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Damaraland, in northwest Namibia, is one of the only places in the world where black rhinos can be seen in the wild, and travellers can take a small amount of credit for the growing preservation of the species.
In this desert region of flat-topped mountains, russet hills, gravel plains and swathes of scrubland, the black rhino are not tagged or tracked by satellite, nor are their movements restricted by the boundaries of a huge game reserve.
Spotting a rare, black rhino can be a real challenge, but this does not seem to worry Chris Bakkes, the manager of Desert Rhino Camp, which runs rhino safaris. The tour operator has joined forces with Save the Rhino, a charitable trust, to create a unique relationship where rhino tracking and preservation go hand in hand.
On my third day at the camp (and as many days without a sighting) Bakkes and I sat on canvas chairs overlooking a vast plain, our view framed by the Entendeka mountains. At our feet, feathery grasses turned silver and deep green.
“You’ll find them,” Bakkes said, reading my thoughts. “They just like to keep us waiting.”
Thirty years ago Bakkes would not have been so optimistic. In the late 1970s aggressive poaching took the rhino to the brink of extinction. The animals were hunted to satisfy the demand for horn, which was used to fashion handles for ceremonial Yemeni daggers and as an ingredient to reduce fever in oriental medicine (not as an aphrodisiac, despite popular belief).
Over the next 20 years, thousands of black rhino were slaughtered across Namibia. By the early 1980s the population had plummeted from 65,000 to just 60.
Today, numbers are on the increase again thanks largely to the country’s Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), which under a mandate granted by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, works to preserve black rhino in Damaraland.
The trust focuses on rhino management programmes, scientific research and raising public awareness. It has an ambitious target: to increase rhino numbers to 2,000 by 2030. But it needs funding if it is to succeed.
This is where tourism comes in. By teaming up with people like Bakkes, SRT creates one of those rare, win-win situations. Chris offers holidaymakers the chance to track rhino while the revenue from tourism helps fund conservation work.
For those staying at Desert Rhino Camp, rhino tracking does not come cheap. Neither, some claim, does it offer all the thrills of a typical big game safari, which is why most of the camp’s guests are second or third time visitors to Africa.
But there are first-timers too and among them, committed conservationists.
One woman I met tried to explain. “I know I won’t see a lion, but I can see a lion another day,” she said. “I chose come to Damaraland because just a few decades ago the black rhino almost died out. The holiday is expensive, but I see it as payment for a privilege: the privilege of seeing wild black rhino before it’s too late.”
In the desert, the search is shared between driver-guides who accompany camp guests and small groups of trackers, many of whom were once poachers.
The trackers leave camp at dawn and watching them at work is, I imagine, like watching soldiers scanning an area for landmines; they tread softly and rarely look up, their eyes flitting across the ground as they search for broken twigs, massive footprints and dollops of warm dung.
Damaraland is one of the least populated areas of Namibia. Life here is easy-going and relaxed. Safari drives take in stunning scenery and include elaborate picnics, laid out in style at the foot of the mountains. Dinner is served around a huge farmhouse-style table back at camp. Evenings are spent under the stars: consolation, surely, for not seeing a black rhino.
As I counted the hours on my last day at Desert Rhino Camp, I tried hard to remind myself of why I was there: to learn about rhino conservation, not to tick off a sighting.
Besides, I had seen kudu, desert-adapted elephants, springbok, zebra, sand grouse and ostrich. But something niggled away inside; I was like a spoilt child, surrounded by Christmas presents and still dissatisfied.