Tracking desert black rhino in Namibia

Fly into Desert Rhino Camp in Damaraland, a remote corner of northwest Namibia, for the safari of a lifetime. Wake up early and set off to track the highly endangered desert black rhino in the arid wastes of this stark, elemental land.

Our Cessna flew low over a spellbinding landscape. Damaraland is a vast, untamed region in the northwest corner of Namibia. We soared over prehistoric water courses, open plains, yellow grasslands, granite hills and deep-cut gorges.

As we turned west, the topography changed to endless sandy wastes. This land is somehow able to sustain small, wide-ranging populations of desert-adapted elephant, giraffe, ostrich, springbok … and black rhino. Namibia is amazing like that, and it was one of these extremely rare, ancient beasts that we’d come to see.

The Cessna bounced along a dirt runway and drew to a halt. From behind the dust of the propeller emerged Chioto, our Himba host for the coming safari. ‘Welcome to paradise,’ he said, shaking our hands and leading us to a waiting Land Rover.

Desert Rhino Camp is a mobile outfit run in conjunction with Save the Rhino Trust (SRT). It’s located in the private Palmwag Concession in northern Damaraland, between Etosha National Park and the Skeleton Coast.

A short drive brought us to the camp. It was set on a grassy plain dotted with welwitschia plants and surrounded by a ring of tabletop koppies that glowed blue, then purple, as the shadows began to lengthen.

‘Desert Rhino Camp is a small, luxury outfit that can be easily relocated if game movements make it necessary,’ said Chioto as he showed us to our safari-style tent. ‘The camp contributes directly to Save the Rhino Trust and, ultimately, the sustainability of this vulnerable area.’

We sat around a fire that evening and toasted the sunset with G&Ts. ‘The idea at this camp is for guests to join researchers on their daily “rounds”, tracking and identifying rhinos and noting aspects such as distribution, dominance and pregnancy,’ said Chioto. ‘Are you okay with that?’

‘More than okay!’ I said.

‘We want as little disturbance as possible for these highly-strung, anti-social creatures, but still give visitors an unforgettable encounter,’ said Chioto.

‘What a privilege,’ said my partner.

After a delicious meal under the stars, we turned in, as it was going to be an early start the next day. I drifted to sleep thrilled by the knowledge that in the morning we would be on foot, tracking desert rhino!

Dawn. We had a quick coffee and set off in the open 4×4. The trackers from SRT had risen long before us and were already out looking. They were in radio contact with our guide, keeping him posted on their search. As we drove, Chioto told us more about Damaraland. He was tremendously knowledgeable about the fauna, flora and history, and was a tracker par excellence. ‘I learned as a child tending to my family’s animals,’ he said.

Before becoming a ranger, Chioto had worked for SRT, so he had an intimate knowledge of the creatures and their habits. ‘In the 1980s, there was very bad poaching and numbers were down to about 30 rhino. Now, thanks to the trust, the population is doing very well. Our concession actually boasts the largest concentration of black rhino anywhere outside of a national park,’ he said.

Driving west, we came upon a mating pair of desert lion in a dry riverbed. Their coats caught the first rays of the sun and glowed orange. The lovers cast disparaging looks in our direction with piercing golden eyes. While we were busy admiring them, a call came through on the radio: black rhino had been spotted.

Chioto turned the vehicle round and headed back in the direction we had come. He filled us in on the mammal we were about to meet: ‘Desert-adapted black rhino (subspecies Diceros bicornis bicornis) have managed to survive in this harsh landscape and miraculously escaped extinction by poaching, largely because of the inhospitable terrain and the creatures’ natural skittishness. They live off the meagre vegetation this desert offers and have adapted to digesting poisonous plants such as Euphorbia damarana.’

‘How close can we get to them?’ I asked.

‘Generally, we drive to within about a kilometre of the rhino’s location, then approach on foot close enough for a good view, but without disturbing the animals. Are you ready for a bit of a hike?’

‘Sure!’ we both chimed, hardly able to contain our excitement. By the time we reached the trackers’ vehicle, they’d already set off on foot. We followed, ducking behind stony hillocks, trying to stay downwind of the beasts. There wasn’t a blade of grass for cover as we stumbled along.

Eventually we clambered up a rise and Chioto motioned us to sit down and remain silent. Just then, a mother and calf ambled into view in the valley below. Every now and then they’d pause to nibble on a euphorbia. What an utterly magnificent sight: two ancient creatures perfectly in tune with their environment.

The SRT trackers crept forward, trying to look like euphorbias, and took notes: size, horn shape, ear notches, tail features, location. Suddenly, the rhinos’ nostrils caught the stink of humans. They turned away sharply and glided daintily across the plain like one-tonne ballerinas. My partner and I felt as though we’d been in the presence of royalty.

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