When Steve Mowat saw a rhinoceros moving along the street Tuesday in downtown Mount Vernon, he had to stop and ask about it.
“I’ve seen a rhino in Africa, I’ve seen a rhino in Nepal, but I’ve never seen a rhino in Mount Vernon,” Mowat said of the spectacle.
The rhino he saw Tuesday was a fiberglass statue rather than a living wild rhino such as those he saw during his travels in the 1980s.
South African conservationist Matt Meyer is hauling the fiberglass rhino, named Lunar, by bicycle to raise awareness for the remaining, dwindling rhino species found in Africa and Asia.
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Meyer started his West Coast journey Monday in Blaine. He plans to end his trek in San Diego in mid-June.
“Yesterday her nose was pretty much in Canada and we’re going to Mexico,” he said.
Meyer said traveling the West Coast is a good way to reach a large population in an effort to increase awareness about the peril of the rhinos and to raise funds to support conservation.
He is calling the campaign “The Long Ride to Free Them,” a play on the words of Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.”
For the 31-year-old Meyer, preserving rhinos in the wild is a cause close to his heart.
“I grew up on a game reserve (in South Africa). … Conservation and wildlife has been a part of my life since I was a child, and I studied conservation in university,” he said.
Meyer is now a tourist guide in his home country, which enables him to spread the word about the plight of the rhinos to about 15 visitors a day.
He said this trip came about because he felt he needed to do something that could spread the word to a larger audience.
“It’s such an iconic species. I don’t have children of my own, but I can’t imagine passing a world down to them where this species went extinct and I didn’t do anything about it,” Meyer said.
The root of the problem is that on the black market a rhino horn is worth more per ounce than gold, he said.
“This is a species we’ve almost lost twice in the last century to poaching,” he said. “Before that can happen, we need to tell people about it.”
Each of the five remaining rhino species are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Fish & Wildlife is the agency responsible for enforcing international agreements on the trade of endangered species in the United States.
While most will never see a rhino in the wild, conserving the species is important to maintaining the ecosystem of which they are a part, Meyer said.
“They are a keystone species in the African environment. You lose the rhino, you will lose other things down the line,” he said.
Without the rhino, the dung beetle would die out, followed by the birds that eat the dung beetle, followed by predators that eat those birds, he said.
Mowat donated to the cause after just moments of talking to Meyer.
“I’m aware of the pretty critical situation of rhinos and it’s a pretty sensitive species,” he said.
Thanks to sponsors who are covering the cost of the trip, all donations received during the Long Ride to Free Them will go toward rhino conservation in Africa.
Meyer spent Tuesday evening at Farmstrong Brewing Co. with Lunar, talking with locals about the threats to the world’s remaining rhinos.
After a photo shoot in the tulip fields this morning, he was set to hit the road and continue south, with Lunar in tow to capture curiosity and spread their message.
For more information or to donate, visit rhinoride.org.