Jere Hietala

Terve, Jere! Let us hear a bit about your origins.

I was born not far from Helsinki, in Sipoo. When I was about seven we moved to Kotka because my dad got a good job as a doctor in a local hospital (he’s a psychiatrist). I lived there till I was eighteen, then I moved to Helsinki to practice Aggressive Inline Skating, which is an urban sport like skateboarding but with skates (stunts and tricks, crazy stuff). I won the Finnish championship in 1998. So I finished my college here in Helsinki and stayed till I was thirty-three. Then I moved back to where I’m from.

What were you doing in between?

At first it was all about sports. Until I broke like, all my bones. When you have sponsors you’re required to stay at a certain level, so you attempt all the extreme tricks. At one point I had my arms broken and I couldn’t do much, so I started taking photos of my friends doing the tricks. And suddenly I noticed how exciting photography was for me, so I ended up going to a photography school in Tampere. Then, with like a two-week’s notice, I got the chance to work in Abu Dhabi for a Finnish advertising agency. They were creating the local military colleges’ visual material and they wanted a Finnish guy to handle the photography, so I moved there for six months. The job was pretty boring, so I was training, training, and training some more. But for a young guy the pay was good, and I saved some tax-free money that would go into starting my own business. When I came back I took more and more gigs, and continued building my company.

How did you end up in Africa with the park rangers?

All my life I’ve had this calling to help animals. Probably from my family, which always regarded animals’ lives as important. But for me it’s really strong. When I started my company I did a lot of free work for WWF, Animalia, and other NGOs, all from my own pocket. It was a nice experience, but I didn’t feel I was helping at the level I wanted to help. I had been reading a lot of articles about poaching so I decided I wanted to help with that. I booked my own flights, hired a videographer, and went to Namibia.

Can you briefly explain what poaching is?

The biggest criminal activities in the world are: drugs, then human trafficking, then guns, and then illicit wildlife trading, of which poaching is a part of. It’s a huge business that moves billions of dollars annually, and exists because in the eastern side of the globe, not to mention names but China, there’s a big demand for ivory and other “products” derived from the illegal hunting and killing of wild animals.

Why do they value those “products” so much?

Good question. In the first place, they use them for witch-doctor type of treatments. They believe, for example, that a rhino horn can help against arthritis, or cancer, so they pulverize it and put it in their tea. This is of course bogus, it has no medicinal value (the horn of a rhinoceros is made out of the same substance our fingernails are made of). And the second reason is human egotism. They make souvenir items out of them, like jewelry and decorative pieces, because having something made out of real ivory, for example, elevates their social status.

So that’s poaching in short. And it’s so bad at the moment that if it continues like this, in ten years there won’t be any more rhinos nor elephants, not even lions. And it’s a deadly business for everybody, because both poachers and park rangers get killed. In April this year, in Virunga National Park (DR Congo) twelve rangers were ambushed on the road, surrounded in their vehicles and executed by rebel militia.

(I’m speechless here)

The rangers are slaughtered for trying to keep the endangered population of gorillas alive. So this is the problem: trying to get into an area where around 1,500 armed people from rebel militia or some other criminal group operate a profitable operation is as dangerous as trying to interfere with organized drugs, guns, or prostitution.

What are the Akashinga?

Damien Mander, an Australian war veteran, was in Zimbabwe and he saw the work and the hardships of the park rangers, so he decided to use all his savings to create the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) as a response to poaching. The Akashinga – Nature Protected by Women is a project of that foundation, and consists of recruiting and training the first all-female, armed anti-poaching unit in the world. It’s not only about armed response; the project educates marginalized women, and helps them rebuild ecosystems and communities. It’s amazing, and I wanted to be a part of that. Akashinga means “brave ones”, by the way.

When I first heard about it I thought “I don’t see how women’s rights can be related to poaching”. But then I saw all those young mothers. They were all like nineteen to twenty-five year-old, and I was like WOW. One of them has three kids, and she goes out and patrols every day, at the risk of getting shot by a poacher. I told her “you’re probably the bravest woman I know, how do you do this every day?” And she said “I have to feed my children.”

Who pays their salaries?

The NGO. They wouldn’t get paid otherwise.

What was your role with the Akashinga?

I patrolled with them and tried to provide them with information and techniques that could help them do their job. Like how to take crime scene photos, to be used as evidence: “whenever you find a footprint, take it from this angle, light it like this…” I got sponsored by Olympus, so I gave them modern cameras and taught them how to use them.

I imagine poachers don’t surrender easily.

If they have weapons and they’re about to get arrested they may shoot, so rangers are prepared to defend themselves. But of course it depends of the area. South Africa is very bad. Johannesburg nowadays has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Other places, like Congo and Central Africa, are really bad because of the militias. The Lord’s Resistance Army, for example, led by Joseph Kony, mutilate everyone they capture.

Do the Akashinga have a legal right to patrol?

Basically, they provide help to the local authorities. But corruption is also a widespread problem in African countries, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes it’s wise not to tackle big problems head-on.

