Welsh college teams up with African football tournament to help stop animal poaching

Creative learners at a college in the South Wales valleys have made a giant rhino mascot for a football competition in Africa which is designed to put an end to animal poaching.

Learners at Coleg y Cymoedd have spent the last six months tirelessly working on developing the six-foot rhino which will be used to kick off this year’s Rhino Cup Champions League. The mascot was flown out to Mozambique earlier this month in preparation for the tournament.

Founded in 2016 by animal charity, the Wild and Free Foundation, which works to protect wildlife and habitats in Africa, the Rhino Cup Champions League was created after representatives from the foundation travelled to rural villages in Mozambique, where a high percentage of young men were being arrested or killed after being involved in poaching rhinos.

With these villages bordering the Kruger National Park – home to 85% of Africa’s rhinos – the charity wanted to find out directly from the villagers what could be done to prevent poaching. Following feedback from the community members, the charity organised the football league to keep the men of the villages busy and motivated.

Originally launching with 12 teams, the cup has since grown to have 24 teams with over 600 players, coaches and managers. This year, following a two-year break due to Covid, the competition is expanding to cover Namibia and Zimbabwe alongside Mozambique. It is also developing several women’s leagues.

Richard Embling, lecturer on the BA Hons tv and film: prop making at Coleg y Cymoedd, said: “This has been an incredible opportunity for our learners, enabling them to use their skills and creativity to help with a very important cause. It has allowed them to gain experience dealing with a real client, where they have learnt about budgets, planning and deadlines.

“We are incredibly lucky to be involved in such an impactful project. Creating the mascot means that rhinos become less aggressive in the eyes of the community. We look forward to hopefully collaborating with the Rhino Cup Champions League again in the future.”

Coleg y Cymoedd became involved in the Rhino Cup Champion League after developing a relationship with Welsh puppeteer, performer, director and avid environmentalist, William Todd-Jones. The star linked the college up with Matt Bracken, Founder of the Wild and Free Foundation, after hearing about the foundation’s desire to create a mascot for the tournament.

As part of the project, six learners studying the prop making course at Coleg y Cymoedd developed three concepts which they pitched to Matt Bracken via video calls, who selected the final design.

The learners had six weeks to create the human-sized mascot out of ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam and nylon. Throughout the process, they had to ensure that the final product’s design allowed for adequate ventilation and vision for the person inside and was robust enough to travel. Since the Rhino Cup Champions League was introduced, the villages in Mozambique have seen a 90% reduction in the number of deaths and arrests of young men due to rhino poaching. In 2019, estimates suggested the cup had helped save 10 rhinos a month during the football season.

In the future, Coleg y Cymoedd hopes to produce further mascots for each individual country involved in the cup, which would lead to more hands-on experience for learners. The college is also looking to support the women’s league by getting its own women’s football team involved in the tournament.

Molly Morgan, a prop making learner at Coleg y Cymeodd who was involved in the project, said: “Working on this project has been an unforgettable experience, especially knowing that our costume will be used to make a real difference for both the rhino population and the local people in Africa.”