June 22, 2017

The Wildlife Defenders: A project dedicated to the unsung heroes of wildlife protection and conservation

A father and son team working together to celebrate the ordinary people doing an extraordinary job to protect our rhino's - they refer to these people as The Wildlife Defenders

“I did not tell half of what I saw for I knew I would not be believed. ”
Marco Polo, on his deathbed, 1324

The quote by the legendary explorer summed up our three-weeks in Southern Africa nicely.  But first, some backstory.

In late November 2016, my youngest son Harrison who is a professional photographer asked if I would go with him to Southern Africa to create a photo story focusing on the plight of rhinos.  Under normal circumstances, the answer would have been an immediate, yes.  However, due to the lack of finances and other responsibilities, the logical part of my brain said no.  A few weeks later, he asked me again, and I caved.  After all, what are a few more dollars or rand on my credit card?  I learned later that he and his mother had been plotting all along to soften me up so that I would finally agree to accompany him.  He knew that my life-long career in project management would help lay the groundwork for what became one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives.  And so, The Wildlife Defenders Project was officially launched from our home in Florida.

Left: Michael Cooney  l  Right: Harrison Cooney

Left: Michael Cooney l Right: Harrison Cooney

Harrison laid out his vision, which was to highlight the slaughter of rhinos in Africa.  His approach was to focus on the positive work being done by, as we called them, the unsung heroes of wildlife protection and conservation.  Harrison gave me a list of who, what and where he wanted to photograph.  In a little more than two weeks, I had our three-week itinerary nearly filled with the people and places he wanted to capture images of.

We took a holistic approach to our project by including other important elements that over time can positively impact the preservation of endangered species for future generations.  In addition to focusing on anti-poaching rangers and others on the frontlines of the war on rhinos, we included images of village leaders, educators, children, scientists, and future leaders committed to conservation who are or will be in positions to influence policy, laws, and politicians.  The two organizations we made part of our project were Lapalala Wilderness School and GreenMatter; both provided a positive and hopeful perspective for the future.

Students from the Lapalala Wilderness school
(Photo by Harrison Cooney)

Students from the Lapalala Wilderness school

The trek took us to South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and covered more than 8,000 kilometers by road and air.  Our mission was for Harrison to create images that told a story without words.  We wanted people to see the photographs and ask to know more about the person and their occupation, and what it had to do with the rhino war.  By doing so, it would engage viewers and cause them to want to know more about the person in a camo uniform holding a rifle or the pilot a surveillance plane or another standing by a rescue helicopter or the baby rhino being bottle fed by a volunteer at an orphanage. 

Masahtu Anti Poaching Unit at Limpopo Lipadi Private Game reserve
(Photo by Harrison Cooney)

Masahtu Anti Poaching Unit at Limpopo Lipadi Private Game reserve

The project was conceived and implemented to primarily recognize the people on the frontlines of the rhino war who risk their lives every day to protect and defend these amazing creatures.  However, The Wildlife Defenders is not about Harrison and me; it is about the ordinary people doing extraordinary things to protect and defend rhinos and other endangered species from extinction.

Sean Patrick in action at Makuleke
(Photo by Harrison Cooney)

Sean Patrick in action at Makuleke

From the projects' inception, our primary partner has been EcoTraining.  Their support of The Wildlife Defenders has been unwavering, and they hosted us at both their Mashatu Camp in Botswana and the Makuleke Camp in Northern Kruger where we would hear firsthand accounts of how poaching affected these two diverse locations.  We cannot thank them enough for believing in our project and their commitment to helping educate the world about the rhino war and conservation of the world's natural assets.

To see the images Harrison created, please click here and follow us on the following platforms:

  • Instagram - @TheWildLifeDefenders, 
  • Facebook - The Wildlife Defenders
  • Twitter -  @WildDefenders.  

For more information about how you can get involved in the project, please contact me at mike@thewildlifedefenders.org

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