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Rachel Ikemeh: Earth Protector

Rachel Ashegobfe Ikemeh is a conservationist and animal rights activist who is changing the world. She has saved animals and trees from near extinction and continues to speak out to protect all creatures. Listen to her story and find connection to nature and the world around you just like Rachel does.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Emily McMahon-Wattez and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Lumai de Smidt. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

In the forests of the Niger Delta, the sun was just setting behind the majestic ilomba trees, turning everything a dusty pink. As all the animals started settling in for the night, you could hear the hornbills flapping their wings, the pangolins snorting and chuffing, the red colobus monkeys letting out their low, throaty calls. And there was another sound. It was quiet but steady — the soft ripples of tide, as a young woman steered her dug-out canoe along the forest’s shallow canal.

The animals paused, and watched the woman in the canoe. They did not run or screech or hide. Because they knew she was here to observe and protect them.

She was leading the way in wildlife conservation, doing everything in her power to keep their forest safe.

She was a brave rebel named Rachel Ashegobfe Ikemeh. 

I’m Lumai de Smidt. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. 

On this episode, Rachel Ashegobfe Ikemeh — animal activist, conservationist, and a true pioneer in healing our earth.

Rachel grew up in a busy bustling city in Northern Nigeria, Africa. There weren’t any parks in her city. There were barely any trees. But this never stopped Rachel from being wildly curious about the natural world around her.

See, the landscape of Nigeria is truly spectacular. There are rivers, creeks, mangroves and rainforests. There are so many animals too — elephants, hippos, monkeys, chimpanzees, and my favorite, the crocodile!

Now, I don’t know if you can hear the howl of a monkey all the way in the city where Rachel grew up, but something called her to that forest. Maybe it was her rebel spirit. Rachel has always been determined to stand up for others. Even when she was a little girl, she was bold and unafraid; always eager to explore and ready to stand up to any bullies in school.

After she graduated from university, Rachel was part of the National Youth Service Corps. This is a program in Nigeria where young people get to live in a different part of the country for a year and learn all about it. Nigeria is so diverse, with over 500 different languages spoken in different areas. And that’s just counting the languages spoken by humans. Just think of all the ways monkeys, elephants and even trees talk to each other!

For Rachel’s year with the National Youth Service Corps, she was sent to live in a small village on the edge of the forest. Rachel didn’t speak the same language as the other humans in the village, but she did her best to communicate, and she worked hard, helping out however she could. It was also the first time she’d ever spent that much time near wildlife, and she was fascinated. 

She gazed up at those trees each day, amazed by the way their branches stretched into the sky. She also saw trucks rumbling in and out of that village, their flatbeds loaded with freshly cut logs. There were some days where she just sat and watched truck after truck hauling loads of cut trees in and out. 

Where were they taking them all? 

And what about all the animals who once lived in those  branches? 

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After that, Rachel applied to every job she could find. She didn’t know what she wanted to do exactly – but when she got offered an internship at the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, she said yes immediately. 

“That’s not a real job,” people told her. “Women don’t work in conservation.” Conservation is challenging work, where you are protecting species and habitats from extinction. It was pretty rare in Nigeria for a woman to be working outdoors, defending nature. Even Rachel’s mother insisted she try something else. But Rachel was determined. 

She kept thinking about those magnificent trees reaching their leaves towards the sun. She kept remembering how lifeless they looked as pieces of wood being carted away.

In fact, one of the first experiences she had at her internship was meeting a world-famous conservationist who talked about how hunting was the biggest threat to wildlife.

“No, it’s not hunting,” Rachel said. “It’s habitat loss.”

What? 

Here she was, fresh out of school with no experience except watching trucks roll by, arguing with one of the leaders in wildlife preservation! But, Rachel knew what she had to say was important. She’d seen with her own eyes the way these trees were being taken down. She’d heard with her own ears, the rumble of logs being taken away. She’d witnessed the forest getting smaller and smaller, and felt the emptiness left behind.

