Conserving the desert-adapted black rhino

Conservation initiatives in the central Namib
June 5, 2012
Ecotourism – a contradiction in terms?
June 8, 2012
Conservation initiatives in the central Namib
June 5, 2012
Ecotourism – a contradiction in terms?
June 8, 2012

The Namib Desert is home to the last truly wild stronghold of black rhino.

Through the work of Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), IRDNC, MET and the local community, the black rhino numbers in the region have more than doubled since 1985.

The SRT has the support of the Namibian Government to monitor both the desert-adapted elephant and the rhino. The programme also involves basic ecology training and tourism hospitality training for the community.

For the anti-poaching, monitoring and research work, and the community development programme to continue, vital funds are needed. This is the only way that the future of the people and wildlife species living in this unique, wild and arid landscape can be secured.

Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) is an indigenous Namibian non-governmental organisation that has been actively engaged in the conservation of the desert-adapted black rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis) in the arid north-western parts of Kunene Region for some 15 years. The SRT is currently also implementing an elephant monitoring project in conjunction with the community in the arid west.

Rhino. Photo: Save the Rhino Trust Namibia.

Rhino. Photo: Save the Rhino Trust Namibia.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s severe poaching took place in this area. Working closely with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) and other NGOs, the SRT looked for assistance and support from the local inhabitants in the conservation of the area.

Collaborative efforts between these groups have been key to the current high standards of conservation. As a result, the estimated rhino numbers have more than doubled since 1985.

Only a small section of the coast in the Kunene Region has official conservation status (the Skeleton Coast Park). To the east the wildlife still ranges amongst domestic stock in communal farming areas. The black rhino population here is one of the only populations worldwide that has survived on communal land with no formal conservation status.

Since independence in 1990, the Namibian Government has encouraged local communities to play a major role in the conservation of natural resources on communal land. New legislation was passed in 1996 that enables communities to benefit directly from these resources.

Black Rhino at Desert Rhino Camp. Photo: Wilderness Safaris

Black Rhino at Desert Rhino Camp. Photo: Wilderness Safaris

This programme of Community-based Natural Re-source Management (CBNRM) seeks to empower people living in rural areas to manage and benefit from their natural resources. Management strategies are now urgently needed for the conservation and optimal management of natural resources on communal land.

The black rhino is classified as critically endangered under the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). Although government property, however, the monitoring, identification and special protection of endangered species such as black rhino does not at this stage receive priority in the implementation of conservancies. The SRT thus specialises in and undertakes this responsibility on behalf of the community, Government and all Namibians.

ben beytell

Conservation legend Ben Beytell in the field working with rhino.

Ongoing conservation and research

  • Basic training of trackers in monitoring the rhino population. Monthly rhino monitoring patrols by 4×4 off-road vehicles and tracking on foot with binoculars, a camera fitted with 300 mm lens and a GPS are undertaken. Trackers receive additional training in photography and the use of a GPS.
  • Recording population data. Trackers are trained in field assimilation of data and identification of rhino individuals. Rhino identification forms are thoroughly examined and a bonus is paid to the tracker for accurate data assimilated.
  • Liaison with the local wildlife councils and community conservancy planning. A number of meetings were held during 2000 to share information with communities living in the rhino range area. Conservancy meetings were attended by SRT staff in order to give assistance with the management of wildlife and other resources.
  • Continual assistance to Government and integration with fellow NGOs. All observations made by field staff are recorded on detailed ID forms. ID photographs are taken and the exact position of each rhino is recorded using a GPS. All this information is fed into a specially-designed information security programme and analysed. With the formation of conservancies in the area, all NGOs work together and assist in their relevant fields of expertise. Conservancy game counts and the mapping of the conservancies is also a joint effort between NGOs, communities and Government.
  • The information project officers assist researchers in the assimilation of field data. Assistance to researchers is given in the form of data collection, as well as advice on studies being done in the area, such as the feeding patterns of the black rhino done by Wildlife Scouts in the Palmwag area.
  • Offering assistance and advice to national and international awareness programmes. Assistance is given to visiting television crews and journalists from abroad, as well as to local members of the media. The SRT works closely with the Ugab Wilderness School, which brings school groups from all over Namibia to the SRT base camp in the Ugab River. The aim of the school is to create environmental awareness and give learners a wilderness experience.
  • Publishing of information brochures and training guides. Information brochures on rhino and other resources have been published. Currently in progress is the publication of a geological brochure on the Ugab area, where evidence of some of the oldest forms of living organisms have been found.