When I’m interviewed on TV, I keep it diplomatic. And in social media I had to change my approach because it’s such a reactive medium. Nowadays I try to minimize the type of posts that create heated debate; I provide information instead. On Instagram I have lots of reservists who follow me about training and shooting stuff, so I sometimes get a lot of weird followers and comments. Some of them can be intrusive, and in the past I used to tell them to calm down. Nowadays I don’t bother, I just don’t reply. It’s crazy that you can’t speak for yourself anymore. You gotta be like a sponge, take it all in. Then you get home and you’re like “AAARGH!”

Coming from peaceful, prosperous Finland, how has exposure to such harsh realities affected you?

One night I was patrolling with the Akashinga and we did three raids. One of the poachers we caught was a sixteen, seventeen year-old kid who lived in a hut the size of my toilet at home. He lived there, with nothing but a small pot to piss into, that was his life. When asked why did he kill the water-buffalo (which is not endangered, but it’s illegal to hunt) he said, well, I haven’t eaten in one week, I saw a water buffalo and I decided to kill it and eat it, and sell the rest in a bushmeat market.

While I was there seeing that, filming that, I was like “well, he’s a criminal, he gets what he deserves”. But when I came back home I felt differently. He was headed for a local prison, and that’s not a holiday like here in Finland. It’s a gnarly place, weird things happen there. And then I understood he was just a kid, and he was starving. I mean, his own body was eating the muscles, he was in a terrible place.

I felt so bad. Who was I to judge? I’ve been such a narrow-minded person, what right do I have to think or say “poachers are evil!” They’re people who have less that nothing. No education. They’re sick, they don’t get food, water, medicine. Nobody cares if they get killed. Resources are not shared like, you know, in the right way in this world. You don’t get to choose where you’re born. And I was ready to judge without seeing that reality, which is f***ing disgusting. That was a reality check for me as a person, and it changed me. I realized I was living in a dreamlike state and was lying to myself because I liked my life so much.

It’s easy to judge, but it takes courage and wisdom to put ourselves in the other guy’s position.

Personally visiting all these places has been an asset for me. I’ve seen the biggest ghettos in the world, in India, Africa. For development work for Nokia, I’ve been in the Amazon river villages where people are infected by malaria. Terrible things. So what I want is to leave a positive legacy. I try to create stuff that doesn’t benefit myself but keeps giving. I have been blessed with so much health and wealth and happiness, why not give back? And I don’t mean occasional giving, but committing part of your life, making it a project. For example, reserve one day a month…

For community service.

Exactly! That’s what I mean. Whenever I calculate the money and the time I’ve put into conservation work, I’m super-happy. Every penny is like a piece of mind for myself, and you can’t buy that feeling. I will go there as soon as the borders are open, I can’t wait. Even though I’m there for an unpleasant topic, there are so many amazing and beautiful things to enjoy.

One night I was sleeping in my tent, I had a bed inside, by a mesh window. We were staying on top of a hill, and the whole range was littered with these 100 kg pit rocks. In the middle of the night I wake up and I hear rocks… moving? I think “elephants don’t come up here… Maybe a lion? No, because they’ve been poached from this area like ten years ago, they’re dead.” (now lions are coming back though, which is a good thing, but anyway) I’m like “it has to be a big animal that can move rocks like that.” I try to go back to sleep. Then all of a sudden, I hear by my window the loudest… you know the sound dogs make when it’s hot?

A hyena.

That’s what it was. So I’m thinking “hyenas move in big packs, and they’re huge. And their biting force is greater than a lion’s. This is crazy, I don’t want to get eaten by hyenas…” It was pitch black, so I decided to take a look. I pointed my flashlight at the window, turned it on, and there it was, a couple of meters from me! I was anxious it would panic and attack, but it got scared by the sudden light and ran away, back to the pack. Next morning I went to the rangers and told them “hey, there was a pack of hyenas next to my tent last night!” and they go “it’s okay, they come here often” and I’m like “you could have warned me; I go to the toilet every night on my own, in total darkness, and it’s 50 meters away from my tent!” And they’re like “we told you when you walk in the middle of the night you have to have a pair of eyes in the back of your head. And hyenas are not going to attack you unless you bleed.” Ah, that’s comforting! (laughs) Africa is amazing. I have spent the night in a sleeping bag in the middle of nowhere, and woke up to a lion’s roar in the distance. It’s like being in a movie, or a dream.

What does your wife think of your Indiana Jones lifestyle?

She doesn’t try to stop me, because she knows that wouldn’t be good for me. There was one time when she put her foot down, though. A friend of mine asked me to climb Mount Everest with him, and my wife pointed out it was not up to me whether I got killed or not, it was up to the mountain. And that is true. In an avalanche everybody gets killed, nobody can help you. And I’m not even a mountaineer, so I didn’t go. I would have liked to, though. (laughs)

Plans for the future?

To keep building the Anti-poaching Association of Finland, an NGO that I founded. Hopefully someday I will have my own rangers and some land in Africa where I can take care of wounded animals, give jobs to people, that would be amazing. And to keep doing photography and all the things I do now.

You have a ton of energy and an open mind.

Awareness is probably the biggest reward you can get. To open your eyes and learn from life itself.

You can follow Jere on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and this is his website.