Text: Elzanne Erasmus Photographs: Chris Botha
Text: Elzanne Erasmus Photographs: Chris Botha
It was the third year in a row that I found myself driving across the breathtaking Damaraland landscape. The sun was setting, the grass, which still swayed high after good rains, was ignited by the golden glow of last light. I was here for the same reasons as the years before. A few kilometres further on lay a temporary haven among the rocks and euphorbias – our home for the next few nights in this arid Eden. We would share the striking vistas with mountain zebra, giraffe, springbok and gemsbok and also with the area’s most endangered inhabitants. It was them and us for a few days, with a mission in our hearts. We were a small group of explorers, cyclists and nature-lovers, all there for the same reasons: To make a difference, even in some minuscule way, to a species on the brink of extinction. We were all there… to ride for rhinos.
Last year, in the Summer issue of Travel News Namibia, I mentioned the need for a continued conversation about conservation, especially as it pertains to the country’s rhino population. The thing about debating such heated topics is that one has to have all the facts, and above that, one needs to always keep an open mind to the views of others. Maybe there isn’t one right answer. Maybe there are multiple right answers. That is The Great Debate.
To get an idea of the general feeling of what the right course of conservation action should be, I have asked many questions about the future of the black rhino population to a wide range of people in Namibia. I have quizzed people involved in NGOs, consulted academic journals, spoken to salted conservationists and Namibians with no direct interest in conservation. One thing I have established, is that we all have the same end goal, although we differ in the route we need to take getting there. We are all so passionate that we sometimes miss the collective whole. Because we believe so strongly in our own opinions we often miss or do not even listen to the theories of those with different ideas, but the same ultimate objective.
Despite great successes in recent years, Namibia’s rhino population is still under tremendous threat. Much is being done to curb the onslaught of poaching. It’s a tough job though, as poaching syndicates are well equipped and financially motivated. The truth is that we will never be able to truly stop the continuing slaughter of rhinos for their horn until the demand for the product is eradicated. It is the only way to save them. Simple economics. This may only happen through education in the respective end markets. Users of the products made from rhino horn need to realise that they might as well chew on their own fingernails. But this change will not come about quickly. So what do we do today?
Venture Media’s initiative, The RMB Namibia Ride for Rhinos, is an annual cycling tour which takes place in the Torra Conservancy in Damaraland. The tour, which recently completed its third year, is aimed at raising funds and awareness for the plight of Namibia’s black rhino population, the special desert-adapted subspecies Diceros bicornis bicornis. The tour brings together twenty avid mountain-bikers and conservation enthusiasts on a four-day trip through the rugged Damaraland wilderness. Along with fundraising, the tour also provides a platform for Namibians to discuss the rhino conservation issue, brainstorm ideas that will help curb the poaching epidemic and raise awareness of the difficulties faced by the Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) rangers in their daily lives. To date, it has raised almost a million Namibian dollars in both cash and equipment for Save the Rhino Trust Namibia. The tour is sponsored by RMB Namibia, local retailer CYMOT and Wilderness Safaris. Apart from financial and logistical support, the RMB Namibia Ride for Rhinos event has created a platform for Namibians, corporates, individuals and concerned citizens to get together and share opinions. Sitting around a campfire each evening like our forefathers, completely immersed in nature, with “civilisation” far away, these cyclists discussed a series of very important topics. Such as the legalisation of rhino horn, the legal ownership of black rhino, the involvement of local communities on both sides of the struggle and the influence that tourism has on rhino conservation.
These campfire talks have yielded many great results. The fact that the group of cyclists are joined by SRT rangers has produced amazing outcomes. On the first tour, SRT CEO Simson Uri-Khob was asked what his greatest current operational hardships were. He spoke of the difficulty of getting water supplies to rangers out on patrol in the harsh landscape. A few weeks later an off-road water trailer was presented to him by a corporate sponsor. The next year, SRT ranger Sebulon was asked why they were struggling to apprehend poachers. He replied that poachers were better equipped than they were and could spot them from far distances with high-tech binoculars. As a result, night-vision binoculars were donated to SRT and four poachers were caught at night a few weeks before the third Ride for Rhinos.
This year’s fireside talks took it a step further. Some tough questions were asked and ideas were tossed around. I got goosebumps listening to the passionate debate. I saw the rain that evening when informed opinions were traded back and forth. And though many did not agree with each other, they sat and listened. Some left with new ideas, some left swayed to either this or that side and some left with a thirst for more knowledge on the topic so that they could develop an altogether new line of thinking.
There are some hard truths at play. From a community aspect, the human element is all too real. There have been many instances where members of the local community have been found to be directly involved in a poaching incident. They are motivated by monetary gain. How do you convince a mother who can’t feed her children that the life of a rhino is important? On the other hand, great strides have been made by organisations such as IRDNC to mediate and help educate local communities about the indirect value of a rhino population to their way of life. The fact that tourism plays such a big role in many Damaraland communities has also helped. Local communities now understand that tourists visit the area to see the rhinos, which leads to lodges being built and jobs created. According to Namibia’s CBNRM program, tourism concession fees also contribute financially to the community. Does that mean, however, that if a member of such a community is given the opportunity to gain financially from the death of a rhino that they won’t take it?In interviews conducted with riders on the last evening of the tour, many opinions came to light. Some maintained that a direct financial contribution to communities may not always be the most beneficial as there may not be any regulations of how this money is spent. Donations in the form of tangible, and visible infrastructure is then perhaps more beneficial so that the community can see with absolute certainty the direct correlation between rhino conservation and benefits to them. The continued upliftment in the form of employment opportunities by both NGOs and tourism businesses in the area is another direct, tangible advantage.
So what is the answer then? The two most notable sides of the debate argued between an economic and preservationist solution. The “realists”, as they liked to call themselves, argue that the reality of the situation is at such a stalemate that the only plausible solution is an economic one, i.e. pushing for the legalisation of rhino horn and allowing private ownership of black rhinos as is the case with white rhinos. They argued that for an animal such as this to survive it must have a monetary value. Strictly controlled legal rhino horn trade and trophy hunting put a tangible value to the animal and thus the motivation for the effort to preserve it. The other side, who may favour the title “preservationists” or “idealists”, argues that no monetary value can be attached to a life. Only through education, tourism and other community incentives will the species be protected. Which side is to be chosen as the correct path to saving the species? Has one of them found the absolute answer? Have you?
Over the past three years, the RMB Namibia Ride for Rhinos has raised over a million Namibian dollars in funds, products and equipment for Save the Rhino Trust Namibia. Over 50 participants have braved the wilds of Damaraland on this epic quest. The riders stem from multiple economic sectors in the country and over 30 different professions, the conversation about rhino conservation thus having reached multiple platforms, influencers and sympathetic ears. Through its hands-on approach, the riders, who become a close-knit group after each tour, have been engaged on a personal level and form part of a community of supporters with a similar objective. Entries for each year’s tour are sought after as only 20 participants are invited to preserved the viability of such an exclusive tour and minimise the environmental impact. The tour will continue in its efforts to inspire Namibian and foreign mountain-bike and conservation enthusiasts to join the fight for the future of Namibia’s rhino populations.