First and Last – Exploring Seattle with Men Who Guard The Last Two Northern White Rhinos

How an Unexpected Visit Became a Transformational Life Event

Today was a day of firsts and lasts. A close friend of mine, Jacob Calle, flew into town. He’s always been a highly interesting friend. Every time we get together something unusual seems to happen. But today was my first time feeling as inspired as, I imagine, Jacob regularly does.

Jacob is a multi-talent conservationist, comedian, film maker, writer, magician and probably a dozen other things as well. He always seems to know the right people or have the right tickets. I don’t know how he does it — except maybe it’s just that he simply introduces himself and asks.

As I said, this morning was a first for me. Usually when Jacob flies into Seattle, we have our itinerary planned and I’m ready to go. This time I was not.

“I believe the more important thing is that the media should stop advancing knowledge to the public on how much a rhino horn is worth. This perpetuates the problem. “

Jacob Calle

I’ve been so busy and focused on other odds and ends that his visit always seemed to be two weeks away. Until it wasn’t two weeks later, it was now, he was here, and I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know what we were doing despite Jacob probably explaining it to me a dozen times. I just seemed to be focused on seemingly trivial things, like cookie policies, website construction, and accounting software.

I dropped the ball today and wound up making us late. He was pretty upset with me and that was a first. I simply didn’t foresee this day becoming as life altering as it was—I saw it as taking time away from legal disclaimers and editorial guidelines.

I’m an avid reader, maybe even an obsessive reader. I’ve read a handful of articles about the extinction of the Northern White Rhino and can even remember the photos from the articles.  I was taken aback when we walked into a swanky hotel lobby and there are James Mwenda and Joseph Wachira, two of the men responsible for protecting the last few Northern White Rhino’s from poachers and are featured in the documentary Kifaru. These two men, along with around 60 other men, spend ten months away from their family each year against all odds as they protect the last few Northern White Rhino’s left on Earth along with other wildlife on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

So, what did we do?

We went to the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop). It’s the first time I’ve been in years and the first time since the science fiction and music halves were combined into one museum. It was the first time seeing most of the exhibits currently showing. It was the first time seeing the axe Jack Nicholson used to chop through the door in the shining. It was the first time I saw Jimmy Hendrix’s stunning Martin Acoustic Guitar. It certainly was the first time I’ve played a guitar solo with a rhythm section provided by a real-life Rhino Protector from Kenya. Solid rhythm guitar work, James Mwenda!

After the museum, we rounded the corner and went to the top of the Space Needle. It was my first time revisiting the attraction in a decade and my first time since it was remodeled. It was my first time feeling my hair stand on end while putting my full-body weight on a sheet of glass more than 500 feet above the ground. The Space Needle has these newly installed benches that are connected to the glass wall around the observation deck. I’m not particularly afraid of heights, but you really can’t help but feel anxiety when leaning backwards over a glass pane separating you from the city far below.

It was my first time seeing the last house Kurt Cobain lived in. The first time reading the countless messages from people saying their last goodbyes and the first time I had to explain Pearl Jam to someone in Seattle.

Later I asked James about his experience traveling around America and his favorite places.

“Basically, a few places struck my heart, from the hike in Half dome Yosemite, walking through my Hero’s trail (John Muir) visiting the Muir Woods, Seattle, Colorado and Raleigh were great to me,” James said. “My overall US trip was amazing. People turned out in good numbers for our films screenings [and] were engaged and connected to it. At the end, the audience was awakened and got to a point of realization that we need to do something now to save many more endangered species. The highlights being the moments people were drawn to it and ask what we need to do. The fact that the message was going home with them was amazing. Apart from that it was great meeting many people, the culture, food and travels!”

It was the first time I’d been to the Seattle International Film Festival. It was the first time I was going to see a documentary featuring people I now consider friends.

I’m aware of animal extinctions. Or at least I thought I was. I really wasn’t. The Dodo, the Woolly Mammoth, the Thylacine, all may as well be imaginary creatures invented in a children’s book. I was unprepared for what I watched in Kifaru.

“Honestly, extinction seems to many like a distant thing. So many people don’t connect or really perceive it, even our definition of it does no justice to the reality,” James said. “Humans have only defined it, but never walked it. In this regard, it feels distant. I believe that the only way to connect to nature, and especially feel and understand when such a thing like extinction happens, is through spending time with it and being conscious of the environment. It is through our participation that we learn and understand nature. By connecting with nature, we gain a better appreciation.”

Viewing the film, one of the first things that went through my mind was how much are these horns worth that poachers would justify killing off an entire species?

Jacob answered my question in a pretty enlightening way. He said, “I believe the more important thing is that the media should stop advancing knowledge to the public on how much a rhino horn is worth. This perpetuates the problem. A poor man in Africa reads this article, or any news of a poacher being captured, the first sentence they read is ‘found with $xx,xxx worth of XYZ.’ This is free advertisement. Western Society seems to assign a monetary value to everything regardless of whether it’s appropriate. The rhino’s value on this planet is to exist and to only exist. Not to be taken apart, not to be eaten, not to be exploited, and certainly not the be assigned some arbitrary numbers with a dollar sign attached to it.”

Jacob is closer to this loss than most people in the world — he actively educates people and leads conservation efforts throughout the world and has even embedded himself with the same poachers that are directly threatening various species throughout Africa.

I’m curious what it’s like getting to know these people. He’s basically accomplished the equivalent of being tenuously safe while befriending multiple serial killers.

“This question I find difficult because, in the end, the poachers are the enemy of the planet. They are raping Mother Earth with zero guilt. These men will be responsible for the world-wide news reports once the entire population is wiped out, like the dodo bird and now the Northern White Rhinoceros,” Jacob said. “I do feel sorry for them though. I don’t blame them for what they do. The way your uncle looks at a deer is the exact same way a poacher looks at a rhino. In the end, it’s food on the table. They’re able to put their children in school, buy a vehicle, watch television. I met the kingpin who is responsible for the deaths of rhinos near his village and he told me that he wanted my life. He said to me, ‘Just look at where I live. Every day I struggle.’ When they compare the American lifestyle to theirs, the dichotomy is far and wide. They just want to live nicely. So yes, I feel terrible for them. I wish the government would do more for these rural villages. I wish for a lot of things to better the lives of the people in these areas. In order to save the rhino, we must protect the people. I have become friends with a few of them, eating their home cooked meals, playing with their children, sleeping in their beds, stayed up all night telling jokes over beer… I’ve grown close with these people and in the end,  I wish there was more that we could do.”

Kifaru is an unflinching portrayal of this tragedy. I watched the last male of entire species take its last breath of air. It was the first time I didn’t feel removed from the tragedy of extinction. Watching the last male of a species die had a profound effect. I tried pretty desperately to remain stoic, but tears forced their way out and continued to for some time.

There are 5,000 Rhino’s left in the wild. At the current rate, Rhino’s will become extinct within ten years.

Both tragic and breathtaking, I highly recommend watching Kifaru. The film’s impact has stuck with me for weeks. I think about James and Joseph almost daily. I want to thank Jacob Calle for inviting me on one of the most transformational day of my life.

Want to help?

James suggested, “One way to help is by creating awareness and letting the world realize that such a thing like species extinction is happening, and that we are the people to stop it. Second is by being engaged in conservation programs like activism, clean ups and most importantly volunteering to genuine conservation organizations and the other is financial support to organizations like where I work in Ol Pejeta.”


Written by Corey Dembeck

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