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Linda Schmidt: Making a stand to save the rhino

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Linda Schmidt left South Africa to pursue a postgraduate degree in America, her plan was to stay for two years and then return home to her family. Despite her intentions, Schmidt and her husband never made it back to South Africa, at least not permanently. 

A two-year stay turn into 20 plus years

They found Laguna Beach when relocating from Denver. At the time there was a local store featuring South African goods. The couple heard about it, came to check it out, and decided to give the town it resided in a try. 

“We just fell into the rhythm of Laguna,” recalls Schmidt. “We just became involved in things: Mom’s Club, SchoolPower – it just progressed from there.” The roots got stronger. “A lot of people are from somewhere else,” explains Schmidt. “So we became each other’s family.”

The urgency to save a species from extinction

 Despite Laguna becoming home, Schmidt retains strong ties to her homeland. It is those ties, as well as a profound sense of “if not me then who?,” that prompted her to embark on an ambitious labor of love: to help save rhinos from extinction.

Linda Schmidt close up

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Linda Schmidt, founder of Cause Conservation, a nonprofit dedicated to saving rhinos from extinction

“Conservation has been a really big part of my history,” explains Schmidt. “My mom has been involved as long as I can remember. Our family traveled a lot to remote African countries.” Her parents’ enthusiasm trickled down to her, although she may not have been aware of it at the time.

The family camped all over Africa. They explored sites where elephants traipsed through their camp. “There is a beauty and a grandeur about nature,” says Schmidt. “I think nature is the teacher. There is an innate wisdom to be found there.”

Learning about poaching and its depressing efficiency

Schmidt’s call to action came ten years ago while she was in South Africa. A park ranger spoke to her group about the poaching crisis plaguing, not only rhinos, but elephants, pangolins, and so many other animals. “It wasn’t on anyone’s map at this time,” says Schmidt. “This was something very few people knew anything about.” 

Appalled and motivated to spread the word, Schmidt organized a trip for a Laguna Beach group to visit South Africa and learn about the crisis for themselves. Because her goal was creating awareness, she had to first educate herself.

Educating herself so she can educate others

“I met some key people in South Africa in that process. There are only a few,” she says. A somewhat discouraging finding was that a lot of the groups raising money to combat the problem of these keystone species’ potential extinction were not particularly effective. “A lot of the NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) were not hitting at the grassroots level. I realized that if we empower the community, we empower nature,” she says. 

Forty people from Laguna went on this first trip. It prompted her to want to do more. “How could we open the window in South Africa to our world?” she wondered. “How do I make a real difference?” 

Linda Schmidt nature

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Born in South Africa, Linda Schmidt’s parents passed along their love of the natural world to their daughter

She views herself as occupying a rather unique position. “I’m a South African girl who is an American, too.” And she realized getting people in the U.S. concerned about the destruction of these majestic creatures would be critical to their survival. She formed the no-profit Cause Conservation, a “true labor of love,” to formalize her mission.

30 percent of rhino population lost in the last 10 years

The more she learned the more urgent her mission became. Thirty percent of the rhino population has been lost in the last 10 years. In 2017, 1,028 rhinos were poached. In 2018, that number dropped, however, it was still a terrifying 769. There are only 24,000 rhinos (black and white) left. At that rate, it does not require advanced math to realize the species is facing extinction in the mere blink of an eye. This is not something that can be debated and mulled over for years to come. Decisive, effective action must be taken now if we are to prevent these animals from becoming a mere memory.

Effective programs are in place, but they’re expensive

The good news is, according to Schmidt, a three-pronged approach to this crisis has proven successful. The bad news is none of the steps are easy. De-horning the rhinos is one essential component. It is a very effective way to keep them alive because they are poached for the perceived medicinal value of their horns. If they don’t have horns, there is no reason to kill them. Additionally, removing rhino horns is not debilitating to the animal and they grow back, unlike with elephants. 

The second necessary component is the Anti-Poaching Units or APUs. Protecting rhinos from poachers is a very dangerous job. The poachers are well-equipped and ruthless. Training and equipping rangers to protect the rhinos on the ground is essential to their survival.

Linda Schmidt students

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At Schmidt’s home, LBHS Remember and Give Club members make decorative hearts that were delivered to the Nkomo School in South Africa

The third thing needed is education. Schmidt describes a program that sends people into hospitals in Asia to speak directly to new mothers to try and convince them that rhino horn will not help them with lactation. Such a painstaking, singular approach has proven successful, but it is but a ripple in a situation where a tsunami is required. 

Raising awareness is key to raising money

 As Schmidt pondered the best way she could make a difference, one thing became clear: money was needed. “What shocked me is how expensive it is (to keep these animals safe),” exclaims Schmidt. “To dehorn a rhino is $3,500. Tracking equipment is $3,200, and it costs $5,000-10,000 for one APU ranger.” Additionally, to relocate a rhino is $50,000. 

Rhino Awareness Week is coming to Laguna

In order to raise money, she realized she must first raise awareness. To that end, she and her team of volunteers (the Laguna Beach APUs, as they have nicknamed themselves) have created Rhino Awareness Week. The event kicks off on Sunday, September 15 with a screening of the documentary Breaking Their Silence. The director Kerry David will be in attendance to answer questions at Laguna Beach High School Artists Theater. Schmidt says when she first saw the film at the Newport Beach Film Festival, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It speaks to the crisis in a very honest way.” 

There is something for everyone during the event

From there, the event will offer a reggae night at Mozambique, a lecture by award-winning conservationist Simon Naylor, a spin class at Rhythm Ride with a live DJ to benefit the rhinos, a surf contest put on by Mo Van de Wall, a Laguna Beach surfer and instructor who used to work as an African ranger and, lastly, an African-themed private fundraising event. It is a full week of wide-ranging activities all in the name of raising awareness and funds to help save rhinos. 

There is something for everyone during the week-long event. For more information on the Rhino Awareness Week, visit Cause Conservation’s website (www.causeconservation.org). The group’s website is very informative, providing a lot of information on the plight of the rhinos and other animals, in addition to the group’s upcoming event.

Linda Schmidt teachers

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Linda Schmidt with the principal and a teacher of the Nkomo School, two “extraordinary women,” whose work in educating local students helps decrease poaching

Laguna students help South African schools

An example of work Schmidt has already been involved with is the cross-cultural collaboration with the African Foundation, one of the beneficiaries of Rhino Awareness Week. A group of Laguna Beach High School and Thurston Middle School students, who are part of the Remember and Give Club at both schools, visited the Nkomo School in the Mnqoboqazi community in South Africa. The school is run by two “extraordinary women,” according to Schmidt, whose efforts “are making a significant difference to education and conservation education in their village. The result is lower poaching.”

It is up to us to act

If this group of volunteers from Laguna Beach led by Schmidt is already making a difference, it stands to reason that with the help of more people, they can make even more of a difference. “Wildlife can’t survive without partners in every country. The rhino is just one key example,” says Schmidt. “I have a responsibility. I can’t stand back.” And she isn’t. However, if we are to save the rhinos from extinction, she and her fellow Laguna APUs need our help. As Schmidt likes to say, “The greatest threat to our wildlife is the belief that someone else will save it.”

Members of the Laguna APU are: Krista Shaw, Sarah Murphy, Cindy Newman-Jacobs, Kirsten Warner, Diane Fisher, LaRae Martin, Debbie Naude, Denise Campanelli, Nathalie Assen, Kim Duensing, and Emily Van De Wall.

For more information, visit www.causeconservation.org.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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