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These rhino lovers are taking the species by the horns and saving them — Philly style

Could a nurse from Media and a bunch of Philly health-care workers unite to save endangered animals half a world away?

The PARCA group with the rhino they helped to dehorn at the Manyoni Private Game Reserve in South Africa.
The PARCA group with the rhino they helped to dehorn at the Manyoni Private Game Reserve in South Africa.Read moreCourtesy of PARCA

It was on a whim that Penn Medicine nurse Heather Smith bid on an African wildlife safari at a charity auction. Her 2015 trip was an experience beyond the animal lover’s wildest dreams: Giraffes! Lions! Elephants! But the rhinos — so huge, yet so quiet with those stunning horns — especially captivated her.

“They were magnificent,” she said.

When Smith returned home, she brought with her not just great photos but a passion for the well-being of Africa’s animals.

“I wanted to help somehow,” she said. “I wanted to make sure what I experienced would always be there.”

Not long after, Smith attended a lecture at Penn given by renowned wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert who also lead conservation efforts in the wild. Afterward, when Smith asked the couple how she might support their work, they told her about the plight of the rhinos she had been so taken with — how the creatures were being killed by poachers for their horns. Along with other conservationists, the Jouberts had founded Rhinos Without Borders, a project whose mission was to move rhinos from high-poach South Africa to safer Botswana. And, they told Smith, they could use some help.

That was all she needed to hear.

“I said, ‘OK, if that’s what you need, I’m all on board with the rhinos.”

Within a month, Smith and a few Penn Medicine colleagues who had also attended the Jouberts’ lecture managed to raise $10,000 toward the cost of moving their first rhino out of danger.

Six years later, Pennsylvania Rhino Conservation Advocates (PARCA) — a nonprofit founded by Smith in 2016 with a board consisting mostly of her Penn colleagues — has raised over $250,000 to support the rhinos in myriad ways.

That has included funding the move of two additional rhinos from South Africa to Botswana, via their partnership with Rhinos Without Borders, a joint venture between the Great Plains Foundation and &Beyond, another pro-conservation organization. (PARCA named the rhinos Franklin and Liberty, befitting the beneficiaries of a Philly jawn.)

PARCA also financially supports Ribbon, a rhino orphan that lives at the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary in South Africa; their sponsorship pays for Ribbon’s food and veterinary needs and helps fund the salaries of the rangers who care for her. They partner with various conservation organizations to fund equipment and supplies for park rangers, animal reserves, and measures like dehorning, a practice that successfully discourages lethal poaching.

And they have partnered with the Great Plains Foundation and the New York-based Wild Tomorrow Fund to host trips to South Africa and Botswana to stoke more people’s passion for wildlife protection.

All this from group with no paid staff and a volunteer board whose members have pretty demanding day jobs.

“We’re small but mighty,” said Smith, 51, who is now administrator of the neurosurgery department at the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dereck Joubert, who is also a National Geographic explorer at large, said grassroots PARCA has proven to be the real deal.

“From the moment we met in Philadelphia, PARCA leapt into action and started supporting our work to an unprecedented degree,” enthused Joubert. “It has involved trips to Africa, hosting fund-raisers and public screenings [of the Jouberts’ wildlife films] in the States, and hosting rangers and guides” who visit here. “They have become true conservation partners working for the future of African wildlife.”

Smith would be the first to admit that she made for an unlikely wildlife hero.

Raised in Pottsville, her mom was an animal lover, her dad took her horseback riding, there was often a family dog, and her grandparents were fans of the old television show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. But the closest she’d ever gotten to a savanna before that first safari came via trips to the Bronx and Philadelphia Zoos.

Yet Africa’s wildlife had always captivated her — the idea that one could actually move among the all those enormous, regal animals.

“It always held a kind of mystery and intrigue for me,” she said.

And from what she learned shortly after her maiden safari, there was no doubt the rhinos needed help.

Between habitat loss and the activity of poachers, the numbers of rhinos has been decimated, with some species hovering on the brink of extinction. At the beginning of the 20th century, about 500,000 rhinos roamed Africa and Asia. Now, less than 27,000 rhinos exist in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Federation.

