June 2016

Michael Hearn Intern visit to Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia

Author: Grace Dibden, Save the Rhino's tenth Michael Hearn Intern

I was lucky enough to travel to Namibia to work with Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) for four weeks as part of the charity’s Michael Hearn Internship. Established in 1982, SRT has worked tirelessly to protect the desert-adapted black rhino in the Kunene and Erongo Regions in the northwest of Namibia. Since its beginning, SRT has helped increase the region’s black rhino population five-fold and the Kunene is now home to the largest concentration of black rhino on land with no formal conservation status. Due to the huge area of the Kunene and Erongo Regions - 25,000km2 - and the absence of large fenced areas, monitoring the population of these shy animals poses many challenges. The recent surge in rhino poaching in southern Africa has forced SRT to re-focus funds and resources into active anti-poaching work, in order to secure the population of these incredible animals for future generations.

Save the Rhino International has supported SRT since the charity’s beginnings. Money is raised through many avenues, including trust and foundation grants, corporate relations, events and community fundraising. Funds raised by our supporters help SRT’s anti-poaching patrols and the teams who monitor the black rhino population. The Kunene region’s desert-adapted black rhino subspecies (Diceros bicornis bicornis) is particularly special due to how it has evolved for desert living. The diet of the desert-adapted black rhino consists largely of the shrub Euphorbia, deadly to most other animals including humans, and while all other species and subspecies of rhinos need to drink every day, the desert-adapted rhinos can go without water for up to two or three days without any damaging effects.

Rhino

I flew to Namibia in early May and headed off for a 10-day holiday touring northern and central Namibia. In mid- May I returned to Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, after one of the best trips of my life where I was lucky enough to tick four things off my bucket list (visit Etosha National Park, see a wild cheetah, climb a sand dune and go sandboarding), meet some amazing people and even see four black rhino in Etosha National Park!  My time with Save the Rhino Trust began in the coastal town of Swakopmund, four hours west of Windhoek. Swakopmund is in the Namib Desert and I never got used to seeing the huge perfectly formed sand dunes meeting the cold waters of the Atlantic. This unusual meeting of landscapes made the weather in Swakopmund seem to mirror that of the UK some days, with a thick layer of fog covering the entire town and reaching far into the desert. Albeit with far less rain than London - only 20mm per year!

View from camp

On my first day working with Save the Rhino Trust I was picked up by SRT's Fundraising Manager, Lorraine, and taken to the office. Lorraine joined SRT in January 2014 and carries out all admin, grant writing and fundraising for the Trust. Lorraine introduced me to all the amazing work SRT do to protect the black rhino population. I was to spend two weeks in the office helping out with some office admin, compiling reports from the recent debriefing sessions, where rangers report back on progress after every patrol, and writing reports for donors to let them know how their money was being spent. Lorraine and I worked together closely. It was great to get so engrossed in their work and I gained a new appreciation for the extreme dedication the SRT teams have to their jobs in both the field and the office.

During my weekends in Swakopmund I explored the town, going to the local craft market and sitting on the shore watching the strong Atlantic waves crash onto the rocks. I also joined a Desert Explore tour, which took us out into the desert in search for desert life. We were mainly looking for the Little Five and we were lucky enough to find them all! The Little Five are five of the many desert dwelling creatures in Namibia, which are able to survive on the life-giving fog rolling in from the cold Atlantic Ocean. We set off into the sand dunes and the first of the five we encountered was the Dancing White Lady spider (Carparachne aureoflava), this little white spider looks terrifying to someone with a phobia of spiders - me - but is fascinating, with the ability to cartwheel 44 turns per second down a dune to escape any enemies it encounters. We then scoured the dunes for signs of burrows belonging to the far less scary Namib Dune gecko (Pachydactylus rangei). After about 15 minutes our guide found one and started digging. The first part of the gecko we saw was its short fat tail, followed by the transparent body. After our guide showed us the gecko’s webbed feet - used to walk and dig in the soft dune sand - we made sure it was able to dig a new burrow before we jumped back into the car. We drove further into the dunes, an experience I won’t forget for a long time, twisting our way through the golden sand peaks until we reached the area where we hoped to find the Namaqua chameleon (Chamaeleo namaquensis). The sand was dotted with small bushes and inside the plants we found two chameleons basking in the sun! These animals can change skin colour to help regulate their body temperature, becoming black in the cooler morning to absorb more warmth, and turning a lighter grey to reflect light during the heat of the day.

Back into the car, and after a quick stop at a scenic spot, we made our last stop to search for the remaining two Little Five. We found the Sand Diving lizard (Meroles Anchieta) dancing on the scorching sand to prevent its feet from getting too hot. The group was then called over to patch of sand by our guide and asked to spot the venomous Sidewinder snake (Bitis peringueyi). It’s safe to say not one of us could find it as only part of its tiny head was poking out the sand! Our guide used a special rod to gently bring it to the surface and at no more than 10cm, this snake was a baby. After a great few hours in the dunes we were dropped back at the hostel to relax for the rest of the day.

