email a friend iconprinter friendly iconOn Safari in Namibia's Rhino Land
Page [ 11 ] of 14

As we crossed this shimmering expanse, low ridges receding in the far distance, we came across a pile of rhino dung. Then a set of tracks: massive three-toed dinosaur footprints like blocky stamps of a stone-carved fleur-de-lis. Mannetjie judged that the animal had passed through just hours before. In such a bleak spot it was hard to imagine anything living here. But an hour later Mannetjie and the photographer stumbled across the rhino napping against a salvadora tree, and when the rest of us caught up, they showed us photos of this unlikely desert survivor.

"I’m chuffed to see him so fit and healthy," Rudi said. "He’s probably just traveling through."

Kunene is now the only place in Africa where black rhinos do not live exclusively in a protected reserve. Over the years, the gigantic park that the Germans created was split into two—one inland at Etosha, and one on the Skeleton Coast. The land in between was parceled into various administrative entities and decommissioned as a game reserve. With a lack of oversight, it became prime hunting ground for rhino poachers.

In 1982, sensing that the South African government was uninterested or unable to combat poaching, Rudi and Blythe founded Save the Rhino Trust. With Rudi working full-time as a ranger, Blythe ran the show, and her gentle warmth endeared the group to funders, press, and community leaders. Their first mission was to stop the poaching, and they hired local Damara like Mannetjie’s father to serve as unofficial wardens. They immediately nabbed a handful of poachers, but their work was countered by political instability. Throughout the eighties, the rebel South-West Africa’s People’s Organization (SWAPO) was clamoring for freedom from South African apartheid and receiving arms from allies to the north in Angola. The South Africans halfheartedly responded by distributing guns to the Damara and Himba people, in hopes that they would fight a proxy war with the Angolans. But according to Rudi, these guns were instead used for shooting rhinos and other big game. As apartheid collapsed, the South African security forces began to withdraw, and poachers had a free-for-all. In 1989, 33 rhinos were killed in a three-month period.

When Namibia won its independence in 1990, Rudi discarded his South African passport and became a citizen of the place where he’d lived for 15 years. But independence brought new problems. Under apartheid the wildlife ministry, like most African bureaucracies, was staffed by whites; the new government sought to fill these posts with blacks, many of whom had less experience.

In the old days, tribal communities—which are similar to Indian reservations in the United States—were not allowed to have guns, and when they wanted meat, a warden would hunt for them. These hunters knew not to shoot the stallion of the zebra pack or the alpha female. These days, says Mannetjie, the hunting is done by local agencies that don’t follow these basic rules.

Page [ 11 ] of 14
Join the discussion

National Geographic Adventure is pleased to provide this opportunity for you to share your comments about this article. Thanks for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Recent Comments
  • 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.
Read All »