The Wild West
“Are there lions around?”
It’s not the first thing you expect to be asked when stopping to help with a breakdown in the desert. But then warnings to beware of elephants are not your typical traffic signs either. Welcome to the Kunene, a harsh but captivating land in Namibia’s remote northwest. Here, incredibly, some of the world’s most iconic wildlife has evolved to survive in the desert. Steve and Ann Toon went in search of them.

 

Desert Lions

The lioness’s breath is warm against our hands; her musky scent perfumes the still evening air. She’s out for the count, immobilised by a tranquilliser dart, but her yellow eyes are open, staring straight ahead. Is she aware of us as we squat beside her prone form?  Dr Flip Stander lifts one of her huge paws and gently squeezes it to expose a 4cm claw, inviting us to touch it. It is razor-edged and needle sharp.   Flip pries open the big cat’s jaws to reveal an intimidating set of teeth, and begins measuring the canines and recording the state of the animal’s dental health. It feels surreal to be here in this remote desert wilderness, watching a researcher giving a lion a dental check-up.


Lioness Xpl-36, as she is prosaically named, is part of the Agab pride, and we are acutely aware that other pride members are observing us intently from close by.  Earlier we had watched Flip drag a springbok carcass behind his Land Cruiser to lure the lions out into the open, where he could safely dart the lioness.  The cats had loped behind his vehicle, pounced on the bait, and polished it off within minutes.  Retreating to a patch of long grass, they didn’t seem to notice that Xpl-36 had stayed behind, sound asleep, a dart impaled in her rump. But they are aware of us now, and with darkness falling fast, we are distinctly nervous.


Flip, though, has done this dozens of times, and works carefully and methodically, measuring and recording data. Finally he takes out a sharp knife and saws through the thick leather collar around Xpl-36’s neck.  Manhandling the lion’s deadweight, he slips a new radio collar around her neck and fastens it securely. Job done, we pile back into our vehicle and reverse away from the scene, leaving Flip to administer the tranquilliser antidote.  Within minutes the lioness is groggily getting to her feet, and soon she’s safely back with the pride, nothing but her dignity hurt.


Later back at camp we listen to Flip explaining how the radio collars are essential to his work.  He’s been running the Desert Lion Conservation Project since 1998, collecting data on the population dynamics and movements of these unique desert-dwelling big cats. Locating lions in this vast 55,000 square kilometre wilderness of mountain and desert is a really daunting task, even with the help of a light aircraft, GPS and satellite tracking, and Flip spends long periods living in his Land Cruiser.


He’s a legend in this part of the world.  Wiry framed, bare footed and deeply tanned, his firm blue-eyed gaze hints at the resolute nature of a man dedicated to a cause.  His brown arms and legs are covered with bizarre hieroglyphics, field data recorded on the first places that came to hand.


Since his project started the desert lion population has increased from fewer than twenty individuals to more than a hundred. It’s good news for the lions, but inevitably causes  conflict with local people, when lions prey on their livestock.  


Flip sees lion-based tourism, with local people deriving financial benefits, as an essential part of encouraging communities to see the lions as a positive asset. “Tourism is vital, it’s a real part of the reason the lions are increasing, without tourism there’d be no lions,” he explains. He has now teamed up with Kunene Conservancy Safaris, a community-owned company, to offer desert lion safaris. Small groups join him for several days in the desert, as he tracks the big cats. A substantial proportion of the cost of these safaris goes directly to local communities, to compensate for livestock losses.


Next morning, as we bump along the jeep track on our way back to civilisation, we meet Shackleton, one of the Agab pride’s young males, drinking at a spring. In the grass nearby we spot Xpl-36, twitching in her sleep. Perhaps she’s dreaming of her trip to the dentist.

 

Desert Lion Safaris

• Desert lion safaris are run by Kunene Conservancy Safaris.  These are ‘reality’ experiences, working closely with Dr Flip Stander, so the exact itinerary and logistics of each trip depends on what he and the lions are doing. Visit www.kcs-namibia.com.na for details.
• To find out more about the Desert Lion Conservation Project, visit www.desertlion.info. 
• Wilderness Safaris provide logistical support for the project, and you may see desert lions when staying at their Desert Rhino Camp, or on guided
game drives from Palmwag Lodge. Visit www.wilderness-safaris.com

 

Desert Elephants

We’re gazing into craters pock-marking the sandy Ugab riverbed as the dawn hits the cliffs opposite base camp. These huge impressions are the footprints of Longshanks, the bull elephant that marched through camp the night before we arrived, as the volunteers were preparing for bed. They look gigantic, and I’m suddenly as relieved as I was previously disappointed, that he didn’t retrace his steps as I picked my way to the loo last night.


