During his playing career as a cricketer, Kevin Pietersen made a name for himself by never backing down from a fight.

Sometimes, his fights were with his own teammates and the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Other times, with a bat in hand, he fought for his team. If that meant brashly hooking a fire-breathing Brett Lee into the stands at the Oval in 2005 with the Ashes on the line, so be it. If it meant reverse-sweeping Muttiah Muralitharan for a six to win the battle of wiles, so be it.

Then, after his England career ended unceremoniously in 2014, he discovered a new calling and now finds himself in the middle of a bigger fight ― a war, as he likes to call it ― to save the rhinos from being extinct.

In a way, Pietersen reinvented his persona after 2014.

“I’ve changed a lot (since starting on this journey of saving rhinos from extinction). When you’re living in the world of sport, you’re living in an ego-driven, egotistical, show-off, I’m-better-than-you world,” Pietersen tells Firstpost from UAE, where he will take up his position in the commentary box for this season’s Indian Premier League. “(When I was an England player) you’re competing every day. I was batting at No 4 for England. (I was expected to) win matches for England and be that real big player, that entertainer, that showman.”

Not many could play that showman better than Pietersen. But compared to that life, Pietersen says, he's now in the ‘most comfortable space he’s ever been in in his life'.

“In this world, there really is no competition. There’s no bravado. There’s no ego. There’s no nonsense. I absolutely love it. I lived in that other world for too long.

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“In the world that I am in at the moment, I am completely under the radar. I’m completely subservient to the animals. I’m working for the greater good of protecting our planet and species. It’s a place where I don’t need to worry about competing with anybody or anything. It’s a space where I can laugh every day, I can be with my family as much as I can be, I can make decisions around when I want to travel and when not. I work with some of the most amazing people in the world. Kind-hearted people.”

The other world

That other world Pietersen talks about saw him butt heads at times with his own teammates. As he once declared near the end of his England career, “It’s tough being me in this England dressing room.”

Over the years, his headstrong nature started to make as many headlines as his stage-stealing batting.

Not surprisingly, the media in England ― which has a penchant for first building athletes up and then pulling the ladder from under their feet ― painted him as a pantomime villain. The South Africa-born cricketer was called outspoken, a non-conformist, difficult, disruptive, and even a relentless self-promoter.

Ask Pietersen if some of those qualities ―him being outspoken, a ‘relentless self-promoter’, and his ability to never back down from confrontation ― are what make him the right man in this war against rhino extinction, and he says, “Some of those attributes you definitely do need to keep the drive alive to protect species and to continually bang the drum around conservation and illegal wildlife trade."

“When I was the player that I was while playing for England, it was the nature of the beast. It was who I needed to be to continue to dominate in the sport that I played. Ever since I hung my boots up, particularly after 2018, that competitiveness, that egotistical nonsense you need to succeed and be the best player in the world…I have no interest in that anymore. I just want to be happy every day, wake up peaceful, preferably in Africa on safari, wear a pair of shorts and a T-shirt…not really too interested in shoes or silly clothing.”

Pietersen here is talking about living on the same London street with the likes of Frank Lampard, Hugh Grant, Liz Hurley, and Rowan Atkinson. “You had to dress up every day living on that street because of the paparazzi,” he says.

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The war

The paradox of the situation he’s currently in the middle of ― the idea of going to war with semi-automatics for humane reasons ― is not lost on Pietersen.

“I do see it as a paradox, yes,” he says. “It’s something that contradicts what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing. You can be in a national park where you are watching animals, having the most wonderful experience, seeing the most beautiful things. A few kilometres away from you there can be an armed confrontation where poachers are being caught by rangers. Or poachers are killing animals. To get people’s interest in the subject, labelling it as a war is not a bad thing. In some circumstances when you have poachers and rangers with semi-automatic weapons confronting each other, it’s pretty close to war. But clearly, yes, there’s conflicting ways in which you would want it to be described, 'cause war isn’t ideal.”

Pietersen’s journey into the conservation of rhinos started back in 2013 when he took a safari trip to the country of his birth. When it struck him how bad the crisis was, he decided to use his profile to ‘bang the drum’ about conservation, illegal wildlife trade, and destroying a species.

“It continues to drive me every day, to try and make a difference, to protect our planet because we’re destroying our planet every single day. We continue to do so. It gives me great pleasure in focusing my attention in helping a species, and the rhino was where I started because of how critically endangered it is,” he says.

On 22 September, on the occasion of World Rhino Day, Pietersen will be seen in a special two-part documentary on Nat Geo Wild called Save This Rhino: India. The documentary, which will be broadcast on Nat Geo Wild at 1 pm and 9 pm, will also be available on Disney+ Hotstar VIP. To shoot the documentary, the former cricketer visited Assam’s Kaziranga National Park ― home to the Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros or the Indian Rhino ― earlier this year right before the coronavirus-imposed lockdown started.

The Indian Rhino numbers had dwindled to 75 in 1905, but currently have risen to just over 2,500. Given this, Pietersen calls India ‘market leaders’ in saving the species that was critically endangered.

“When I got to see the Greater One-Horned Rhino in February for the first time in my life I got goosebumps. What India is doing in the conservation world, particularly rhinos, they’re streets ahead than anyone else in the world,” he says. “I can only speak from experience of the few weeks that I spent there, but when you see the rhino population flourishing, you know that the team at the Kaziranga is doing the most brilliant job of safeguarding these animals. There are so many people living in huts in and around the park that protect these animals night and day. It’s such a success story.”

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He says that the documentary is the greatest gift he could ever give back to the country.

“India has given me so much. I have profited emotionally from India. I’ve profited from the most wonderful friendships. I’ve profited financially from all the IPLs I have played. To be able to give something back to India by showing the world how beautiful India is ― this is the best thing that I could do for India for being so amazing to me.”

Things back home in South Africa have started to get better over the years as well. According to a report released by South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, the number of rhinos poached for their horn continued to decline for the fifth year running in 2019 ― from 1,215 in 2014 to 594 last year.

Still, he admits, it’s hard to find optimism some days.

“It is very difficult (to find optimism some days) because of the levels of corruption that you see in and around rhino poaching and the trafficking of wild animals. It’s something that beats you down with a stick. I just cannot understand people wanting to do it. I cannot understand people wanting to financially benefit by killing animals. Sometimes I feel completely downtrodden with emotion. It’s just not something that I would even contemplate doing to make myself financially rich. I do have days where I think what I am doing this for. The level of corruption is so deep-rooted."

“But then I also think that if I don’t do it, and if I give up, then it’s just giving up on the species. My children’s children maybe won’t be able to see the rhinos, and elephants. I’m just not going to give up. I don’t do it because I agree with war, or because I agree with anybody harming anybody else. I don’t do it for that reason at all. I just do it to protect the animals.”

His work in conservation has also changed his perception around South Africa, which took a long time to reconcile with him playing for England. Fans even jeered him when he played in South Africa early in his career.

“I find it weird actually that I get approached at airports and I get spoken to a lot more about rhinos. They call me the Rhino Man. Sometimes people definitely talk to me about cricket. But I get spoken to so much more about rhinos,” he says.

— All images from Save This Rhino