EXTREME NAMIBIA - the world's most free-roaming black rhinos

In this weekly EXTREME NAMIBIA blog series we explore some of our country's extremes, and share with you practical information on how you can come and discover them for yourself.

The black rhino is one of the world's most endangered species. Between 1960 and 1995, numbers dropped by a horrifying 96.7%, mainly as a result of poaching for their horns.

Critically endangered scale

Black rhinos are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN's Red List

Today, Namibia is home almost half of the world's population of black rhino - most of these are found in Etosha National Park. It also has the world's largest population of black rhino that has survived on communal land - without conservation status - and therefore without fences. These are the unusual desert-adapted black rhino of Damaraland, in Namibia's stark northwest; and visitors are able to track these amazing creatures with experienced local guides to find out more about their behavior, their habitat, and how they are protected.

Here, a tourist tells her story...

In Search of the Black Rhino

At first glance, everything in boulder-strewn Damaraland looks dead - dry twigs instead of bushes, scorched earth instead of grass, parched beds where rivers should flow. It seems impossible that anything can survive here - let alone something as large as a rhino. But that is what the trackers have just found. They set off at dawn, as the guests at the community-owned Grootberg Lodge are just awakening, and radio back to camp once they have homed in on their target. We have a rhino. And his name is Hans Otto.

After driving along a bumpy trail, we abandon our safari vehicle and the trackers appear on foot from the bush. We are given strict instructions: do not wear bright clothing. Do not make a noise. Walk in single file. And always obey the trackers. Knowing that a well-camouflaged, horn-wielding beast weighing over a ton is roaming the bushes, nobody fancies doing otherwise.

Rhino tracker and Damaraland

A rhino tracker sports an anti-poaching t-shirt (left); a herd of springbok in Damaraland (right)

We wander along dry river beds, through bushes, up a hill, with the trackers constantly scattering handfuls of sand to see which way the wind is blowing. We have to remain downwind of Hans Otto. We discover scarlet-coloured bugs that look like they are covered in velvet; an enormous pair of kudu horns that are too heavy to lift; various animal droppings; and a lonely mountain zebra, watching us from a hilltop.

Kudu horns and giraffe droppings

Our guide, Clement, finds kudu horns (left) and giraffe scat (right)

Then everyone stops dead and falls silent. We can't see Hans Otto, but the trackers' behavior has made it clear that he is nearby. And then we spot him, his earthy, red-brown body standing in contrast to the green leaves that surround him. The black rhino, one of the world's last, just a few meters away.

Black rhino tracking, Namibia

The tracker locates Hans Otto in the bushes

Cameras click, but we hardly dare breathe or move. The trackers sift sand, and edgeforward. Hans Otto turns to face us.

"When you can only see one horn, it means he's looking right at you..."

I pray that the rhino's eyesight is as bad as it is alleged. We are definitely close enough to get charged.

The trackers finally say it is time to return to the vehicles, so that we won't distress Hans Otto too much. We have been in his presence just a few breathtaking minutes, but it seems that time has stood still.

Black rhino, Damaraland

Hans Otto looks right back at us

Rhino Facts:

  • The black rhino is not black - it is in fact the same color as the white rhino! The name "white" is actually derived from "weit" - the German word for "wide". White rhinos have wide, flat mouths as they graze on grass. In comparison, black rhinos have pointy, hooked lips as they eat leaves from trees and bushes.

  • Black rhinos are smaller than white rhinos - but they are much more aggressive. Fights between black rhinos are likely to result in death - and they also charge humans.

  • Height: 132–180 cm at the shoulder. Length: 2.8–3.8 m. Weight: 800 to 1,400 kg. The larger front horn typically is 50 cm long, but occasionally well over a meter.

  • Rhinos' eyes look unusually small. They have very poor eyesight, and rely much more upon hearing and taste - which is why you must always remain downwind of a rhino!

  • Conservation strategies in Namibia have included re-training poachers as rangers, removing the rhinos' horns, and translocating them to virtually inaccessible areas such as the Waterberg Plateau. These methods work: only a single rhino was killed in Namibia in 2012 - in comparison to over 600 (black and white) in South Africa.

Practical Information:

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