Bushtracks' Specialist Guide David Bristow details how one of Africa's harshest environments sustains and protects critically endangered black rhinos of Namibia's Damaraland Desert.
It is something of an irony that the desert-adapted black rhinos (Diceros bicornis spp. bicornis) of Namibia’s harsh Damaraland region, surviving as they are at the virtual limits of their environmental and evolutionary limits, should represent the best survival chances for the species.
Damaraland is one of those alien landscapes where humans living in a positively pre-industrial state, scratch out livings where life permits. It looks like the place exploded at some time in the geological past, and that is not entirely wrong. The entire surface is the result of successive volcanic episodes in the building up and breaking down of the Earth’s crust.
Rainfall in this semi desert region comes sporadically, sometimes not for years at a time. And yet there are creatures out there in a rude abundance and variety. Beetles and lizards at the bottom of the food chain, then larger reptiles, birds in many shaped and colored splendor, mammals small and great from giraffes to elephants. From gerbils to elephants that dig wells in sandy dry river beds for their daily drink.
But the stars of the desert show are undoubtedly the black rhinos, beleaguered as they are. For centuries the Chinese have had a yen for rhino horn as an aphrodisiac and hokey folky medicine. It will do nothing for you, but now the Vietnamese and Thais have jumped on that illusionary wagon and rhino numbers everywhere are plummeting.
Perhaps most amazing of all is that such an antediluvian looking creature exists at all. Black rhinos are browsers, leaving a telltale angled branch tip where they have nibbled. When all else is parched and seemingly lifeless, the rhinos survive by nibbling the growth tips of a highly noxious desert succulent milkweed, or Euphorbia damarana. Only they and a few antelope can survive its poisonous milky sap.
Desert Rhino Camp, run by Wilderness Safaris on the Palmwag Concession, offers the best shot at seeing black rhinos while there still are any to see. The rhinos are protected by Save the Rhino Trust, an organization that was started some two decades ago by ordinary Namibian citizens to guard what was then among the most vulnerable rhino populations in southern Africa.
Poaching of the species elsewhere has taken such a toll that the desert rhinos are now the most stable group. Among the trust’s smarter strategies was appointing former poachers as trackers and rangers, and who better. The best conservators have typically been former hunters.
The camp is run by entirely locals – Himba, Damara, Nama and Ovambo people who, were it not for the safari industry, would be living much like the wildlife here: at the edge of survival, some of them undoubtedly poachers.
The joy and lightness they bring to running the camp is more honest and inclusive than anything I have experienced in three decades as a travel writer. The wine tastings and menu announcements, conducted in English and “click language” will have you intoxicated before your fist sip.
Getting to Desert Rhino Camp is not an easy journey, the best places seldom are. It epitomes an old Namibian saying, that you cry twice: once when you get there, and then again when you have to leave.
To learn more about critically endangered black rhinos and conservation efforts on their behalf, visit the African Wildlife Foundation at: http://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/rhinoceros . Bushtracks’ owners David and Carolyn Tett are honored to be among AWF’s Council Members supporting the future of Africans and their wildlife.