On the Front Lines to Defend Wildlife

Working with the National Geographic Society, I have turned my passion for animals into my purpose. 

Follow Tara Keir on Instagram: @tarankeir
Tara Keir stands with a female anti-poaching unit

Essay by Tara Keir ’14 | Photos provided by Tara Keir ’14. Caption:Tara with members of the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, the first majority female anti-poaching unit in South Africa.

 

If you are lucky in life, you find something you love. If you are even luckier, passion will find you. And if you are me, it will hit you as if you’ve run head-on into a brick wall. 

From that perspective, I have been incredibly lucky all of my life. Traced back to elephants and their trunks that I deemed “built-in-snorkels” by my 5-year-old self, a love for wildlife has existed in my heart from the beginning. Geneseo then introduced me to a second love; courses in geography opened my world and the way I perceived it, and allowed me to marry my loves in a senior thesis on the biogeography of elephants and conservation. Geneseo also provided me with the opportunity of a lifetime — to apply for (and earn) a geography internship at the National Geographic Society, working with the research team to ensure factual integrity of knowledge and content, films and channel programs.

That opportunity was the beginning of my timeline towards making a difference.

September 8, 2014: On my first day at National Geographic, passion slammed into me. My boss tasked me with familiarizing myself with past scripts and films. I typed “elephants” into the search bar and found raw footage for Bryan Christy’s “Battle for the Elephants,” a television series that uncovered the devastating and illegal trade in elephant tusks, largely fueled by China’s demand for ivory. 

It was a punch in the gut. The brutal world of the ivory poaching crisis was blurred as I watched it unfold through tears. A shipping container was piled to the ceiling with ivory tusks, each pair representing a dead elephant, including the tiniest of milk tusks poached from the youngest in a herd. Until this point, I had scoured papers on human-elephant conflict and conservation biogeography within the safe brick walls of Fraser Hall and never touched on the poaching crisis. Now I was face-to-face with the grim future faced by my favorite species.

My heart sank for my lack of awareness, but almost immediately shifted to determination. From that point forward, I would no longer be a girl who loves elephants. Instead, I am a girl who loves elephants, whose daily actions work to make an impact against the illicit trade in wildlife products.

My self-education on all things concerning wildlife trade started that day. I began to think about how investigating wildlife crime could become a career. I resolved to try for a National Geographic Young Explorer grant, with a focus on anti-poaching.

A mix of things happened between my internship and the first time I interviewed an anti-poaching ranger on my own time — and ultimately earned the Early Career Storytelling Grant in 2018. First, my internship manifested into a full-time position with National Geographic Expeditions, which took me to Africa.

On August 21, 2016, I set foot in sub-Saharan Africa. Tears streamed down my dust-covered cheeks in Lake Manyara and the Serengeti as I laid eyes on African elephants in the wild. This magical trip proved to me that I am cut out for work in the African bush. I fell completely, undeniably in love and promised myself I would return every year, with a conservation-based purpose.

December 28, 2017: I embarked on a 24-day solo trip in South Africa to do research for my grant proposal. I had to know the poaching crisis first-hand to truly grasp what story might be most impactful. I needed to understand how local individuals interacted with wildlife and see poaching through their lens. 

I met with anti-poaching units and those on the front lines and became starkly aware of how disconnected the public is from understanding the crisis. I made it a point to ask every person I spoke with, “What do you think the United States is missing from the poaching crisis, and what is it that you think we should be doing differently?” 

This opened up an array of emotions from local individuals, and insight into how approaches have been misguided. One piece of info really stuck with me. I had been told over and over that as much as 99 percent of poaching incursions and rhino deaths were linked back to inside jobs. This meant that individuals working on this landscape — often those whose occupations rely on the survival of wildlife — are being approached by poaching syndicates for intel on rhino locations in exchange for money. And they are doing it because they need additional income. 

This socioeconomic drive behind the poaching crisis is one that we don’t see covered in the media. Instead, we find ourselves reading sensationalized articles depicting the crossfire between anti-poaching unit rangers and poachers. It is a “battle for elephants,” or a “rhino war,” and this “war against poaching” so easily equates to a “war on poachers,” in which the idea of a dead poacher as a positive outcome becomes the narrative. A shift in this narrative is imperative.

This grant is my opportunity to tell the human side of the poaching story and to encourage individuals with a love of wildlife to understand species and the local communities that live alongside the animals and interact with them daily. We need to start putting ourselves in their shoes.

It is now July 2019, and as you read this, I’m in South Africa investigating the number of poaching incursions and rhino deaths linked back to inside jobs within Greater Kruger, South Africa, through mapping, storytelling and photography. I aim to shift the narrative surrounding the poaching crisis away from one in which a “war on poaching” is synonymous with a “war on poachers,” to one that explains the economic challenges that drive local individuals to kill wildlife in the first place. I am driven by passion, I am determined and I am empowered to make an impact. 

It is my hope that passion finds you, too, and you feel empowered to take ownership of it. Revel in wanting something so strongly that the thought of it not coming to fruition terrifies you, but also revel in the role you play in making that dream reality. Take a look at those loves you have found, and nurture them. Your passion may not hit you like a brick wall as mine did, but when it does, I implore you do one thing — have the courage to let passion take over your purpose in life when the moment comes.

Tara Keir ’14 is a National Geographic Early Career Storytelling grantee, examining the complexities of the poaching crisis in South Africa to better understand its causes and develop better conservation efforts.

Tara Keir '14 with an anti-poaching unit.

Tara Keir ’14 addressing rangers at the Nkwe Tactical Training Academy in South Africa, as they learn wildlife security.

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On a night patrol.

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Rhinos are among wildlife in peril that Tara Keir ’14 is investigating as part of her anti-poaching project.

 

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Tara Keir ’14 in Tanzania as part of her job at the National Geographic Society.

Author: geneseoscene

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