Written by Svenja Tornow

Growing up in a European capital city could have provided me with all the benefits of an urban environment. I am now 26 and could not guide someone through my home city. Rather I would roam around the neighboring fields and forests, would lose myself in the moving clouds and take photos of everything around me. My name is Svenja and I have spent most of my childhood in the outdoors where dreams of a better world would grow and not burst by the laughter and disbelief of ‘the adults’.

For as long as I can remember I was interested in and amazed by rhinos. I always had very sensitive ears, a characteristic that I shared with those magnificent creatures. Around them there would not be the daily noisy insanity of a capital city, I imagined. With them, we would silently tune in to each other and be aware of everything around us, by just listening in to the earth’s silent heartbeat. With seven I learned about the problem of rhinos being poached and them moving towards extinction. So, with seven I decided that one day I would go to Africa and ‘save the rhinos’.

The laughter and disbelief towards my conviction could not have been more discouraging, so it was quickly buried under a huge pile of ‘reality’ (or so it was called). So, during the entire time of school, it remained buried and well hidden. I still enjoyed the outdoors, but that was not an option for a career.

When it was time to choose a university program, my ideas varied from photography to psychology, from architecture to environmental monitoring and nature conservation. When I, still not sure, chose nature conservation, everyone around me knew already. Why everyone but me? As part of that program, we had to do an internship. While the most wanted to have something simple to get done with it, I remembered the dream that I had once upon a time.

Carefully, I asked myself, What if (and only if) I could see the rhinos, my favorite animals, once in the wild? After that, I would come to my senses and follow a ‘real career’. That silent thought quickly grew into an actual idea and huge enthusiasm. I did my internship in a rhino reserve in Uganda where I worked in all different areas and got the whole picture of the organization of the reserve. Beyond that, I got taken seriously and appreciated for the first time. I started picking up the pieces of my hidden dream and putting it back together. It turned out that this once-in-a-lifetime experience would give my life an extreme turn. My life got a direction and a purpose, and I got new enthusiasm for what was yet to come. Back home I gave presentations in schools and environmental centres about rhinos and their threats until I would return to the reserve two years later to write my bachelor thesis there. Still, many did not believe in me or in what I did. The difference was that now I did.

During the process of writing my thesis, something else got my increasing attention. I realized how much a good relationship with local communities and the staff is important for the protection of any species or habitat. That we don’t have to just learn more about the ecology of an animal, and everything will fall into place, but we would need to have exactly those people on board who would otherwise be a threat to our conservation goal. But even more, they often don’t aim to be a threat and don’t aim to destroy but often simply try to have food on the table for their families and be able to pay school fees for their children. It opened my eyes to the needs of people but also for the complexity of the issue. That awareness grew stronger when I lived and worked in the South African Bush for a year. Racism was evident and the exclusion of local communities from nature reserves denied the communities any positive encounters with wildlife.

There was one thing that all the encountered communities in Uganda and South Africa had in common, their Christian faith. I was amazed by the joy despite hardships and the strength to carry on despite
repeated loss without compensation. Because of that but mostly because of my own sense of awe towards a higher being who has created the entire universe in such accuracy that life is even possible here and in such creative detail that every being is interconnected with its surroundings, I found my strength to carry on in my faith to the Christian God. A God who has not only created everything long time ago but who has also given my worth when nobody else did.

When I started my master’s in wildlife management, the focus of my thesis was defined even before the first course began. I still wanted to protect rhinos and reduce conflict, but even more, I wanted to give people a perspective that goes beyond mere survival and encourages them to become a part in the flourishing of the landscape. Now I am in Kenya, writing my master thesis in exactly that. Even though interdisciplinarity was preached to us throughout our studies, now there are obstacles in my way wherever I go. I found my way; I found my passion. But for that, I can’t count on the support of many.

Finally, I can combine my interest in conservation, wildlife management, psychology, community development, photography, guiding, sociology, and theology. But for the very same reason, sponsorships got refused because it doesn’t fit in any of their categories and supervisors give opposing advice depending on the scientific rules and writing structures they use. Though the way is long and rocky, and I often feel completely underequipped to do any of the things I am doing, I know of the relevance and potential it holds. And I know of my worth to not let others define my ‘reality’ anymore.

For more of Svenja, check out @SvenjaUzima on Instagram