Lizard

After my two weeks in Swakopmund was up, I headed up north with SRT’s CEO Simson Uri-Khob to their headquarters, Mai Go Ha!. During the seven hour journey I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of mountain zebra, giraffe, oryx and a small elephant family! Arriving at the camp late afternoon, I pitched my tent and spent the evening cooking and meeting all the SRT staff. The weather in Ma Go Ha! was an extreme contrast to Swakopmund, with scorching temperatures and blazing blue skies. I got straight to work in the office with the Director of Field Operations, Lesley, sorting out field reports ready to be added into the anti-poaching database. These then help to show the distribution of the rhino in the area and where the next patrols should be performed. I spent a lot of time with Lesley and  Axel, the Chief Operations Officer, and they filled me in on the ins and outs of Save the Rhino Trust to gain a real sense of how important each ranger and staff member is to the running the projects. Every day, rangers are out patrolling a vast unprotected area, tracking rhinos and reporting any suspected poaching incidents. Without each and every one of them working together, the patrols couldn’t happen. I was struck by the passion and work ethic of each ranger I met.

Patrol unit

I was also lucky enough to go out to one of the small base camps in the area to spend a night with the rangers and get to track some rhinos! I was very excited about this prospect, even after and a very bumpy five-hour journey through the desert hills to the camp. First things first, we set up my tent and got ready to go out and track rhinos. We drove to a place where the team had seen a mother and calf that morning and started from there. I was struck at how skilled the rangers are, I could perhaps pick out a foot print every 20m or so but the rangers were incredible.  They told they could tell how a rhino had walked over the rocks because of how they had been disturbed. To my unskilled eyes it looked like nothing had happened to the rocks! Surely enough, after a few hours of tracking the rhino in a huge circle - I think this one had a sense of humour - we found the mother and calf only about 100m from where we started!

In the field

This was my first time seeing a black rhino in the wild and it was incredible. Seeing the mother and her calf standing there feeding meant so much to me. After a year working at Rhino HQ in London helping to raise funds for this vital work, more than ever I understood even more the passion that rangers have for these magnificent animals. We didn’t want to stay around them for too long, so we headed back to the van and picked up some fire wood on the wood ready for our camp fire that night. We drove back to the camp against backdrop of one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen. Back at camp, we sat around the fire with a cup of tea while we waited for our dinner to cook, before turning in for the night.

Camp sunset

The next morning we got up bright and early. After a quick breakfast it was time for the rangers to go out on patrol and us to head back to Mai Go Ha! We drove the rangers to the place where they were starting their patrol and straight away they spotted three rhino from what seemed like miles away to me, again showing the immense skill of the SRT rangers. We quickly clambered out the truck and moved towards the rhinos on foot. Two of them had clearly sensed us approaching and made a sharp escape, but one male stayed put. We were able to get quite close to him, again having an amazingly close encounter with the species. Back at the truck we said goodbye to the patrol and thanked them for their hard work and headed back down the track to Mai Go Ha! The journey back through the amazing desert mountains was occasionally disturbed by a group of oryx or zebra bolting off the track into the distance, leaving a huge cloud of dust behind them.

Zebras

There will never be words to describe Namibia's beauty; it’s too diverse and magnificent to ever be summed up by a few sentences. The people, the animals, the constantly changing landscapes are all incredible and like nothing I have ever encountered before. Before my visit, Namibia was very high on my “travel list” and I knew of its famous Etosha National Park, of the sparseness of the Skeleton cost, and of the sand dunes of Sossuvlei and Swakopmund. Nothing could have prepared me for the splendour in Namibia’s countless backdrops. I saw landscapes I never even knew existed before and was endlessly amazed every moment I was exploring Namibia’s wild places. Seeing wild black rhino for the first time is an experience I will never forget cementing my passion for these wonderful animals.

To lose this species would be a tragedy for not just Africa and its iconic landscapes, but for the communities who have so much to gain from protecting their natural heritage and the benefits of eco-tourism, and the human race as a whole. We cannot allow another species to fall victim of our species’ undeniable power to destroy some of the most beautiful and precious things in this world. The work of SRT and the other projects supported by Save the Rhino are making a huge difference in the world of rhino conservation as well as protecting huge areas of land for a huge range of species to survive and thrive, edging closer to the picture that Africa once was, a wild place.

You can help support the amazing work of to Save the Rhino Trust here.

Set up in 2006 in memory of Michael Hearn, former Research Director of Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) in Namibia, the Michael Hearn Internship Programme aims to provide a motivated school leaver or recent graduate the opportunity to work for Save the Rhino International (SRI) for one year. The Internship intends to provide a comprehensive learning experience, with the ninth month spent with Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia. At the end of each year, the Intern will have gained a wealth of specialised knowledge and practical experience to enable them to move in to a career in conservation or the charity sector. Both SRI and SRT will have benefited from their enthusiasm, new perspective and fundraising efforts.

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