The past two years have brought unprecedented changes to every pocket of the globe and nearly every aspect of daily life. Despite the challenges we’ve faced, some stories are lined with a glimmer of hope and positivity. The Minnesota Zoo’s black rhino conservation program in Namibia is one of the most successful programs of its kind in the world, dedicated to saving the critically endangered black rhino from extinction. As the pandemic stretched on through the months, Namibia faced a series of lockdowns and the sudden decline of conservation tourism. However, the commitment of the Rhino Rangers and the communities that support them to protecting the local rhino population has never wavered.

“Initially there was a lot of concern that the lockdown would increase rhino poaching as patrolling became more difficult and the tourism industry was shut down,” explains Jeff Muntifering, Conservation Biologist with the Minnesota Zoo Foundation. “We did see a couple of poaching incidents in the early phase of the pandemic,” he continues. “However, Since August 2020 we haven’t seen any. We’ve gone over 15 months now with no poaching, which is incredible. The Rangers have really stepped up, despite the many challenges brought on by the pandemic.”

Early on the conservation program was forced to make some hard decisions, including cutting back on some resources for the Rhino Rangers who patrol large swaths of the Namibian desert in search of the majestic animals that call this dramatic landscape home. One of the most surprising and inspiring results of the past two years has been the increased efforts put forward by the Rangers, even with cutbacks on some resources.

“All of our performance metrics improved in 2020, even as the pandemic progressed,” says Muntifering. “We look at three big metrics each year: the number of days that teams are out on patrol; kilometers traveled by foot [by the Rangers]; and number of total rhino sightings. Each of these went up significantly. For example, the Rangers nearly doubled the number of foot-kilometers traveled. It’s really incredible.”

Rhino Hero. Credit: Marcus Westberg.

The enthusiasm among the Rangers and their dedication to rhino conservation has not been dampened by the struggles of the global pandemic, Muntifering made clear. “In fact, it seems even bigger this year.”

As the Rhino Rangers increased their efforts, they captured more and more valuable data about the rhino population in this area of Namibia and their list of achievements continues to grow. Muntifering is proud to share that last year, for the first time ever, they surpassed over 4,000 rhino sightings in a year. “This is more than a ten-fold increase from what we were recording 10 years ago before the community program started. This was a year with hardly any tourism, which is often what produces a lot of the sightings, so this demonstrated that the patrol efforts were not only sustained but even increased,” he continued.

As the amazing team of Rhino Rangers worked harder than ever in the field, it became increasingly clear that more focus was needed on their individual welfare. Spending days on end in the desolate Namibian desert carries with it no shortage of risks and possible dangers. The weather can be brutal, days are long and physically demanding, the locations remote, and hungry lions have been known to linger too long for comfort. Thus, this past year, a new Ranger welfare initiative was born with the goal of providing the Rhino Rangers with increased access to and knowledge of personal healthcare.

“We are starting with an emphasis on getting the teams up and running with proper first aid kits and adequate first aid training so they feel prepared to handle possible emergencies in the field,” explains Muntifering. In addition, Rangers will have access to health screenings with a physician. This will provide more information on how best the program can help address health concerns and increase their overall wellbeing.

Credit: Marcus Westberg.

The hard work and tireless efforts of this astounding team of dedicated conservationists is making a real impact on the conservation of the black rhino. And you can directly help support this program! As the Rangers in Namibia log more and more miles on-foot patrolling in the desert, they have an increased need for appropriate gear to keep them safe and help them do their job. You can directly support a Rhino Ranger on patrol by donating to the Minnesota Zoo Foundation’s gear fundraiser. All funds raised will go directly to purchasing gear kits for the Rhino Rangers. New boots, sun hats, socks, and uniforms, will help keep them sheltered from the elements and allow them to spend time in the field protecting and monitoring the black rhinos. This gear is essential to each of the Conservancy’s Rangers and to the success of the program. Visit the Minnesota Zoo Foundation’s fundraising page and show the Rangers your support!