We grab a photograph before rejoining the group. We’re about to accompany it on patrol, tracking desert elephants through the bush and camping wild under the stars for several days. Although we’ve just been staring at the evidence, I still don’t believe we’re going to see any elephants. 


It takes a while to load the bed rolls, provisions and volunteers onto to the EHRA truck – or Tardis, given how much they’ve squeezed on.  I jump in next to Hendrick Munembome, head tracker, and try to get comfy on a bag of apples. Steve will follow behind in our 4WD with assistant tracker Cody.


In case you’re wondering, EHRA stands for Elephant Human Relations Aid. It’s a non-profit making organisation started in 2001 by South African Johannes Haasbroek to help protect desert elephants and the region’s subsistence farmers, when both were coming into increasing conflict over water and grazing. 


The formation of wildlife-friendly conservancies, along with other conservation initiatives, has led to an increase in the elephant population in recent years, and a number have moved back into territories they haven’t occupied for many years. EHRA’s volunteer programme plays an important part maintaining equilibrium between the elephants and the farmers at the sharp end of this competition for resources. Although volunteers have the privilege of tracking the elephants like this, they earn it by spending the first week of two shifting boulders and mixing cement to help elephant-proof community wells and water pumps.


First stop is ‘Johny’s Super Save’, a local store. The EHRA ethos is about mending all kinds of fences, not just the physical ones. Keeping local people onside is vital. Hendrick explains that, in addition to passing the time of day, locals may know where the elephants were last seen.

 

Later, deep in the bush, we’ve stopped for lunch in a nameless riverbed. We’ve climbed a dozen kopjies to scan for elephants and examined a ton of dung, but still not seen them. We’ve been bogged down in sand and thwarted by dense mopane. At one point, gap year students Sam and Lavinia were nearly thrown off the truck when it hit an aardvark hole. Now a load of ticks have invaded our lunch site, so it’s time to start the search again.


Just as we’re driving out of the riverbed Hendrick senses movement ahead, and motions for quiet. The rest of us can’t see a thing, until we begin to make out the grey shapes he is gesturing towards. “It’s the G6,” he whispers. The G6 are a group of five adults plus calf. They seem as surprised as we are. One female trumpets deafeningly and runs forward with trunk aloft. I can feel the hairs on my neck bristle. These secretive, wild elephants are just metres from our picnic spot. 


Later in the afternoon we find the G6 again in another nameless riverbed. They’re alert to us, but seem calmer. They’ve been digging for water and are greedily sucking up their reward. From a distance we admire and photograph. We’re intruders in their world, and really fortunate to be here. All too soon the light fades, and Hendrick says we must make camp. Reluctantly we back away as the elephants move off.


“This will be our camp for tonight,” Hendrick announces. We’re just 150m from where we left them. As we eat supper we can hear them in the dark. At one point Hendrick orders us to shush – apparently they’re really close. None of us sleep that night, of course. Tomorrow we will do it all over again. 

 

Experience it!

• What’s involved: EHRA run two-week volunteer programmes all year round, but you can stay on longer. Groups are small and friendly, and no special skills are required. A week of building work is followed by several nights on elephant patrol in the bush. Volunteers take turns preparing meals, making morning tea etc.
EHRA also run charity elephant treks.
• Where: The remote northwest of Namibia in the vicinity of the Brandberg mountains. Swakopmund is the ideal jumping off point for EHRA volunteering. Base camp is beautifully situated by the Ugab riverbed.
• Find out more: The EHRA website is at www.desertelephant.org or you can email
• Cost: A typical two-week programme costs £480 and includes meals and accommodation. 

 

Desert Rhinos

"Dansiekie, Dansiekie, Dansiekie, come in.”  Nothing. “Erwin, Erwin, Erwin, come in’” Nothing. Perched high on the open-back 4WD we can glimpse the two trackers working their way along the heavily vegetated riverbed, down below.  Gotlod tries again. “Dansiekie, Dansiekie, Dansiekie, come in.”


