Picture of Melinda MacInnis at the Denver Zoo in Colorado

Melinda MacInnis at the Denver Zoo in Colorado

Photograph by Dana Romanoff

Finding Beauty in the Beasts

Swaziland is about as far from south-central L.A. as you can get. But for Melinda MacInnis, a former English teacher, distance brought a perspective that her classroom could not. Seven years ago, she took a trip to southern Africa’s wilderness areas, where she witnessed both the devastation brought by poachers and the power of ecotourism to transform communities and save wildlife. “It sounds trite, but I had one of those clear-as-a-bell moments where I just knew I had to help,” she says. “But what was I going to do?”

The teacher hit the books, researching conservation and poaching, focusing especially on rhinos. “I decided to make a documentary—not that I had any experience in the field,” says MacInnis. “But as a teacher, I was forever telling my students that if they worked hard and followed their passions, they could achieve anything.”

She returned to Swaziland and started filming The Price, a largely self-funded documentary about the global plight of the rhinos. “It’s called The Price because rhino horn is now one of the most expensive illegal substances on the planet. The title also refers to the price of our disregard for the natural world,” says MacInnis.

Filming took MacInnis around the world. “This all happened because I took that first trip,” says MacInnis. “Traveling is the single greatest way of understanding something. It allows you to bear witness in a way you just can’t replicate.”

—By George W. Stone

THE INTERVIEW

National Geographic Traveler: Tell us about your pre-rhino life.

Melinda MacInnis: My background is in education. For over ten years I worked in south-central L.A., one of the most notorious inner-city regions in America, first as an English teacher in the public school system and then for an educational outreach program at [the University of Southern California]. I love working with kids; it was very challenging and fulfilling work, and I’d probably still be doing it if it weren't for a fateful trip I took to Africa.

NGT: How did that trip come about?

MM: I’ve always been an avid traveler, and teaching with its built-in vacations was a great profession for indulging this passion. In 2008, when my college roommate suggested that I come with her to South Africa to visit her sister who lives in Johannesburg, I jumped at the chance. Africa was at the tip-top of my bucket list. We went on to plan a trip across South Africa that would give us optimal wildlife viewing, like traveling to KwaZulu-Natal where the giant leatherback turtles come to a protected beach to lay their eggs. My friend’s sister also suggested that we visit Swaziland, a place favored by locals for a prime wildlife experience.

NGT: Did you do a lot of planning?

MM: To be honest, I didn’t know the first thing about the tiny African kingdom of Swaziland, so I started reading up on it. I learned how Swaziland, like so much of colonized Africa, had lost its great herds of game, first to the European pelt traders and sport hunters who took out hundreds of thousands of impala and other hoof stock, and then to the European farmers and ranchers who brought the rinderpest, an invasive disease spread by their imported cattle, and who poisoned the wildebeests’ watering holes (seen as competition for cattle) and in the process also killing all the other wildlife.

By the late 1950s, Swaziland had basically lost all of its non-domesticated animals, though it was held together culturally and politically by a beloved king, King Sobhuza II. Then in the early 1960s, a Swazi named Ted Reilly, devastated by the loss of his country's wildlife, created Swaziland’s first nature reserve. He turned his father’s farm into a sanctuary by restoring the natural habitat and then by painstakingly bringing back all the species that had gone regionally extinct. He says that when the migratory birds finally returned, that’s when he knew they were succeeding.

When King Sobhuza saw the success Reilly was having, he charged him with establishing Swaziland’s national park system. It was a great triumph the day they finally brought back elephants, which represent the Swazi queen mother, and lions, which represent the king, to the country. And the thriving wildlife, in turn, eventually brought ecotourism and jobs.

NGT: That’s quite an impressive lesson!

MM: I’m reminded of that famous John Muir quote about every individual thread being "hitched to everything else in the universe," because in learning about Swaziland, I ended up learning a tremendous amount about Africa's ecosystems as a whole. And then, when we arrived at one of Swazi's big game parks, not only were there endangered species flourishing everywhere (just as my friend’s sister had promised), but there actually was Ted Reilly himself sitting having tea. It was like having a character from a book suddenly spring to life right in front of you. I was overjoyed to recognize him, and after convincing him that I was a real and true animal lover (or "bunny hugger," as they call you in South Africa), he spent the next few days on a series of game drives educating us about the realities of protecting wildlife and wild places in Africa.

NGT: What did you learn from Ted?

MM: Though I’d known about the full-scale tragedy of the elephant poaching that had occurred in Africa during the 20th century, I learned for the first time about the Rhino Wars that had gripped the continent in the late 1980s, decimating as much as 90 percent of many rhino populations. To make matters worse, at that time, in late 2008, it looked as though a current round of Rhino Wars was gearing up, as demand for rhino horn suddenly reared its head in Vietnam.

