- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

PALMWAG RHINO CAMP, Namibia — “If she charges, lie down so her horn won’t gore you. The trackers and I will throw rocks at her. The trackers are responsible for the rhinos; the guide for the guests,” the Namibian guide warned in his briefing before we closed in on a 2,000-pound double-horned black rhinoceros and its calf.

Mother and calf make a dangerous combination that should be avoided.

“The rhinos can pick us up on the horizon, so we must go quietly from bush to bush,” said guide Johan Ras, 23, a college student studying ecology. He has received a year’s ranger training and carried only a bear banger, which makes a loud noise good for scaring lions. “We’re here to observe them without disturbing them. There’s no wind today, so be cautious not to kick rocks or stones.”

The two trackers had no weapons but were armed with their knowledge of the rhinos’ reactions and field signs.

Rhinos are cantankerous and unpredictable, resentful of any intrusion into their territory. They have survived the threat posed by their chief adversary, man, by withdrawing to inaccessible and inhospitable land.



In Namibia, a network of natural springs enables the black rhino, a browser of leaves and shoots, as well as fruit, to eat a wide variety of plants. They munch on the toxic, spiny, grayish, cactuslike Euphrobia virosa and the twiglike Euphorbia demarana, which provide some of the rhino’s moisture requirements. The hooked, flexible upper lip of the black rhino is triangular and muscular and grasps and snaps twigs. Then its cheek teeth, which are huge grinding molars, bite them off.

SAVE THE RHINO

For the Save the Rhino Trust, we were to approach as safely as possible these two rhinos and complete a report about their health. The 26-year-old trust has headquarters in the Palmwag Rhino Camp, a private reserve of a million acres of unfenced desert in Namibia, a sub-Saharan country of shifting desert sands, rolling and rumbling dunes and mountain peaks along Africa’s south Atlantic seaboard. This area claims to have the largest conservation of rhinos anywhere in the world outside of a national park.

The trust has been instrumental in almost doubling Namibia’s desert rhino population in just over 20 years. It was set up to halt the poaching the region experienced in the 1970s and 1980s. Yemenis used the horns as dagger handles, and people in the Far East prized the horn for its putative sexual powers. Since 1978, the trust has collaborated with the government and local communities to provide security for the rhino; its 30 trackers monitor the rhino population by vehicle, foot, camel and donkey.

The trust also provides employment, tourism income, environmental education, improved resource utilization and management to the Namibian community.

In the late 1980s, the trust performed one of the first-ever rhino dehornings, a painless process that is like cutting nails. The horn is made of the same type of fibrous protein — keratin — as our nails and hair. The word “rhinoceros” comes from the Greek “rhis/rhinos” (nostril/nose) and “keras” (horn).

That famous horn is worth a lot of money on the black market. The cost in Yemen for a kilo of black rhino horn is $60,000.

The horn grows throughout the rhino’s life, increasing by almost three inches a year. Unfortunately, the dehorning wasn’t successful, Mr. Ras said: “Poachers killed rhinos anyway, so the poachers wouldn’t needlessly track the same animals twice.”

Eighty percent of the world’s rhinos had disappeared by the late 1980s. In 1994, there were 2,550 black rhinos in Africa, a decline of 97 percent in 25 years. At the end of the 20th century, 2,000 of the animals existed worldwide, about one-fourth of them in Namibia. Since 1994, the trust claimed in a report, no one had been poaching. A later report from a researcher, however, said, “Poaching has increased in Zimbabwe, and horns have recently been picked up passing through Namibia.”

SLIPPING AND SLIDING

It was cool at 7 a.m., which would give us “more trouble finding rhinos because they’ll be moving frequently,” Mr. Ras said. We rendezvoused with the trackers in the bush, where they had followed the rhino spoor until they spotted the two animals.

We followed a safe distance behind the trackers. I stumbled on rocks in valleys if I raised my eyes to see the trackers and nearly fell many times on boulders as we went up and down hills. We stopped several times to inspect dried rhino dung.

“See how poor the rhino’s digestive tract is,” Mr. Ras said as he kicked apart the dung, revealing undigested twigs and leaves. Scattered piles of rhino dung (or middens) serve as message stations for both sexes, a rhino post office of sorts. On approaching a midden, a rhino will first “read the news” by sniffing at the midden.

The trackers, sometimes within sight and often not, were looking for field signs: neatly pruned bushes with twigs the rhinos had trimmed at 45 degrees, middens, polished rubbing spots (rocks, trees and termite mounds) and mud scrapings on the ground. Rhinos leave them to mark their territories.

