email a friend iconprinter friendly iconOn Safari in Namibia's Rhino Land
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We wanted to go closer, and so Mannetjie directed us up to the next bush, ducking to stay hidden, like unarmed soldiers on an ambush, or maybe more like bumbling cartoon characters. Then up to the closest bush, a mere hundred feet from the beast. And now the wind died. The rhino turned and looked our way, and we hid behind the bush. In my binoculars I saw the drool dripping from its chin. We were perfectly still. It looked toward us, sensing our presence but unable to see us or be sure what we were.

This standoff lasted minutes. Finally a click of a camera shutter sounded, and the rhino pricked its ears. It took a few steps toward us. Dansiekie tapped our shoulders and motioned for a retreat. As we scuttled away, crouching low to stay out of the beast’s vision, I heard—or imagined I heard—the stomping of hooves, and suddenly I rose out of the crouch and found myself sprinting across the desert, my heart pounding, aware of a small voice in my head saying, Get this: You’re sprinting away from a rhino in the African desert. How cool is that? Finally in the relative safety of another euphorbia, I wheeled around and saw that I had not imagined the stomping hooves. Indeed, the rhino was running—but instead of chasing us he was angling away, the desert seeming to quake beneath the heavy thud of his feet, and off he went, fast, much faster than a human can run, off toward the horizon, dropping into a wash and out of sight.

Mannetjie had not stopped smiling. Now, finally, he produced a scrap of newspaper from his pocket and, emptying his tobacco pouch, rolled his last cigarette.

Across the Namib Desert

"I’ve seen them pivot on one foot like Rudolf Nureyev," Rudi told me. His eyes get wistful when he talks about rhinos, even the one who charged him, slashing toward his belly with its horn. By now we’d left Palmwag and climbed over an escarpment into the heart of the Namib. Beneath our feet were chips of red basalt gravel, all sand and vegetation long since scoured by the wind. We set out early in the morning across the grassless flats, more barren than any desert I’ve seen in the United States. Without any contours or cliffs for shade, without a single bush taller than my knee visible in any direction, I walked with the vague stirrings of panic in my gut, knowing that as the temperature reached the mid-90s, if a person got separated here and ran out of water, he’d be dead pretty quickly.

The Namib is the world’s only desert where in the past hundred years there have been no extinctions among big animals such as rhinos, elephants, and lions. But Rudi’s career as a park ranger coincided with one of the most cataclysmic rushes toward extinction of any species in history. In just over three decades, the population of black rhinos in Africa dropped more than 90 percent, from some 100,000 in 1960 to 2,410 in 1995. The main culprit was poaching. Rhino horns were fetching as much as $60,000 a kilo, sold usually to the Chinese for their supposed medicinal properties or to the Yemenis to be carved into ornate knife handles. In illustrating the difficulty of convincing locals to choose conservation over poaching, Rudi likes to point out that SRT’s annual budget is less than the price of five black market rhino horns. By the time Rudi and Blythe arrived in South-West Africa in the seventies, the number of black rhinos in Kunene had plunged from approximately 250 to 55.

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  • Would give anything to do and see such wonder.
  • Rudi and Blythe are true conservation heroes whom I greatly admire and your story perfectly encapsul…
  • OMG this article made me miss Rudi so very much. Thank you so very very much.
  • Amazing story! I love it all. I wish that I could have seen it all!
  • Great story! Sundeen comes through again.
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