Keeping the desert-adapted rhinos safe

Photo: Save the Rhino Trust

Keeping the desert-adapted rhinos safe

01 October 2018 | Tourism

Le Roux van Schalkwyk

It is no secret that it is imperative for Namibia to safeguard its natural resources, not only because tourism is turning into one of the country’s main industries, but also in order for future generations to still enjoy this legacy. Unfortunately some of our natural resources are under great threat, not only here but across the continent. The Rhinoceros is such treasure, which according to statistics is currently illegally killed in Africa at a rate approaching three rhinos every day. While illegal trade in rhino horn fuels a lucrative black market in Asia, the situation has become critical back home in Africa. Current estimates indicate that if poaching continues unabated at the current rate, rhinos could be extinct within the next decade.

With such a depressing prospect it is good to know that it is not all doom and gloom, especially as regards the efforts of the Save the Rhino Trust (SRT). The SRT was founded in 1982, originally in an effort to save the desert-adapted Black Rhinoceros population in north-western Namibia (Kunene Region), which at that point in time was in the process of being decimated by poachers. It had reached a point where less than ten rhinos had survived in Kaokoveld and an estimated 30 to 40 remained in Damaraland. With less than 5000 black rhinos left in the wild combined with the current trend of poaching, the tireless work of the SRT, which protects these desert creatures, should never be underestimated. In close collaboration with the Government, Namibian police, local communities as well as national and international partners, SRT’s efforts have been central in achieving the aim of enhancing the safety of the rhino, while monitoring and evaluating the rhino population on a continued basis and enticing the community to take part in this conservation exercise, thus allowing them to reap the benefits to the good of both parties.

Grunt work by trackers
One of the core functions of SRT is to consistently patrol and monitor the entire Kunene area, which is not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. Covering an area of 25 000 km² with no national park status, no fences and no controls over who enters and exits, it is a mammoth task. Furthermore, the terrain that has to be covered is rugged and unfriendly. To patrol this area, SRT uses dedicated trackers from local communities who possess a deep-rooted historical knowledge and understanding of rhinos and the surrounds they live in. Their endurance and skill is tested when on patrol, covering distances of up to 45 km per day by foot and often facing dangerous situations. At night they sleep in the open under the stars, only to get up the next day and start all over again. The presence of these tireless trackers is critical to the black rhinos’ continued survival. Since 2012 the overall patrol effort has been increased by 780% with rhino sightings having increased by 450%. The efforts of the Fund have paid off and since its peak in 2013 poaching incidents in the area resorting under the control of the SRT have been reduced by 80%.

The community’s role
SRT clearly understands that without buy-in from the local communities all its efforts would be in vain. In return SRT appreciate the pressures of living in such an arid environment and are actively committed to helping communities benefit from having rhino on their land, as well as making them partners in rhino conservation. A part of this collaboration effort is to build knowledge, understanding and skills within partner organizations and community members. Training is provided to trackers of the SRT as well as for rhino-rangers appointed by the conservancies. The training program for the rhino-rangers is particularly focused on succession planning for aging trackers. Well trained, well equipped, motivated and effectively deployed rangers are essential in winning the fight against poachers. From 2012 to 2018, the number of trained and equipped conservancy-based rhino rangers grew from zero to 59 rangers across 13 conservancies, thus tripling the original field force.

Research and Evaluation
Due to the consistent patrolling and monitoring of black rhino in the Kunene Region over the last 25 years, the data gathered during this time provides an unrivaled opportunity to establish a deeper understanding about the rhino’s biological facts as well as behavior and habits. Understanding these horned beasts better is fundamental to achieve their effective protection and helps maximize population growth. SRT has also adopted a more interdisciplinary approach integrating ecological, social and psychological sciences into their policies so as to establish a practical research agenda. This research has guided rhino reintroduction efforts, responsible tourism protocols, ranger incentive schemes and community engagement strategies.

Thanks to the determined efforts by SRT Namibians are able to actually see and enjoy the last free roaming Black Rhinoceros in our own backyard, and hopefully so will future generations.

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