Could We Have Done More to Help Save the Northern White Rhino?

Ben Bressler March 26, 2018 0

During a recent coffee talk in our Boulder, Colorado office, a new Operations team member asked whether I had any regrets over the 30-plus years since I founded Nat Hab. “Besides wearing socks with sandals,” another chided. I’m guilty of that affront, but I had to think hard about the serious side of my colleague’s question.

Nat Hab’s work has proven infinitely rewarding, both personally and for the planet. We were the world’s first carbon-neutral travel company. With our focus on wildlife tourism, what could be a greater honor than being selected as World Wildlife Fund’s conservation travel partner? And we’ve seen the fruits of our expeditions play out in incredible grassroots sustainability efforts in so many of the wild places that we visit.

So, what do I regret? I didn’t have an answer in the moment.

A couple days later, however, the world’s last male northern white rhino died, and I immediately had my reply.

Extinction is scary. And my first thought was, “Wow…I might have missed an opportunity to help change this nightmare.”

Sudan, the world's last male northern white rhino

Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino. © Paul Kirui

About 20 years ago, Colin Bell, one of our South Africa partners, suggested we work together to create a specialized safari into the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo, where a couple dozen endangered northern white rhinos still lived in the wild. The white rhinos were facing a dire situation in two politically tumultuous countries.

Throughout our history, Nat Hab has run all sorts of unusual wildlife trips. At the time the northern white rhino proposition emerged, our offerings included a wild cat workshop in Botswana and puffin trips to the Fair Isle Bird Observatory in northern Scotland’s Shetland Islands. It was cool stuff, and this rhino adventure sounded cool, too.

I gave expeditions to the DRC and CAR considerable thought. But ultimately, we declined. We didn’t have the chutzpah to get into this less-explored, and potentially dangerous, area.

I wish I had decided otherwise.

I’m not claiming that if Nat Hab had agreed to operate northern white rhino tours in 1999 the species wouldn’t be on the precipice of extinction today. But I can say this is one missed opportunity to help raise up a species that I might regret.

Natural Habitat Adventures Expedition Leader Paul Kirui with Sudan, the last male northern white rhino

NHA Expedition Leader Paul Kirui (right) with Sudan, the last male northern white rhino. © Paul Kirui

I can’t take back our decision, but I can keep this lesson in mind as we move forward during the next 20 years. More is often better—and bringing a critical mass of expertly guided travelers to a critical conservation destination, like we do with endangered gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda or imperiled southern white rhinos in Botswana, has a well-documented positive impact on wildlife protection.

Still, sometimes we need to step out of our comfort zone and try something unconventional in the hope that even a small contribution might influence conservation and benefit a struggling species. We are doing that now in a few areas, and, looking back, I wish the northern white rhino habitat was one of them.

Some destinations may prove too dangerous, and we have to take every precaution we can. But, honestly, extinction is dangerous too.

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