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Local lad rubs shoulders with royalty

Royal honour has been bestowed on a young Helderberg hero in recognition of his merit.

Twelve-year-old Hunter Mitchell has been honoured with the prestigious Commonwealth Point of Light award by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, head of the organisation. He was presented with the award on her behalf by Prince Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex at a reception held in Cape Town.

The exemplary Somerset West boy received the award in honour of his inspiring work and dedication to saving the country’s rhino.

Hunter’s activism in support of African rhino conservation started on New Year’s Eve 2015, when he heard of the plight of an abandoned baby rhino. He knew it would die without help and anxiously followed its progress on social media. Using his own pocket money, he began the campaign, raising funds from family and friends, and setting up a Facebook page called “Raise the baby rhino with Hunter”. Amid his determination to save that one baby rhino, he learnt of the ongoing scourge of poaching and felt compelled to do more.

The inspirational youngster was named 2018 International Young Eco-Hero by the environmental organisation Action for Nature and one of 200 young South Africans who have made an invaluable contribution to the country by the Mail & Guardian in 2017. He also won the Eco-Youth Award at the 2017 Enviropaedia Eco-Logic Awards, which recognise young people aged eight to 16 who take important steps in solving tough environmental problems. Other accolades he has received include the LeadSA Youth Hero and the International Steve Irwin Visionary Wildlife Warrior of the Year Award in Australia.

His most recent honour came at the reception, which took place on Heritage Day (Tuesday 24 September), two days after World Rhino Day. Hunter commemorated the day at the World Youth Wildlife Summit at the South African Wildlife College. He served as keynote speaker at the event, and addressed more than 200 youngsters from 16 countries with a very inspirational talk on youth making a change.

Hunter recalled feeling delighted and honoured to have received an email that read: “Her Majesty the Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth, would like to honour your inspiring voluntary work with a Commonwealth Point of Light Award for outstanding volunteers. Commonwealth Points of Light is a special series of awards recognising inspirational volunteers throughout the Commonwealth. We are delighted to let you know that you will be a Commonwealth Point of Light representing South Africa for your inspiring work and dedication to saving rhinos in South Africa.” The email was followed by an official invitation from British High Commissioner Nigel Casey to attend the reception at his residence in Bishopscourt, Cape Town.

“It was a lovely garden party, which included young leaders from South Africa, who each got to share a little bit with the Duke and Duchess on what they are doing here to make a difference in their community or the environment,” Hunter said. “I was then introduced to Their Royal Highnesses and had the most incredible conversation about conservation here in South African and also got to share my story and what I am doing to save our rhino from extinction.”

A modest Hunter explained that when he accepted the award “I was really accepting it on behalf of everyone here in South Africa fighting so hard for our rhino.

“The Commonwealth Point of Light Award is such an amazing and special honour, and I am so grateful as it really has helped to reach out to more people around the world.”

Hunter recalled feeling anxious and excited before meeting the British royals, but in their presence learnt that they were kind people who seemed truly interested in his work. “It was so easy to talk to them,” he said. “Prince Harry said we definitely think the same, and he also believes we need to work so much more on educating youth on our special and unique wildlife, especially those who live in the rural communities around our parks and reserves. This is a big part of what I do, and it’s good to know His Royal Highness agrees. The Duchess was very sweet, and got a little emotional when I shared stories of orphaned and injured rhinos we have saved.”

When asked how earning the award will pave the way for future endeavours as a young rhino conservationist, he responded: “I think this award has put me on an elevated platform that will raise awareness with people and places that don’t maybe realise how close to extinction our rhinos really are. It may also hopefully inspire others to stand up and speak for a cause they are passionate about.”

Hunter believes that even the smaller efforts can result in a big difference, and with passion anything is possible.

Furthermore, the young rhino and wildlife warrior will keep on keeping on. Hunter has a special project aimed at raising awareness of the plight of rhino and funds toward the cause which will be launched just in time for Christmas, so keep an eye on his Facebook page for announcements. He has also been invited to speak in India in January and Australia in March next year.

“I hope to learn about the great one-horned rhino in Assam, and the efforts being made over there to protect them, as there are only around 3 500 left in the world. I will also get to inspire the youth in India.”

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