By Ginger Mauney
In the 23-year history of the Save the Rhino Trust there have been many highs and lows, of which the rebounding of the black rhino population in Damaraland after years of devastating poaching must be the most profound example.
Today, with the support of headmen, community-based game guards, rural communities and innovative tourism developments, poaching has declined drastically and the rhino population has more than doubled.
This past year has been one of tremendous flux, from the positive work surrounding the Darwin Initiative award, promoting biodiversity, conservation and the sustainable use of resources, to heartbreaking loss. But given the history and spirit of the SRT team, it will no doubt take on challenges and turn them into positive opportunities for change and future conservation initiatives.
After founding and running the SRT with passion and tireless commitment, Blythe Loutit resigned as director to fight a highly personal battle against cancer. Just as she fought for the survival of black rhinos with spirit, courage and humour, Blythe fought cancer before passing away peacefully early in June.
The SRT was also rocked by tragedy when Mike Hearn, the Director of Research who had taken on many of Blythe’s responsibilities when she resigned, lost his life in January in a surfing accident. Though these two individuals are deeply missed, their passion lives on in the deep well of talent and support base at the SRT.
Work continues unabated in the field and changes are being put into place to help guide this important conservation organisation in the coming years. Many individuals and companies, both here and abroad, have rallied around the SRT.
Blythe’s husband, Rudi, is its new voluntary Chief Executive Officer.
With 28 years’ experience working for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism in many capacities, including guiding the successful rhino custodianship programme, Rudi brings a wealth of knowledge to this position.
His past and present endeavours in rhino conservation and his friendship with field workers and international supporters ensure that the SRT’s standing as a premier conservation organisation in Namibia remains intact.
As part of the Darwin Initiative’s goal of capacity building, Simson Uri-Khob, SRT’s director of fieldwork, and Michael Sibalitani, Chief Control Warden of the Etosha National Park, were given the opportunity to study at the University of Kent, England for their MSc degrees. Both passed with flying colours, with Michael earning a cum laude distinction, and Simon returning to Namibia to become the SRT’s new Director of Research.
With the help of Axel Hartmann, a veterinarian from Otjiwarango, they are updating the SRT’s database. Bernd Brell takes over from Simson as Director of Fieldwork.
The SRT continues its pioneering community-based camel-patrol project. Many rhinos live in rugged mountain areas, places too rough for vehicles to reach and too far away from water for donkeys to patrol effectively. The camel programme was introduced to find and monitor rhinos in these areas. Jeanita Schoeman of Skeleton Coast Safaris donated the first three camels.
Since then others have been added and the project now employs ten community-based game guards. The camel patrols are a great success and may lead to active camel-back, rhino-trekking safaris for tourists. They are also a great source of pride for the communities.
One of the SRT’s long-term goals is to make its projects self-sufficient and have them managed by local staff. From the SRT’s training centre on the banks of the Ugab River, rural people who have minimal scholastic qualifications are provided training in ecotourism, including how to present and conduct walking trails in rhino and elephant country.
In 2003, the SRT raised its stake in ecotourism to a new level by establishing Palmwag Rhino Camp in partnership with Wilderness Safaris in a core area of the desert-dwelling rhino’s range.
For every guest who stays at Palmwag Rhino Camp, Wilderness Safaris donates a percentage of the income to the SRT and covers the operational costs of the tracking team. Each day SRT trackers locate rhinos in the concession area and radio the camp guide, instructing him where to take his guests to see the animals.
The trackers also gather information that contributes to the SRT’s scientific database on the ecology of desert rhino, including work on the impact of tourism on rhino behaviour. This venture is exploring the potential for rhino tracking safaris to become a sustainable, incentive-based approach to conservation in Africa.
The SRT has been a pioneer in involving people living on communal land in conservation efforts, providing training, employment and a reason to protect the magnificent animals who share their land. No doubt there will be many more innovative approaches, challenges and rewards in the SRT’s future, a tribute to Blythe, Mike and the rhinos they loved.
A tribute to Blythe Loutit, heart of the SRT
Blythe Loutit’s career was as rich, varied and meaningful as she was. From naturalist to botanical artist, from landscape painter to author, whatever the assignment, her unwavering focus was directed at her primary passion: to save the rhino.
Since founding Save the Rhino Trust in the early 1980s, Blythe went from working with a small, dedicated group of Namibians in isolated field conditions to running an organisation that has received worldwide acclaim for its conservation efforts and ethics. She converted schoolchildren into rhino friends, poachers into protectors, and strangers into passionate conservationists.
Blythe won many awards along the way, including the Sir Peter Scott Merit Award at the IUCN Species Survival Commission in 1988 and the Operation Survival Award in 1991. In 1996 she gave the keynote address at the Species Survival Commission African Rhino Specialist Group general assembly in Montreal, Canada. To raise funds for rhino conservation, Blythe sold her paintings at Christie’s in London and through the David Shepherd Foundation. She also illustrated six books on plants in South Africa and Namibia, and wrote and illustrated several scientific and general publications, including her own children’s book, The Magic Elephant. Most recently Blythe received the 2001 BBC Animal Award for the Conservation of the Species, an award designed to ‘pay tribute to ordinary people who do extraordinary work for the conservation and welfare of animals’.
Seven rhino generations have been monitored, loved and respected in Damaraland, and no doubt Blythe would count this as her – and the SRT team’s – greatest accomplishment. The greatest hope of all who love the wild places and animals of Namibia, and all who knew and loved Blythe, is for this work to continue.
A sad farewell to Mike Hearn
On 19 January 2005 Mike Hearn, director of research for Save the Rhino Trust, drowned in a surfing accident, and the world of conservation lost a dedicated researcher, an innovative environmentalist and a truly wonderful friend.
Arriving in Namibia twelve years ago from the UK, Mike’s passion for rhinos took him from the SRT offices in Windhoek to where he longed to be most: in the field tracking rhinos with game guards, film crews or on his own, sometimes on foot, sometimes with camels as companions.
During this time, Mike gained an MSc in conservation biology at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology in Kent, England, and was working on his PhD as part of the Darwin Initiative awarded to the SRT.
In 2002 he became a member of the World Conservation Union’s Species Survival Commission African Rhino Specialist Group in recognition of his growing authority in linking rhino conservation with people-centred approaches to conservation. It was on this topic that he was aiming to complete his PhD thesis in biodiversity management in 2006.
Mike worked tirelessly – and with unfailing humour – to protect the rhino and the land on which they depend. He now rests in peace with them. He is sorely missed by all who knew and loved him.
This article appeared in the 2005/6 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.