South Africa is not only home to the largest rhino population, it also has the largest illegal poaching rate. University of KwaZulu-Natal researcher, Samuel Umoh conducted a study that found that in the last seven years alone, despite conservation efforts, illegal poaching took an exponential spike, devastating much of South Africa’s rhino population.
Compared to the lockdown of 2020 following the onset of Covid-19, poaching increased by 50% in the first half of 2021. Over 200 rhinos are estimated to have been killed between January and June 2021, according to Earth.org, with more than 40 perpetrators apprehended in Kruger National Park alone.
Under the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Endangered Species, South Africa’s white rhino is classified as near threatened. The black rhino is listed as critically endangered, and the northern white rhino is facing complete extinction. Experts have warned that should this situation not be intercepted, South Africa’s rhino population could very well face extinction within 10 years or less.
The vulnerability of these animals is what led conservationist and athlete Sharon Jessop to set the Guinness World Record for most consecutive half marathons run by a female. She ran a staggering 102 consecutive half marathons, spanning a total distance of 2,200km over 102 days, all to raise funds toward rhino conservation. I sat down with her to hear more about her amazing journey.
When did your journey of running for rhinos begin?
I’ve been involved in rhino conservation for a few years. Then, in 2019 I met with my friends Wayne and Nikki Bolton who heads up the “One Land Love It” foundation that focuses on credible rhino conservation and anti-poaching initiatives. We formulated the idea to run from the Komatipoort border back to Port Elizabeth, symbolically linking all the rhino bearing reserves together as a stronghold for rhino conservation and to get them to recommit to curb rhino poaching.
I became the first OLLI (One Land Love It) ambassador, but then all my plans were thwarted when lockdown hit us in March of 2020. Everything had to be redone and re-planned and we had to create 102 consecutive “races”. So on World Rhino Day last year, 22 September 2020, I ran my first of 102 consecutive half marathons for rhino conservation awareness and I finished on 1 January 2021 with a new Guinness World Record, plus I managed to create massive awareness for the OLLI Foundation.
But truth be told, it was never about the Guinness World Record – that was merely a publicity stunt to get people all over the world to pay attention to a massive problem – an iconic and beautiful species that is fast becoming extinct, and extinction CANNOT be our legacy!
What inspires you?
Wayne completed a massive cycling expedition of 6000km symbolically linking all 19 SANParks together for rhino conservation. Wayne and Nikki are a huge inspiration for me and I just simply love them and the work they do.
I always knew I wanted to do “something” for rhino conservation but the thoughts needed to percolate in my mind. Then when I watched the documentary Stroop, something inside me changed.
My aim is to draw ordinary people in and “move them from caring to doing” as the OLLI motto states. Generally, people are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem but we show them that even the smallest of actions all contribute to saving our rhinos.
Tell us more about your running achievements from this year.
After successfully completing my first “Run Wild for Rhinos” in January this year, I started my second “Run Wild for Rhinos” expedition in September 2021 that took me to and through 11 of the rhino bearing Eastern Cape game reserves. I completed around 500km over a 21 day period, running through Big 5 game reserves. Again the aim was to create awareness and funds but also to connect with the rangers, the members of the various antipoaching units and the communities. As you may know, the communities around these game reserves play a huge role in curbing poaching if they see the rhinos as a communal asset that creates job opportunities for them.
I am hoping to turn it into a documentary and showcase the amazing work that is being done in the Eastern Cape in rhino conservation and community upliftment and punt these fabulous reserves as tourism destinations.
How do you raise funds and where does the money go?
I raise funds via my Matchkit profile and I have set the target to raise R1 million by 22 September 2022, when my next running expedition will take place. ALL donations go to the OLLI foundation and we fund rhino collaring, dehorning procedures, support various anti-poaching units with equipment plus we support specifically the community from the Nomathamsanqa township on the border of the Addo Elephant Park with care packs that contain food, beanies, educational material and reusable sanitary pads for the older girls.
We’ve also funded rhino calf milk formula for the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary as they take care of all the rescued orphaned calves. When their mommies are poached, rhino claves suffer severe trauma, plus baby rhinos are big and they drink a lot of milk. A growing calf can drink between 16 – 20 litres of milk per day! So contributing financially to these reserves and sanctuaries really makes a huge difference to each and every rhino as every single rhino matters.
Tell us more about Run Wild for Rhinos.
I started Run Wild for Rhinos as a fun way of creating awareness around the rhino poaching crises. My aim is to draw people in through endurance running and to show them that every little effort, no matter how small can and will help. It starts with simply reposting a post on Facebook, hosting a fundraiser, speaking up against rhino poaching, lobbying for harsher legislation for offenders to even lobbying for animals to have rights under our legislation.
Do you have any more runs planned?
Absolutely yes. I have already started organising my 2022 “Run Wild for Rhinos” and FINALLY I will be running from the Komatipoort border between SA and Mozambique back to Port Elizabeth. The reason I want to start there is that a lot of our rhino horn leaves SA via the Komatipoort border post so it just feels right to do a little “protest” there for better protection of the border.
Again I will interact with the rangers, APU members as well as the communities as I never leave a stone unturned to educate people on just how awesome and important rhinos are. I would also love to finish this expedition with massive concert – the “Rhino Rock Festival”. Obviously I need to continue with fund raising as money pays for anti-poaching and conservation. So with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work I can pull it off!
To find out more or get involved, contact Sharon here.
Pictures: Supplied/Getaway Gallery