Rhino for Erongo Mountains
Issue 3 (November 2008) Dr Hu Berry is one of Namibia’s leading naturalists. He has been the country’s chief ornithologist as well as chief biologist at the Namib Naukluft National Park and at Etosha. Now retired, he still trains guides. Here he tells us about his latest project.


The Erongo Region in Namibia is historically home to one of the most endangered large mammal species in Africa – the black, or more correctly, hook-lipped rhino. ‘Erongo’, in the indigenous Herero language, refers to ‘big mountain’, an apt description of the extinct volcanic massif spanning forty kilometres. Its geological history reveals that, when the super continent of Gondwana began breaking up into Africa, South America, Madagascar, Australia and India some 130 million years ago, Africa rose up from the ocean, causing faults in the Earth’s crust. Concurrent earthquakes opened vents for copious lava flows, creating the infant Erongo. After a further 20 million years it collapsed, forming a massive caldera that gradually eroded to the present ‘volcanic skeleton’, which is the largest of its kind in the world.

Erongo’s ramparts still rise one thousand metres above the surrounding Namib Desert plains, holding in its 200,000 hectares a rich diversity of wildlife. Realising this, the landowners formally established the Erongo Mountain Nature Conservancy in the year 2000. Nevertheless, one of the key species, a mega-herbivore, had long since been eliminated by hunters. Hook-lipped rhino no longer browsed on the steep slopes or in the numerous valleys. Undaunted, the landowners took up the challenge innovatively. Even the mineral-rich fountain water that bubbled up from perennial springs was bottled and sold with the slogan ‘Rhino for Erongo’. A royalty from every bottle sold was put in a trust fund to provide for the expensive reintroduction of rhino.

The vision became reality this year when a number of rhino were relocated and released into the conservancy. Of course, you don’t simply release something like a wild rhino on your ‘farm’ without having an adequate management plan in place. Included in the conservancy’s strategy was how to harmonise wild rhinos with tourists who walk the wilderness trails on a daily basis. Consequently, I ran a course for guides on what to do – and what not to do – if they encountered a rhino whilst on a trail with guests.

Rhino bulls can attain a hefty 1200kg, but are nimble-footed and can spin around in their own length. Add to this an inherently aggressive nature and an acute sense of smell and hearing, but poor eyesight, and you may be confronted by an unpredictable creature, which is potentially dangerous to people. Because each encounter with a rhino is different and depends upon the circumstances and the individual animal, there are no set procedures that can be followed. The important principle to remember is that a rhino’s reaction to your presence will depend upon whether it feels threatened.

The practical part of the course was vital. Because a rhino cannot be ordered to appear ‘on tap’, this entailed repeated role-playing. In turn, the guides each ‘became’ a rhino, a guide, and a guest. The outcome of these practical field classes was most satisfactory, albeit sometimes amusing, when the wily ‘rhino’ ambushed the hikers unexpectedly from a thicket, causing confusion and a hasty retreat. After repeated ‘encounters’ the knowledge necessary to deal with a real rhino was acquired.

‘Rhino for Erongo’, once simply a symbolic silhouette on a bottle of natural mineral water, has now become an exciting reality for both landowners and tourists alike.

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