Editor’s Note: Behati Prinsloo Levine is a Namibian supermodel and global ambassador for Save The Rhino Trust Namibia, an organization that works to protect the last remaining population of wild black rhinos. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more Opinion at CNN.
A million species are on the brink of extinction. A million.
That is enough to make you want to lock yourself in a room and scream, or hide, or stick your head in the sand.
Some species are becoming extinct because of poaching.
Even my home country of Namibia, which has a spectacular conservation record, with the protection of the environment enshrined in our Constitution and a community-based conservation program that has been emulated around the world, hasn’t been safe from the scourge of poaching.
Since 2015, poaching has caused the loss of 50 black rhinos annually in Namibia, according to Bernadette Jagger, the Environment and Tourism deputy minister.
While Namibia and its black rhinos may be a world away for many, this is a pattern that has a devastating domino effect. It’s easy for the extinction of one species to escalate to 1 million, if people from all corners of the world aren’t open to learning what they can do – no matter how small – to save nature.
Globally, there is a $23-billion-a-year trade in illegal wildlife products. It is crime on a massive scale, right up there with drugs, arms and human smuggling in terms of its value and devastation, and the United States is one of the major consumers of illegal wildlife products.
Driven by a demand in China and Vietnam, where it is thought to be a cure for a variety of ailments and a status symbol, rhino horn sells for up to $100,000 per kilo on the black market - more than the price of platinum.
This illegal trade is making some people very rich, but it is not rural Africans. Here, impoverished individuals are being exploited, convinced to trade the life of a rhino for a few hundred dollars and the possibility of years in jail.
If the thought of this cruelty is enough to make you want to pull your hair out, it is an apt response: Rhino horn is made mostly of keratin, the same substance as found in our fingernails and hair.
For my part in helping to slow down this devastating reality, I took a trip back home.
All it took was a phone call from Ginger Mauney, who is on the board of Save the Rhino Trust Namibia and has been galvanizing change for rhinos through WWF (World Wildlife Fund) in Namibia’s Rhino Innovation Fund, to get me there. Her story – their story – was compelling. Her connection to Namibia felt like mine. Seven months later, I was on the ground in Namibia, determined to learn more about black rhino conservation and how I could make a difference.
First stop, Mount Etjo Safari Lodge, where Annette Olefose has had great success in hand-rearing orphaned black and white rhinos. This is where I heard Nossi’s story.
Nossi, a black rhino, was born in Etosha National Park, a magnificent place where my parents and I spent many holidays when I was growing up, but Nossi’s birth was less than idyllic. She was born in a boma, a wooden enclosure, before her mother could be moved as part of Namibia’s successful rhino custodianship program.
Since the early 1990s, this program has relocated small, breeding nucleuses of black rhinos to land where there is sufficient food, water and protection for them to thrive. It encourages breeding but, like all conservation measures, it can be imperfect.
When Nossi was born, her mother was stressed and pushed her around. By the time Etosha’s veterinarian got to her, Nossi was given less than a 10% chance of survival.
With Olefose’s massive investment of time, energy and compassion, Nossi survived and, last year, she gave birth to her eighth calf. One animal. Eight calves. And counting. In a population on the brink of extinction, this represents an important increase in the world’s black rhino population.
Nossi lives a wild life on a massive private farm, but Namibia is also home to the largest population of free-roaming black rhino left on earth.
Who is protecting them?
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When we landed at Desert Rhino Camp, a joint venture between Wildlife Safaris Namibia, SRT and three local community run conservancies, we were spellbound.
Mars must look like this: A vast land covered in red rocks, ancient plants and flat-topped mountains, but it could not be more beautiful. In this area the size of Vermont with no national park status and no control over who comes in or out, SRT has been monitoring and protecting rhinos since 1982.
SRT is the oldest rhino protection organization in the world, and, along with its partners in communities and the government, SRT shepherded rhinos back from the brink of extinction in the late 1980s, at the end of Namibia’s war for Independence.
Together with Rhino Rangers, SRT trackers rotate their patrols, spending 21 days a month walking across this harsh, rugged terrain, tracking rhinos, sleeping under the stars and positively identifying each animal in their patrol area.
The level of dedication and pride that the trackers take in their work is humbling, and the bullet hole in the vehicle – sustained after being in the cross fire between poachers and protectors – driven by SRT’s head of intelligence is evidence of the risks they take to protect the rhinos.
All of these efforts have come together to try and to save a species that has roamed this Earth for 50 million years.
I learned that my support matters. I will share conservation messages, donate, vote for those who support environmental protection and raise my girls to respect and protect the environment.
Your support matters too. Because together, we can save the rhino. Together, we can change the world.