“I knew about the poaching crisis and senseless slaughtering of rhinos but I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into”

Australian photojournalist and rhino lover Jason Savage shares his incredible stories he has gathered whilst working in the African Bush as a rhino monitor at Wild Heart Conservation.

What’s your story?

“My name is Jason Savage, but everyone calls me ‘Sav’. I am a rhino monitor at Wild Heart Conservation. I only began to work with rhinos a year ago when the owners and friends of mine at Wild Heart approached me to see if I would be interested in making the move over to South Africa to help them out. At the time I was at home in Adelaide, Australia working as a labourer who spent most of his days thinking about the African bush and how I was going to get back there.

So obviously I jumped at the opportunity. I had worked as a guide previously but didn’t enjoy it because you can’t really connect with people that leave after a day or two, and the main focus wasn’t on the wildlife. I always had a passion for conservation, monitoring wildlife and showing people some of the amazing wildlife that we share the planet with.

I’ve always been amazed by rhinos and by some of my favourite encounters with them. I’ve seen a curious Black rhino almost get flipped over in natal by a much larger white rhino. When I was a guide I did a lot of walks by myself because if there were no guests we weren’t allowed to drive around and waste fuel. So I used to head out to where the rhinos were and get into good positions to watch them for hours.

Coming to work for Wild Heart I knew about the poaching crisis and senseless slaughtering of rhinos that was taking place but I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into. After experiencing it right from the start it really opened my eyes to be in this battle for the long haul. We can’t lose these incredible animals.

A peaceful dehorned wild rhino enjoying a drink from a watering hole on a hot day. Savage was sitting just over a meter away and witnessed a young bull dive into the water shortly after this photograph was taken. Photo credit: Jason Savage

At Wild Heart we are a conservation volunteer project that focuses on White Rhinos. We monitor a small crash of rhinos that the volunteers get to have some incredible experiences with and connect with the individual animals. Everyone that’s come and seen these rhinos is now a part of the rhino movement, in creating much needed awareness about what’s going on over here in Africa.”

Volunteers at Wild Heart Conservation enjoy a morning coffee/tea break under the Nyala Berry tree, in between rhino monitoring and exploring the reserve. Photo credit: Jason Savage/Wild Heart Conservation

The most difficult thing working with rhinos

“One personal hurdle is obviously being away from friends and family, but it makes it a lot easier knowing I have their support and believe in what I’m doing.

The hardest thing is the constant stress of not knowing if when you head out to check on them you’re going to find a dead rhino.

The eyes that say a thousand words. A victim of poaching sheds a tear as she receives life saving treatment for her wounds. Since 2008 poachers have killed at least 5,940 African rhinos (source: IUCN, 2016). Photo credit: Boots on the ground

At the start of the year the poaching activity was constant and basically shift work all through the day and night. I did a lot of the night drives by myself and slept during the day. It was never ending but right from the first time I saw the rhinos I knew I had to do everything I could to make sure they were as safe as possible. I put a lot of stress and pressure on myself to do as much as I could because I had easily fallen in love with them. If you can’t pick up a signal because they have moved far away into a different area the panic levels start to rise. But, when you finally get the signal and have them trot up to the vehicle to greet us the panic subsides.

Telemetry is used to pinpoint the location of rhinos that are otherwise difficult to find and track. Photo credit: Wild Heart Conservation

A lot of the volunteers we get come to Africa to see elephants who are a very emotional species which people connect with. After seeing our rhinos things become very different. Getting to know an animal for a period of time allows you to share a connection with them. Knowing their behaviour and personalities volunteers leave with a deep understanding of the animals. It’s really hard to explain but if everyone saw these rhinos for themselves, my rambling would make a lot more sense, they are amazing.

In my first week and first drive, completely on my own, I stumbled on poachers when I was on a high point. I radioed in and the chase began at 8 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. I thought we might catch the guys but they were well trained and got away. That was a tiring introduction to rhino conservation and the work that goes in to protecting these animals.”

Your most memorable experience with rhinos?

“Being able to spend so much time with the rhinos I am amazed at how many experiences I’ve been able to have and how happy these animals make me. Besides showing the volunteers the rhinos and seeing the excitement on their faces every time they see them, it was also awesome to get out into the bush and spend time with the rhinos by myself. They trust us and we are able to be in their presence without them being worried, we just have to let them know we are there.

Jason Savage shares a beautiful moment with a white rhino at dusk

With so many awesome experiences like elephants chasing rhinos away, all the rhinos together playing and chasing each other around the vehicle or just being a part of their normal activities like sitting on the opposite side of a waterhole that’s about 2.5 metres wide and taking photos of them drinking and playing in the water. Sometimes it’s hard to believe they are wild animals but they are very much wild!

