Durban - Sharon Ilett has decided to jump out off a plane, not to fulfil any bucket list desire but to raise awareness and funds for rhino conservation in KwaZulu-Natal.
Ilett will be joined by 39 other people passionate and committed to the course at Angel Way Farm outside Pietermaritzburg on August 6.
It may seem like a drastic measure, but with 227 rhinos already poached in South Africa this year and estimations suggesting that 400 rhinos could die by the end of 2011, one can easily understand Ilett's drive.
The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) says at this rate the number of rhino killed for their horns will exceed the total of 333 animals poached last year.
Chris Galliers, a Conservation Project Manager at WESSA, says to date, 144 rhinos have been killed at the Kruger National Park (KNP) and 15 poachers have been shot dead and nine injured in clashes with South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops and rangers there.
Of the 127 poachers arrested across South Africa, 64 have been captured in KNP. The worst month so far in 2011 for rhino poaching in South Africa was March, with more than 50 rhinos killed, 35 of them in the KNP.
These horrifying figures inspired members of the African Conservation Trust (ACT) to leap into action. According to ACT marketing official Sheelagh Antrobus, the Skydive for Rhinos jump started out as a personal project of six ACT female staff members but within hours, 40 people decided to get on board.
"The Skydive for Rhinos jump will be done by ordinary people who have had enough of the escalating rhino slaughter and who are willing to do something extreme to increase awareness, as well as give other ordinary people a cause they can donate to easily, knowing their support will go where it's needed most," says Antrobus.
Out of the 40 jumpers, 20 are ACT staff and Trustees, while the rest are from various environmental organisations and those that are deeply concerned about the future of the dwindling rhino populations.
There is even a 65-year old, Noreen Courage, from Pietermaritzburg who will also make the jump.
Antrobus says over R100 000 has already been raised by the 40 jumpers from their friends, family and business associates in less than two months.
"The public interest has both surprised and humbled the organising team, as companies and service providers have joined the campaign with a plethora of gifts donated to help raise more funds for KZN's rhinos," Antrobus explains.
For Ilett, rhino conservation and education is vital, and is also a personal journey. Her late son Camrin's, interest in animals and two baby rhinos, Walter and Lulu, sparked a love affair with the sought after species.
"It all started in late 1990's with my little son then five-years-old, I wanted him to see animals so I'd bring him to Queen Elizabeth Park on a Saturday morning, to see different species of antelope, zebras and other little animals," says Ilett.
Charlie Ball, who looked after the baby rhinos at the park, allowed Ilett and her son to help nurture the animals at the time.
"We'd help clean the pens and day by day we'd get closer and closer to the rhinos under Charlie's watchful eye, as the rhinos were hand reared by Charlie Ball. Charlie would call them by their names and they would come over to feed like little puppies," smiles Ilett.
These days, Ilett works for the KZNWildlife Sales and Marketing department and also lends her time to other organisations like the ACT.
Her persistence translates into action. Last year, Ilett managed to convince SAACI (South African Association of the Conference Industry) - KZNWildlife's partners in tourism - to dedicate their Christmas party to raise funds for rhino conservation.
"In September this year, Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (FEDHASA) will create awareness by engaging Dr Ian Player, Founder of, in the early days Operation Rhino, where Rhinos were captured and trans-located to other parts of the world to save them from extinction will give a talk to captains of the tourism industry," she says.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife says South Africa's success at conserving rhinos is being undermined by the illegal wildlife trafficking, which is worth billions annually and is considered to be extremely lucrative.
"The rhino population in South Africa was on the brink of extinction in the early 1960's, but at the end of 2007 South Africa had conserved 35 percent of Africa's black rhino and 93 percent of Africa's white rhino respectively," explains Jabulani Ngubane, Interim Rhino Security Co-ordinator at the EKZNW.
To date, rhino population have grown at a healthy annual growth rate, with the total rhino population for the country estimated to be close to 17 500 in 2007 and over 20 000 in 2009.
Ngubane says rhino horns are believed to be worth more than gold, diamonds or cocaine and other drugs in monetary terms.
"While the rate of poaching is below the levels that are threatening the survival of the species, it is however acknowledged that if the current rate continues unabated, the situation could reach a stage where numbers could start declining to a point where the mortality rate will exceed the natality rate.
"The scourge of rhino poaching was at its worst in the year 2010 with 333 rhinos illegally hunted in the country," he says.
Ilett believes education about rhino poaching must continue to help curb the problem.
"The public need to know who the perpetrators are, they should be named and shamed, and the little measures that can be taken is just awareness and knowledge especially to the communities that surround our game reserves," she says.
Adds Galliers: "There needs to be the immediate support of a national co-ordinated structure for information management, law enforcement response, investigation and prosecution."
Meanwhile, all the funds raised will go towards rhino protection activities that are struggling to counteract poaching because of funding shortages. - BuaNews