So, she started doing research, monitoring different animal populations. She examined leaves, soil and pawprints. She talked to indigenous people who live close to forests. She saw first-hand how all these different beings were connected — humans, animals, trees. How we all have to respect and take care of each other in order to flourish.

Lots of big commercial companies had other ideas about how to use the Niger Delta though. They cut down trees to plant farms and to sell the wood as lumber. They dug holes and plugged them with pipes to steal oil from deep underground. And they did it poorly, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of sticky slick oil, poisoning the soil. These activities were destroying the land. And it was happening, fast.

Rachel’s internship with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation was just ten months, but it changed the course of her life. Once she saw what was being done to the monkeys, elephants, trees and rivers, she couldn’t unsee it. She had to speak out and find a solution.

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She camped out in the wilderness, trying to track the movements of different animals. She and her conservation team took lots of photographs. They examined tree stumps and abandoned animal nests. Sometimes Rachel hid in the brush for days trying to be completely still, so she could measure how far away the monkeys were as they called to each other. She wanted so badly to see them up close, but many of the animals in the Niger Delta were scared of humans because they were usually there to destroy the forests or hunt.

Rachel gathered as much information as she could and presented her findings to the Nigerian government. She demanded they change the rules about cutting down trees or digging for oil. But that was challenging too. Lots of people in government wouldn’t listen to her, and she quietly wondered if that was because she was a woman. Other people just didn’t like what she was saying, and wanted to keep using the trees to make houses and buildings. Or selling animal parts at the local markets, and oil overseas.

So Rachel had to formulate another plan…

She started an organization called the South West Niger Delta Forest Project. Rachel hired local guards to patrol the forests and stop people from taking what wasn’t theirs. She trained people how to watch the animals, to count and  track them. 

She decided to tell anyone who would listen, how important these forests are. She talked about how many animals were being endangered and how we are all connected. If the government wasn’t going to do anything about these problems, maybe the people who lived in the villages nearby, might. 

The Earth needs trees, she told them. 

Humans are just one part of a brilliant and complex ecosystem. And we must make sure every species gets a chance to survive.

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This story isn’t over, Rebels. There is still so much work to be done to protect the planet and all of the amazing animals on it. But thanks to people like Rachel, there is momentum and hope.

Just think, for every bit of forest that Rachel has helped save, every new tree that conservationists have planted, there’s another monkey who can eat and live, and play.

There’s fresher air and clearer waters. There’s a world of fantastic creatures healing together.

Rachel and her organization have won some very big awards for all their hard work. And Nigeria’s leaders have finally taken notice, too. Rachel’s been able to get two different areas of land officially protected — which means no one is allowed to dig for oil, cut down trees, or touch the endangered animals living there. Rachel’s been working for many years, but she knows her job has only begun. Two protected areas is better than none at all. But there are so many more animals — in Nigeria, in Africa, in the world — who all deserve the same protection!

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So, before we say goodbye, imagine it’s us in the forests of the Niger Delta, watching the sun slowly sink behind the horizon. The stars are starting to wink and glimmer. No matter where you live or who you are, we all share this same sky. Even the monkeys in the trees, climbing from branch to branch, get to make a wish on the brightest one if they want. 

And here is my wish for you, Rebels. Take a moment to just listen to the sounds around you. Feel the earth below you, and the air touch your skin. Think of all the ways we are connected, from the roots of trees tunneling under the soil to the canopy of constellations up above. 

I hope you feel the power of Rachel’s story and the importance of her work. I hope you feel how vital you are to this earth too, and all the ways you make it brighter.

As Rachel says, “The only limit you will ever know is the one you set for yourself, so never give up.”

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CREDITS

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

This episode was narrated by ME, Bindi Irwin. It was produced and directed by Deborah Goldstein, with sound design and mixing by F+K Media. It was written by Emily McMahon-Wattez and edited by Abby Sher. Fact checking by Joe Rhatigan. Our executive producers are Jes Wolfe and Joy Smith.

Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi.

A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible!

Until next time, staaaay rebel!