Saving the horns of Africa
Palmwag in Namibia’s North West boasts the largest concentration of black rhino anywhere on the planet outside a national park. Martin Benadie is impressed, not just by the rhino but also by the community that has fought to protect them.


Image Meeting Christiaan Bakkes for the first time was an experience in itself. I was immediately captivated by this one-armed man with his one-eyed dog who masterfully recounted stories of his fascinating life in the African bush, including how he lost his arm to a crocodile when he was “young and stupid”. His home for the last eight years has been the vast Palmwag Concession, set in the foothills of Damaraland’s flat-topped Etendeka Mountains. This concession boasts 450,000 hectares of pristine wilderness that has become a conservation success story, primarily for providing sanctuary to the unique desert sub-species of black rhino, the only rhino globally to have survived on communal land. Due to this region’s rich soils it also provides the breeding nuclei of other desert-adapted wildlife, endemic birds and unique botanical riches found nowhere else on the planet.

Yet none of this would have been possible without the efforts of people like Christiaan: passionate individuals who implemented visionary conservation initiatives. He says: “Today most wilderness areas are being kept alive artificially in fenced reserves. Palmwag however, is one of the last true wilderness areas. Its godforsaken setting has thus far protected it and its rhino population. As long as we have anything to do with it, there will be no further intrusion”.

Spectacular geological formations created more than 125 million years ago set the backdrop: wide, grassy plains covered with myriad eroded ochre-red rocks. They are scattered with poisonous euphorbia bushes and bizarre ancient welwitschias which lend a surreal atmosphere to the whole area. All in all, a fitting home for ill-tempered black rhino.

During the 1970s and early 1980s poaching was rife in this area. At this time it was unprotected land and open to poachers, who slaughtered the desert wildlife. Ghastly losses suffered by the Kunene black rhino population rallied the efforts of many, including the government, local and international conservationists, villagers and even ex-poachers. It was the combined efforts of the region’s concerned inhabitants that brought about the formation of a community game guard system. This system eventually started giving the desert black rhino a chance to recover slowly.

Rudi Loutit, along with his late wife, Blythe, started Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), a highly-respected local organisation that trains guards and carries out much-needed monitoring of the remaining black rhino population.

After halting the poaching activities, more emphasis was laid on how to conserve the area and its resources sustainably. Community-based tourism ventures were decided upon which helped the local villages have their land proclaimed as wildlife conservancies, like Palmwag. Within these conservancies villagers combined their communal land – mostly without fences anyway – and agreed on a mutually beneficial management plan that allowed for the sustainable utilisation of the increasing wildlife populations.

Mike Hearn is another legendary figure of Palmwag: an Englishman, a successful academic and a devoted conservationist who gave so much to the preservation of Namibia’s desert rhino before his untimely death aged thirty-three, in 2005. With Chris, he pioneered a strategy for rhino conservation through sensitive rhino viewing on foot by tourists, thereby injecting revenues back into the local community and contributing directly to rhino survival.

On the morning of our own tracking expedition, Save the Rhino Trust trackers left camp before dawn, scouting ahead and looking for fresh spoor. At a more respectable hour, local guide Harry Ganuseb took us out on a game drive in the general direction of the trackers and kept in contact with them using two-way radios.  Sightings of springbok, gemsbok, ostrich, Hartmann’s mountain zebra and kudu added interest to the drive and I was astounded at the rough terrain we traversed. Soon Sebulon Hoeb radioed in a sighting of a female rhino and her calf. Sebulon is a team leader and senior tracker who started with SRT in 1990. He was taught the trade by ex-poachers who were initially employed by SRT because of their extensive knowledge of rhino habits. We clambered off the vehicles, eager to start tracking in earnest.

Harry and Sebulon chatted quietly in click-filled Damara-Nama, deciding on a suitable approach. We walked in silence for around a kilometre. Then, on the crest of a hill, the hulks of rhinos materialised – the twenty-eight-year-old female black rhino Eva and her two-year-old male calf. We crouched and watched them. Perhaps my camera shutter clicks or a  change in wind direction alerted them to our presence, but Eva, intent on protecting her calf, took the lead and they disappeared down the ridge. I remained on a high with the picture of rhino and calf etched in my memory. This was tracking at its best and, for me, the true meaning of ecotourism.


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