A poignant consequence of the poaching crisis is the orphaning of rhino calves. As part of the wilderness trail, students visit a rhino orphanage where tender moments of touch and empathy make vivid the realities of the trade in rhino horn.
Picture credit: Kevin Sawyer, Wilderness Foundation Africa

On Trail in the Wilderness with Vietnamese Rhino Ambassadors

“Here all happens according to nature, which is a space for us to connect,” says Phan Le Minh An, one of fourteen teenagers from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City who recently walked the wilderness in KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Brought to South Africa by Wilderness Foundation Africa (WFA) (http://www.wildernessfoundation.co.za/), the students were winners of a competition held to select Rhino Ambassadors for a youth awareness programme that aims to reduce the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam. (http://www.wildernessfoundation.co.za/projects/wild-rhino-demand-reduction-campaign).

Initiated in 2014, the Wild Rhino Demand Reduction Campaign is run by WFA in partnership with  Peace Parks Foundation, the Olsen Animal Trust and Vietnam’s SOUL Music & Performing Arts Academy. It complements the WFA’s support for anti-poaching and law enforcement, but also works with youth and civil society in Vietnam to explain the plight of rhinos to an Asian audience. Using competitions, awareness-raising events and social media, the campaign has reached over a million people. Part of these efforts are the trails for Rhino Youth Ambassadors in HiP, run in conjunction with WFA by its sister organisation, the Wilderness Leadership School (https://www.wildernesstrails.org.za/), founded by Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela in 1957.

On trail, the students encounter rhinos on foot, experiencing their magnificent, yet imperilled presence
Picture credit: Kevin Sawyer, Wilderness Foundation Africa

The trails initiate urban teenagers with little experience of nature, or the outdoors, into an intimate experience of African savanna, and the opportunity of “…sinking into a place that is wilder…so very different from what we expected…it is not The Lion King.” (Lee Ming Ching).

Hikers enter HiP’s Big 5 wilderness area on foot, carrying all they need in backpacks, sleeping on the ground under the stars, cooking over open fires, keeping night watch and observing wildlife. Reflection and journaling are encouraged, the week unfolds at walking pace, and no tech is allowed, not even watches! Elephant, buffalo, lion and rhino may be encountered on foot. For many, the week-long immersion in a landscape wild beyond any prior experience is a turning point, offering a deeply-felt awakening of care-and-connection, and confirming a transformative alchemy observed since the Wilderness Leadership School’s first offerings over half-a-century ago. One student, Lieu Ngoc Bao Thanh observed: “It was impossible to imagine being in the wild. I thought there would be fences. I want everyone to experience this because it makes you care naturally…you can’t force people.” Poignantly, trailists also confront the gravity of their country’s demand for rhino horn, and the sorrow of bearing witness to an animal imperilled.


Wilderness trails invite precious moments of stillness and solitude. Far from their busy lives, and freed from their tech, students spoke of feelings of connection and communion that they would carry with them back to Vietnam
Picture credit: Kevin Sawyer, Wilderness Foundation Africa