Additional activities

The activities listed above have lead to the SRT becoming involved in other programmes as well. Due to increased tourism in the Kunene Region, and since the Ugab camp is the gateway to the region, the Information Officer devotes a great deal of time to the southern rhino range area.

This is a positive step, as the SRT is now able to inform tourists on various environmental issues before they enter the sensitive areas of the Kunene.

However, this has meant that not enough time has been spent with the communities in the northern part of the region.

Ugab area. Photo: Luise Hoffmann.

Ugab area. Photo: Luise Hoffmann.

The rhino in the Ugab area are not breeding successfully and research is being done to ascertain why. The impact of tourism is one of the main areas of concern. The SRT is assisting emerging conservancies in the area with management plans to ensure that more control is exercised here. Support is given by the MET to try and prevent tourist enterprises from tracking rhino.

Another activity is the SRT’s involvement with the Ugab Wilderness School. The weekend programme for groups of learners creates environmental awareness and gives them an authentic wilderness experience. This activity has had an extremely positive effect.

Trackers are used as guides for the weekend, which has helped not only to improve their English, but has also given them more confidence in talking about various environmental issues to tourists visiting the area. It has also assisted SRT to create awareness amongst school children about the Trust and the work being done to monitor the last remaining free-range rhino.

Kunene region.

Kunene region.

Summary of rhino population data (June 1, 1999 to June 31, 2000)

The data for black rhino populations in north-western Namibia in the Kunene and Erongo regions is stored on computers at the SRT and MET offices in Windhoek.

The data is summarised in tables with explanatory text, and analysed in terms of the estimated ecological carrying capacity of the area. Conclusions are drawn and recommendations are made to ensure the continued growth of the population.

A total of 304 independent sightings of individual rhino were recorded by SRT field staff during the project period June 1, 1999 to June 31, 2000. This represents an increase of 21% on the previous year’s number of independent sightings. Of the 304 independent rhino sightings, 87% were identified, while the remainder were recorded as clean animals.

A list was compiled of newly identified rhino for which new identity kits were developed. Six rhino were newly identified during the project period. Five of these were adults without identity kits, and the other one a calf. A second calf, born during the project period, died within six months.

A summary of the kilometres traversed on foot while conducting rhino monitoring was prepared, summarising the tracking hours per ecozone. Additional time is spent searching for spoor in the more rocky areas, reducing tracking speed considerably. This accounts for the high degree

of tracking required when analysing data to ascertain how sightings were obtained. Eighty-three per cent of the sightings were obtained by tracking after fresh spoor were identified. The remainder were obtained by chance sightings from vehicles or while on foot patrols.

Patrol with Donkeys Photo Credit Dave Hamman Photography

Rhino patrol with Donkeys. Photo: Dave Hamman Photography

A summary of the status of the black rhino population in the Kunene region of Namibia relative to the estimated ecological carrying capacity of the area raised the following questions:

  • Is there potential for the population to expand or has the available habitat been saturated?
  • If the population is still expanding, what can be done to ensure this continues?

Analysis of the ecological carrying capacity in areas of such low rainfall and high inter-

seasonal variability in rainfall is difficult. Further research is necessary to understand the role of density dependence fully and therefore allow informed decisions on management of the area to be made.

However, the increase in sightings is consistent with the findings of the 1997 census and the ongoing patrols. This suggests there is a continued, though slow growth in the black rhino population of north-western Namibia. An increase in sightings further indicates increased effort by patrol teams and places greater confidence in population estimates for the Kunene and Erongo Region population.

This article appeared in the 2001 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.
Additional photos courtesy of 


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