by Ron Swilling
“Rhino tracking in the south, you’ve got to be kidding,” was my surprised reaction when I first heard about rhino tracking in southern Namibia.
However, I soon learnt that these large animals were endemic to the area until approximately 200 years ago. When old sheep farms were merged to create the Gondwana Cañon Park, fences were dismantled to allow vegetation to re-establish itself, and, based on careful research, the repopulation of the once game-rich land with indigenous animals was initiated.
As a result of research done by former NNF director Chris Brown, it was confirmed that red hartebeest, blue wildebeest, plains zebra and black rhino were native to the area, and their reintroduction programme was initiated. In the words of Gondwana Managing Director, Mannfred Goldbeck, “The disturbed environment has found new balance.”
The reintroduction of wildlife is done with the understanding that the animals are free to roam into the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Park, thus repopulating the greater area. As Mannfred explains, the custodians of Gondwana Cañon Park do not regard themselves as owners of the land, merely as guardians.
Working with the same idea, the Rhino Custodianship Programme of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) is directed at increasing the populations of once-threatened species by resettling black rhino on land where they were once found, such as freehold farms, private parks and communal conservancies.
Custodians are not lightly approved. MET officials evaluate the area in question, checking on the presence of suitable watering places and forage plants to sustain the animals. Although rhino offspring all remain state property, custodians have to carry the cost of resettlement and must monitor the animals and submit three-monthly reports.
In this way, four black rhino found sanctuary in the Gondwana Cañon Park, part of the seed herd of animals reintroduced into the Nama Karoo. One male from Damaraland joined three rhino from western Etosha to make up the nucleus family of two males and two females at Gondwana.
The males were chosen with an age difference that would preclude competition or friction. With the females still below the breeding age, the new residents have time to explore and grow fat in their new environment before the trials and tribulations of breeding begin. First kept in a boma in western Etosha, they were released into the Gondwana Cañon Park in April 2009.
We were planning to track the rhino male Koshi, meaning ‘lion’ in Oshiwambo, and son of Tortoise, the best breeding bull in western Etosha. He had been named ‘lion’ because of the noise he made in the boma prior to his release. I found the idea of approaching a territorial rhino bull daunting, if not irrational, and the information that his name meant ‘lion’ put a definite ‘are-you-crazy?’ element into the adventure.
The game rangers instructed us to observe their hand signals, which seemed clearly understandable with the exception of retreating down or up rocky outcrops if a charging rhino was on your trail. The responsible warden and rangers, however, soon had everything under control, locating- Koshi with their hand-held antenna. Off we trotted, led by the intrepid rangers, stepping as silently as possible on the stony ground, using hand gestures to proceed once they had located the bull that appeared to be no less than a kilometre from us.
An adrenaline rush percolated like good coffee into a calm viewing scenario as the group sat on a black limestone koppie looking down onto the browsing animal. With the wind blowing towards us, a few clouds blocking the afternoon sun, the conditions were ideal. The rhino caught our scent or a snippet of sound, turned and looked in our direction, ears turning like radar devices. Breathing stopped as we watched his reaction and, in keeping with park policy, kept our distance.
It was a thumbs-up situation—conditions were perfect all around. Then it was time to go. Relief flooded through me, along with gratitude for a peaceful rhino encounter. But it was not to be; the group wanted a sighting from the adjacent koppie. “Is this really necessary?” I wondered, not wanting to tempt Lady Luck for a second time. But, once again, the experienced rangers led us quietly to a viewing point a safe distance away.
Grass seeds blew in the wind, shining in the late afternoon rays. Zebra laughed in the distance and the rhino continued to browse, as his ancestors had done since time immemorial, oblivious to the history that was in the making.
This article appeared in the Aug/Sep ‘10 edition of Travel News Namibia.