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While many of Rudi’s colleagues quit or were forced out, he stayed on. But with the ministry in disarray, SRT had to pick up the slack. And it has been largely successful, witnessing no poaching since 1994. While black rhinos continue to decline in places, here in Kunene their numbers have increased from 55 to 160. In 2003 the total number in Africa had climbed to 3,600: roughly 1,200 in Namibia, 1,200 in South Africa, 500 in Zimbabwe, 450 in Kenya, and the rest scattered across Tanzania, Swaziland, and Botswana.

In 2004, when Rudi retired from the ministry ("They chuck you out when you’re 60"), it seemed that his work was largely finished. But then, the next year, two tragedies struck: His beloved wife died of cancer, and a 32-year-old British researcher, Mike Hearn, whom he’d groomed to take the reins of SRT, died in a surfing accident. Grieving, Rudi had to carry on more or less single-handedly, meeting operating costs with the help of Utah-based Round River Conservation Studies. He considered shutting down altogether.

But still there was work to be done. While it was true that rhinos had increased in Kunene, there was as yet no permanent protection of the habitat. It could be developed at any time. Which is why Rudi and many Namibians—including the country’s founding president, Sam Nujoma—want to reestablish the region as a park. It may seem odd in a country that is so freshly rid of its colonial yoke to be longing for a land-use policy adopted by the Europeans in 1907, but Rudi is quick to point out that Kunene People’s Park will be hat is, the local communities are creating it voluntarily, rather than having it forced upon them by the government. Ideally, the tribal communities will decrease the amount of cattle grazing and replace the lost income with low-impact tourism, such as the rhino-tracking safaris that SRT sponsors, thus providing jobs in an economically bleak part of the country.

So Rudi labors on, hoping to nudge his former bosses toward an official proclamation. The latest outrage? Buoyed by the recovery of the rhino in Etosha and Kunene, the ministry is considering selling five commercial rhino permits to hunters, with the proceeds funding further conservation. Rudi is apoplectic. "If the government is poaching, what message does that send to the poor buggers who’ve been told not to poach?" As for the revenue: "How can you tell the money goes to conservation? Maybe it goes to buy a Land Rover for some game warden and he does f— all with it except drive around the missus and go to the booze shop."

Finally, he’s getting some help. A few years back, a Nature Conservancy board member visited Rudi and wrote a check to cover his annual compensation of $25,000, freeing Rudi to work on the implementation of the park and other projects, instead of scrambling to pay his own salary. And now, of course, the Nature Conservancy is sponsoring this trek.

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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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