Namibia: Chasing Rhinos on African Time
Namibia: Tracking Rhinos with Local experts in the Savannah
By Margie Goldsmith
I bounced along the rocky track beneath the cloudless cerulean sky with my guide, Raymond, looking for a rhinoceros in Damaraland, Namibia.
This area has the largest population of African free-roaming desert-adapted black rhino and is the reason I came here.
My fascination with rhinos goes back to high school when I read Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, a play about the absurdity of human nature. A few years later, I stood in front of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of a rhinoceros at the British Museum, hypnotized by the prehistoric-looking animal with its two large horns and armor-like hide.
Save the Rhino Trust
We are following the trackers from Save the Rhino Trust who, if they spot a rhino, will record its size, horns, ear notches and tail shape.
Raymond has warned me that this is not a zoo and the rhinos are not wearing transmitter collars, so there’s no guarantee we’ll see one; but if we do, the trackers will signal for us to get out of our vehicle as quietly as possible, walk single file to where they direct us and remain perfectly still.
Always on the lookout, I scanned the surrounding ocher-colored mountains and golden hills dotted with acacias and low shrubs, hoping one will materialize before me.
A steenbok, one of the smaller antelopes, prongs before us jumping almost eight feet into the air on every step. “He’s showing off,” Raymond laughs.
Skittish as a Steenbok
Eventually, we pass a herd of steenbok that prong away from us. “Is a rhino skittish as a steenbok?” I ask.
“Rhinos are highly strung,” says Raymond.“The minute we enter into his territory he’ll be alert, so we must be very careful and do exactly what the Save the Rhino trackers tell us to do.”
In the early 1980s, the rhino had been so savagely slaughtered that it was nearly extinct. One morning, a South African botanist, Blythe Loutit, was driving along the road of what was then called Southwest Africa (now Namibia) and saw poached dead rhino carcasses.
She was so upset that she established the Save the Rhino Trust in 1982. To find trackers, she went to the jails where the local poachers were incarcerated and persuaded them that there would be a much better benefit if they would conserve the rhino rather than kill it.
Rhino Population Increases
For the last thirty years, former local poachers have become conservationists and since the 1980s, the numbers of rhino have greatly increased. The trackers in the vehicle ahead of us know 17 rhinos by name in this concession.
But where are they all, I wonder. Two hours have already passed. Casenove+loyd the bespoke travel company who set up my trip warned me I wasn’t guaranteed to see rhino but said that because the rhino is tracked, I have the best chances of finding them here. I’m beginning to wonder.
Three Oryx, their horns nearly as long as boom handles, run in the distance, stop to look at us, and then run away again. They continue to run, then stop and watch us, then run again. Finally, they disappear down an embankment. An Ostriches pair is pecking at the ground, the female bigger than the male.
Another hour passes. “I don’t think we’re going to see one,” I say.
“This is Africa,” Raymond says, “Things take time. And besides, a rhino lives 40 to 45 years, so three hours is nothing.”
Suddenly the trackers stop and signal for us to get out of the car. We walk silently until they tell us to sit down. Raymond is looking through his binoculars at something about 100 yards away. “You see the rhino?” he whispers.
I squint, then say, “I only see a rock.”
“No, it’s a rhino. Look again. One o’clock.”
Now I see it: a gigantic four-legged animal with large hooved feet, slitty little eyes, and two curved horns. I feel like a little kid and want to jump up and down. Is this real? One of the trackers whispers that this is a young bull, probably 7-8 years old, and weighs about 1,800 pounds.
I watch hypnotized for at least fifteen minutes as the rhino chews on the rhino trackers resting in the Namibian savannah. bushes, unaware of us. Finally, it lies down to sleep, the trackers hidden by the tall grass. I’ve seen my rhino!
When we pull up to a shade canopy of acacia trees the trackers tell me how lucky I am to have seen this rhino. They show me their data book where they have recorded shape, size, horns, ear notches, and tail size of the 17 rhinos in the concession. Each has a name. But none of the trackers have ever seen this rhino before who must have wandered in from another concession. They record his data in the book.
We head back towards camp. I am dozing off when we stop abruptly. The trackers have found a second rhino, 40-year-old Verity, three hours who has mothered eight calves. “This is a rare occurrence,” Raymond whispers. “We don’t often see two different rhinos in one day.”
It’s a three-hour drive before we’ll arrive back in camp, but I no longer care. I breathe in the aroma of wild sage. I’m on African time.