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Stalking the Black Rhino | Namibia

June 24th, 2009 1 comment

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The World Conservation Union (IUCN) curently lists 1665 animals as “Critically Endangered”. This classification means that each of these species’ populations has, or will decrease, by 80% in the next 3 generations. We live in a unprecedented time of environmental strife, with species extinction occurring at 100-1000 times the historical rate. This is a big deal.

Among those animals listed as critically endangered is the Black Rhinoceros. It is estimated that about 3600 of these animals remain in the world 1. Think about that – 3600 animals. By comparison this is about the size of a small village. In addition it was in 2006 that the IUCN declared that one of the four subspecies of the Black Rhino was officially extinct. Extinct for several reasons, but the primary being poaching only for access to their horns. Buyers in both China and Yemen fuel a still active black market for Rhino horns where they are used in the creation of dagger handles or for traditional medicines.

The good news is that Black Rhino populations are slightly increasing with incremental jumps in population for the last 2 years. Keep in mind this inflection point occurred after a 95% drop in population. In the period from 1970 to 1990 the population of the Black Rhino went from 65,000 to just 3,800 2. Through private and governmental action to curb poaching, there is hope that the Rhino populations will continue to increase.

We spent 2 nights at Desert Rhino Camp in the Damaraland region of Namibia. This camp specializes in the preservation and research of the Black Rhino, and operates in cooperation with the Save the Rhino Trust. This camp provides acess to the largest population of free ranging Black Rhino in all of Africa. An Italian film crew shooting a documentary for National Geographic was on site when we arrived. We were initially disheartened to learn that they had been out for the last 3 days tracking the Rhino but had been unsuccessful in locating any of the animals. They would be leaving in the morning, and without any of the footage they had hoped for. This left us skeptical that our luck would be any different.

We started early, with the trackers heading out first. As we drove along keeping careful watch for Rhino tracks and silhouettes, we admired the giraffe grazing on trees and the Mountain Zebra scurrying up the adjacent hillsides. A call on the radio informed us that the trackers had spotted 2 Rhino on the opposite side of the valley. It was quite a distance to make it to the opposite side of the valley but I took solace knowing that as the morning drifted towards mid-day, the Rhino are likely to seek shade and stay put. We crossed our fingers as we quickly made our way to the other side of the valley.

As we approached by Land Rover, we could see that 2 Rhino were situated in the shade on an opposite hill.

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Thankfully, the wind was in our faces, thereby masking our scent from the animals. Rhino have relatively poor eyesight, but very keen senses of smell and hearing. We exited the vehicle about 200 meters form the Rhino, and proceeded to approach the animals on foot. I have been a few meters from Lions and Leopards in the Okavango Delta, but always in the protective illusion of a vehicle. The prospect of sitting in the grass with a Black Rhino 3o meters from me was enough to raise my heartbeat quite a bit! As we approached, it was clear that the Rhino knew something was up… We made our way closer and closer, always under the direction of our guide as well as the Rhino specialists who were collecting information about the sighting. We finally settled in a spot that did not seem to stress the Rhino, yet provided us with a good view. We remained in this space, observing and photographing the Rhino pair for about 15 minutes before we headed out. Again, walking single file and as quietly as possible, we made our way back to the truck. This was some very challenging photography, as the light was quite harsh, and the Rhino are quite dark compared to their surroundings. Much like shooting photos at the beach or on snow, this was a situation requiring a good degree of exposure compensation to aid in the proper exposure of the Rhino themselves. Most of these shots are all over-exposed by about 1 – 1.5 stops to prevent the Rhino from becoming dark blobs in a sea of properly exposed grasses.

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Many thanks to the individuals responsible for the care of these Rhino. Each sighting is carefully documented with both photos as well as visual information. This is all stored in a database to help researchers better understand the health of the Rhino population and to better understand the overall migration patterns of these animals. Notice that ear markings are a unique way to identify different individuals..

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Raven and Rich with the Save the Rhino crew

This area was not all about Rhino, so I thought that I would include a few shots of some of the other wildlife from this region.

Gemsbok a.k.a. Oryx:

Gemsbok or Oryx

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Mountain Zebra:

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Spotted Hyena:

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Behind the scenes..

Behind the scenes..

Footnotes:

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