And the methods of poaching were just brutal. This was not poverty-level poaching, poor people trying to feed themselves; this was hardcore criminal activity with poachers using AK-47s, night vision goggles, working with corrupt veterinarians and game reserve owners, and rhinos being left to bleed to death with half their faces missing. As I sat there in a jeep listening to Ted describe what he and his rangers were up against and at the same time watching healthy rhinos—these epic, beautiful creatures in front of me—it sounds trite, but I just knew I had to help.

NGT: What were your first steps?

MM: For a couple years I researched everything I could get my hands on. I studied the five species of rhino and their subspecies, and realized that together they constituted perhaps the most endangered large animal group on the planet. Of the Javan rhino, which used to exist in the millions throughout Asia, there were now only 40 left! Of the Sumatran rhino, there were less than 100. And of the greater one-horned, there were only about 3,500 left in India and Nepal. The two African rhino species contained approximately 4,500 black rhinos and 20,000 white rhinos, though experts now think this number is greatly inflated.

I began researching a wide variety of other extinction issues as well, and as I read and educated myself, the rhino crisis in Africa just kept getting worse. Finally, I decided that I was going to have to make a documentary. Not that I had any experience in the field, but I just couldn't stand on the sidelines any longer.

NGT: Were you bothered by the fact that you didn’t know how to make a documentary?

MM: I’d been mulling over that trip to Africa, telling myself that I wasn't a filmmaker or a trained conservationist. But then I realized that it was time for me to put my doubts aside. If I was an educator, and a hardy traveler, and passionate about environmental and social justice issues, well then that’s what I was going to bring to the table. I set about badgering people I knew in the film industry to help me, and one of the people who agreed (and there have been many) was a dear friend named John Mans, who is a cinematographer. He was willing to donate his time in the name of wildlife protection, so we went to Swaziland and started filming what has turned into a 14-country documentary about the plight of the world’s rhinos and their place as gatekeepers in a potential sixth mass extinction event.

NGT: Do you feel that you’re racing against time?

MM: The Rhino Wars have unfortunately continued to escalate as the black market price for rhino horn soars past the price of gold. The attack on rhinos for their horns is a global issue, taking place in all rhino range states, but the majority of rhinos being poached this decade are coming from South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Kruger is the size of Israel, holds somewhere between five to ten thousand of the world’s white rhinos, and shares an open border with Mozambique, so it’s being hit the hardest by organized crime rings. Porous borders around the globe help make wildlife trafficking possible, and it's now estimated that wildlife crime and trafficking is a $30 to $50 billion industry annually. Right now, 70 percent of all poachers caught in South Africa are from Mozambique, so that means that once a rhino is killed in Kruger, most often its horn disappears back over the border and exits Mozambique for Asian black markets.

NGT: How great is the threat?

MM: If we don’t start working together to protect wild animals—from rhinos and elephants, to fish and birds and bees—and place more importance on protecting biodiversity and natural ecosystem services, then there is going to be hell to pay if a domino effect sets in. Animal well-being and human well-being go hand in hand, and that’s part of the message I’m determined to help get out to a global audience.

NGT: Where does the film stand?

MM: We’re now in postproduction, having completed filming in southeast Asia, China, Africa, Europe, and the United States, and having done interviews with many of the world’s leading conservation experts, such as Jane Goodall, Daphne Sheldrick (of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust), Wayne Pacelle (CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S.), and Alan Rabinowitz (CEO of Panthera and founder of the revolutionary South American Jaguar Corridor), as well as with leaders in world rhino affairs in Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Kenya, and even San Diego and Denver.

NGT: What motivates your mission?

MM: I’m motivated by a hunt for both global and local solutions, and by the sheer urgency of how quickly we are wiping out the last of our wild creatures and wild places. We've got to evolve in our relationship with the natural world, and we've got to do it now.

NGT: What have you learned so far?

MM: The power of ecotourism is a very real thing. It has the power to change lives, transform communities, and save wildlife all in a sustainable way. But you can't just tell indigenous communities that ecotourism is good for them if it's not. There has to be a real and lasting economic and social benefit for all parties involved.

I’ve learned that traveling to the source is the single greatest way of understanding something. If you want to be an authority on something, you need to go see the facts on the ground for yourself. It allows you to share in each other's humanity, and it allows you to bear witness in a way you just can't replicate.

I’ve also learned that nature is very good at healing itself. If we create the space, like Ted Reilly did all those years ago on his father’s farm, nature will recover. And when you protect one species, you get the bonus of protecting all the other species around them. Evolution has created a mind-blowing array of plants and animals on this planet. What a glorious place to get to call home. I mean, just look at the rhino!

>> Next: Breaking Down Racial Barriers

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