The Man Behind the TCU Rhino Initiative

Rhinos aren't the only animals Michael Slattery is helping.

A prince among men … that’s how one could best describe this environmental steward whose efforts are already making a visible impact on the planet during our lifetime. Dr. Michael Slattery swings unyieldingly from one ecological crusade to the next with eager TCU recruits following closely behind him.

Born in South Africa, Slattery grew up in a lower-class white neighborhood. “In many ways I had an ideal childhood, whatever that means. I grew up in a beautiful country surrounded by gorgeous surroundings. It was a safe upbringing, but also a naïve and sheltered one. I went to a whites-only school. That was the only kind there was. I had no understanding about the social injustices of the apartheid until I reached college,” Slattery says.

After completing high school, barely scraping by with average grades, Slattery served in the military for two years. He received a bachelor’s and honors degree from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1989. Following that, he went on to get a masters of science from the University of Toronto and a doctorate of philosophy from Oxford in 1994.

Slattery accepted a professor gig with TCU in 1998. He says his teaching style has evolved over the years from the traditional stand-up lecture to a more interactive structure in which he pushes his students to utilize critical thinking to solve issues that affect their everyday lives. “I’m pretty laid back and approachable; however, I set a high standard. If you are going to get an A, you are going to have to show some creative thinking and work really hard,” Slattery says.

His true passion, however, lies in field teaching. In 2014 Slattery co-founded the TCU Rhino Initiative, a global partnership dedicated to saving the endangered animal. Estimates in the early 20th century showed a thriving rhino population of 500,000 across Asia and Africa. Today, poached to the brink of extinction because of the belief that their horns possess medicinal properties, there are fewer than 30,000 rhinos left in the wild.

The killing spree began in 2008 due to a spike in demand in Asian countries. In Vietnam the horn is desirable among the wealthy class as a novelty and is considered a symbol of power. Working on several fronts, the initiative most notably supports ground efforts by sending TCU students to South Africa to help with the rehabilitation of rhinos that do survive poaching. (To learn more about their efforts, visit planetrhino.com.)

Among Slattery’s other undertakings while at TCU has been the preservation of the green macaw population in Costa Rica. “We raise money to buy Almendro trees. It’s basically an almond tree, and it makes beautiful furniture. The problem is that the green macaw uses this tree to nest, and as the Almendros were disappearing so was the green macaw population. TCU’s Green Macaw Protection Initiative allows people to purchase the trees from the farmer and keep them from being harvested.”

Slattery, in partnership with NextEra Energy Resources, has also led the charge in researching key environmental and social issues related to wind power. The project evaluates the coexistence of wind power with thriving bird and bat populations, ecological footprints of wind farms, carbon offset analysis, and benefits of wind farms to ecosystem health and local communities.

Currently Slattery is on sabbatical. He’s working on a complete rewrite of his Contemporary Environmental Issues textbook, which has been widely adopted by many university classes. Slattery is also working on three research papers he’s been trying to get off his desk, a website for the rhino initiative and funding proposals, including one for the Disney Corporation.

His time at home has afforded him more time with his wife, Lauren Geffert, and 15-year-old son Liam. Geffert is a faculty member at TCU as well. “With Liam, we try to keep him grounded. We impress upon him that he is very fortunate in his upbringing, and that’s not the way most of the world lives. My wife is far smarter than me and keeps me on my toes. It’s remarkable to have a life partner and professional colleague all wrapped into one … I have a beautiful family, and I get to do what I’m truly passionate about at an amazing university. I’m a lucky guy.”

While Slattery’s pedagogic surroundings have him engulfed in students’ essays, funding proposals and faculty meetings, South Africa incessantly beckons his return. “My mother still lives in Cape Town. She’s 89, and my brother lives there also. I go back at least once a year for the student rhino trip … Africa is home to me and will always be in my blood. I never feel as connected to myself and settled as when I go back among the animals and see the African sunset.”