Before her family moved to Charlotte, Tara Hetz spent her formative years in East Africa. The lessons she learned from her parents, who were both involved in conservation work, stuck with her.
The 31-year-old just returned home from tour, which she created to help introduce others to the rhino, a species she is trying hard to save.
“Rhinos are the keystone umbrella species in Kenya for protecting all other wildlife,” Hetz said. “We know that rhinos are very much endangered and the place where I’ve been working is home to over half of Kenya’s black rhino population. If you’re protecting them, you’re protecting other wildlife.”
Hetz noted that wildlife protection also brings money to Kenyan families which can result in better education for children and empowerment for women.
It took two years for Hetz to bring her Adventure for Rhinos tour to fruition. Eight guests joined her on the 12-day trip which, unlike traditional safaris, included hiking, mountain biking and rhino tracking for an experience which combined adventure with education, plus fundraising for the Rhino Revival Fund based in Laikipia, Kenya.
The guests saw the last two female northern white rhinos at their sanctuary, and a “crush,” or group of black rhinos, while they were cycling.
“We want to enlarge their landscape,” Hetz said. “Rhinos are in pockets or sanctuaries which are not connected. Their population is actually growing but they are very territorial and need a lot of space.”
Hetz said the government of Kenya is supportive of conservation efforts. “They have an internationally recognized rhino conservation plan. They have a goal of increasing the number of black rhinos in Kenya to 2,000 by 2035.”
The current population is just over 800 and Hetz said female rhinos generally give birth to a single baby every four or five years.
When she isn’t working in Kenya, Hetz leads bicycle trips in Europe for Trek. She also teaches wilderness medicine for SOLO, an outdoor medical program based in New Hampshire. She splits her time between Charlotte, Kenya, France, Spain and Norway.
The love Hetz developed for rhinos as a child hasn’t waned, and she hopes all Kenyans will embrace the effort to save them.
“This whole idea of expanding the rhino landscape is not just for land that is privately owned, but also community-owned land,” she said. “We are trying to get the community to realize the benefits of conservation.” Hetz said that because of illegal demand for rhino horns, it costs between $10,000 and $18,000 a year to keep a rhino alive in conserved areas.
“Wildlife trafficking is the fourth biggest industry in the world,” she said. “It’s organized crime.”
While saving rhinos may seem like a very distant goal to Vermonters, Hetz noted that there is a connection between what happens in the Green Mountain State and Kenya. She credited Ashley Prout McAvey of Vermont for Wildlife with fighting to make wildlife trafficking illegal in the state. Although wildlife trafficking is forbidden by federal law, only ten states have passed their own bans and Vermont isn’t one of them. “If we don’t pass this bill, we’re part of the market,” she said.