Consumer demand has fueled an illegal but lucrative trade in rhino horn, commanding prices on the black market higher than the price of gold. In Asia, powdered rhino horn has become sought after as a party drug, a health supplement, and a hangover cure. In Vietnam, desperate cancer patients have even shelled out big bucks for rhino horn, erroneously believing it to be a cure for the disease.

Poachers usually kill rhinos to get their horns, but the animals can be safely and painlessly dehorned (the horns grow back in about three years), an effective antipoaching strategy used by conservationists to spare rhino lives.

(The practice does not make rhinos vulnerable to animal predators, explains Smith, since adults’ only real predators are humans. Though they tend to use their horns in territorial disputes with other rhinos, dehorning does not interfere with the normal charging and head-butting they inflict on each other.)

These conservation efforts need financial support, which the pandemic has greatly impacted, said Wendy Hapgood, cofounder of Wild Tomorrow, a New York City-based conservation organization dedicated to protecting endangered wildlife in South Africa.

“COVID-19 is now an emerging financial threat for rhinos and all African wildlife,” she said. “It’s not the virus itself that puts wildlife directly at risk” — although this is the case for critically endangered mountain gorillas and chimps who are prone to the same respiratory illnesses as humans. “It is the loss of tourism revenue and philanthropic and government support that is the biggest fear for wildlife reserves and national parks across Africa today.”

To help, in July PARCA partnered with Wild Tomorrow to lead a 10-day trip of eight volunteers to South Africa. Money raised by the journey helped to replenish supplies for wildlife reserve rangers and improve critically low feed levels at a government rhino orphanage. PARCA’s volunteers also gave hands-on help during the dehornings — which PARCA partially paid for — and helped with feeding and cleaning at one of the orphanages.

The “eight intrepid travelers, our first group of guests since the COVID pandemic hit, brought with them much needed support for rhinos and wildlife protection in South Africa,” said Hapgood.

PARCA board member Andrew Wegoye, 40, a Penn Medicine nurse who was raised in Uganda, is cofounder of Hornbill Treks & Safaris, a company that leads wildlife and cultural excursions to Uganda and East Africa. He joined PARCA’s board because he understands how protecting wildlife and fostering tourism contribute to a healthy human economy.

“Growing up and seeing in vivid terms the beneficial relationship between a thriving wildlife population and a thriving local population makes it obvious to me that we have to protect wildlife from any sort of harm,” Wegoye said. “In the end it’s good for the wildlife, but it’s also good for these usually poor communities that live around the wildlife.”

Of course, doing all this work with rhinos makes them grow on you. A lot, said Smith.

“They are iconic, with those big horns, but there is a sensitivity underneath there, and they’re smart,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that about them.”

And rhino calves, which stay with their moms for two to three years, are as endearing as babies of any species.

“They make the cutest, little noises you will ever hear. They squeal,” said Smith, like Leko, an orphan the PARCA group met during their July trip to South Africa. They bond strongly, too: orphans have been known to valiantly try to defend their mothers against attacking poachers.

For all these reasons and more, the PARCA board is committed to their work.

PARCA member Kathryn Gray DeAngelis, a Penn Medicine perfusionist who operates heart-lung machines during surgery, had never been to Africa when she went with Smith to hear the Jouberts’ lecture in 2015. Now she’s hooked on rhinos.

“We all wonder what it would be like to see dinosaurs roaming the earth. Well, rhinos are just that, and we’re killing them off,” DeAngelis said. “We have the opportunity to save them.”

Smith believes one of the best ways is to bring more people to Africa, where they will, like her, become passionate about the conservation cause. (The Media resident’s family members are among the converts. Husband Steve has joined the PARCA board, and daughter Lexi, 15, has been on three trips already and shares her mom’s zeal.)

PARCA is planning a wildlife safari for November and another volunteer trip next summer. Smith feels strongly about giving people the chance to experience the animals firsthand to see the impact they can have.

“You help,” she said. “You don’t just give money”

Her work on behalf of the animals, as unlikely as it seemed at first, has taught her about life.

“We all have the ability to make a difference in something. I think the key is recognizing you can, and having the grit and the perseverance to figure out how,” she said, “and then go for it.”