Africa’s majestic rhinos face extinction due to poaching pressure and habitat loss. More than three rhinos per day are currently being killed to feed the surging black market demand for rhino horn. Namibia, located along the southwestern coast of Africa, supports over a third of the world’s black rhinos. This includes the last truly wild population that survives in the northern reaches of the Namib Desert. Since 2009, the Minnesota Zoo has partnered with Namibian conservation organization, Save the Rhino Trust, Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and local communities to help protect and expand this unique wild rhino population. The Minnesota Zoo is proud to be part of one of the world’s most successful efforts to save this incredible endangered species.
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Black rhinos are one of five rhino species. Three species live in Asia and two – the white and the black rhino – live in Africa. More than 96% of the world’s black rhino were killed between 1950 and 1990. Poachers kill rhinos for their horns. In some Southeast Asian countries, especially in China and Vietnam, there are groups of people who strongly believe the horns can cure diseases. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this. Today, rhino horn is also seen as a status symbol and this has led to a recent surge in rhino poaching. Black rhinos are Critically Endangered and only about 5,000 of them survive. They live in small populations scattered across southern and eastern Africa. One-third of these rhinos call Namibia home. The largest truly wild black rhino population in Africa lives in the rugged northwest Kunene Region.
Thanks to the generosity of numerous donors, the Minnesota Zoo’s Conservation Biologist, Jeff Muntifering, is able to work year-round in Namibia’s Kunene Region to save black rhinos. Together with Save the Rhino Trust, he uses science, training and other incentives to help inspire local people to see value in keeping rhino alive.
It all starts with understanding what local people value and then identifying rhino-friendly activities that can directly improve their lives. Many local people have seen how tourism can be a good way to improve lives. They also know that tourists love to see rhinos when they visit Africa. Therefore, many communities want rhino back on their lands for tourism. The government has agreed to release rhino on community lands as long as the local people will look after them. Even though the government still owns the rhino, the idea has helped the local people feel like they own them. This is good for both rhinos and people.
Rhinos are shy and dangerous animals. Releasing them into new areas and showing them to tourists is not easy. First, we use our knowledge of rhinos to help local people choose the best places where rhino can live. We then ask the community to choose a minimum of two local people to be trained in rhino tracking and tourism. This is called the “Rhino Ranger Incentive Program.” Since 2012, the Minnesota Zoo and partners have provided training, equipment and bonus payments to 36 local ‘rhino rangers’ in 14 communities. This has helped triple the number of trained rangers protecting rhino. Now, 100% of rhino that live on community lands in the Kunene Region of Namibia are being protected by the community that lives alongside them. The program has also recently helped more than double the number of total patrol days and the number of rhino sightings in the span of two years. In 2012, no rhino sightings were being conducted by local communities whereas now two out of every three rhino sightings are provided by community ranger teams.
The Minnesota Zoo has also worked closely with a tourism company named Wilderness Safaris at Desert Rhino Camp. Through this partnership, we are learning how to combine rhino tracking with tourism to help better protect rhino while benefiting local people through jobs, training, and income. Many local people have become especially proud to have rhinos living on their lands. The idea has become very popular and now local people are protecting large parts of their land for rhino and tourism. Since 2014, three new Rhino Ranger-led tourism activities have been developed, with over $200,000 being generated and distributed to local communities in 2015.
We are now starting a project that involves Rhino Rangers educating their own community members – including farmers, school children, and unemployed youth – about rhinos and what they need to survive. We are excited to be partnering with the Houston Zoo and another local partner, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservancy, on this Rhino Pride Campaign.
In Namibia’s Kunene Region, killing a rhino is seen as stealing from the community. On average, only seven rhino have been poached per year in our area between 2014-2016. This is in sharp contrast to the three rhino per day that are poached in other parts of Africa.
Namibia is a country located on Africa’s southwestern coast. It has the world’s oldest desert and the second lowest density of people on Earth. Though the country is very dry, it is home to the world’s largest wild populations of black rhino and cheetah. Other interesting animals found in Namibia include elephants, lions, leopards, giraffe, hyena, and many kinds of antelope. Nearly 15% of Namibia’s land is a National Park. Another 40% falls under some form of local conservation.
The Minnesota Zoo Conservation Department has a long history in Namibia. Dr. Ron Tilson was the Minnesota Zoo’s conservation director for 27 years before retiring in 2011. He lived in Namibia from 1976 to 1979 and was one of the first students to conduct scientific research on the desert wildlife. The Zoo’s Conservation Biologist Jeff Muntifering followed Dr. Tilson in 1999. He began with the Cheetah Conservation Fund and has worked with Save the Rhino Trust for the past 12 years. Today Jeff works as a conservation biologist for the Minnesota Zoo and serves as science advisor for Save the Rhino Trust.