reality of the African bush on the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. The purpose of the trip was to promote awareness and understanding of conservation and rhino protection efforts.

"The trip to South Africa, a completely new land, gave me a new experience of life," she said. "When I was there, I could touch the rhinos, hear them roar at night and see the rocks they rub against to sharpen their horns. We let ourselves indulge in Nature's sense of calmness and in the beauty of the wild animals."

Packing their backpacks with only the bare essentials, the students spent their days without phones or an Internet connection.

"There were no easy hikes, especially when we needed to walk uphill, downhill, across the thorns or on sand dunes, which left us covered in dirt and scars. It was hard to believe that we could 'survive' without any technological devices. We had a great time talking to each other, helping to dig wells, making fires and cutting up food for meals."

Besides walking on the wilderness trail, the students spent time with rhino calves that had been orphaned as a result of poaching. They had the chance to witness the dedication of conservationists in taking care of those rhinos in Africa.

"Baby rhinos were distributed to different reserves to stave off extinction. While the South African government, wildlife organisations and citizens there strive to protect not only the rhinos but also other endangered animals, it is a shame that Viet Nam is trying to 'steal away' resources that don't even belong to us," Tam said.

New frontier: Nguyen Minh Tam on her 5-day journey to South Africa. — VNS Photos

On the last day of their trip, the Vietnamese students joined workshops facilitated by the Wilderness Foundation Africa, where they were taught about the reality of the rhino poaching crisis. They got the chance to hear from wildlife veterinarian Dr William Fowlds, who works as a vet for rhinos and who taught them about the processes involved in treating the animals that had been wounded by poachers.

"But most importantly," Tam added, "we watched the film on HOPE, a rhino, which revealed how she was found and the pain she has suffered during her recovery. It was so touching that the whole team was completely silent, and some of us had tears in our eyes."

Now that she is back home, Tam plans to use her personal blog as a tool to spread the news of her experience and her thoughts on the conservation of wild animals. Together with her friends, she is trying to create huge posters to exhibit at their schools during major events such as the Charity Bazaar, Family Fun Day and music concerts, so that the message can reach the appropriate target audience of parents and other adults.

"I have also been added to several Facebook groups where African and international participants provide updates on rhinos and other endangered wild animals every single day, showing their care and effort in managing this crisis while some Vietnamese people remain nonchalant about the fact that rhino horns have no medical properties."

Tam was certain she would make use of her experience after the competition.

The Wild Rhino Competition, presented by the Wilderness Foundation, aims to restrict the demand for rhino horns in primary user countries such as Viet Nam. Accompanying the 22 senior students who submitted the most comprehensive ideas on preserving the trail was Vietnamese popstar Thanh Bui, who has also played an integral part in the competition since its inception in 2014. — VNS

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