Jeff Muntifering, Conservation Biologist at the Minnesota Zoo, is in Namibia where he works with the Namibian government, a local conservation organization (Save the Rhino Trust), tourism operators and local communities to conserve the world’s last truly wild population of black rhino. Listed as critically endangered, only 5,000 black rhino survive in Africa and are seriously threatened by rampant poaching especially in neighboring South Africa where roughly 3 rhino are poached every day! In the remote northwest region of Namibia, where only 3 rhino have been lost to poachers this past year, rhino conservation efforts have focused more on ensuring that local people see value in keeping rhino alive. The Minnesota Zoo has spearheaded an exciting initiative that seeks to train, equip and motivate a new generation of local ‘Rhino Rangers’ to monitor the rhino on their lands.
We crouch quietly under a small tree to conceal ourselves in the small sliver of shade. Beyond this tree there is little more than stones and sky. It’s 125 degrees F, no breeze and its only 10:30 in the morning – it will get hotter. In front of us, about 50 yards, stands our mission – a desert-adapted black rhino also taking advantage of what tiny shade he can find in this harsh, arid and nearly tree-less wilderness in northwestern Namibia. We have been tracking him all morning, over basketball-sized basalt (volcanic) boulders that make up this rugged, broken landscape that looks more like mars than anything earth-like. Another day in the “office” for our team, a small group of 4 ‘rhino rangers’ in-training, and two specialist trainers, Boas Hambo and myself. “Make sure you draw that triangle notch on the left ear carefully”, Boas whispers while our two rookies take turns examining the rhino with their binoculars and carefully drawing the ear notches and horn shape on their rhino identification form. A GPS point is taken and I help one of the rangers snap a photo with an ultra-zoom digital camera before we slowly exit the sighting, being careful not to make much sound. “Mission accomplished”, I mutter to the group when we are out of sight of the rhino and extend a smile in the sheering afternoon heat, “great job”.
We are on a training patrol with one of our new Rhino Ranger teams, groups of 2 local trackers hand-picked by their conservancy to learn how to find and record the whereabouts of the rhino on their lands. Our program has grown from 3 teams of 2 rangers each (6 rangers in total) to 9 teams totaling 18 rhino rangers over the past 12 months. The recruits are trained by an elite group of rhino monitoring specialists, mainly from a small local organization called Save the Rhino Trust, who arguably have some of the most accomplished wildlife tracking skills in Africa and have played a significant role in protecting Namibia’s desert rhinos. With a steadily growing rhino population but stagnant funding base for rhino monitoring, we decided that a new generation of elite ‘rhino rangers’ who answer to and are eventually supported by their own communities was desperately needed.
The Minnesota Zoo joined forces with Save the Rhino Trust in 2009 to support my work as their Science Advisor and more recently to help raise the critical start-up funds for the Rhino Ranger Program that provided high-tech rhino monitoring equipment, full field kits including camping and hiking gear and custom uniforms, and cash to pay rhino sighting bonuses to reward rangers for quality work. Additional training and evaluation has been conducted through two multi-day workshops with all new rhino rangers successfully passing their basic rhino monitoring exams. Each month, our specialist trainers pick-up rhino ranger teams to head out to the desert for 1-2 weeks for patrolling the vast arid rangeland in hopes of finding rhinos such as “Mrs. Kamatuba”, “Kangombe”, and even our own Minnesota state namesake, “Sota”. Such community-based rhino protection effort will be essential to ward off the imminent threat of poaching.
Stay tuned for more updates or check out the Namibian Black Rhino Program page on the Minnesota Zoo’s website for more details on how you can help.