I was slipping, sliding, my feet tumbling off the giant rocks. “I must say this rhino mother took the most difficult route she could,” Mr. Ras said. He took my sweaty hand, steadying me, and we quickly scaled the boulders. He said that for such a large beast, the black rhino is remarkably elusive. Its legs are short but sturdy, and being myopic does not interfere with its climbing ability.

On top of one hill, we sought shade under a mopane tree (Latin for “butterfly” because its leaves are so shaped). We looked for the trackers but had lost them after trailing for five miles.

Sometimes they were together, but often, we spotted them on different peaks. From our high vantage point, we saw neither tracker. And our chance to find the rhinos had disappeared, too, apparently. “It’s unbelievable that a large but robust rhino has eluded us,” Mr. Ras said testily. “Normally, we can track rhinos easily.

“The wind is changing direction all the time. The animals may have fled because of our smell. I’m disappointed the trackers haven’t kept in touch with us on the radio. We’re in this hunt together. This is not the best day of my life.” He suggested we go back to our Land Rover so he could radio the trackers to look for another rhino.

Soon we were reunited with them when they walked down a hill together as they approached our vehicle. They had a new sighting of the rhino and her calf, they said, so we drove off to find them.

Along the way, we spotted springboks, called “jumping goats,” though they are antelopes. Bouncing straight up in the air, they indicate excitement or agitation. With backs bowed, tails clamped between their legs, necks lowered and legs rigid like ballet dancers in midflight, springboks can bound as many as six times in succession. Fawns do it more than adults, probably because they become alarmed more easily or they are flexing their developing muscles.

Giraffes wandered across the road in front of us. Like the giraffe, the nomadic and sociable oryx, which we saw, too, is physiologically equipped to survive the thermal conditions of the desert. Built like a polo pony with incredible strength and endurance, it has a long, flowing tail; distinct black and white facial markings; and straight, narrow, ridged horns. Lone bulls have attacked lions and impaled them with their strong horns.

COOLORYX

The oryx’s unique cooling system — a series of nasal blood vessels — reduces the blood’s temperature before it reaches the brain. It functions like a car radiator, enabling the oryx to conserve water that would otherwise be used in evaporative cooling.

When deprived of water, the oryx uses several measures to minimize water needs. For example, It allows its body temperature to rise as high as 113 degrees and then pants and sweats to cool itself.

Saying we shouldn’t drive any closer to the rhinos because they have excellent hearing and scent, Mr. Ras parked the Land Rover. Again we climbed over hills until reaching a riverbed. We stayed in it for a while because it was where the trackers had last seen the rhinos. Then we climbed more hills.

FINDING THE RHINOS

We saw the trackers moving cautiously, more slowly. We seemed to be getting closer, and Mr. Ras said we should stop speaking. The trackers stopped by a bush, and we moved forward and squatted with them. They pointed to a nearby large tree where mom and calf were lying together, asleep in the midday sun.

Mr. Ras whispered that we would stay protected, unknown to the rhino cow, while a tracker would move closer to another bush to take photos of the rhinos. Each day, after successfully finding a rhino, the trackers complete a report for Save the Rhino Trust. The report includes pictures to identify the horn — each rhino’s is unique, Mr. Ras said — and information on the animal’s behavior at initial sighting and its condition.

The rhino cow, Tina, believed to be about 35 and last seen the previous month, was in poor health. Tracker John Hendricks said, “She has given milk to her calf, and she’s not getting enough nutrition.

“When the calf is bigger, the cow will improve. The rains will be coming soon, so she’ll be able to eat grass. Now you can count her ribs. Her shoulder bones are sticking out.”

Tina’s calf was in excellent shape, Mr. Hendricks said. Rhinos live for 35 to 40 years, and calving is every three to four years. A cow can give birth to seven to nine calves in her lifetime.

Several months earlier, Mr. Hendricks had finished a five-year census. Getting the statistics from the government is almost impossible. “Black rhinos out here are about as politically charged as weapons of mass destruction to you in America,” wrote a foreign researcher on an annual research permit. Mr. Hendricks tried to be helpful by saying the census showed more calves in the region, though one cow had died and two bulls had been relocated.

The trust says that with financial and material assistance, the black rhino of Namibia’s desert wilderness will live on. “They’ve survived so long,” Mr. Ras said. “Why should humans interfere and kill them just for their horns?”

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