The front line of the poaching crisis - visiting Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia
As part of my year-long internship with Save the Rhino, I recently had the privilege of travelling to Namibia to work for a month with Save the Rhino Trust (SRT). Namibia is a huge, sparsely populated and incredibly beautiful country, and is home to one of the world’s most significant populations of black rhino, as well as a wealth of other wildlife. Travelling in Namibia is unlike anywhere else in the world – where else can you expect to see giraffes and kudu strolling casually beside the road, far away from National Parks or conservation area, or view elephants, lions, rhinos coming together at a single desert waterhole? Setting off on my trip in May 2015, I couldn’t wait to get under the skin of conservation in the country, and meet some of the rhino heroes devoting their every day to saving our favourite horned beasts.
Save the Rhino Trust has been a major recipient of Save the Rhino International’s fundraising since the charity’s inception in the early 1990s. SRT, founded in 1982, is mandated to monitor and protect the unique desert-adapted black rhino of the remote Kunene region of northwestern Namibia. Following two decades of successful conservation and population increases, the current poaching crisis that began in South Africa has sadly spread to the area, claiming the lives of 24 animals Kunene in 2014 alone.
The rhinos of Kunene are unique in that they are perfectly adapted to the desert: while rhinos elsewhere must drink every day, Kunene’s rhino drink only every two or three days. The desert shrub Euphorbia forms a major part of their diet, despite being poisonous to most creatures: a local guide told me a tale of tourists who used branches from the shrub to make their fire, and all perished from the toxic fumes. Clearly, these desert rhinos are very special creatures.
The rhinos that SRT protects are spread thinly over a huge desert area, and conservation in such a place poses a substantial set of challenges. Monitoring a population of shy animals in an area the size of European country is difficult enough; but the resurgence of poaching in the area has meant SRT have recently had to take on an active anti-poaching role, detecting and following up on security threats and deterring would-be poachers. Undoubtedly, this has been a huge challenge for the organisation. But as my trip was to reveal, the staff at SRT are one of the most dedicated teams I have had the pleasure of meeting, and are utterly committed to saving the region’s rhinos. Procedures have been redesigned, patrol routes reviewed and new staff employed: every member of staff at SRT is devoted to the task, and confident that they will succeed.
On my arrival in Namibia, I headed first to Swakopmund, a town on Namibia’s Atlantic coast famed for its adventure tourism and German colonial-era architecture. On my first day at SRT, I was picked up by Lorraine, the Fundraising and Administration Manager. Lorraine quickly filled me in on the makeup of the organisation, as well as the recent changes that had been made in response to the poaching crisis. Right away, I was struck by the magnitude of these changes and the huge amount of work that had gone into them. This shift in focus has required all members of staff to work extremely hard on new strategies and processes to ensure the anti-poaching effort works. The changes have also meant extra expenditure – as Lorraine explained, salaries for the rhino trackers have been increased significantly to reflect the added risks they’re facing on anti-poaching patrols, such as armed poachers and lions, among other dangers.
German architecture in Swakopmund
I spent two weeks working with Lorraine in the Swakopmund office. An important aspect of my trip was to share some of the skills I had learned in my time at Save the Rhino, so I was kept busy instructing Lorraine in various computer software, as well as developing new fundraising streams for the organisation and compiling reports for major donors.
I was keen to make the most of my time in Swakopmund, and so at the weekend I joined a day trip heading into the nearby Namib Desert to explore the area’s magnificent sand dunes and the unique wildlife that lives among them. The highlight of the trip was a visit to Sandwich Harbour, a natural lagoon several hours’ drive down the coast from Swakopmund. The only route to the harbour is along the beach, a journey which has to be timed with precision if the jeep and its passengers aren’t to meet a watery end. As it happened, we managed to get there and back without drowning (just). Climbing a gigantic golden sand dune on the end of the ocean to find a beautiful lagoon stretching out below me was an unforgettable sight. Later in the day, we explored the desert to find springbok, ostrich, brown hyena tracks and the unique dune lark, a bird that lives only in the Namib Desert and survives on seeds and insects alone, never needing to drink. The Namib Desert is testament to the sheer ingenuity of wildlife to survive in the most inhospitable conditions, and goes to show just how much life can exist in an area unspoiled by human interference.
Sandwich Harbour (note the jeep for scale!)
After two weeks in Swakopmund, it was time to head up north into the Kunene region, home to the desert-adapted black rhino and SRT’s field base at Maigoha. After an eight-hour journey on the back of a truck, via a family of elephants who mercifully stepped out of the middle of the road just in time, we arrived at the base in pitch darkness, punctuated by the stunning Southern Hemisphere sky for which this part of the world is justly famed.
Emerging from my tent the next morning, I was met with a beautiful vista of ancient hills of glowing red earth, dotted with clusters of Euphorbia and resounding with the calls of iridescent glossy starlings and sandy-coloured larks. A quick walk around the buildings revealed a wealth of desert life, with Namib Rock Agamas scuttling around the walls and Damara Ground Squirrels looking very meerkat-like as they stood by their burrows, looking out for danger.
