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What does it take to save the rhino? The list is long – tracking teams, vehicles, food, uniforms, binoculars, support staff and supporters, among many other things. But the most essential element needed to save the rhino is passion. Kimber Brain grew up surrounded by people who are passionate about the environment and wildlife. After completing his first year at Brown University in the USA he came back to Namibia for summer holidays and joined the RMB Namibia Ride for Rhinos crew as a volunteer. This is his story.
Passion was on full display and found in many guises during the 2018 RMB Namibia Ride for Rhinos, an annual event initiated by Venture Media in support of Save the Rhino Trust Namibia’s on-going efforts to monitor and protect the endangered desert-adapted black rhino, Bicornis bicornis.
Namibia has rallied and will continue to rally. From the wilds of Damaraland to the gleaming high-rises of Independence Avenue in Windhoek, there is a sense that the nation is pulling together to fight for the survival of one of our country’s, of one of the continent’s, most iconic species.
Save the Rhino Trust Namibia is Namibia’s pre-eminent rhino conservation organisation that operates in the extreme northwest of the country. Their operations are sustained by a board of trustees, a couple of full-time staff members based in Swakopmund, a headman-cum-CEO in the shape of Simson Uri-Khob from Khorixas and a dedicated team of trackers. While none of these parts can function efficiently in isolation, it’s the trackers, armed with little more than an infallible sense of duty, who have made and continue to make SRT what it is today. They are tasked with monitoring over 25 000 km2 of some of the most inhospitable land on earth, where temperatures soar far above 40° C, almost entirely on foot.
When you are as physically isolated as SRT’s trackers are, it is wonderful to know you are not alone. For the past four years, RMB Namibia Ride for Rhinos has brought this sense home by cycling many of the same tracks walked by SRT’s trackers since the organisation was founded in 1982.
Starting at Wêreldsend and culminating at Wilderness Safaris’ Damaraland Camp, twenty cyclists covered over 100 km of rugged, inhospitable landscape in north-western Namibia. With the support of a dedicated ground crew, the cyclists are given direct insight into the difficulties of protecting rhinos in this vast area, with no fences, no national park status and no real control over who moves in and out.
It is this understanding that breeds passion, and it was strengthened by the unique perspective brought to the ride by a few special guests.
On the second evening of the pedal-powered trek across Damaraland, Tommy Hall, head of SRT’s intelligence unit, joined the riders around the evening campfire. Well-grounded since his early years with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and fondly known locally as the “White Damara” for his language skills, Tommy is also a raconteur of note. His stories were riveting, and his work and that of his team is making a striking difference in the protection of rhinos. The riders pulled their chairs closer to the fire to listen, and then one by one, they peeled away, dragging their weary bodies off to bed. Tommy remained, his giant frame silhouetted by the last dying embers of the campfire. He would continue to tell his story until there was no one left to hear it.
Only once the last hardy soul had drifted off to their tent, Tommy leapt up and into his Land Cruiser to begin a 3-hour drive back to home in Palmwag. His is an unrelenting job. But this is his passion, and around the fire that night he inspired others.
As the cyclists emerged from their tents the following morning, several said they had lain awake in their sleeping bags, listening to Tommy’s stories, and at midnight they were sorry to hear Tommy say he had to leave.
Tommy was not the only new face on this year’s ride. With support from Piper & Heath, a San Diego-based travel firm founded by Namibian-born Chris Liebenberg, the Ride welcomed Matt Meyer. Durban-born Matt is a professional safari guide and no stranger to the bush or to the bike saddle.
Matt’s journey to Wêreldsend began some 15 000 km away in the American state of Oregon. His bold plan was to cycle approximately 3 200 km down the west coast of America, but he would not be doing it alone. Accompanying him for every painstaking pedal of his journey would be Luna, a life-size fibreglass replica of a black rhino. She weighed 200 kg. Matt’s ride would not be easy. Yet, with calves of steel and spurred on by a succession of super-hero movie soundtracks, Matt finished the ride all along the west coast in only 63 days. The donations received throughout his ride were sent to three rhino conservation organisations across Africa, including SRT.
Matt shared his story with guests at RMB Namibia in Windhoek and again, around the fire, during the Ride for Rhinos. He described himself as little more than a dude, on his bike, doing something that he is passionate about, and in his simple and modest explanation, a revelation was laid bare.
At times it is easy to think that we are in this fight alone, that the battle to save the future of the Namibian rhino begins and ends at the rocky border of Damaraland. As I have learnt, and as every single cyclist on the RMB Namibia Ride for Rhinos has learnt, that is simply not the case.
If Namibia is to feel the full brunt of organised rhino poaching syndicates, then we must know that for every one of them there is a Matt. Someone willing to go above and beyond what is asked of them to try and make a positive difference. Someone who is willing to give: not just money, but time, blood and sweat to protect the rhino. From Windhoek to Los Angeles there are people who understand the magnitude of the struggle we are facing and will do everything in their power to help turn the tide in our favour. And should we find that some desperate Namibians turn to poaching we must not forget that for every one of them, there is a tracker out in the field risking his life to protect a species that means the world to them.
As Tommy drove away into the thick darkness of the Damaraland night and the last of the embers flicked out I knew that the fire burning in all our hearts to save the rhino would not be extinguished anytime soon. The poachers may be fuelled by greed, but us, no, we are fuelled by passion.
This article was first published in the Spring 2018 edition of TNN.