email a friend iconprinter friendly iconOn Safari in Namibia's Rhino Land
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Mannetjie and his crew—which includes his younger brother, Hans, 30, his nephew Dansiekie, 23, and another Damara named Abner Naseb, 25—are used to patrols of two weeks or longer. But this time Mannetjie underestimated his tobacco appetite. All these cameras in his face, questions from the reporters translated by his nephew, and still no rhinos. The big rains had allowed the rhinos, which can survive four days without drinking, to avoid regular water holes. Now with six more days to go, Mannetjie had not produced a single rhino and had nearly run out of cigarettes.

Mannetjie had seen his share of danger on the job. Once he was tossed by a rhino, then trampled by its calf. Another time he and Hans and Dansiekie were treed by a she-lion. "The others began to pray to Jesus to save us," he recalled, "but I told them to be quiet, or else maybe other lions would hear us." Telling the story through a translator, Mannetjie made sure I understood that the slender tree was doing just fine supporting his weight and Dansiekie’s, and it wasn’t until Hans—tubby, laconic, often the butt of good-natured kidding—began climbing that the tree sagged dangerously close to the lion and they had to flee. Luckily the cat sped after her cubs instead of them.

On this trip, rather than tracking rhinos, Mannetjie’s crew had been tracking a runaway camel and the lost cameraman, who they found two hours after dark, waving his flashlight atop a mountain. They also spent an afternoon fighting a wildfire, after someone accidentally ignited the brush grass while burning toilet paper. As they beat the fire with blankets and shirts, and doused it with water jugs, the situation looked hopeless. A hot wind whipped over the prairie, an endless sea of tinder. But somehow they smothered it before it burned out of control.

All that said, it’s a good job. The pay is better than the national average, and it includes a food ration not just for the trackers but for their families, as well as accident insurance and a pension. In the space of one generation, the Damara social structure has been pretty thoroughly upended, traditional agriculture replaced by a commodity economy, with the younger generation coveting cell phones and cars.

"Mannetjie’s the last of the generation that lived the old way, off the land," Rudi told me. "They had beautiful gardens, and now it’s completely shagged. And probably because some white bloke came in and told them, This is rubbish, you should grow tobacco as a cash crop. But what the hell are they going to spend money on out here? He should have been taken out back and shot, or had tobacco stuffed up his ass till it came out his ears."

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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.
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