Meet the Jewish mom of three also known as ‘Rhino-gal’

The ‘Magazine’ sits down with Conservation Beyond Borders founder Nicole Benjamin-Fink to learn about the battle against rhino poaching in southern Africa and beyond.

August 3, 2019 21:52
Meet the Jewish mom of three also known as ‘Rhino-gal’

CONSERVATION BEYOND BORDERS founder and director Nicole Benjamin-Fink takes part in the de-horning process to save a female rhino from being poached in the future.. (photo credit: CONSERVATION BEYOND BORDERS)

As the sun set, the grayish body of the majestic animal was a silhouette against the orange African sky.

It was at that moment that Nicole Benjamin-Fink’s love for the rhino was cemented, and she vowed to do whatever she could for these beautiful creatures. Today she is known by those she works with as “Rhino-gal.”

The Jewish mom of three has spent years fighting for the survival of the rhino and combating the billion-dollar industry of rhino, elephant and tiger poaching. “More expensive than gold or even cocaine in its weight, a rhino horn is traded on the black market primarily in China and Vietnam, the fastest growing middle-class economy,” Benjamin-Fink explains.
As poaching continues to plague Southern Africa and beyond, stats show that in the past decade or so, more than 8,300 rhinos have been poached.

“Rhinos are less understood by people,” she explained. “They are emotional creatures and they are emotionally vulnerable.”
Benjamin Fink grew up between Australia and Israel, but it was during the years in the Jewish homeland that her love for nature was cultivated.

“Every Shabbat our family would go on outings to different national parks in the country,” she said. “I always felt comfortable in the open landscapes. We would spend the day in nature hiking… it was my parents who instilled in me a love for nature and travel.

“My dad was born in India, my mom was born in Morocco, and I was raised in Israel,” she added with a cheeky smile.

During her 12th grade year, one of her closest friends was killed in a car accident and her IDF unit suffered heavy losses “that changed my world. It turned everything upside down, it made me want to start living in a moment, for every moment and it made me want to do something meaningful” to make the world a better place.

TODAY, BENJAMIN-FINK lives between Israel and the United States. Before moving to the US to study, she served in the IDF and identifies strongly with her Jewish and Israeli roots.

“In the army I learned that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and this has helped me with the work I do to prepare for every scenario,” she emphasized.

While studying to be a wildlife biologist in the United States, she was sent on several field trips to South Africa, one of which in the early 2000s, where she was collecting data and studying the probability of hybridization between black and blue wildebeests.

It was on a late afternoon that she saw the magical sunset that changed her whole focus on wildlife. After a day of hard work, her research assistant asked if she wanted to “see something.

“I said yes enthusiastically and off we went,” Benjamin-Fink recalled. “I spotted in the distance two boulders and thought that we were on our way to watch a beautiful sunset on the African Savannah. We were in Mpumalanga [a province in South Africa] at the time.”

As they got closer to the boulder-like figures, she realized they were not boulders at all, but three “majestic rhinos grazing on the grass. Their bodies were silhouettes. It took my breath away – I was stunned, it really humbled me,” Benjamin-Fink said, adding that this was to be the first of many times she would meet these beautiful creatures.

Although she is not observant, she lives by the famous biblical verse that to “save one life is to save an entire world,” and it’s this that keeps her inspired to fight for the rhino.

“That experience made me contemplate my role in conservation,” she said. “I’ve always been a very spiritual person and I believe in meaningful interactions.”

After that trip, she went back to her university professor to ask if she could do research on the rhino, and because at that time there was no poaching problem just yet, he said no.

But that changed; rhino poaching has increased exponentially. Some 83 rhinos were poached in Southern Africa during 2008, 122 in 2009. In 2013, over 1,000 rhinos were poached. In fact, on average, three to four rhinos were poached every day during 2014. In 2018, for the first time in years, that number decreased (to 950), but the number is still too high with an alarming average of almost three rhinos still being poached every day.

