Even if you are small, you can make a difference. With these words, nine-year-old Hunter Mitchell, of Somerset West, concluded his acceptance speech for the Steve Irwin Visionary Wildlife Warrior 2016 Award in Brisbane, Australia on the evening of Saturday November 26.
Hunter and mum Lynley flew to Australia on Monday November 21, and followed a gruelling schedule of speaking engagements about Hunter’s efforts to raise funds for rhino conservation, which led to his selection for the award, after submitting an entry on the closing date.
It all started two years ago, after Hunter’s gran told him about her visit to Aquila Private Game Reserve, and Lynley started following Aquila’s social media page.
“I was so excited when they had a rhino calf born in October and then another one the week before Christmas,” Hunter told Bolander after his return from Australia.
“Then on New Year’s Eve,I read that a third calf had been, born but was abandoned in the night by his mother, and even though Aquila tried very hard to get them back together, it wasn’t working so they had to urgently rescue the baby so he had the best chance of survival. I knew then that was my opportunity to help.”
Lynley takes up the story: “It was Hunter’s New Year’s resolution to help baby rhino Osita. He donated his pocket money and Christmas money, then he asked all of his friends and family to donate as well, which they did. They in turn shared what Hunter was doing on social media, and friends of friends started to donate.”
As the money rolled in – R8 000 by late-January – Hunter put up a Facebook page and it went viral. In two days, he raised another R2 000, and he visited Aquila in early February to hand over the money.
“He met Osita for the first time, and the connection was immediate,” says Lynley. “He cried for days after that, over Osita’s plight, and he resolved to do even more.”
One day, when Lynley collected Hunter from school – Somerset House in Somerset West – he announced that he had asked the headmaster for permission to do a civvies day at school to raise funds. “I doubted he’d get permission, but the next day it was granted. He created a poster and wrote an insert for the weekly school magazine. The children had to pay R10 to wear civvies for the day,” says Lynley. Hunter raised R8 000 in that one day, and shortly thereafter, a group of pupils from Somerset College Prep School contacted Hunter and told him they wanted to do a civvies day in support of his cause.
They raised R12 000, and invited Hunter to Friday assembly to accept the donation.
And then it snowballed. The owner of a billboard company heard Hunter speaking on radio – Hunter was the Lead SA Hero for February – and offered him two billboards, one on the M5 and one on Long Street. Hunter conceptualised the call to action, and the billboard company paid for the printing. In no time people were SMSing SAVE to a number, and R30 was donated each time to Hunter’s cause.
“At last count, Hunter had raised R75 000,” says Lynley. All the money raised goes to Aquila Animal Rescue and Conservation Centre (ARC), a non-profit company dedicated to the conversation of, and education about wildlife, and Osita, the baby rhino, is cared for under the auspices of ARC.
When Hunter first visited Osita, he met Aquila wildlife conservation manager and Osita’s primary caregiver, Divan Grobler, and they immediately hit it off.
“I would visit Osita every weekend if I could,” says Hunter. “I miss him whenever I am away from him. When I visit, I still get to give him a bottle, take him for long walks and give him a mud bath. Divan always looks after me and I love being able to help with other jobs on the reserve.”
Hunter and Divan have given talks at many schools about Osita, and rhino conservation. “My school is so supportive and lets me have time to visit other schools doing talks about rhino conservation and my journey with Osita,” says Hunter.
After his return from Brisbane – he accompanied Hunter and Lynley to the award ceremony – Divan spoke of his regard for Hunter and what he has achieved: “Every seven hours we lose a rhino, every 15 minutes we lose an elephant, and every five hours we lose a lion. But, it gives us all hope for the future of conservation in Africa, when we encounter a nine year-old like Hunter, who has the passion and conviction to dream big. I believe there are more warriors like Hunter out there around the world that can make a difference, thanks to Hunter. He is such an inspiration and a hero.”
“The biggest benefit in my view, is the extent of awareness that Hunter has raised, both in his fundraising activities, and his talks to school children,” says Aquila sales and marketing manager Judy Mannering. “He develops the most remarkable connection with the children, who are encouraged to write a message to Hunter and Osita, and many of these messages show remarkable insight.”
A 13 year-old pupil from Wynberg Girls Junior School wrote the following message to Hunter: “Rhinos aren’t just any animal. They are special, because they are one of the animals that make Africa, Africa. So, we shouldn’t poach them, because not only is it cruel, but it’s almost as if you are taking a part of Africa away. And once all the rhinos are gone, can you imagine Africa without its horn? So save the rhinos because nobody needs a rhino horn but a rhino.”
Does Hunter plan to follow a career in conservation? “Definitely. I want to be involved in conservation for the rest of my life in as many different ways;I can to help. Our rhinos are so endangered, but things are also very sad for our lions and elephants, so wildlife needs us to stand up for them and protect them.”
And in closing, Hunter had the following message for young people: “I am only nine years old, and dreamed really big about helping to raise just one rhino;I am achieving my dream, so I know anything is possible, even if you are small. We as kids need to be the change for the future of our rhinos and our other amazing wildlife. Let’s dream big together so we can all have the privilege of having these amazing animals in our future.”
Anybody who would like to donate to Hunter’s cause can visit http://www.payfast.co.za/donate/go/aquila
Contact Judy Mannering on firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like Hunter and Divan to give a talk at your school or organisation.