The roar of the helicopter breaks the silence of the otherwise undisturbed plains. A man leans out and fires a couple of tranquilizer darts into the thick hide of the rhino. Dust kicked up, grass blades flattened, a handful of men jump out and get to work on the sleeping animal: its horn is sawed off haphazardly in a matter of minutes and, the helicopter already high in the sky, the rhino is left in unimaginable pain to bleed to death. This scenario plays out over and over, day in and day out, in countless African countries where rhinos live.
The park rangers who patrol millions of acres don’t stand a chance. They might be better organized, more adept at planning and recon than they used to be, they are even armed, but they are no match for the poachers who are better equipped and highly motivated.
The commanders of rebel factions fomenting unrest or civil wars in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sierra Leone have recognized the financial potential of elephant tusks and rhino horns – they pay and equip unemployed youth a meager penny to fly poaching missions, then they trade the bounty on the black market where rhino horns and elephant tusks are more valuable than gold, thus keeping their arms caches replenished and wars going.
Rhino horn powder has been an ingredient in Chinese traditional medicine for centuries, believed to relieve high fever and detox the liver, among other ailments. It’s this property of cleansing the liver, especially after alcohol binges, that makes the powder precious in countries like Vietnam, where a new-found affluence has made the demand for such ingredients spike up out of proportion.
Rhinos might not be as cuddly looking as elephants nor do they occupy a place of note in any mythology. In fact, they are massive, menacing looking and riotous animals who will not hesitate to trample over anyone, animal or human, who crosses their path.
Anna Merz believed such attitude was caused by their poor eyesight. “Rhinos shoot first and ask questions later” she was fond of saying.
Anne Hepburn, later married to Mr. Merz, was an English rose who fell in love with Africa, maybe following in the footsteps of Karen Blixen. After many years spent in Ghana, she finally retired to Kenya with her husband, where, horrified at the slaughter of rhinos in the national parks at the hands of poachers, single-handedly went on a mission to create a sanctuary. It took her two years to find a patron, who turned out to be the Craig family, that would set aside 5,000 acres for a rhino conservancy program. The first rhino arrived in 1984, at a time when the black rhino population of Kenya was largely extinct.
The first 5,000 acres have now become 61,000 and make up the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy where 70 rhinos now live in peace. Doggedly, Ms. Merz set out to educate the local population, giving them a stake in the Conservancy that, today, runs activities as disparate and vital as micro-financing for local women, community programs, high-end vacation cottages, volunteer programs, rhino sponsorships and much more.
There are women, like Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall, who become the face for animal study or activism, but countless others develop a kinship with the animal kingdom and set out to help in extraordinary ways. Ms. Merz was one of them. She used her entire inheritance to set up the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and wrote a best-selling book titled “Rhinos: at the brink of extinction”. To prove that any animal, no matter how ill-tempered or stupid it might be considered, possesses consciousness and feelings, Ms. Merz was fond of talking about a young female rhino, Samia, abandoned at birth, whom she raised before releasing back into the wild. The two bonded in such a way that Samia would follow Ms.Merz around like a dog, even trying to get into bed with her at night.
The time came to reintroduce her back into her habitat when, one day, not realizing how big she had gotten, Samia tried to enter Ms. Merz’s house, as was her habit, and got stuck in the dining room door. Gallons of oil later, poured on her skin finally got her unstuck.
Ms. Merz died in South Africa on April 4. She leaves behind the rhinos to whom she gave a home and a new lease on life, a thriving Conservancy and, above all, an example for us all that we can will into reality whatever we can dream.
“Many people asked me, ‘why rhinos’? Did I particularly like them or have a ‘thing’ about them? The answer was very simple: the rhinos are in Kenya and I was in Kenya, and the rhinos were in terrible trouble.” Anna Merz