Making the point

Somerset West rhino conservation activist, Hunter Mitchell, received a Points of Light award from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan, at a civic reception at the British Consulate in Cape Town. Picture: Lynley Mitchell

Hunter Mitchell, the Somerset West rhino conservation youth activist, recently received the Points of Light award for his efforts in rhino conservation.

Hunter received his award, conferred by the Prime Minister’s office in the United Kingdom, from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan, at a ceremony at the British Consulate in Cape Town.

Bolander caught up with Hunter last week to find out about the occasion. “Before I got there, I was super nervous but I was also really excited,” said Hunter.

“They are actually just normal people, very kind and quite amazing.”

Commenting on the importance of the award for his conservation efforts, Hunter said: “I think the award is beneficial for me because it puts me on an elevated platform.

“Now I can talk to people who have the power to use their voices, and people who follow them are more likely to change their ways for our environment. It was wonderful to be able to talk to them about my story.

“They were really interested in what I’m doing and they want to do something about rhino conservation.”

Mum, Lynley, picks up the story: “What really got to me was that they spent between 20 and 30 minutes speaking to the people who’d won the awards for what they were doing for the environment. When it got to Hunter, they spent at least 10 minutes with him.

“Harry actually got two taps on the shoulder and was asked to ‘let’s move along’ but he chose to continue talking with Hunter.

“It was such a genuine conversation and it was very clear that they have a strong common interest,
that their beliefs are so much aligned.”

Hunter’s conservation efforts started at the age of 9, when he raised R75 000 to rescue and rehabilitate a white rhino calf, Osita, which had been orphaned at Aquila Private Game Reserve.

Hunter subsequently became the Aquila Animal and Rescue Centre’s ambassador, and in 2016  he was awarded the Visionary Wildlife Warrior award by the Steve Irwin Wildlife Warrior Foundation in Australia. Hunter flew to Brisbane with mum, Lynley, to accept the award from Steve Irwin’s daughter, Bindi.

Hunter, now 11 years old, has raised R275 000 in total, all of which has been donated to the rescue and rehabilitation of injured and orphaned rhinos.

His most recent effort was attendance at the Youth Wildlife Summit at the South African Wildlife College at the Orpen Gate of the Kruger National Park during the recent school holidays.

“It was a four-day itinerary for some 200 children from 16 different countries around the world, and they were there to learn about wildlife and also about conservation. We did indabas, brainstorming sessions, and they had a number of keynote speakers,” said Hunter.

“The idea was to teach them about wildlife and finding that passion for conservation. I was one of the keynote speakers there, and I was really happy because I got my message across to them and everyone was really inspired. That’s my job, and I succeeded.

“One of the mornings, I went up with Bruce McDonald, who at the college, flies the antipoaching spotter plane. We went out for about a 30-minute flight around the Orpen/Klaserie area.

“It was really amazing because you could see the whole landscape and the wonderful sunrise and loads of animals. Elephants look so big on the ground, but from up in the air they look so small. I was privileged to see quite a few wild rhino but I saw a lot of rhino carcasses as well, but thankfully, no new ones.

“Shortly after we returned, and just before I left, he got a call about a rhino with a calf that had been poached. I raise money for orphaned and injured rhinos, so if that mother had survived, my money would have gone to care for her, and some of it will be used to raise and rehabilitate the calf .”

 Hunter’s foundation is called Raise the Baby Rhino with Hunter, and he also supports an organisation called Saving the Survivors: Vets Against Poaching, run by a veterinary surgeon, Dr Johan Marais.

“He flies around the country, and sometimes even the world, going to do surgical operations on orphaned and injured rhinos. So, for example, if a rhino has been shot in the back, he would go with his own money to save that rhino. He tries to do his absolute best, and is very successful. He does all of this with his own money and it is very expensive, so I donate my money to him most of the time, because I feel that he is doing an excellent job and he needs the money to be able to do it,” said Hunter.

Last Friday, Hunter hosted a group of children from Australasia, at Aquila Private Game Reserve.

“The trip was organised by South African Tourism, and the group is coming here to learn about wildlife conservation and the bush and how important specific animals are to the environment.

“I’m going to be doing my presentation and speak to them,” said Hunter. Sadly, Osita, the baby rhino that first inspired Hunter, passed away recently from a blood parasite, but the group will get to meet Jumbo, another young rhino which Hunter had a hand in rescuing.

“I’m also going to be doing some rhino art with them. It’s a big poster and it’s got a rhino and a calf, and they colour it in. At the bottom, they can write their own message to the rhino. Those posters will get sent all around the world, spreading the word of Project Rhino’s motto, which is ‘let our voices be heard’. I do believe that it will inspire people because it comes from a little kid.”

Hunter’s appetite for fundraising is insatiable. After appearing as a guest speaker at the YPO Edge conference in Cape Town in March, he received a donation of R7 000. “I was going to donate the money, but then I thought that instead of donating just that amount of money, I could use it to make something that could raise even more money.”

Brainstorming with mum, Lynley, they initially considered something like a keychain, but eventually settled on the idea of rhino socks. “You use socks all the time, and you can make very cool designs and you can sell them for a good deal more. I started on my computer making designs of the socks and it took quite a while, then finally, in the end, I came up with great colours and a  great design,” said Hunter.

The next step was figuring out where to have the socks manufactured, and how to market them. Fortunately, Hunter had met Pick * Pay transformation director, Suzanne Ackerman-Berman, in 2018, when he won the Eco-Logic Eco-Youth award, sponsored by Pick * Pay, for his conservation efforts.

In conversation after her award ceremony, Hunter and Ms Ackerman-Berman struck up a relationship. “He had her in tears,” says Lynley with a smile. “He’s built up a very nice relationship with her, and she is very supportive of what he does.”

A business meeting with Ms Ackerman-Berman and her team, resulted in Hunter’s designs and colours being adopted for the sock project. Pick * Pay will also be funding the manufacture, packaging and marketing of the socks, and the plan is to have them ready by late November, just in time for the Christmas shopping period.

“They are going to make millions of the socks and they are going to be put in all Pick * Pay grocery stores and clothing stores around the country. I just hope that it generates a lot of awareness and helps people understand that rhinos are becoming extinct and that we need to take action now. And, we will hopefully raise a great deal of money for rhino conservation.

“I’m really grateful for the opportunity that Pick * Pay has made available to us. This is huge.”

The socks are going to be manufactured in South Africa, by a small community-based organisation and the packaging will be eco-friendly. No plastic, and only recycled kraft paper. The selling price for the socks has yet to be finalised.

As if that isn’t enough, Hunter is also planning a fundraising evening. Last year, he joined forces with the Indigo Spur at Waterstone Village, and the proceeds of the evening went to rhino conservation.

“We are just figuring out the date,” said Hunter. “It’s probably going to be during this school term, in the next two months.”

Watch this space