I am on my way to see the elusive black rhino of Namibia.
My flight from the Southern Namib Desert is in a small 6 seater plane. My two fellow passengers are Americans – the chap is interested in everything and happy to chat and ask questions as we fly over the amazing scenery. However, his wife sat tensely, gripping the edge of her seat, and quietly under her breath, muttering requests to God to get us down quickly, and preferably on an airstrip.
The route to Desert Rhino Camp in Northern Namibia traversed a huge sea of red sand dunes, approximately 35 kilometres wide. As far as the eye can see is sand, sand and more sand. On reaching the Atlantic Ocean, we headed north along the Skeleton Coast, which is famous for the hundreds of ship wrecks, sea lion colonies and deserted mining camps. As we flew over these sights I wondered about the foolhardy individuals who tried to eke out a living in this God forsaken landscape with promises of unimaginable wealth. They lived with sand from horizon to horizon, not a tree or a blade of grass to be seen, constant wind and the threat of starvation or dying from thirst were daily reminders of the inhospitality and harshness of the landscape. All that is left of this human folly is an abandoned train line and some flimsy wrecks of houses and mine workings.
Finally, after three hours of bouncing around in a little plane I land at Desert Rhino Camp, which is about 35 kilometres inland from the coast. Desert Rhino Camp is to the south of the Kunene region in Namibia. This area covers 450,000 hectares and is made up of rolling, rocky hills, flat-topped mountains and other geometrically shaped outcrops that graphically punctuate the skyline. This area is called Samaraland, named after the indigenous Sama people.
I am collected from the plane by Raymond, my guide for the next three days. A new experience awaits me as we drive to the camp, which is a 45 minute trip from the airstrip. We set off in the Land Rover, and in the first 5 minutes my bones are rattling, my teeth are chattering, and I am gripping on for dear life as we bounce, crash, rattle and roll over tracks that appear to be impassable by vehicle. After 45 minutes of this, we arrive at Desert Rhino Camp and I am met by my host Agnes, with a welcome drink and a cold towel to wipe off a thick layer of dust.
The stony landscape is a challenge to modern machinery. The Land Rover spends 90% of its time in four-wheel drive as we negotiate rough tracks comprised of boulders, stones, gravel and sand. Bouncing along over these terrains, the guides have christened the experience “the African massage” where every muscle gets a work out – particularly your bottom. There are occasional river and creek beds where permanent springs release a trickle of water for the desert adapted inhabitants. The most amazing of these are the elephants and black rhinos.
The camp is situated in a wide valley. The tented accommodation is comfortably airy with artful African touches in the decor. The dining and sitting area is a large open tent giving great views of the surrounding area and the mountains beyond.
This conservancy is well known and praised for its work in protecting and fostering a large population of desert adapted black rhino. I was lucky enough to see these on my second day. However, the journey was long, hot and arduous over incredibly rough terrain.
When the call came over the two-way that the trackers had found these elusive creatures, our guide revved up the Land Rover and we took off at rally car speed. After 15 mins of bone rattling driving and sweaty palms, we arrived on the scene to find a mother and baby (2 years old) on the hillside about 200 metres away. We were lucky to have a 15 min viewing before they ambled off over the crest of the hill.
At Desert Rhino Camp there is a permanent patrol of rhino conservation officers, who leave HQ at dawn every day, and somehow within the 450 sq kilometers they’re able to track and find rhinos. Their role is to record where the rhinos are, what the rhinos are grazing on, the spread of their home range (as they are solitary animals and establish their own domain) and their general condition. They photograph them and complete a visual checklist, which is then sent off to Headquarters where all this information is put into a centralised database.
The trackers are an interesting group of men. Denzil, Marten and Danziggy, spend weeks out in the field away from their families and have a variety of backgrounds and experiences but they are united by a common bond to preserve the safety of the rhinos, unlike their neighbours to the south. South Africa is losing a rhino a week to systematic poaching and it is believe that this is the result of corruption at the senior government level.
Danziggy tells me that his grandfather was a poacher when finally, after many years, the law caught up with him and he was thrown into jail. While in jail, he was approached by a lady who was starting a rhino conservation programme. She visited all the jails and in a deal with the Namibian government, paid them to release all the poachers into her care. She then employed them and skilfully utilizing knowledge to look for rhinos and to track their movements so she could educate the locals and lobby government to do more regarding their protection.
Danziggy was only a boy when this happened and sadly his Grandfather died only few years later. His Grandfather had nominated Danziggy as his successor and so he was offered a job when he was only 13 yrs old. He was taken out of school and lived in the bush where he spent time with the trackers observing their craft. He quickly adopted their passion for the rhino. His mind was made up; he chose to take the job as a conservation officer and not complete his education. Following his Grandfather’s example was more important to him.
What is a Black Rhino:
• An adult black rhinoceros stands 132–180 cm (52–71 in) high at the shoulder
• An adult typically weighs from 800 to 1,400 kg (1,800 to 3,100 lb)
• Two horns on the skull are made of keratin with the larger front horn typically 50 cm (20 in) long, exceptionally up to 140 cm (55 in).
• The longest known black rhinoceros horn measured nearly 1.5 m (4.9 ft) in length
• For most of the 20th century the continental black rhino was the most numerous of all rhino species. Around 1900 there were probably several hundred thousand living in Africa. During the latter half of the 20th century their numbers were severely reduced from an estimated 70,000 in the late 1960s to only 10,000 to 15,000 in 1981. In the early 1990s the number dipped below 2,500, and in 2004 it was reported that only 2,410 black rhinos remained.
• The black rhinoceros had been pushed to the brink of extinction by illegal poaching for their horn
• A major market for rhino horn has historically been in the Arab nations to make ornately carved handles for ceremonial daggers called jambiyas. Demand for these exploded in the 1970s causing the black rhinoceros population to decline 96% between 1970 and 1992.
• The horn is also used in traditional Chinese medicine, and is said by herbalists, to be able to revive comatose patients, cure fevers, and aid male sexual stamina and fertility
• Black rhinos has a reputation for being extremely aggressive, charge readily at perceived threats and have even been observed to charge tree trunks and termite mounds
• They will fight each other, and have the highest rates of mortal combat recorded for any mammal: about 50% of males and 30% of females die from combat-related injuries
• The black rhinoceros is a herbivorous browser that eats leafy plants, branches, shoots, thorny wood bushes, and fruit