A Fight to Survive: Chaminade Juniors Participate in Rhino Conservation Efforts

By: Jack Viscuso ’21

Less than a decade ago, rhino poaching resulted in about 20 deaths annually in South Africa. However, last year, the toll surpassed 1,000 deaths for the fifth consecutive year. Rhinoceroses have been roaming the earth freely for over 40 million years, but these days might soon be gone, as the species faces threats from the poaching and horn trade industries. Recognizing the need to protect these prehistoric treasures, two of Chaminade’s juniors, Michael Sanfillipo and Joseph Andruzzi, ventured to South Africa this summer.

After a 15-hour flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Mike and Joe arrived in the “Rainbow Nation.” There, they were welcomed by rangers from Rockwood Conservation. 

Rockwood Conservation was established in 2013 and describes itself as a “new breed of rhino reserve.” Located in the pristine Northern Cape of South Africa, the reserve is situated on an area of desert and bushveld, the exact environment rhinos have roamed for millennia. Rockwood is focused on protecting its rhino population through the use of both thermal and 24-hour camera surveillance. The conservation boasts a team of 30 expert rangers and scientists who are well trained in caring for the animals and conducting research experiments to further the species’ prosperity. 

Upon arrival at the sprawling, 30,000-acre reserve, the park’s rangers performed traditional African songs and dances to welcome Mike and Joe to their three-week adventure. As the sun rose above the African bushveld on their first day, the sound of squealing hyenas and chirping cicadas infused the landscape with life. Breakfast was a traditional South African meal consisting of pap, a porridge made from coarsely-ground maize that tastes similar to African grits, as Mike described it. 

To begin the morning, the rangers filled up water jugs to hydrate the rhinos and replenished their buckets of feed. Tasks such as these were completed daily, but the rest of the day offered a unique experience.

A cornerstone of Rockwood’s mission is the rehabilitation of young, orphaned rhino calves. Mike and Joe were afforded the opportunity to witness the effort that the reserves’ biologists put into caring for these animals. Biologists would monitor the health and behavior of their Southern White Rhino population and perform studies on their genetic diversity, horns, milk nutrition, and habitats to share with their partners at the University of the Free State. On one occasion, Mike and Joe observed scientists tag the rhinos to track their movements.

“It was incredible to see just how much passion and dedication these rangers had for the work they did. They served as an example of how much change can be created through the efforts of caring for these animals. To take part in what they were doing filled me with a sense of joy and appreciation,” Joe said. 

While the reserve primarily houses rhinos, there are plenty of other African species who share their habitat with these majestic creatures. To see these other species up close and personal, Mike and Joe traveled across the bushveld in open vehicles. While on this safari, they observed warthogs, wildebeest, zebras, and even giraffes peacefully living in harmony. 

“There were no disturbances in the bushveld. It was just you and the animals. Everyone felt unified and at peace, which made the safari quite enjoyable,” Mike recalled. 

Another defining moment of the trip was the opportunity to experience South African culture firsthand and assist residents of the local communities. In Soweto, South Africa, the Nelson Mandela National Museum presents a rich history of Mandela’s life and his anti-apartheid leadership. Mike and Joe took a tour to learn more about his legacy.

In addition, while visiting the impoverished neighborhoods of South Africa, Mike and Joe brought animal meat to feed the residents there. Joe even spent a day with Footprints of Hope, a local non-governmental organization, where he participated in a game of soccer with local children. Activities like these provided an opportunity to learn how life differs across the globe nearly 8,000 miles from home.

“Our experience in South Africa was a powerful reminder of the measures a special group of devoted individuals are taking to preserve a beautiful species. To witness the rhinos thriving in their environment made me feel honored to have partaken in the work that is rebuilding this population of animals. It was a moving experience,” said Mike.

While Rockwood’s rangers are committed to improving their environment in South Africa, we can all work to preserve our own communities. Even simple acts of care can make a large difference; the flourishing rhino community serves as an impactful testament to this notion.