email a friend iconprinter friendly iconOn Safari in Namibia's Rhino Land
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It turned out to be a perfect home for Rudi and Blythe. Rudi loved its wild emptiness. More than once he was stranded in the dunes when his vehicle broke down, and he tells of hiking all night, then sleeping away the midday heat lying facedown in the sand. Hundreds of miles from the government in Pretoria, rangers were left to their own devices—Rudi kept out the illegal dune buggies by blasting over their heads with an automatic rifle—and his relations with his Afrikaner superiors might be characterized as chilly.

"I didn’t give a shit who the government was," he told me. "Some pricks in parliament determined who we reported to. I could just do my best for the animals and habitat. That was my vocation."

A Detour Into Palmwag

Mannetjie needed a cigarette. The lead rhino tracker had not brought enough tobacco for two weeks. Now after eight days he had to ration. He walked out in front of the group with a .375 elephant gun slung over his shoulder, his bush dog, Lens, at his side, blazing a route for the camels and scouting for lions. We had crossed one of Kunene’s only highways, two lanes of graded gravel running south to north, and now we’d entered Palmwag, where the terrain dried out into a cobbled desert. The tall green grasses were replaced by ankle-high dead brush, and the towering mopane trees gave way to overgrown shrubs and the thorny fingers of the euphorbia bushes, where the rhinos nestled for afternoon shade.

Chief among Mannetjie’s tasks today was finding midday cover for 13 humans. Far in the distance he saw a green dot, either a euclea tree or a salvadora, and led us toward it. For an hour or so the dot got bigger, and Mannetjie walked over to inspect it. First thing was to send in Lens. Then Mannetjie circled the tree widely to see what other species were enjoying the scarce shade. As a final precaution he lobbed a few rocks into the thicket to scare up anything that was sleeping. Then, and only then, did he bring in the people and camels. His head ached for caffeine and nicotine, so he gathered deadwood for a fire for the teapot, and then pinched a precious bit of tobacco from his pouch, spread it into a square of torn newspaper, and rolled a smoke.

Mannetjie’s given name is Ludwig Ganaseb, but he is universally called by his Afrikaans nickname, which rhymes with "panicky" and translates as Little Man. At 44—five years shy of the age at which the average Namibian dies—he is the patriarch of the SRT trackers. He learned the skill from his father, who was a rhino poacher, and 16 years ago he was among the first trackers hired by Blythe and Rudi. The job then as now is straightforward: find rhinos. He follows their footprints, their scat, and the telltale broken branches and stomped grass. Over the years he has logged thousands of sightings, and for each that he successfully photographs, he gets a bonus. (Every rhino in the Kunene is named, and Mannetjie knows many by sight. He even recognizes some by a distinctive footprint—a cracked heel or a bent toe.) For each sighting, the crew marks the location with a GPS, records size, health, and ear shape on a pad of paper, and later enters the information in a database. The paperwork is left to the younger trackers who as boys went to school, because Mannetjie himself does not read or write, nor does he speak English.

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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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