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Tracking black rhino in north west Namibia

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De var mindre enn 200 meter unna oss nå, tre svarte neshorn som tygget bekymringsfritt på noen blader fra en treklynge. Guiden vår gjorde tegn til at vi skulle være stille og ikke bevege oss. Jeg hadde nylig lært at dersom et neshorn angriper, så skulle jeg klatre opp i nærmeste tre. Her i nærheten var det ingen trær som så ut til å tåle vekten av et menneske, så jeg bøyde meg forsiktig ned bak noen busker og observerte neshornene.

Les om WWFs prosjektkoordinator Melissa de Kocks møte med et av verdens farligste dyr.

The three black rhino stood less than 200 metres away from us across the dry river bed, munching placidly on the leaves of the surrounding trees which provided some camouflage for them.

Our guide motioned for us to be quiet and to stand still.  I had heard previously that if a rhino charges, to climb the nearest tree. There were very few tall sturdy trees anywhere close to me so I crouched behind one of the small bushes between us and the rhinos.

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Tracking rhinos on foot is an exhilarating experience. My exhilaration was caused by more than just the combination of sheer excitement and nervousness of being close to these magnificent animals, remnants of a prehistoric age who look like they would feel at home amongst dinosaurs and mammoths.  Although I think I could be forgiven for being a little nervous at the thought of coming face to face with between 800 and 1400kg of animal – even knowing that the rhino is only likely to charge if it feels threatened.

A brief chat before we left for the morning included a warning not to wear light colours, to move sideways – as though rhino have notoriously bad eyesight and can generally not see much clearly farther than 30 metres they can detect movement quickly. Their sense of smell is also extremely good and alerts them to any potential danger which is why it was crucial to remain downwind of them.  Our guide was at great pains to ensure that this happened, whisking sand into the air with his foot frequently to gauge the wind direction.

I was also exhilarated at the opportunity to see these incredible animals up close, and without any barriers between us.  I felt very privileged to be able to watch the three rhino munching calmly on their leaves and woody twigs, their existence in this area, which is a community conservation area, is testimony to the success of Namibia’s innovative community based natural resource management (CBNRM) programme (supported by WWF).   Twenty years ago it would have been extremely unlikely to be able to spot rhino in this area.  The Namibian rhino population reached an all time low in the early 1980s, when poaching in remote areas was out of control and severe drought contributed to declining numbers. The white rhino had already become extinct in the country around the turn of the 19th century, and the black rhino was reduced to fragmented populations in remote north-western Namibia

However, because of the work done by conservationists in Namibia specifically in CBNRM, lead by the Namibian Government and supported by WWF and other partners, Namibia is the only country in the world where populations of black rhino outside protected areas are rising. In addition, free-roaming lion populations are increasing, and there has been a dramatic decrease in poaching to almost negligible levels in Namibia (Weaver, Petersen, Diggle and Matongo, 2010). The work is to support the development of communal conservancies which enable communities, once they have registered their land as a ‘conservancy’ to manage wildlife as a means to generate income.  Communities retain 100% of the income generated through sustainable use of the wildlife (hunting and photographic tourism) in their conservancies. With a personal interest in their land and natural resources, conservancy members have eliminated poaching and set aside land for exclusive use of wildlife and the expanding populations of wildlife, including black rhino.

The Ministry of Environment and Tourism in Namibia has developed such confidence in communities in conservancies as wildlife managers, based upon the increased wildlife populations in conservancies, that since 2006, 20 black rhino have been translocated into seven communal conservancies in the north-western Kunene Region through the government’s innovative Rhino Custodianship Programme.  This programme entails the translocation black rhino from national parks into open conservancy land and onto private land where, it believes, based upon suitable habitat and wildlife population trends that introduced rhino will thrive. This expands the range of the rhino and adds to the tourism value of the conservancy, resulting in increased benefits to communities in those conservancies.  The rhinos’ range has increased by about 10 %, and though a small amount this is a significant contribution to Namibia’s goal of re-establishing a network of refugia for black-rhino in north-west Namibia.

Photo by Chris Weaver© Chris Weaver

Suddenly one of the rhinos jerked his head up. He had heard us. Cautiously he looked in our direction, trying to see what intruder was in the vicinity, gauging whether we were a threat or not. Apparently we were, because the three rhinos took off at speed in different directions. One of them ran in a wide arc around us, and for a time it seemed as if he was going to start running towards us. But he stopped a few hundred metres away, again staring in our direction. And then took off again, away from us this time.


Rhinos can live to be forty years old and have few natural predators, with humans being the most dangerous to their survival. Poaching of rhino is mostly to obtain their horns,  which are sold for ‘medicinal purposes’ in the East, where they are peddled as alleged cures for fever, gout, rheumatism, and many other non life threatening ailments, and for cancer. Though there is no scientific evidence that it provides any medicinal benefits rhino horn has been used for Traditional Chinese Medicine since 2000 BC thus belief in its healing properties is very entrenched.  It is also used for ornamental use as was ivory previously (EWT, undated).

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The international trade in rhino horn was banned in 1976 by signatories to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In 1993 the Chinese government also banned the use of rhino horn, or any other parts from endangered species, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (ibid).

Currently there are over 14000 white rhino (considered Near Threatened) surviving, and approximately 4000 black rhino which are considered critically endangered. The recovery of white rhino from 100 in the late 19th century to today’s numbers is a phenomenal conservation success. However, both species are again under extreme threat, by poaching and habitat loss, and some populations are at serious risk of extinction.  In South Africa in 2010 333 rhinos were poached, including ten critically endangered black rhinos.  This is the highest number of poached rhinos ever poached in South Africa and is almost triple the total of 122 killed illegally in 2009 (WWF, 2011a).

Rhino horns are not made of bone as is often believed, but of calcium, melanin and keratin (the same component that is in hair and nails), and are actually more similar to horse hooves and cockatoo beaks than bone.  Rhino horns can grow about 8 centimeters annually and can reach lengths of up to 1.5 meters long (EWT, undated). Thus removing the horn professionally, as is done in some countries such as Zimbabwe, does not harm the rhino in any way and can actually prevent the rhino being killed by poachers.

WWF has been actively supporting rhino conservation initiatives for forty years. Today, the fight for their survival continues through the African Rhino Programme.  http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/rhinoceros/african_rhinos/the_african_rhino_programme/

References and further information:

  • !Uri-≠Khob, S.,  Muntifering J.,  du Preez, P.,  Beytell, P., /Uiseb, K. and Loutit R. (2010/11).
    Namibia’s desert-rhino Renaissance “ in Conservation and the environment in Namibia. Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Venture Publications.
  • Weaver, L.C., Petersen, T., Diggle, R., and Matongo, G. (2010) A Decade of Wildlife Utilization in Namibia’s Communal Conservancies.


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