Conservation at the heart of Rhino Peak Challenge

The third edition of the Rhino Peak Challenge (RPC) will see 24 elite ultra-trail athletes and ‘People of Influence’ from the world of sport and conservation take on the Rhino Peak in the Southern Drakensberg on World Rhino Day on 22 September to raise funds for Rhino conservation and the preservation of the critically endangered Bearded Vulture.

The 2016 edition of the event was unprecedented as it raised R290 000 for its primary beneficiary, The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), who used these funds to manage and support a variety of projects involved in the conservation of these two species.

Amongst these projects were the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Programme, which raises chicks in captivity before releasing them into the wild, and the Rhino Sniffer Dog Programme, which trains dogs to track poached horn and assist in locating orphaned Rhino calves.

The RPC raises funds via a pledge system that is linked to the time it takes for each runner to complete the 21km round trip up and down the Rhino Peak. The Elite athletes are given set Goal Times for the run while the ‘People of Influence’ are allowed to choose their own Goal Time. The RPC is a 100% fundraiser with no expenses deducted and all funds administered transparently through the EWT.

With 12 elite runners taking on the challenge together with 12 ‘People of Influence’, including 2016 champion and current FKT (fastest known time) holder Rory Scheffer, the 2017 edition has attracted some big names in South African sport.

Included in the list of influential people is 2007 Rugby World Cup winning captain John Smit. Smit’s Goal Time for the run is 400 minutes and, as per the rules of the RPC, all his pledges will be multiplied by the number of minutes he finishes within that time. (capped at 45 minutes).

The event has also attracted two of South Africa’s top river marathon paddlers. K2 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon winner Sbonelo Khwela will take on the Rhino Peak and, with a strong running background, Khwela has been included in the Elite group with an enforced Goal Time of 210 minutes.

Having just won his tenth ICF Canoe Marathon World Championship title in Pietermaritzburg eight days ago, Hank McGregor will also be lining up to tackle the Rhino Peak with his wife Pippa at his side.

The race will also include a significant number of conservationists, some who are directly involved in the conservation of Rhinos and Bearded Vultures and some tireless champions of wildlife conservation.

The likes of Rhino capture and relocation pioneer Dr Jacques Flamand who has worked as a wildlife veterinarian in the Kruger Park and the Natal Parks Board, was Director of two wildlife research centres in Saudi Arabia, served as Veterinary Adviser in Chitwan National Park in Nepal and currently heads up a black rhino expansion project for the WWF will take on the Peak at the age of 71.

Joining him on the outing will be fellow environmentalists Dennis Kelly, Zama Ncube, Shane Raw and Sonja Krüger.

Kelly, Raw and Ncube are heavily involved in the conservation of rhino in KwaZulu-Natal. Kelly is a section manager for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park where he has worked for over 10 years. He manages the Makhamisa Section of iMfolozi.

Ncube’s involvement in conservation of rhinos began over ten years ago when he joined the NGO WildlifeACT as a rhino tracker. He continues to be involved in the tracking and monitoring of rhino but also heads up community conservation programmes.

Here he tries to pass on knowledge to the youth of the importance of environmental maintenance as well as the importance of game reserves.

Raw’s love of wildlife stems from his love for the outdoors. Being a professional whitewater kayaker he spends the majority of his time outdoors on some of the biggest rivers in the world.

He was also involved in a successful private conservation organisation in Swaziland for nearly 20 years where he experienced the horror of rhino poaching which influenced him to take up the challenge of helping to protect wildlife.

Raw developed the #StandUp4Rhinos initiative and has raised over R100 000 for the plight of the species and this fulfilling experience has motivated him to do more to save this embattled mammal.

The event’s name suggests that the main focus is on rhinos, however the Bearded Vulture is an equal beneficiary due to its critically endangered population of less than 300 adults and its symbolic status as an inhabitant of the Rhino Peak itself. Dr Sonja Krüger, who initiated the Maloti-Drakensberg Vulture Project in 2000, will be back for the second year in succession.

For the past 15+ years, she has been driving processes aimed at reducing the population decline, stabilizing the species and growing numbers to achieve 150 breeding pairs of Bearded Vultures in the Maloti Drakensberg mountains which is home to the only breeding population in the Southern Hemisphere.

Despite Dr Kruger’s efforts there is still a high probability that the Bearded Vulture will face extinction within the next 50 years if radical changes are not implemented and the RPC hopes to play a small role in this.