A crackled response: “Dansiekie, stand by.”  Below we see Dansiekie wave at us. He says something to Gotlod over the radio, in Damara, and Gotlod turns to us and translates, “The spoor is heading out of the riverbed, up that dry valley beyond. It’s very fresh.”


Gotlod guns the vehicle into life and points it into the riverbed. The gravel bank is strewn with football-sized boulders, and by all rights should be impassable to anything but a tank. In the past two days we’ve had to reappraise our understanding of where a 4WD can drive.  We’re soon ploughing through the thick soft sand in the riverbed, then launching up the opposite bank. We catch up with Dansiekie and Erwin and a brief conversation ensues.


The dry valley forks in two, and it isn’t clear which way the rhino has gone. The trackers have consistently astonished us with their ability to detect the faintest rhino spoor, but here the gravel is very hard, and an assortment of Hartmann’s mountain zebra, giraffe, kudu and rhino have trekked down to the standing water in the riverbed over the past few days.  Spiralling out, the trackers would certainly pick up the fresh spoor again, but we’re in a hurry to catch up with the rhino while it’s still on the move in the cooler part of the morning.  We decide to split up: the trackers head on foot up one branch of the valley, we drive up the other.


Even after the good rains that Namibia has enjoyed, the valley is parched, a vast open expanse of short grass and bare gravel punctuated only by the occasional euphorbia bush. Gotlod calls them ‘rhino ice-cream’.  The euphorbia sap is deadly poisonous to man, but the rhinos lap it up.


We bump along the valley then suddenly: “Rhino, Rhino, Rhino!”  We follow Gotlod’s outstretched arm, and there it is, the plump backside of a rhino bull, striding purposefully up the valley.  But the wind is all wrong.  If we follow the rhino it will catch our scent and be off at a rate of knots. Instead Gotlod swings the vehicle round and we backtrack,  turning up the other valley fork. Pausing only to pick up Dansiekie and Erwin, we hurtle up the valley then cut across the high ground.  Jumping out of the vehicle we clamber down the loose gravel to the valley floor, hoping Gotlod has judged it right.  If he has, we should now be in front of the rhino.


He has, and we are.  Suddenly 1400kg of bad attitude is in front of us, alert, suspicious, ears pricked, nose twitching.  It can sense there’s something wrong, but its poor eyesight doesn’t pick us out. It advances a few steps.  We should be terrified, here in the open, no cover, nowhere to run, confronted by this living dinosaur, this irascible, unpredictable behemoth.  But it’s adrenalin, not fear, that causes our hands to shake as we oh-so-slowly lift our cameras and frame our shots. Twenty seconds, a lifetime, passes, then someone’s foot dislodges a pebble, the rhino snorts, turns, and trots away.  It’s over.  We remember to start breathing again.


Dansiekie crouches over his notebook, recording details of the sighting.  He and Erwin are trained and employed by Save the Rhino Trust, the organisation which has done so much to safeguard Namibia’s desert-adapted black rhinos. Much of their logistical support is provided by Wilderness Safaris, who operate Desert Rhino Camp in partnership with SRT, and it’s this unique collaboration which gives tourists staying at the camp the unforgettable opportunity to join a patrol and track these charismatic animals through the desert wilderness.


As we head back to camp for a late lunch, Gotlod tells us our close encounter was with a bull named Ben, who can be “a bit naughty.”  We exchange glances. The adrenalin is wearing off, and we appreciate how lucky we have been, in more ways than one.

 

Desert Rhino Tracking

• Desert rhino tracking trips operate from Wilderness Safaris’ Desert Rhino Camp, beautifully located in the heart of the enormous Palmwag concession, in Namibia’s Kunene region.  The camp offers luxurious accommodation in eight Meru-style ensuite tents, with meals taken in a tented dining and living area overlooking the desert.
• Rhino trekking, by foot and vehicle, is frequently an all-day outing with a picnic lunch, and demands a certain level of stamina in the often hot, dusty environment. You really need a stay of at least two nights at Desert Rhino Camp to participate in the tracking. Visit www.wilderness-safaris.com for details.
• For more about Save the Rhino Trust, www.desertrhino.org.

 

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