In 2008, Benjamin-Fink founded Conservation Beyond Borders, a network of researchers and key stakeholders who work innovatively across political borders to conserve the world’s most endangered species and landscapes. This includes combating poaching in South Africa and India using methods that include dehorning rhinos; proactively moving rhinos – especially those that have been hurt or orphaned – to safe and secretive spaces, educating rural communities, nearby game reserves and sanctuaries about the importance of rhinos and their survival.

“We teach them that the rhino is more valuable alive than dead,” she said, adding that her IDF training has also come in handy at various times.

In many cases, due to poverty and socioeconomic reasons, members from the rural community turn to poaching so can make a small amount of income to feed their families.

“We’ve also gone into the rural villages and spoken to the chiefs. In such cases, we utilize strategies such as Communal Pool Resourcing to benefit the community,” Benjamin-Fink explained. “If it’s found that someone from the village has been poaching, benefits are withheld – it’s a collective punishment, so the whole community pressures the criminal network involved.”

CONSERVATION BEYOND BORDERS is also helping to better encourage and train communities in alternative livelihoods. She stresses that the poachers are a disposable working force; with time, the hope is that alternative livelihoods will act as incentives for rural communities to stop poaching. Benjamin-Fink added that they also help with training the breadwinners to work in other streams of the tourism industry, which in South Africa is a big industry.

According to Benjamin-Fink, during the same period of time that rhino poaching began to spike, a Vietnamese politician announced that his cancer had been cured by consuming rhino horns, and this led to a spike in rhino horn demand on the black market for “traditional medicinal purposes.” She made clear the medical claims are unfounded.

“A rhino horn is the most expensive commodity; it can yield up to $65,000 per kilogram,” she told the Post. “That means that an entire horn can fetch up to $350,000.

“Their horns end up in the black market in China and Vietnam as social symbols and supposed aphrodisiacs,” she explained. “This was born out of a belief that one consumes an animal’s potency; what does this say about us as a species?”

Benjamin-Fink added that pharmaceutical companies have identified that the horn is made up from keratin – just like human fingernails.

BENJAMIN-FINK SAID that “people often ask me if the rhinos are still endangered, and if poaching is still a threat.

“At the beginning of the 20th century half a million rhinos roamed Africa,” she continued. Today, they are at the brink of extinction with numbers as low as 5,000 Black Rhino and 12, 000 White Rhino. The world has already lost three of the five rhino species due to poaching.

“[Almost] every year, more than 1,000 rhinos are lost... we are working hard at reversing their quickly approaching tipping point,” Benjamin-Fink stressed. “It takes 48 hours for a rhino horn to be trafficked from the time that the rhino is poached.”

Asked about some of the highs and lows of her work, the conservationist said that when they’re able to save a rhino that has survived being poached and being able to release it back into the wild.

However, when they’re unable to save a mother or its calf, “it feels like a failure,” she said, visibly becoming emotional. “It’s extremely hard.”

She described a case recently in which a baby rhino was orphaned after its mother was killed for her horn and the baby was left in the wild alone.

“We have until sunset to save the calf after its mother has been poached, so I usually get a call and then we send the helicopter with a team to locate the baby and transport it to a safe location.”

She added that it takes about 48 hours for the rhino to bleed to death when it is poached. “It’s a real race against time.”

In this case, however, the baby was in such distress that it had terrible diarrhea and would not drink or eat.

“It died 24 hours after we found it. It was heartbreaking, it’s hard not to get emotional,” she said, wiping her eyes.

Benjamin-Fink said that there have also been cases where rhinos that have been dehorned are shot and killed by the poachers out of frustration because there is no horn.

What keeps her inspired in this fight for the rhino is her children and future generations.

“I want my children and future generations, to be able to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat,” she said, adding that if swift action is not taken, there will no longer be rhinos in the wild. “Seeing rhinos in the wild for oneself will shift people’s paradigms

With the organization running on donations, she has appealed to anyone who loves nature to join this cause and fight for the survival of the rhino.

“Humans cannot survive without biodiversity,” she stressed. “If we don’t start caring about the physical and emotional well-being of elephants, rhinos, snow leopards, tigers… they will disappear from the Earth.”

In a strong message, she made it clear that “Everyone can take action. The lack of action is what allows the global poaching crisis to happen.”

For more information about Conservation Beyond Borders:

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