To Vietnam and Back… to Save Rhinos

Last year, as we here at OMG were at the height of our Rhino Letter Writing Campaign, we were contacted by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, asking if we would participate in an educational outreach program designed to help educate the youth of Vietnam about the plight of rhinos. So we applied for our visas, made sure our shot records were up-to-date and headed to Vietnam.

Why do government ID photos always look like mug shots?

The embassy was hosting their Operation Game Change Summit. Several “rhino ambassadors” represented South Africa, and my brother and I represented the USA.

The goal was to reach out to as many students, adults, and government officials as possible and share with them how dire the situation is for rhinos.

In some Asian markets, rhino horn is prized for its supposed medicinal value. In yet other Asian markets, rhino horn is being used to show off a person’s wealth. The reality is that rhino horn is made of keratin, which is the same material as your fingernails and hair. It has been proven to have no medicinal value, and this was something we needed to share with the people of Vietnam and throughout Asia.

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South African Rhino Ambassadors

The embassy partnered with the folks at Project Rhino KZN (which stands for KwaZulu-Natal) and the folks at Rhino Art (which is a part of The Kingsley Holgate Foundation) to assemble the best “Rhino Ambassadors” they could find. Grant Fowlds was the project coordinator and together with his partners Richard Mabanga (Rhino Art Zulu Cultural Ambassador) and Phelisa Maztyolo (African cultural dancer), he traveled with the elite team of from South Africa to Vietnam where we all met up.

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That’s me, second from left, at a Save the Rhino meeting with government officials at the Biodiversity Conservation Agency (BCA).

The Rhino Ambassadors included 16-year old Jared Robinson who is one of the ten founding members of Maritzburg College’s “Rhino Warriors,” Emma Van Der Meulen from Uplands College, who initiated the Uplands Rhino Project, Jacome Pretorius who is head of the Glenwood College Environment Committee, and 19-year-old Nadav Ossendryver ,who at the age of 15 founded the very popular app Latest Sightings which is now one of the most widely used apps in all of South Africa.

Latest Sightings is a platform for visitors who are currently on safari, be they rangers or tourists, to report the animals and events that they are seeing live. They report their location, time, and sighting, and the app broadcasts these sightings to others in the area. This contributes to research projects as the community shares a lot of data with scientists. Sightings also actively contribute to saving wildlife. Reports of snared animals or suspicious activity are immediately sent to relevant people who can act on those reports.  The app does not post sightings of endangered species such as rhinos that might be the target of poachers.

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Students at the Hanoi University of Pharmacy show that they too love rhinos.

Together, Carter and I all joined forces with a representative from Children 4 Conservation to make up the elite Rhino Ambassador team. As a team, we spent ten days traveling around the Hanoi region.

Our tour included a Rally for Rhinos Cycle Tour through Hanoi’s busy streets, high-level meetings with the U.S. and South African Embassies and Vietnamese leaders, meeting medical students at the Hanoi University of Pharmacy, presentations to schools and youth centers, and hosting rhino art and other youth awareness activities throughout the region. It was AMAZING. We even met up with two very special ladies (Ness and Vicky) who were riding their bicycles all across Asia as a way to raise awareness to the plight of rhinos. The two started their own campaign called BuyNoRhino and they were fearlessly riding throughout Asia and teaching children why we all need to do our part to save rhinos for future generations.

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Olivia made friends with students at the Innovative Education Group (IEG) Institute.

Everywhere we went, we were greeted with smiles and open arms. The Vietnamese people were so eager to learn why we had traveled so far and were willing to help in any way they could. We visited elementary schools where the students’ English was poor—and still we found ourselves surrounded by eager minds anxious to learn and help. We even met a few Vietnamese students who told us they learned their first words of English by watching Captain Planet cartoons!  Captain Planet has also developed a groundbreaking educational project called Project Hero which I will be reporting about in future issues.

Captain Planet is a big supporter of our youth outreach efforts around the world.

While we were in Vietnam, we met with government officials at the Biodiversity Conservation Agency (BCA) who were eager to learn more about our efforts and pledged to help crack down on the illegal sale and trade of rhino horn and other species being exploited in the lucrative wildlife trafficking industry. Our dad and some of the other adults also went to one of the secretive medicine markets where some vendors openly sold ground up rhino horn packets, ivory, pangolin scales, and much more. We had the items they collected tested at a DNA lab in Johannesburg and it did come back as actually being rhino horn. This information has been turned over to the Vietnamese government, which is now investigating further.  The sellers of these illegal items are intentionally mixing the ground up rhino horn shaving from various horns in the same packets so that it is almost impossible to trace the shavings back to one particular rhino.

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Sun bears enjoying a peaceful life after being rescued from the bear bile industry.

All in all, I would have to say the trip was a huge success. It is disheartening to know that the black market is still thriving, but also encouraging to know we were able to motivate and educate so many youth about the problem and the need for us all to get involved to save rhinos. Carter and I stayed on for six additional days in Vietnam so that we could visit as many schools and community organizations as possible to try and share our various community outreach programs. We also managed to visit the Animals Asia Bear Rescue Center and the Pangolin Rescue Center. Both organizations are doing an amazing job trying to save the species from being pushed to the brink of extinction. We encourage everyone to check out their websites and consider supporting them in any way you can.

Low-Res2015-10-30-14.17.59I hope you liked this article and that you will check in again next month as we feature an amazing young man from Africa (Luca Berardi) who is changing the world.

Olivia Ries is our National Geographic Education and Children’s Media Youth Empowerment writer. Together with her brother Carter, she hopes to inspire others to realize that “Anybody can make a difference . . . if they can, you can too.”  Make sure to check out their website at

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