From Runway to Ranger: Raabia Hawa’s Journey to Protect the Wildlife of Kenya

“You have to make every day in your life count. Otherwise, what are you living for?” –Raabia Hawa

Raabia Hawa has a message for young people, particularly those in her home country of Kenya. She urges them to feel a sense of responsibility for wildlife, and points out that these animals are, “Our heritage, our culture. If we lose these animals, we are pretty much signing our own death warrant.” There is no doubt that Raabia herself feels this sense of responsibility deeply as she works day in and day out fighting to save the wildlife of Kenya. Her entire life revolves around conservation and anti-poaching initiatives. Raabia is an Honorary Warden with the Kenya Wildlife Service and also the Executive Director of Ulinzi Africa Foundation, an organisation she launched in 2014 as East Africa’s first non-profit that focuses on game ranger welfare, empowerment and facilitation with an aim to foster better community stewardship of wildlife and enhance anti-poaching efforts.

Raabia’s career has taken a sharp turn—she originally was a fashion model and media personality, involved with several radio and television programs. While she has always had an interest in nature, it wasn’t until 2008 when she was volunteering with Care for the Wild Kenya, a conservation organization, that she really found her calling. Less than an hour in to her first shift with Care for the Wild Kenya, a radio call came in about an elephant who had been killed for her ivory tusks and the team set off.

This became a defining moment for Raabia, one that set her on her current path. She will never forget the “living nightmare” she encountered that day. “There was a lot of blood everywhere,” she recalls, “the elephant’s trunk was on one side and her body was on the other. They had even cut off her ear.” This sight had a profound and lasting impact on Raabia:

To see my heritage laying there in a pool of blood with her face hacked off for something that was couple of inches long – that was heartbreaking for me. She was freshly poached and there were sounds coming out of her body, gases being released, and that was just horrific.

Until that moment, Raabia didn’t understand the devastation caused by poaching. She knew there were many anti-poaching organizations working in the area and had assumed that the problem had been mostly contained. “I just couldn’t comprehend why this was still a thing,” she recalls.

“I didn’t think that poaching was still happening in Kenya… but I was standing looking at the carcass of a freshly poached elephant, questioning all these things. How could I have been so blind, so ignorant about what was happening in my own backyard? Here I was signing letters and petitions about wildlife in Canada and the U.S., telling them to stop clubbing the seals and here in my own backyard there are elephants being lost and nobody even knew about it.”

Raabia realized that after this encounter she “couldn’t just come back home and pretend like that didn’t happen or just get back to my regular life. Something had to change and I believe that you need to be the change you want to see in the world.” From this moment on, she began to dedicate her life to making a difference for Kenya’s wildlife

I started seeking out ways to get more involved in anti-poaching specifically. I really felt that is where I needed to be and that is where I could make a difference. I set off on this crazy journey to all these places in my country, meeting rangers and helping them and volunteering with organizations on anti-poaching and de-snaring patrols.

On these journeys, Raabia realized just how challenging it was for the rangers who were fighting poaching. The rangers often were ill-equipped and had little protection against the poachers, and yet they were still out on the front lines trying their best to protect animals. She was so frustrated to realize that in spite of the many anti-poaching and conservation organizations that existed, poaching remained rampant in Kenya. These discoveries had a weighty impact on her and she was appointed by the Ministry as an honorary warden with Kenya Wildlife Services after making an application in order to do her part to help out on the front lines.

Because of what she witnessed while on patrol Raabia felt it was important to both offer support to the rangers as well as educate the public about the work that the rangers did. Through her Ulinzi Africa Foundation Raabia founded an initiative called Walk With Rangers. The first trek lasted 15 days and through social media, she won the support of 70 global participants from 16 different countries who walked over 200 miles to raise awareness about the challenges facing rangers on the ground. This movement also raised funds which Raabia used to purchase an anti-poaching vehicle that operates currently in Tsavo. The trek is now an annual event, inviting people to experience the life of a ranger over 10 days in the harshest of terrain.

In 2015, 32 people from different countries participated in the Walk With Rangers event. Sadly, on the last day of the walk, which just happened to be World Elephant Day, the group encountered the carcass of an elephant who had been killed by poachers. The poachers had been scared off before they had the chance to cut off both of the elephant’s tusks, so the rangers who found her had the heart wrenching task of cutting off the animal’s remaining tusk so that it would not end up in the hands of poachers who would profit from it. Because of these kinds of situations, Raabia sees the work of rangers and wardens as an important calling—“when you make the decision to be a ranger and a warden you are willing to put your life on the line for these animals.”

For Raabia, the ivory trade is “worse than taboo, it is completely unacceptable.” She has seen many horrific scenes where calves have been trying in vain to wake their dead mothers, elephants who have been killed for ivory. Of this kind of encounter she says, “it really rips your soul apart,” and admits that she sometimes finds it hard to stay positive.

“Sometimes I don’t have any hope. I really don’t. When you see all that death and all that poaching. I’ve seen possibly hundreds of carcasses by now – I can’t even count them on my fingertips because there are so many. When you see that much destruction and decimation you really don’t have much hope for the future. But what keeps me going is the fact that I know that these animals have nobody to look after them. There is just a few of us, just a handful of rangers looking after them and safeguarding their lives. And the way I see it, and what makes us keep going in to the field, is that if we stop we are failing these animals because they are depending on us for their security, they are depending on us to keep them safe, to keep them alive, to keep their families safe from poachers and I would never let them down. Even if I lose all the hope in this world that will forever keep me going.”

