Namibia's Rhino Protectors

the fight against rhino poaching

Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism fighting against the extinction of the Western Arid Adapted Black Rhino

“Poaching, extinction and slaughter” are the words synonymous when dealing with black rhino throughout Africa, but out here in a remote arid corner of Namibia the tables have been turned and antonyms are more commonly used. In the inaccessible northwest region of Namibia lives a population of rhino that is the only one in the world that has survived on communal land with no formal conservation status and they are truly the largest and only totally free ranging population of black rhino left in the world. They not only survive but flourish in one of the harshest environs on our planet, the Namib, the oldest and one of the driest deserts in the world, with a mean annual rainfall that is below 100 mm. The Namib can trace its arid ancestry back at least 55 million years, sufficient time for the region’s biodiversity to adapt to the severe conditions.  The Western arid adapted subspecies of black rhino is just one mega-herbivore from a list of endemics that has adapted to this austere environment. The Namib is a harsh, arid landscape of rugged mountains, barren gravel plains and windswept sand-dunes that are constantly on the move. Surface water here is extremely scarce with only a few secret springs where the myriad of desert species can slake their thirst.  It is here where we have come to find our rhino.

Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism have embarked on an ambitious project, who’s aim is to increase these rhino numbers and their range. They propose to do this through a custodianship program where suitable rhino from high population areas are captured and relocated to areas that formed part of the rhino’s traditional range.

Somewhere out here in the middle of nowhere, at a GPS point location, is where we finally meet up with the team, a small dedicated band of men from Namibia’s game capture unit who plan to find, dart and move a number of desert rhino to their new locations.  Before sunrise on our first morning the team’s spirits are momentarily dampened by a thick mist that has been pushed inland from the cold Atlantic Ocean, but as the first cup of early morning coffee is brewed the spirits lift, orders are barked and the ground crews set out to begin their search for any sign of the elusive rhino. The crew assigned to the helicopter has the luxury of another quick cup before the sun is able to dissipate the last remnants of mist and soon we are up, hugging the contours of the terrain, flying over a monotonous basalt red landscape. Finding a rhino out here should be simple, or so I thought. Straining our eyes and battling with depth perception, with nothing out there to help gauge size, we dip down to check each dry river course and we fly over something I hadn’t expected out here, lush green circles of grass sprinkled with color, an instant response to a light rain shower just a few days before. The color was fleeting and moments later we are back, sweeping over the featureless and barren landscape when through the headphones, the word “rhino” crackles and the helicopter immediately banks sharply to one side.

A rhino has been spotted and he has taken off over the rock strewn plains.  We swoop down, the vet needs a closer look to make sure if it is a worthy candidate for relocation. He gives a thumbs up, “He's a perfect specimen, a young bull, he’ll do nicely.” Military precision now takes over and coordinates are relayed through to the ground crew, they are still a way off so we settle down on a hilltop to await their arrival. The down time is well spent, the vet prepares his darts, checks and rechecks all the equipment, while the rest of the team attempt to keep the still mobile rhino in sight, but soon all we can see is a cloud of dust disappearing over the distant horizon. It is some time later before the ground crew manage to reach the vicinity and when they are nearby we take to the sky. We buzz down perilously close to the thundering hindquarters for the vet to take his shot. The luminous tailpiece of the dart protruding from the rhino’s hindquarters leaves us in no doubt that the target was acquired.  Again we pull away, but this time we can’t afford to land, the clock is ticking and the ground crew are racing towards the latest set of coordinates. Every second counts now. It is a few minutes before the rhino begins to slow and show the first signs of the drug taking effect. He stumbles slightly and takes another step before falling over. Before his dust has settled the helicopter dispenses the team and the rhino is immediately hooked up so that his vitals can be monitored. Mixed in with the dust kicked up by the rhino is the new wave of dust created by the arrival of the ground crew, It’s an open air ER, with monitors beeping and stats and orders being called out, “temperature, pulse, get that oxygen in, get him cooled down” The team seems to anticipate the commands and no sooner are they issued than the request is complied with. A frenzy of activity surrounds the immobile rhino, with a number of functions taking place simultaneously, a transmitter is placed in the horn, measurements are taken, antibiotics administered, ID notches and photos are taken and before anyone has taken a second breath a crate is rolled up and the half dazed rhino is prodded to his feet, a thick rope guides him in and the doors are slammed shut. A collective intake of breath, a couple of wry smiles break through on the dust covered faces and everyone is relieved that it was another successful capture.

Black rhino are at the best of times socially dysfunctional, aggressive, myopic and extremely short tempered. So, bumping into a black rhino out here with nowhere to run or hide can turn into a hazardous experience very quickly. That is why we need to consult the experts, the experts being members of a small conservation organization Save the Rhino Trust, who have been tracking and monitoring this population since the early 80’s when poaching was at its peak. Rudi Loutit,  CEO of the trust spreads a map before us, his finger stabs at a few non-descript regions on the map, ”here, here and here are the areas worth checking” Loutit points out, again it looks like we might be using GPS  coordinates to navigate around this featureless terrain. The Trust has monitored and protected the population of rhino that exist outside the protection of the National Parks for the last thirty years. The effort and efficiency with which they do this has resulted in a tripling of the once nearly depleted population. All the monitoring of the rhino has been done from the ground, the hard way. Trackers spend hours piecing together little bits of evidence that will lead them in the right direction and hopefully to a rhino.

We spend days in our Land rover, never having to use our expected lifeline, the GPS- these trackers know every spring and gully, and they navigate over the featureless terrain by total instinct. Hour after hour, day after day we check every track we find, we follow the fresh ones and still we haven’t had sighting of these reclusive animals. We navigate through narrow gorges, over rolling dunes, windswept gravel plains and down to the coastal dunes that make up part of the formidable Skeleton Coast- it is here on the wind blasted coastline that we find our most western sign of rhino, tracks on the dunes not far from the chilly Atlantic Ocean.
                                                        
Our first rhino, after days of tracking and searching is just standing out there, calmly feeding. We pile out of the vehicle, check the wind direction and move off to get a better view. We settle down a respectable distance away and watch a prehistoric looking tri-toed creature adapted to living in this primordial landscape munch on a bush that is so toxic it can be extremely dangerous to a human that just brushes against it by mistake. We do feel exposed out here with nowhere to run or hide but we have faith in the fact that black rhino are extremely short sighted, but I’m not so sure about those radar like ears that continuously rotate, missing very little. A snort is the only warning we get before the rhino drops its head and thunders towards us. We are a sufficient distance away for me not to be concerned, just yet, but watching a rhino charge straight at you when there is nowhere to run, or nowhere to hide, is comparable to sitting on a highway watching an eighteen wheeler truck come straight towards you. The rhino grinds to a halt a few meters in front of us, spins around and trots off in the opposite direction, as if nothing had happened. When my pulse, thumping in my ears subsides I can begin to enjoy our first sighting of a western arid adapted rhino.

Namibia’s conservation strategies for these rhino are unique. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism are progressive and forward thinking in implementing policies that will ensure the future of this subspecies of rhino. The entire rhino population, seen as a “national asset and belonging to all the people of Namibia,” falls under their stewardship. Communities that once competed with the rhino for habitat are now part of a rhino custodianship program and rhino relocated into their areas are an additional drawcard for their flourishing tourism enterprises. These community conservancies are about to be formally recognized when the new “Kunene People’s Park” is gazetted. The formidable Skeleton Coast National Park and the famous Etosha National Park will be linked through a patchwork of conservancies and concessions, and in doing so will create one of the largest conservation areas in the world, thus ensuring a viable habitat for the entire western arid adapted rhino population. 

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