The view from my tent
With the sun rising in the sky and the temperature rapidly shooting up, it was time to get stuck into work supporting the staff at the field base. Maigoha has been the hub from which SRT’s operations have been redesigned and co-ordinated, and I was immediately struck by the incredible work ethic of all the staff. There is no such thing as a weekend at Maigoha – as I discussed the recent changes with Axel, the newly-appointed Chief Operations Officer and former Trustee of SRT, I got a real sense of just how important the organisation and the rhinos it protects are to the staff in the field. They are on hand whenever the rhinos need them, and if, as happened when I was there, intelligence is received on any threat to the rhinos or their habitat, all personal plans are dropped immediately. For the staff at SRT, the rhinos are their life.
SRT trackers ready to head out on patrol
The SRT field base now represents the regional hub for rhino protection operations in the area. Previously, SRT trackers had operated out of several smaller bases, but as part of the organisation’s reorganisation in response to the current poaching threat, patrols are now centralised and randomised to ensure full coverage of the area, and to make sure the teams’ movements are unpredictable to any would-be poachers. So far, the new approach has proven a great success, with no poaching incidents detected in the area since its implementation.
When based in the field, I was kept busy supporting the many behind-the-scenes tasks underway to streamline procedures and ensure maximum effectiveness of the rhino conservation programmes. I spent much of my time creating a huge spreadsheet on the trackers’ ration orders – crucial to ensure that they get optimal nutrition while on their patrols, while keeping costs to a minimum. In such a remote location, with no fences between the camp and the Kunene hills with healthy populations of lion, leopard and hyena, I wasn’t able to explore the area freely, but I did enjoy an unforgettable evening spent with a beer at Mike Hearn’s grave. Overlooking a breathtaking panorama of desert hills and lit up with by the burning terracotta skies of a Namibia sunset, it was easy to understand why this place had meant so much to Mike, and I was honoured to visit his final resting place. Of all the places I visited in Namibia, this was undoubtedly the most beautiful.
After a week working at the field base, it was finally time to find a rhino. With the patrol teams out in the field on 20-day patrols, I wasn’t able to join a real SRT patrol. Nonetheless, the staff were adamant that I couldn’t leave the area without seeing a desert rhino. So, it was with great excitement that I set off at 5am with Immanuel, a long-standing tracker with the Trust, to join a couple from nearby tourist lodge on a rhino-finding mission. With us were three Rhino Rangers, members of a community conservation scheme who are employed by the local government but trained by SRT on their rhino patrols, as well as an armed police officer. Clattering through the dry woodland of mopane trees, I was sure any rhino would hear us coming from miles off and would make a speedy exit. But we hadn’t been driving for long before Immanuel spotted fresh rhino tracks from earlier that morning, crossing the dusty path. The Rhino Rangers quickly hopped off the truck and galloped into the bush, striding off confidently to follow a rhino track that was utterly invisible to me. With the trackers on the rhino’s tail, Immanuel drove off in the truck to meet the trackers at a later spot – so well did he know the area and the rhinos’ movements that he could easily predict which rhino the tracks belonged to, and where the tracks would lead. We headed off over the hills along barely-there paths that would surely lead most tourists to a swift and thirsty end. But sure enough, 30 minutes later we were out of the vehicle, and could see the Rhino Rangers stood atop a nearby hill, gazes focused on a spot among the trees close by.
Looking for rhinos
Heart thumping, I crept quietly through the bush to meet the Rhino Rangers. It the end, it was the police officer that showed me the animal first. Pointing to a spot between the trees some 50 metres in front of us, I espied a dark eye and a large grey figure looking right at me. I had seen a desert rhino!
As the rhino was awake and aware of our presence, we backed off a little and headed to a nearby hillock from which we could watch the rhino without disturbing him. It is essential that disturbance to these animals is kept to an absolute minimum, as a startled animal might run for many miles, losing vital water and energy and possibly leaving a vulnerable calf behind. Settled on the hilltop, I could see the animal, a young dominant male, calmly relaxing in the shade under a tree. As we watched, he settled onto the ground for his noontime nap, clearly not distressed by our presence in any way. As Immanuel explained to me, this particular animals was one that is seen almost every day and is relatively safe from the poaching threat given his close proximity to tourist lodges.
Now that I had a seen a desert-adapted black rhino in the wild, it was even clearer to me why the staff at SRT are willing to devote so much of themselves to save these animals. There is nothing quite like the steely gaze of a wild rhino – so prehistoric and yet so perfectly adapted to its beautiful surroundings. On our way back to camp, we passed the corpse of a Mountain Zebra that had died of thirst, accompanied by a horde of White-backed and Lappet-faced Vultures. This served as a reminder of just how harsh this landscape is, and how amazing the rhinos that live there must be to thrive in the area. To lose these creatures would be an unimaginable tragedy, an irrevocable loss that would see the current generation go down in history as responsible for ending a 50 million-year evolutionary path. We cannot allow that to happen.
From my time spent with the staff at SRT, my abiding impression was one of optimism. They fully understand the gravity of the challenges they face to save the desert-adapted black rhino, as well as the funding restrictions and logistical difficulties involved. But I have never met a more dedicated group of conservationists. Everyone I spoke to, from the CEO Simson to the newly recruited Rhino Rangers, was utterly confident that they would succeed in their mission to save Namibia’s rhinos. For the staff at SRT, there simply isn’t another option, and they will dedicate all their time and put themselves at huge personal risk in order to do this. It is imperative that we continue to support them financially to allow them to get on with this difficult but essential task.
Sunset at Brandberg
Michael Hearn Intern