When we visited Raabia in Kenya earlier this year she took us to her “chill spot,” a remote area in the midst of an old mining area. It was a beautiful and peaceful location with mountains in the distance, dried brush, and many different species of birds flying overhead. Sometimes Raabia pitches a tent here and just enjoys the solitude. This is an essential way to help her process the trauma she deals with in her work.

She also is filled with joy when she thinks of Puppy, a kitten she recently rescued. Puppy was found in a dump and he was very sick, but Raabia nursed him back to health and the two have become fast friends. Puppy is blind but that doesn’t slow him down. He travels everywhere with Raabia (Puppy even joined us for the photo shoot we did earlier this year!), and it is very touching to watch the two of them together.

Raabia also remembers that in the face of so much adversity it is important to remember that individual lives matter and that the rangers and anti-poaching organizations are making progress.

“It is very heartbreaking when you come across all the poached elephants. It really rips your soul to shreds. But that one animal you save, that one elephant that you are able to protect, that one animal that you take out of a wild snare or give water to – just that one animal, there is such a huge and profound reward in just that one tiny little act of goodness that you have done. And I think that as humans we all need that, we need to feel good about ourselves and you can only feel good about yourself if you do good to other living creatures and other people.”

It is these kinds of realizations that help her to stay strong and keep doing all she can for the wildlife of Kenya. Raabia has many creative ideas to help spread the message of conservation and to get more people involved in these efforts. For example, she proposed an amnesty period to help people get rid of ivory and wildlife trophies that they may have in their possession. She has come to learn that many citizens in Kenya have ivory and trophies (e.g. animal skins) in their homes. Often these items have been in their families for generations and now the current owners of these items do not know what to do with them. There is a growing shift in attitude towards ivory and animal trophies, more and more people are recognizing that not only are these items illegal but they are also unethical. However, one of the problems that has arisen in the midst of this shift is that people are afraid of being arrested if they try to get rid of these materials. The amnesty that Raabia proposed was a very successful initiative and several people participated by bringing ivory and other wildlife products to a central site where they were then burned. Many people asked if they could directly place family heirlooms on to the pyres, a moving testament to the changes in attitudes towards these kinds of items. Raabia has written a very thoughtful reflection about this experience which has been widely shared on social media.

Raabia knows how important it is to have community support for conservation efforts, and recognizes how damaging it can be when wildlife conservation or anti-poaching initiatives are pitted against local communities. She knows how important it is to work with the community, and to foster a sense of cooperation and goodwill instead of having people feel afraid of the wildlife conservation authorities. She believes that the fear of arrest has the potential to undermine the work that she and others are doing and, in this context, describes this amnesty period as a “small initiative that will have a huge impact.” In addition to creating important bridges between the conservation community and average citizens of Kenya, it also provides more information about the number of wildlife animals that have been harvested by locals over the years.

Raabia acknowledges that many Kenyans see wildlife conservation as an elite colonialist endeavour, but she wants to challenge this notion and demonstrate that protecting animals is something that everyone should care about. She is especially active in encouraging young people to get involved—“The time is now for the younger generation to take a grip on conservation and to stop whining and complaining that it is a colonialist thing or that it is an elitist thing. If I could break the barriers and I could get in I don’t think anyone else should be stopped or discouraged from doing the same thing.”

Raabia stresses that while this line of work “breaks you” it also has many rewards, including the way that it, “gives you a perspective on life that is fresh and new, and you appreciate everything, you appreciate every drop of water and every grain of rice that you have on your plate. And you appreciate life and I don’t think there is anything greater than that, really.” In spite of all of the long days and heartbreaking realities she faces, Raabia cannot imagine doing anything else with her life. “I would never go back to the days when I was walking on the ramp as a model,” she says thoughtfully, “I have no interest in that anymore.” She acknowledges that many people her age do strive for fame and fortune, but she now knows that there is something even more powerful “about being noticed by the animals you help that nobody else knows.”

It is like your own little secret, and it is just between you, that animal, and God. And that is the most powerful feeling, it is the most uplifting, enriching feeling in the whole entire world and I wouldn’t trade that for a million TV interviews or a million dollars.

Raabia has found that the animals she works so hard to protect have changed the way she sees the world. “I am inspired by wildlife every day,” she says, “I see some of their struggles and their pain.” She feels that humans (who she describes as being “prone to self-pity”) have a lot to learn from animals.

“I went through a lot of things in my personal life as well that made me upset and sad. It reached a point where I would just look back at the situations I have experienced and refused to let my own life get me down because sometimes you see these animals and they are in so much pain and you just wonder how on earth they are coping with all that pain – just physical pain, forget having to deal with the emotional pain of watching your mom get her faced hacked off for tusks, you have to deal with all that physical pain of your own machete wounds and snare wounds. I’ve seen animals that have had their spinal cord cut and they are still feeding their calves. It is really painful just to watch. I always think to myself that if they can go through all of that and not complain and still carry on with life, who am I, how can I be so selfish to just think about myself? I’m just dealing with one tiny little thing and I’m just making it like it is the whole world revolves around my one little problem or my one little issue. And all of that seems so selfish to me. So, in times of sadness and grief I’m inspired to lift my spirits up by animals and by animals that I’ve seen in pain and distress. I think they have a fighting spirit that is unmatched.”

That “fighting spirit” has had a lasting impact on Raabia who is not afraid to speak up against injustice. “If somebody is doing something wrong you can’t just let them,” she implores, “if you have a voice use it to help these animals because they can’t help themselves.”