Three years ago, Ross Bowers was a corporate lawyer in London when he decided to move to South Africa to work with African tour operator Rhino Africa. That same year, Rhino Africa launched its Challenge4aCause initiative, a fundraising and corporate social responsibility project to help the Save the Rhino Trust – an NGO that works to protect the critically endangered black rhino population in the Damaraland region of Namibia. Each year a group of Rhino Africa staff and other industry members have cycled across the Damaraland Desert in Namibia, raising 600,000 South African rand (£55,446) in 2010 alone for the Save the Rhino Trust. Bowers is now the communications manager for Rhino Africa and departed for the 2011 Challenge4aCause event in Damaraland Desert on 1st July, this time to raise money for three charities: the Wildlife ACT Fund, who help conserve threatened and endangered species, the Good Work Foundation, who focus on rural education, and the Save the Rhino Trust. The Ecologist caught up with him to find out more.
Henry Gass: Can you tell me more about Challenge4aCause?
Ross Bowers: ‘Challenge4aCause is an initiative that we started at Rhino Africa, and we started it as a corporate social responsibility project for the staff. We’re a travel company, so our business involves tourism and that obviously has an impact on Africa. We wanted to get involved in a project that made a real and tangible difference to the industry we were working in – which was the conservation of wildlife in Africa – and something that our staff could get involved with directly, so that they really felt they were involved with. Three years ago – the first ride was in 2009 – we set up a cycling-based fundraising event in Namibia, and we got 20 riders together, some staff and some of the people we worked with in the industry, to raise money and take part in an incredible event.’
HG: What sort of threats does black rhino face? How precarious is their existence as a species?
RB: ‘In the 1960s there were 100,000 black rhinos and in the 1990s there were 2,400. Today, there’s about 4,800 black rhino in Africa. It [number of rhinos] is increasing, but so is the poaching epidemic. And as the poaching epidemic increases – which it has been over the last two or three years – we are approaching the tipping point, where the numbers killed will exceed the number born. Just to put that into perspective for you: from 2000 to 2007 there were about a dozen rhinos poached every year in southern Africa. In 2010, 333 were slaughtered, and 173 were killed in the first six months of this year. So the poaching is on the increase.’
HG: Who’s doing the poaching?
RB: ‘It’s syndicates that have relations with Asia. It’s serious organised crime units, basically. It’s not just one-man hunter bands: it’s whole organised crime units, which originate from the demand in Asia. There’s a belief in Asia that rhino horn has serious medicinal benefits. So there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of a coordinated effort to reduce rhino poaching through education at the source of the demand and through fighting crime on the front line as well, and that’s going to require involvement from the private sector and coordinated effort from governments as well.’
HG: How does Challenge4aCause help address these threats?
RB: ‘We raise money and awareness for the Save the Rhino Trust, and Challenge4aCause was specifically set up to protect the desert-adapted black rhino in Namibia. The desert-adapted black rhino is native to the region of Damaraland in Namibia, which is where the cycle takes place. They actually cycle through that black rhino territory. But they are a particularly delicate population because they can’t just be replaced by a rhino from, say, the Kruger National Park [in Mpumulanga province, South Africa] or something like that because they have adapted specifically to their habitat in the desert. So we raise awareness through doing the event, and each participant pays their participation fee and then they also have to raise 20,000 rand in funds, which goes towards the Save the Rhino Trust and a couple of other charities as well.’
HG: Why was the Cycling Challenge adopted to raise money as opposed to other fundraising methods?
RB: ‘I think it gives something for the staff to participate in – all the team at Rhino Africa are able to take part – and also because they could go through that particular terrain, through the desert-adapted black rhino territory, without having an environmental impact. And they can actually see them in their habitat, and I think that’s something incredibly moving and inspiring about seeing the actual creatures in their own habitat. Instead of just raising money, you’re actually raising awareness, and when people see this for themselves they really can get behind the cause.’
HG: Why was the Damaraland Desert chosen for the Cycle Challenge?
RB: ‘As I said, that’s because that it is the territory of the desert-adapted black rhino, and it’s spectacular. It is a really untouched environment and it’s literally desert and spectacular vistas, which very few people get to visit. It’s quite difficult to get to, it’s quite inaccessible and it’s a protected area. They cycle 330 kilometres, and it’s mountain biking, so they’re cycling across sand and very harsh terrain, so it’s absolutely exhausting, and they take six days to cycle those 330 kilometres. Up hills, down hills, it’s incredibly hot and dry as well. It’s a serious physical challenge. They’re all going to their spinning classes and getting out and about around Cape Town on some of the mountain biking routes at the moment. And another reason why we support the Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia is because it actually falls outside the funding of [Namibia’s] national parks. So the funding that we provide is vital. They wouldn’t have other funding if it wasn’t for this. Because of the funding and because of the work that the Save the Rhino Trust do there they haven’t lost a single rhino in the last 10, 20 years in the Damaraland conservancy. So it really is making a difference.
HG: Unlike past cycle challenges, the 2011 Challenge will raise money for two other charities as well as the Save the Rhino Trust, why is this?
RB: ‘We wanted to increase the amount of money that we’re trying to raise and increase the benefit as well. We’ll probably give a bit more to the Save the Rhino Trust, but as I mentioned earlier, the poaching is seriously on the increase in other reserves, and instead of just protecting one we need to start looking at a more all-around, more holistic approach to fighting rhino poaching. It’s not just rhinos that are being threatened at the moment either. Lions and cheetah are also threatened species, so we need to start looking at applying the funds that we raise to different charities and different institutions that might help address the poaching problem.
HG: In what way is the black rhino is important for Namibia?
RB: ‘They are a signature animal, part of the Big Five [with the leopard, lion, elephant and buffalo] and they are a spectacular animal. We’ve had the pleasure of the seeing them, and we need to make sure future generations have the pleasure of seeing them roaming in their natural habitat.’
HG: Can tourism, particularly sustainable tourism, play a role in protecting Namibia’s black rhino population?
RB: ‘That’s what we’re incredibly focused on as an in-bound tour operator. We realise the importance of sustainable tourism. It’s not just about reaping rewards for short-term gain. We need to make sure that tourism revenue is ploughed back into the continent and that it is used for community advancement and wildlife conservation. Our natural resources are our tourist attraction; we don’t have historical buildings and so on. We have beautiful and spectacular landscapes and incredible wildlife, and we need to protect that.’
HG: Has rhino conservation improved since Challenge4aCause launched?
RB: ‘We’re very proud that there’s been no poaching that’s taken place in Damaraland, and that’s something that we want to maintain. But I think we need to look at the fact that poaching is going on and it is on the increase in other parts of southern Africa, and we need to look at how we can get involved in helping that as well.’
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