When your baby stands nearly two meters tall and weighs around 4,000 lb, you wouldn’t expect it to require 24-hour protection. But, for Michelle Hurley and other rangers involved in South Africa’s anti-rhino poaching initiatives, protecting endangered animals is a full-time and dangerous job.
As a rhino monitor at Insimbi Legacy Projects, Michelle is responsible for the daily health checks, feeding, and care. She also runs the company’s volunteer program and oversees the anti-poaching unit. Sometimes she takes to the skies in a helicopter, providing support for her armed rangers on the ground.
What does it take to commit 100 hours a week to prevent the extinction of one of the most endangered animals of the African savanna, and how does a woman excel in such a traditionally male-dominated environment?
If One Road Isn’t Open To You, Find Another One That Is
It certainly wasn’t all plain-sailing for Michelle, who says, “I did try and get into anti-poaching through the official training companies but, at that time, they weren’t taking girls so, I didn’t really have much luck there.”
Finding the traditional route closed to her, Michelle dedicated her time to do an online correspondence course in anti-poaching. After which, she used her horse knowledge to secure a position working with a horseback anti-poaching unit, first based at Mabula in Limpopo and later near Etosha in Namibia.
For Michelle, t was a dream come true. After years of working as a safari guide and knowing “rhinos were my thing – my spirit animal,” she was finally able to do “ something specific to help the rhinos.”
Although she was fulfilling a dream, it wasn’t an easy road. Anti-poaching is a potentially violent and dangerous job and, as such, tends to be a very male-dominated environment to work in. Michelle says she’s experienced a lot of sexism in the workplace.
Times May Change, But They Change Faster If You Make Them
“They hire you for a job, and then they’re not willing to let you do it because they think it’s too dangerous for you,” she told me. “There’s a lot of wannabes with camouflage vests on and night-vision goggles that think they’re heroes.”
That’s not what anti-poaching is about, however. Most of the time, Michelle says, it’s “very solitary.” For the most part, “you sit and wait, and you know that 99.9% of the time nothing’s happening.”
At one stage, the sexism in the workplace got so bad, Michelle took a break from anti-poaching. “I was sick of the machismo and the fact that it was more about image rather than the rhinos.”
There are clear signs that this male-dominated environment is changing, however. For example, women can now train in anti-poaching as readily as men can and, instead of having to prove herself to men, Michelle now works for a woman who’s not only “tough as nuts” but “very, very supportive.”
Use Your Natural Protectiveness As a Force For Good
Perhaps, women have a natural affinity for anti-poaching? Although society and religion have often ascribed men the role of protector, for Michelle, “women are the natural protectors.” As psychologist and author, N.K. Jenisin said, “There is no greater warrior than a mother protecting her child.”
Michelle’s spirit animal is a two-tonne giant, but she’s still driven by “the strongest force on the planet – a woman’s drive to protect her babies.” For Michelle, that means “instead of doing a 45-hour week, I often do double that because I want to be out there all the time and make sure that they’re ok. I want to make sure that I’m in the veldt and not somewhere else because the threat is 24/7.”
Don’t Be Inhibited By Fear – Be Motivated By It
Michelle is passionate, but she’s not exaggerating. Last year alone, 394 rhinos were poached in South Africa, equating to one senseless attack every 22 hours. Put in that context, Michelle’s dedication is understandable – as is her fear that, one morning, one of her spirit animals will be gone.
“Pretty much every morning, I’m scared,” she tells me. “Before I’ve seen all the rhinos, there’s always that little piece of you that’s petrified that you’re going to come across a carcass or, even worse, a rhino that’s been shot and is not dead and that’s still suffering. So that’s an ever-present fear when you’re working with rhinos.”
Big Dreams Require Big Sacrifices But Generate Big Rewards
As if starting each day full of fear wasn’t hard enough, life in the bush means living far away from friends and family, but for Michelle, it’s a sacrifice worth making.
If you want to know more about what it takes to work in anti-poaching, why not join Michelle and her colleagues at Insimbi Legacy Projects for a weekend-long Adventure with a Cause or a more in-depth volunteer experience? Even if you can’t travel, you can still support the rhinos by adopting one or just by running in the virtual legacy challenge as I did at the weekend. So please do what you can – the threat is real and ever-present.
All of Us At She Can Magazine would like to thank Michelle Hurley for her remarkable and inspiring story. If you would like to know more about the work of Michelle and her fellow rangers please visit the Insimbi Legacy Projects