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
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
“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
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
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
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
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.
It was late afternoon. We were driving back to camp. Suddenly the radio
burst into life. The trackers had a sighting!
My guide drove like a man possessed, crashing through ditches and
racing across the plains, aware of the distance we had to travel and the speed
of the setting sun.
Then on a hill we spotted him: Kalawari, a dominant male, grazing
quietly in the tall grass. I was struck by the rhino’s massive frame and tiny
We approached on foot until the trackers signalled we were not to go
any closer: the delicate balance
between tourism and conservation kicked in. The men were taking notes,
observing the rhino’s mannerisms, checking he was healthy and strong. The
moment they had finished, we had to withdraw.
Reluctantly, I crept away. The bull turned and lumbered through the
grass, his horn silhouetted against the darkening sky.
That night, as we sat round the campfire, the staff laid on
entertainment Namibian- style. The chef, her face barely visible under her
floppy white hat, stamped her foot, forward then back, two or three times, an
They sang to wish me a safe homeward journey, and to warn me of the
dangers of Amarula, the local
liquor. One of them staggered around comically as I warmed a glass of the drink in my hands. I laughed
loudly, because the song was funny and because while rhino conservation was
great in theory, it was even better in practice.