Rhinos and golf aren’t something you would typically associate with one another but South African golfers Justin Walters and Dean Burmester are trying to change that.
With several species of the animal having been identified as ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List - there are, for example, only around 100 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild, whilst the one surviving male northern white rhino is kept under 24-hour armed guard – Walters and Burmester have joined forces to create the Birdies4Rhinos conservation fund.
The idea is simple. They essentially donate money for every birdie they sink to help organisations in their native South Africa get the funding they need to help save the rhinos.
Their efforts have not gone unnoticed by their fellow tour pros, with English golfers Chris Paisley, Richard Bland, and more recently Justin Rose, committing to the cause, whilst Stacy Bregman and Nicole Garcia are also doing their bit on the Ladies European Tour.
A huge part of the issue surrounding rhinos is illegal poaching, something that has escalated in recent years. The animals are targeted for their distinctive ivory horns, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine but increasingly as a status symbol to display wealth and success.
In South Africa alone, three rhinos are killed on average per day. Some experts are predicting that, if current levels of poaching continue, rhinos will be extinct in the wild within three years. That’s something Johannesburg-born Walters (above) isn’t prepared to accept.
“I was playing the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek a few years ago shortly after my son was born,” he told bunkered.co.uk. “I was playing in the afternoon and there were a few rhinos nearby and I just started watching them.
“I knew they were in trouble and I knew they were getting slaughtered daily and it just got me thinking that I would love my children to have the opportunity to see these wonderful animals. I felt like I should do something about it. I just didn’t know how to help.
“I thought about it for a few months and, at a tournament last year in February, I woke up in the middle of the night about 4.30am and the idea just came to me.”
His idea was to donate £10 for every birdie that he makes on tour, increasing that to £50 per birdie at South Africa-based events.
Figuring he had stumbled upon something good, he approached Burmester, one of his closest friends, to gauge his thoughts.
“It hit so close to home,” said the current Tshwane Open champion. “Justin has a couple of small kids and I have a little son, so when he told me he wanted to do something to help the rhino, it was a no-brainer. I want my son to grow up, see rhinos and experience things I have.”
Soon, the pair were sporting a logo for their new cause on their on-course clothing, which caught the attention of their fellow pros, including English duo Paisley and Bland, each of whom contribute £7 per birdie.
“I’m good friends with Justin and I’ve always been an animal lover, so when I found out what was going on I wanted to do my bit to help,” said the 31-year-old from Northumberland. “I’ve been to South Africa a lot and seen a lot of rhinos and it’s just brutal what’s going on.
“The good thing about Birdies4Rhinos is that, if someone has a good week and makes 20-odd birdies, it soon adds up.”
Bland added: “Animals have always been quite close to my heart. What’s happening with the rhinos – it feels good to give back.”
Of course, raising money is just one of the aims. Another (arguably bigger) part is raising awareness of the plight of the rhino.
Walters added: “It’s not really about the amount but the initiative and last year we had sponsors match our donations. We just started a JustGiving page for the public to get involved. Perhaps we could get some more sponsors on board. It’s just about trying to make a difference.”
So far, so good in that respect. “We are getting quite a lot of exposure here in Europe and all over the world,” said Burmester. “I’ve had a few people from America contact me asking how they can help or where to donate.
“We want to show people what rhinos are going through and what we can do to help them. This is a good start.”
For more information, follow @Birdies4Rhinos on Twitter.