Because of its highly valued horn, the black rhino, Diceros bicornis bicornis, has long been one of the world’s most endangered animals. To conserve it as a species for future generations while at the same time offering environmentally friendly options for the alleviation of poverty in Namibia’s north-western rural areas where it still occurs in the wild is the task the Save the Rhino Trust set itself 20 years ago. Sharon Montgomery, a free-lance wildlife journalist, tells the story of how the Trust was initiated by two inspired and dedicated women, and how valuable its work has become in terms of combating biodiversity loss and enabling local empowerment.
It all started on a day in 1982 when Ina Britz, a farm girl from Kamanjab, drove to a desert spring to fill water drums for the prospecting crew camped out with her husband Colin, a geologist. Three rhino lay dead at the edge of the waterhole, riddled with bullet holes from an automatic weapon, their carcasses mutilated, their noses where their horns had been hacked off a mass of bloody tissue. Her thoughts were angry and despairing as she drove back over the stony track.
More or less at the same time artist and botanical illustrator Blythe Loutit, whose husband Rudi was posted as a nature conservator at the Ugab River Mouth in the Skeleton Coast Park, had set off to investigate the desert vegetation of the area adjoining the park.
The two met on a track in a remote area of the park where Blythe had become stranded with a puncture. While Ina showed her how to use a high-lift jack, she told Blythe about the killings. At the time Ina and Colin Britz were living at Wêreldsend near the border of the park.
Both Blythe and Ina were passionate about the area and the wildlife that managed to survive in the beautiful but barren surroundings. It was the early 1980s and Damaraland was a sparsely populated region where the South African army and administrative officials had a free hand. The culture of hunting was rife, and shooting the game was done in any way possible – from helicopters and vehicles, with automatic weapons, and targeting the widely spaced waterholes with their scanty contents.
On one occasion Blythe found six elephant carcasses at a waterhole, mutilated to remove their tusks, and shortly afterwards, at another waterhole, three more. A photograph of the then South African President PW Botha, leaning out of a helicopter carrying a net full of carcasses of the rare black-faced impala, was leaked to the press.
It was then that these two women decided to take action. With assistance from their husbands, a number of conservation-conscious businessmen in Windhoek and community leaders in Damaraland, they established the Namibia Wildlife Trust. This eventually led to the formation of the Save the Rhino Trust as it is known today. By this time Garth-Owen Smith of Wêreldsend was already pushing the idea of community-based conservation by working with the community leaders.
Developing conservation practices
Since then a number of other conservation and developmental organisations also started working with the people of the area to develop conservation practices and alternative ways of supplementing livelihoods other than with stock farming. Educating local communities to appreciate the non-use value of rhinos (through tourists’ willingness to pay “just to see them”) as opposed to their use-value (through the sale of rhino horn) was seen as essential to conserving the rhino as a species. At the same time this offered environmentally friendly options for poverty alleviation in Damaraland. A small group of people began to patrol and monitor the area – specifically keeping an eye on the rhino and elephant populations. Garth Owen-Smith joined the Namibia Wildlife Trust in the early eighties to develop a community game guard system, which forms the basis of the communal conservancy system as it is known today.
Over the years the SRT developed a system of monitoring and established a rudimentary computer database for each individual rhino. The result is that today the black rhino population in the north-western regions of Namibia, which still have no official conservation status, is one of the best documented in the world.
Gradually teams of trackers were established to patrol the different rhino areas, each team with its own vehicle and monitoring equipment – a camera with telephoto lenses, GPS, notebooks, pens and identification forms, camping equipment, SRT uniforms, rations and some form of communication. The system works well, but needs a great deal of patience and co-ordination – something that Simpson Uri-khob and Mike Hearn, the present directors of fieldwork and research, can attest to.
The desperate need for land and grazing has led to communal farmers encroaching into more marginal western areas into which the rhinos have progressively been pushed over the past decades. Crops ruined by elephants and the need for a cash economy of some sort have led to the search for an alternative means of earning livelihoods with some return for the communities that have to tolerate these giant neighbours. Tourism has huge potential in this beautiful area and with the spin-off of craft production, small community-run campsites, hikes and drives guided by community game guards, some income is being generated for the local communities.
At present there are five teams of trackers in the field. Because of the vast distances involved and the rugged nature of the terrain, each team requires a reliable all-wheel-drive vehicle. The teams often spend weeks at a time in the veld and require suitable camping equipment. There are no telecommunication or electricity facilities, so radios mounted in vehicles and hand-held radios while on patrol are the only means of communication. Solar panels and a back-up petrol-driven generator provide electricity at the main camp.
All field notes are collected at the end of the month and the team is paid a bonus for each clear photograph and accurately drawn identification. Mike Hearn enters the data on each individual rhino into the database and when a rhino has not been seen for a certain length of time, a concerted effort is made to find it. All natural deaths are recorded and the horns taken to Windhoek for safekeeping at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism headquarters. In the past ten years only three cases of poaching have been recorded in the area. All the poachers have been caught and have served time in prison. Some of the poachers of the early days are now employed as game guards. While in 1985 only 56 rhinos were counted during the first census, there are now well over 130 records of individual rhino.
The overall cost of the SRT’s activities amounts to approximately N$1 250 000 (US$250 000) annually. This includes equipment, rations, salaries, bonuses, vehicle maintenance and fuel. There is an ongoing battle to raise enough funds to keep the project functioning effectively. Funding has come from many sources, ranging from international donor organisations and business concerns to school children who contribute their pocket money and sell rhino friendship patches to help save the rhino of the desert. Their concern and the dedication of the people in the field have won the day. Namibia’s desert rhino are alive and breeding well. Most importantly, without the support and pride of the traditional leaders and communities of the Kunene and Erongo regions this success story could not have been told.
This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.