Be quiet and walk downwind.
That’s what Tara Hetz had to do as an armed ranger led her to see a rhinoceros up close and personal in Laikipia, Kenya. Rhinos, she said, have terrible vision but an incredibly strong sense of smell.
“It’s almost like a dinosaur. It’s just unbelievable, it’s jaw-dropping, it gives you the tingles,” she said of seeing them. “But it’s heartbreaking because, in a way, you know that people want to kill it.”
That’s why Tara Hetz and her father Peter Hetz of Charlotte have created “Adventure for Rhinos,” an adventure tour of Kenya that will see participants hiking, biking and supporting conservation efforts through the “Rhino Revival Fund.”
Tara is a Champlain Valley Union High School alumna and has long had an affinity for conservation. Born to conservationists, she spent seven years growing up in East Africa, many of which were spent in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
By day, she’d eat on her family’s porch alongside animals. By night, lions would play on the veranda beside her tricycle, Peter said.
“Tara had a very unconventional upbringing,” he said, discussing their home, and his and his wife’s occupations. “It very much painted, I’m sure, what Tara’s view of the world is.”
Her parents imparted to her, from a young age, the importance of helping both animals and her fellow humans. Peter worked in tourism management examining how to attract visitors to support the national parks, educate them on the parks, as well as manage their environmental impact. Her mother, Marianne Kuitert, worked directly on conservation efforts and homeschooled Tara teaching her English, Swahili and Dutch, traditional British schooling and through her natural surroundings.
“I got this really amazing introduction to all of it,” Tara said, adding she continued learning about conservation through her studies at St. Lawrence University.
Ever since, she has split her time between Vermont and East Africa, helping her dad with his work as executive director of the Laikipia Forum – an organization that addresses wildlife and natural resource conservation – in Kenya. She was inspired to create the adventure conservation tour with her dad after a trip in which she visited the country’s various conservancies with two local filmmakers.
“My daughter and I, apart from being related, are good friends, which makes it a joy to work together,” Peter said. “I really relish this opportunity.”
Guests on the trip will get to mountain bike alongside zebras, climb the second-highest mountain in Africa and sleep under the night sky – as well as at some luxury lodges, Tara said. They’ll be educated by rangers and enjoy private dinners with conservancy owners. On top of all the fun, $2,000 from their trip fees will directly benefit the Rhino Revival Fund.
“The rhino is a sexy, charismatic way of selling it because what it really boils down to is that if you’re protecting rhinos … you’re actually protecting the habitat and the landscape and then therefore you’re protecting all other wildlife,” Tara said. She added her guests will see other endangered animals like the mountain bongo.
Today, rhino populations in Kenya are slowly rebuilding after many years in which the species was hunted for its horn.
“The 1970s, 1960s, Kenya was littered, I mean there were so many rhinos there was like a population over 20,000.” Tara said, adding within a timeframe of 20-25 years the population was killed down to 310.
Kenya is currently home to three of the world’s five different species of rhino. Its conservancies are home to 800 of the world’s 5,000 remaining black rhino, the southern white rhino and the world’s final two northern white rhinos. Peter is hopeful tours like “Adventure for Rhinos” will help fund expansion efforts in Kenya’s conservancies.
According to Peter, both politics and climate change make conservation one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
“We need to make a super-human effort in order to protect the natural base on which we depend,” he said.
That effort, he added, can be made from as close as one’s backyard to as far as a trip to African conservancies.
The 12-day trip is set for February 2020 and will require a minimum of eight guests to run. To learn more, visit https://www.adventureforrhinos.org