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SOS Rhino : In the News : Michael Hearn: Conservationist who, after an early meeting with a rhinoceros, devoted himself to saving the species

Michael Hearn: Conservationist who, after an early meeting with a rhinoceros, devoted himself to saving the species

  February 04, 2005
Times Online

CHANCE MEETINGS shape lives: Mike Hearn's life was changed irrevocably when he met a rhinoceros. He was ten at the time, and the life-shaping encounter took place at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent. The rhino took an active role in the meeting: approaching to have his nose rubbed and accepting a gift of bananas.

Hearn became a major force in rhino conservation. He lived and worked on intimate terms with the desert-dwelling rhinoceros of northwest Namibia, and was director of research for the Save The Rhino Trust (SRT). He achieved all this in 12 years: moving to Namibia at the age of 21, where he lived until his death at the age of 32, drowned in a surfing accident.

Michael Edmund Hearn was born in 1972, and educated at Temple Grove prep school and later at Dulwich College. This conventional start did nothing to inhibit his desire to work with rhinos. At the age of 20, he approached Save The Rhino International (a UK charity which supports SRT) and asked if he could go and save rhinos somewhere.

He was offered work experience, raising funds from the London office. It was not quite what he had in mind, but he stuck at it. And when an admin job came up at the SRT office in Windhoek in Namibia, Hearn applied and got it.

His first year was spent filing and making tea, a townie job, but Hearn rose above the drudgery. He had that wonderful knack of being able to get things done. He was a natural problem-solver, and people like that are always valued in Africa. He volunteered to computerise the trust's database on the desert rhino. He was also an accomplished photographer: these two skills were enough to win him a berth out in the bush -- out among the rhinos.

The Namibian desert is cross-cut with gullies and ravines which very occasionally bear water from faraway rainstorms. As a result, these gullies grow plants that rhinos can feed on. These tunnels in the earth, roofed with tamarisk, are where the desert rhino has its being. They are members of the black rhino species, but have adapted their behaviour for this more exacting life: one that requires long journeys of rugged travel between food sources and occasional social encounters.

From the beginning, Hearn was entranced with the mystery of their lives, and dedicated himself to their livelihood without a second of regret. He set up a base camp at Khowarib, and from there established a monitoring programme, which he carried out on foot, by vehicle and by camel.

He was talented on both sides of the camera, and made films, including a programme for the BBC'sWild Lives. The trust feared they might lose him for a more glamorous life, but Hearn's heart was in the desert.

In 1998, he took an MSc in conservation biology at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, in which he used his rhino database. He won the award as best student of the year, and continued his work in Namibia, as director of research.

During this time, international approaches to conservation had been changing from an imposed, external initiative to something that aimed to involve local people and get them on the side of conservation. Hearn's natural affability and easy good humour made him a favourite with both the high-ups in conservation funding and the people of the African villages. He was an effortlessly easy man to like.

The Durrell Institute gave him a grant (one that originated from the Darwin Initative for the Survival of Species) and he was able to expand his work as a result. He was recognised as a genuine African pioneer, but emphatically one of the 21st century: a growing authority in the business of linking the survival of a species with the community around which it lives. Hearn was a grand example of the people-centred approach that is at the heart of modern conservation.

The power of conservation efforts based around a single species is that the chosen animal becomes a flagship for an entire environment: and for the suite of animals and plants that makes up the community. The desert rhino, charismatic and elusive, is a perfect example of this approach, and Hearn was dedicated not just to saving rhinos but to keeping the strange perfection and integrity of the Namibian desert.

Some wilderness men are cranky, eager to keep the mysteries of their chosen place for themselves. Hearn was the exact opposite: open and generous with his wild places. He helped to set up a tourism initiative with Wilderness Safaris, under which tourists can join the rhino-monitoring programme.

Blythe Loutis, founder of the Trust, said: "He was a rhino man, a diplomat, a true conservationist and a great personality loved by all the community." His relish of the desert and its beasts was something he loved to share. He used to say that the desert "enriched his soul". Now he is buried in it. Rhinos use special stones to scratch on, stones that become polished over generations. A rhino rubbing stone will mark his grave.

He is survived by his parents, Tom and Ann, and his brothers Jim and Nicholas.

Michael Hearn, conservationist, was born on May 27, 1972. He died on January 19, 2005, aged 32.

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