When Petronel Nieuwoudt was a young girl and her grandfather took her out fishing in South Africa’s Limpopo province, he never baited his hook. But he would happily cast the bait upon the waters.
“I said, ‘Grandad, listen; we’re not catching anything.’
“And he said the most beautiful thing to me, ‘We’re just doing it for love. We’re actually sitting here enjoying ourselves and feeding the fishes. We don’t have to catch them.’
“At that moment I realised, they’re part of us and wild animals will come to you.”
Nieuwoudt runs the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary in South Africa, in the province of Mpumalanga and is one of the stars of National Geographic’s Save this Rhino. She says fishing with her grandfather was the lightbulb moment – the instant which instilled in her a great love of wildlife and a passion for conservation.
Growing up in Limpopo in a family which embraced their closeness to South Africa’s unique fauna, Nieuwoudt was always surrounded by animals. She was surprised when she found out others didn’t share her family’s respect for the wildlife around them.
After a period working in law enforcement and going after poachers, Nieuwoudt realised her real passion lay in saving animals.
“You work so many times with dead animals, you see carcasses, you see the heads ripped off the very animal that needs to live there in its natural habitat. I realised I would love to save the animals. I didn’t want to work with criminals. I wanted to teach people.”
From there, the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary was born and she has been saving rhinos and spreading her conservation message globally ever since.
Petronel Nieuwoudt with Rhinos at the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary. Photo Credit: National Geographic
“With a rescue you have your golden hour. Like with missing people and you have the first 24 hours that’s of utmost importance. For an animal, it’s the same thing. They’re in shock, they are traumatised,” she says.
“The hyenas can attack them and lately we’re seeing the predators are getting very clever. They’re quick on the carcass of a baby’s mother because of the blood smell from where they (the poachers) have hacked the (mother’s) horns off.”
She says the baby rhinos will remain by their dead mother’s side – and that is when the hyenas will attack the young.
“It is unbelievable, the predators will hear a gunshot and they will know there’s a meal.”
“We will get a call and I know what must happen when and with whom. Through the years you develop a sense of urgency and get the helicopter there, get the veterinarian in the helicopter.”
Nieuwoudt says it is vitally important to have experts making the rescue to ensure the rhino is stabilised and transported to safety.
Yet, while her team are doing a fantastic job, she says the rhino poaching problem is a huge challenge.
Greed and corruption are rife in parts of Africa and politicians are often more interested in lining their own pockets than getting serious about conservation and cracking down on poaching.
In Nieuwoudt’s opinion the best way to get on top of the problem is to get everyone involved. While improved tracking technology is being used to find the poachers rather than just follow the rhinos, she says the key is to get out there and share the conservation message.
“Everyone can get involved. You can share posts, talk at schools and parents can make their children aware of the fact that you need to look after animals and the environment.
“Be the leader, the person that wants to make sure we leave a beautiful planet for the next generation.”