My favourite moment was when a group of rhinos were in a dry river bed. I was alone and decided to sneak up and get photos of them without them knowing I was there.

South Africa had been hit by a severe drought and there wasn’t much water about. The wind changed and they began to get nervous with the smell of human in the air. I called to let them know I was there and instantly they started to follow me, as I walked them back to the vehicle they smelled the ground and did a thing called a ‘flehmen grimace’ which is where they get information on other rhinos that had scent marked the area. Then, as they continued to follow me around the last bit of mud left in the waterhole they diverted and dove head first into the mud. I witnessed a 2 tonne animal vanish under the mud only to have a massive head reappear straight after. The others joined and I was able to capture it all with my camera. They all looked so happy rolling around in the mud and I couldn’t wipe the smile of my face as I sat on the ground some metres away.

A 2 tonne rhino goes enjoys a mud bath at dusk, right next to Jason. Photo credit: Jason Savage

Another experience which means a lot to me was the rhinos dehorning. Dehorning is where you remove the horn safely in the hope it makes them less attractive to a poacher’s rifle. The poaching activity was relentless and the land owner made the decision to dehorn, a decision we agreed with. It was only a matter of time before we were going to lose a rhino. It was lucky as they moved into an area that was safe and stayed there whilst the poachers did as they pleased on the other side of the reserve.

Jason Savage assists in the dehorning of a rhino using a chainsaw. Photo credit: Jason Savage

The dehorning went well, and it was amazing to see how it hadn’t affected the trust the rhinos had in us. It didn’t affect the way they interacted with each other in the slightest. It still doesn’t take away the fact we took away something that belongs on a rhino. How can something so pointless be so necessary? As human greed is wiping out a species every deterrent needs to be taken. The private rhino owners are standing and fighting to save the species with very little help from the government.

The biggest reward

Firstly, the biggest reward is all the new friends you make in the volunteering industry. I have met a lot of international people I still keep in touch with. 
Without a doubt the best thing is seeing the rhinos every day. I don’t think there are too many jobs where you’re excited to actually get out of bed in the morning and disappointed when the day is over. This is the effect these animal have I don’t ever want to have a day off.

What drives me personally is seeing the social media posts of rhinos with half their faces missing or bloated and laying on their sides. I’ve never seen a poached rhino first hand but I know I really don’t want to.”

Taken in the Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, South Africa, this photograph shows worker Lynne McTavish grieving for a rhino on the reserve who had been tragically killed by poachers. This sadly happens once every six hours. Photo credit: Speldhurst on Imgur.

“I’m the same as so many people fighting to protect wildlife; everyone just wants to see them doing well and in their natural habitat. It’s just proving difficult because of human greed.

I’ve gained a wealth of knowledge and experience in the industry, made some awesome friends and got to work with rhinos for a year. It’s been an awesome experience and I’ve started to create a name for myself on social media.

Social media is a great way to get the message across as well as bring the rhinos into people’s lives. I’ve gained a lot but it’s not enough, I would love to learn more and be able to do more for the rhinos and other wildlife to raise awareness. I love being outdoors and in nature so I really hope it can lead to a successful career. I have a passion for photography and conservation journalism so I hope to continue with that.”

The changes we must see if poaching is to decrease

“It’s not a battle that can be won by individual organisations; everyone needs to come together because people power is a very powerful thing. It’s going to be very difficult here in Africa when the current government of South Africa doesn’t care about the wildlife. It’s scary that people know what’s wrong with the planet and the species, yet the people we have in power don’t seem to care at all, and they make the decisions. Its sadly comical listening to people in power talk about the environment, yet there are some that are fighting for the right thing. 
The biggest thing is to stop corruption, which is almost impossible because money talks.

It’s all collective with education, corruption and the government. It’s a hard question to answer because if people knew the answer already poaching would stop. The wars that are fuelled by poaching from central Africa, which will be more interesting once they release black rhinos back into Rwanda. I can’t wait to see that happen and bring in the tourists and generate money for a not to wealthy country.

The best thing is to keep the interest there and create a little army of people wanting to save the rhinos, even from the comfort of their own homes. The best thing to do is to visit rhino projects and help the anti-poaching units and the people that are protecting them and monitoring them.

Amongst all the depressing news on rhinos we always see so many stories of hope that are worth fighting for.
People want to save the things they love and rhinos are easy to love.”

If you are interested in Wild Heart Conservation please go to www.whconservation.co.za for more information and volunteering opportunities.

Find Jason on Instagram: @sav_wildheartphotography 
Find Wild Heart Conservation on Instagram: @whconserv

Jason Savage captures an intimate moment with two precious rhinos.
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