Grabbing rhino survival by the horn

The MAKATRON rhino on Bridge Rd. Photo by Nardine Groch
The MAKATRON rhino on Bridge Rd. Photo by Nardine Groch

A particle physicist turned leadership trainer and businesswoman directs her talents to saving rhinos  


“Look for the rhino,” the café owner tells me over the phone. “You can’t miss it.”

I dodge a tram on Bridge Rd to reach café Three One 2 One where I am dazzled by a wall of rhino-shaped technicolour. Wedged into the busy Richmond café strip the rhino mural is as extraordinary as the woman I have come here to meet.

Lynn Johnson, particle physicist turned leadership trainer, is the founding CEO of alternative rhino charity Breaking the Brand.

Dressed in a fitted black vest and red scarf, with her long, dark blond hair swept back under a pair of shades, Dr Johnson could as easily be a trendy artist as a particle physicist. It is a quality she likely inherited from her mother, who managed a painting and decorating business in Durham, northern England, where she grew up.

“As soon as I could hold a paint brush I was helping her,” she says.

As she talks about her childhood her pastel blue eyes widen, recalling the incredulous expression on her mum’s face the day she introduced a large, injured crow with a nasty bite to their menagerie of dogs and cats.

“We always had lots of animals and I was always bringing things home,” she says.

By age 12, she’d begun an innovative foray into the art of billboard campaigning.

“We lived on the main street and it was really great because the double decker bus would stop right outside my window and I would have posters up about free range eggs and beauty without cruelty and the fur trade and save the whales and no bear bile,” she says.

Lynn Johnson with denim rhino at café Three one 2 one. Photo: Nardine Groch
Lynn Johnson with denim rhino at café Three one 2 one. Photo: Nardine Groch

Ultimately, though, she would choose the more dispassionate field of physics over what she describes as the “tug at your heart” nature of zoology.

“I was not very good at cutting things up because I couldn’t detach myself from animals and I think you have to or else you are not very useful to the animal,” she says.

After completing her PhD in particle physics – which took her to Germany, where she married her husband, a fellow physicist – Dr Johnson decided to leave the world of science behind, having become frustrated with the lack of leadership and communication in the field.

In 1996 she relocated to Australia and was inspired by her previous experiences to start her own leadership training company in Melbourne.

Now in her late 40s, she is embarking on her third life as CEO of Breaking the Brand, the charity she founded last year in an effort to tackle rhino horn use in Vietnam, the main driver of rhino poaching in Africa and Asia.

“Our research shows that rhino horn is used purely for symbolic value, it is given as a gift to negotiate business deals. There is no cultural or medical benefit in taking it, so, just like a Prada handbag, it is a brand. And just like brands can be made, brands can also be broken,” she explains.

The Breaking the Brand philosophy is based on the work of influential psychologist Clare W Graves, who theorised that human nature and values are not fixed but evolve at the individual, group and societal level, and draws inspiration from the controversial anti-fur ads of the 1980s.

“They were incredible, they changed the conversation around fur and rather than being about the animals, they were about the people who were wearing the fur,” she says.

By placing similar advertisements in business lounges and magazines in two key cities in Vietnam, Dr Johnson hopes to emulate the success of the anti-fur campaign by triggering emotion to get wealthy parents and businesspeople to move away from using rhino horn.

“If you want the result of the person [changing] their behaviour in the workplace [for example], then you have got to have that difficult and robust conversation, and it is the same for the users of rhino horn,” she says.

We are interrupted by the café’s owner, Amy Lee, who politely asks if we would like another coffee. She is a keen supporter of Breaking the Brand and commissioned artist Mike Maka (aka MAKATRON) to paint the rhino mural when the café opened.

“I haven’t done anything really, all I have done is put a sign up,” Ms Lee says, slightly embarrassed.

“I am a little crazy. I love rhinos.”

IMG_3955 (2)The café, with its giant rhino logo,  is an example of Dr Johnson’s strategy of recruiting businesses with the word rhino in their title or logo to support Breaking the Brand’s fundraising efforts.

“Their logo will become extinct if they do not contribute and their competitors would love that,” she teases.

She excuses herself for a moment and dashes inside, returning with a plush denim rhino from the café’s front counter.

“Isn’t he gorgeous,” she chuckles.

“A chapel street denim business gave us 20 of them to offer to people as donation incentives and Mike Maka promised he would paint a personal mural for anyone who donates $5000.”

Dr Johnson eventually hopes to raise $300,000 to be able to run ads in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam for 30 weeks of the year.

“There are less than 5000 people driving the decimation of the rhino, so realistically for a few hundred thousand dollars you can drive a lot of really good behaviour change campaigns to primary users in Vietnam, where tens of millions have been spent on rhino protection in Africa,” she says.

While many of Dr Johnson’s strategies are far more direct, she believes creative and fun messaging, like the denim and MAKATRON rhinos, are vital parts of any campaign to capture people’s hearts.

COLOUR_NiaIt was with this in mind that she created Nia, the loveable Breaking the Brand mascot whose name means “purpose” in Swahili.

“People told me that rhinos aren’t very pretty, so I decided to create a rhino that was like a jewel,” she says.