Home News Anti-Poaching David in the Desert

David in the Desert

In fact, their most recent weapons for rhino protection are several mules – quieter, less invasive, and certainly better at ascending rocky outcrops. Sadly, however, lions find mules substantially more appetising than they do a Toyota Hilux.
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

You approach walking into the wind. Their hearing and sense of smell will certainly pick up a European puffing and ponging in the heat of the Namibian desert. Although their eyesight isn’t great, bright white tee-shirts with David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) or Save the Rhino Trust Namibia (SRT) logos are also best avoided… every day was a school day! Clothing of muted tones is preferred; the colour of the Namibian earth – dark greens and browns, umbers and even siennas match this rocky, sparsely populated terrain.

The landscape is spotted with the occasional euphorbia bush – toxic to almost all creatures other than the desert-adapted black rhino, kudu, and a few of the smaller antelope. Here too are the amazing Welwitschia mirabilis, an incredibly long-living plant whose cones were eaten by the indigenous people who made their home here – they call them the ‘onion of the desert’.

We went out on patrol on two occasions: each time tracking for the better part of two or three hours. We surveyed the vast landscapes from the luxury of a vehicle, something the rangers don’t always have at their disposal as, for 22 days at a time, they patrol the Kunene – a desert the size of Wales. In fact, their most recent weapons for rhino protection are several mules – quieter, less invasive, and certainly better at ascending rocky outcrops. Sadly, however, lions find mules substantially more appetising than they do a Toyota Hilux.

We were seeking fresh rhino dung at middens; signs of any recent rhino inhabitation by their favourite rubbing rocks; rhino tracks emanating from the desert’s very few waterholes. Many of the DSWF-supported rangers have served for a decade, some two, and to an experienced professional, a fresh rhino track will provide evidence of direction and pace. They can even show impressions of the blood pumping through the veins in the animal’s feet, as 1.5 tonnes of rhino crush down into the dry earth. Once tracks were sighted, we were to progress on foot.

On both patrols we discovered male rhinos. On the first day, an adolescent, born in 2018, with his horns still present. The Namibian Government, to dissuade poachers, will one day dart this animal, remove the horn, and notch his ears with distinct markings for ease of future recognition. It was such markings that enabled us to know the second rhino we encountered was the earlier rhino’s father. Currently, both males occupy the same territory. The younger male had only recently departed the safety of his mother’s protection – she gave birth again earlier this year and can only accommodate one calf. Now out on his own, it is just a matter of time before father and son decide who gets to stay.

Once in sight, you keep your distance. Each rhino has a very different character. Some will flee at the first sign of you, others will charge. It’s probably best to remain unnoticed and not have to find out which is which. To this end, the rangers patrol without guns – an experienced tracker is careful and cautious and has little need for weaponry. That said, as poaching is on the rise, and as the Kunene holds more than 100 black rhino – the Namibian Government insists each patrol is accompanied by a police officer, who in turn is accompanied with an AK47. But this serves as protection from a far more dangerous and greedier mammal than the rhino.

We spent two nights sleeping out in the silent desert, cooking on an open fire, and discussing at length the trials and tribulations of protecting rhino. Through DSWF’s support, the rangers enact a strategy of direct community engagement. Too long the public image of a rhino is that of a dead dehorned one – an opportunity missed. If the local communities value their horned neighbours alive, then any desire to poach will be quelled, and any outside influence will be rebuffed. To this end, Andrew Malherbe, SRT’s Chief Operating Officer is keen to propagate a positive association with the local rhinos. They operate a rhino-themed football league that spans the local conservancies. There are rhino-themed literacy programmes taught in the local schools. And, most importantly, the core operational funding provided by DSWF enables support for the local conservancies to train up and embolden “Rhino Rangers” – men and women with detailed knowledge of their local terrain and the threats therein, who join patrols in their desert duties. Perhaps, one day, the organisation in its current form will be rendered extinct (or just evolve its offering) as individual conservancies take up the baton from the hands of an internationally funded NGO.

The takeaway from my time in the desert is that long-term rhino prosperity is associated directly with the pride and joy the local conservancies take in their surrounding natural habitats and wild spaces. It is only through support such as that provided by DSWF that outreach endeavours can continue, as it is not simply about keeping rangers in the field. Sadly, conservation isn’t sexy when you’re asking people for money to support a community literacy programme; but if you care about our planet’s rich biodiversity, then you must incorporate an educated human race into your equations. An educated community can quell the demand for rhino horn and teach a poacher the true value of a live rhino versus a dead one. If we can help nurture local community involvement appropriately now, then hopefully, someday, organisations like DSWF can help eradicate wildlife crime and focus fully on human-wildlife co-existence – or may not even need to exist at all.

This July, DSWF is celebrating its incredible work with the unique Namibian desert-adapted black rhino as our animal adoption of the month. From just £3 per month, you can directly contribute to safeguarding the future of these animals. Find out more here.

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Andrew White
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

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