Saving The Rhino: one photograph at a time

Chantelle Melzer, wildlife photographer from Zululand, uses her affinity with mother nature and her passion for rhinos to drive conservation through her art. With this, of course, come some wonderful stories from her adventures…

Happiness is — crawling around on the ground photographing northern white rhinos — as the sun starts going down. 
Some incredible and special moments spent at Ol Pejeta Conservency, Kenya, with Najin, Fatu and their Southern white rhino companion. Najin and Fatu are the last 2 remaining female Northern White Rhinos. Photo credit: Shane Raw

What’s your story?

I was born and raised in Zululand, South Africa and as far back as I can remember I have always had a passion for wildlife and the African bush. I also knew I wanted to work with wildlife somehow, so I initially completed my B.SC in Natural Sciences through correspondence hoping to get more involved in the field of research. For various reasons, this proved to be more difficult than anticipated. My other passion is art, and particularly photography which has become my full time profession. It was through this medium that I ended up gaining more opportunities to spend time in the bush observing and photographing wildlife and this in turn led to me developing associations with a few conservation organisations.

Getting up close and personal with Sudan, the last remaining male Northern white rhino. Photo credit: Shane Raw

My greatest wish is for my work to make a REAL and positive difference to the wildlife that I love so dearly. I have strived to combine my two passions of art and wildlife in such a way as to hopefully benefit conservation. One of the ways I hope to achieve this is by creating meaningful artistic images that are aimed at capturing the hearts and minds of people in order to create awareness and additionally to contribute directly to organisations that are fighting hard to save our precious wildlife. My love for nature and all things wild runs deep. I cannot imagine a world without it, and it would feel very wrong not fighting for it.

What we’re all fighting for. Wallowing in mud acts as a cooling method whilst relieving biting insects and protects against sunburn. Photo credit: Chantelle Melzer

I cannot pinpoint an event or moment that spurred me to devote time and energy towards rhino conservation specifically. I guess I was just drawn to rhinos. Through my photography work I found myself in the presence of rhinos more than most other species and through observing and photographing special moments shared between individuals, I have really come to love their unique personalities.

Due to the ongoing poaching scourge in Southern Africa, we are constantly exposed to the horrific news of ever-more frequent and savage poaching incidents and the heart wrenching stories of wounded and traumatised orphans. This has really hit home hard and I have become even more resolute to try and do more — for rhinos, elephants and other wildlife — in whatever way I can. I have recently been involved in a handful of projects and photo shoots focused on rhino conservation and also have a few more personal projects lined up that I hope can somehow make a difference, even if only in a small way.

One such project involved spending time with orphaned rhinos while capturing a few behind-the-scenes images at Care for Wild Africa. Hearing about the horrors that each and every one of these precious little beings had been through caused me to feel an even stronger affinity for rhinos, and a great deal of heartache at the same time. They are completely un-deserving of such savagery at the hands of greed driven “humans”.

Chantelle taking a break from photography to lovingly feed Bakara, a blind black rhino at the Ol Pejeta conservancy. Photo credit: Shane Raw

The most difficult thing working with rhinos

As a wildlife photographer I love to sit quietly and watch stories unfold, be it the interaction between a mother and calf, or the behaviour displayed between members of a crash (a group of rhinos). Just observing these interactions can be really heart-warming and it makes me realise how much communication actually takes place and also how much emotion is involved during these physical and sometimes vocal interactions. These emotions range from joy and playfulness to fear and sadness and are totally relatable. I guess having lost my own father at a young age, I somehow feel an even stronger empathy towards the orphans. I am consumed with sadness every time I hear of another calf being orphaned, having recollections of that moment where a big part in your life is instantly ripped away and everything changes.

After being shot by and escaping from the same poachers who killed her mother, an injured and orphaned 10-month-old female rhino was rescued and brought to a rhino sanctuary after an eight-day search across a private game reserve outside of Kruger National Park in South Africa. Source: The Dodo.

Ultimately, I see these magnificent creatures as gentle giants who are just trying to live their lives, trying to survive against the natural elements. They are intelligent, they have emotions and they feel pain. The emotional impact of the seemingly endless body count has also been overwhelming at times, and yet I do not have nearly as much direct exposure to the reality of the situation as the individuals on the ground — the vets, rangers and other teams — who work tirelessly to try and keep the rhinos safe, treat the wounded survivors as well as tend to the post-mortems. These men and women are truly heroic.

A baby white rhino enjoys a roll around in the mud. Photo credit: Chantelle Melzer

Your most memorable experience with rhinos?

A memorable experience with a truly wild rhino that immediately comes to mind was my very first encounter with a black rhino… on foot! Whilst on the trail of a herd of elephants, the ecologist leading our 3-man team stopped dead in his tracks and with a sense of urgency whispered “get down. Get down”. It turned out we had inadvertently woken a black rhino from his mid-day slumber and he was extremely grumpy about that fact. Luckily we were able to retreat slowly, using the long grass to our advantage with the rhino angrily still trying to figure out who had interrupted him and where we had disappeared to. This was definitely one of the more exhilarating and scary situations I have found myself in.

The most memorable and moving experience however, was meeting Sudan — the last remaining male northern white rhino on the planet. It is hard to describe what I was feeling at that moment because the range of emotions that hit me was really quite diverse and somewhat overwhelming. It was incredibly exciting as well as a privilege and great honour to stand right next to the gentle-natured Sudan and capture photographs of this magnificent beast! At the same time I was stricken with sadness that he is the very last male of his species left in existence, and if the current scientific research and efforts to save the species from total extinction are unsuccessful the entire species will die with him. I felt utter disgrace that mankind has caused let alone allowed this to happen and embarrassed to call myself human in his presence. After having spent a full day at the conservancy and several hours alone with Sudan, we needed to be on our way. Walking away from him was much harder than I thought it could ever be, and just to make it even harder, he jumped up and started looking for us, as if he had not had enough scratches for the day. I couldn’t help but burst into tears.

A fine-art portrait of Fatu, one of the last two remaining female Northern White Rhinos left on this planet. Image captured by Chantelle Melzer.

The biggest reward

I have to admit that I feel that the work I do and what I have achieved so far is rather insignificant in the big picture. The vets, the rangers, the anti-poaching units and the orphanages are deserving of all the credit and praise — they are the real heroes and I have the utmost respect for who they are and what they do. I have always had the desire to do more, and found that through my photography I could tell a story, convey a message that would hopefully have an impact by showcasing the beauty of the natural world and teaching the importance of fighting for our wildlife and preserving its natural beauty.

It has been extremely rewarding receiving heartfelt messages and comments that express how much my images and stories have affected individuals from all corners of the globe. It has been rewarding to hear that my work has provided the spark and the motivation for others to take action as well, and given them the will to be a voice and to fight for our rhino and other wildlife.

“Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit” — Edward Abbey. I often think about this quote and how important it is to relay that message.

Melzer getting shots — of the right kind — from the air. Photo credit: Shane Raw

The changes we must see if poaching is to decrease

We need to ALL start working together. Whether you are for or against the legal trade of rhino horn — we need to work together! We need to put our differences aside, drop the ego and change our attitude towards others who are fighting the same fight, even if the methods used are slightly different. At the end of the day we all have a common goal: to SAVE THE RHINO. Until individuals, companies and organisations fighting to save the species can find common ground and start working together — it is a losing battle. It needs to be about the rhino!

Two white rhinos share a loving kiss in the water. Photo credit: Chantelle Melzer

If you would like to follow Chantelle on her adventures please see the below links for her social media:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/CMPwildlife

Instagram: @chantellemelzer

Website: www.chantellemelzer.com

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