IntroductionThe Kunene Rhino Trackers Project aims to continue to deliver the Save the Rhino Trust vision, which is a steadily increasing population of black rhino distributed across an expanded range in the Kunene region, with a network of protected wilderness areas that provides a secure habitat for all wildlife and a basis for sustainable ecotourism. Save the Rhino Trust will continue to provide meaningful employment and provide consistent support for local communities and conservancies that have assumed custodian responsibilities and have themselves developed improved capacity for black rhino conservation.
Researcher: Simson Uri-KhobRegion: Namibia
Organisation: Save the Rhino Trust
Master of Science(Conservation Biology) 2003-4 from the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK
BackgroundSave the Rhino Trust (SRT) is a well-known agent of conservation in the Kunene area of North West Namibia and has been active for three decades in the conservation of desert-adapted black rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis). SRT began working for conservation in the 1980s, when huge spikes in poaching caused critical declines in the wild black rhino population. With close monitoring and careful management the rhino population gradually recovered and has now greatly increased in number; however the black rhino remains Critically Endangered and close conservation work with other local stakeholders is pivotal to the success of the population in future years. This is particularly important as the threat of poaching overspill from other southern African countries begins to cause concern throughout Namibia. As such, the work of SRT and its partners continues to be as imperative as it was when the Trust was originally established.
Over the past 30 years, the population of black rhino has quintupled, largely through the efforts of SRT working in close cooperation with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), the Damara Traditional Leadership, local communities and conservancies, and other NGOs active in the region. As a result, many other species in addition to black rhino within the 25 000km² range have flourished, and the Kunene region in particular now boasts some of the leading examples of ecotourism in Southern Africa.
The mission of SRT Namibia is to serve as a leader in conservation efforts in the Kunene, including monitoring, training and research focused on desert-adapted black rhino, in order to ensure security for these and other wildlife species, responsible tourism development, and a sustainable future for local communities.
Approximately 75% of SRT’s efforts are allocated to field patrolling and monitoring. Everything depends on this work: without accurate information about the rhino population’s performance trends, SRT cannot make decisions about regional tourism, Ecological Carrying Capacity, make recommendations to MET about the target animals to be translocated etc. Monitoring the rhinos continues to be the prime activity.
Since 2005, SRT has trained over 60 community game guards, sharing best practices and empowering communities to protect and monitor their own black rhinos. But, despite SRT’s best efforts, community game guards often failed to make it out on patrol. This led to the development of the Communal Rhino Custodian Support Programme in 2012/2013 and the subsequent training of and joint patrolling with 22 Rhino Rangers (or specialist rhino trackers/guards).
ObjectivesThe overall aim of the project is to provide structured training in basic and advanced rhino monitoring skills to SRT trackers and conservancy Rhino Rangers.
The project aims to build capacity amongst its own staff and Rhino Rangers operating within 11 communal conservancies through presentation of revised, structured courses in Basic and Advanced rhino monitoring skills. The 11 conservancies that have signed the Memorandum of Understanding for the training, provision of equipment and incentives to Rhino Rangers are:
• #Khoadi !Hoas
• Doro !Nawas
It should be noted that the ‘Big Three’ conservancies (Torra, Anabeb, Sesfontein) have varying numbers of rhino totalling approximately 64% of the population in the Kunene region.
Organise and present the theoretical Basic Rhino Monitoring Course to SRT trackers and four new Rhino Rangers (#Khoadi !Hoas and Orupembe) followed by theoretical examination and practical training patrols to observe and evaluate individual skills.
Organise and present Refresher Basic Monitoring Courses to SRT trackers followed by practical training patrols to observe and evaluate individual skills.
Jointly develop the Advanced Rhino Monitoring Course together with Mr Jeff Muntifering.
Organise and present the theoretical Advanced Rhino Monitoring Course followed by theoretical examination and practical training patrols to observe and evaluate individual skills.
The Basic Rhino Monitoring Course, based on revised SADC modules will be presented to SRT trackers and four new Rhino Rangers. This course consists of two days of theoretical revision, one theory examination day and five days of practical skills evaluation while out on patrol.
Refresher training on the Basic Rhino Monitoring Course will be presented to SRT trackers. The course will consist of one exam day and identification of areas of weakness followed by one Review/Revision Day and two days of practical skills evaluation while out on patrol.
The Advanced Rhino Monitoring Course will be developed jointly by Mr Simson Uri-Khob and Mr Jeff Muntifering. The course will be presented to SRT trackers and a minimum of 22 Rhino Rangers. The course will consist of a two- to three-day theoretical course followed by five day of practical skills evaluation.
The SRT teams and Rhino Rangers will combine as follows:
– Mounted Patrol Team Anabeb and Sesfontein
– Northern Team Puros, Ehiropuka, Omatendeka
– Southern Team Doro! Nawas, Uibasen, Huab and Torra
(Note that #Khoadi !Hoas and Orupembe will not have candidates for the Advanced Course)
In follow up to Dr. Rob Brett’s initial consultation with SRT staff, the Board of Trustees and a wide range of stakeholders, SRT’s senior staff and Board members met again with Dr. Brett to review the updated draft of the Strategic Plan and to share highlights from the last 6 months.
One highlight is certainly how our loyal supporters came together to help us drive the five-year Strategic Plan. We are most grateful for your continued support and for the tremendous amount of energy and expertise Dr. Brett from FFI brought to the process. Given your support and the dedication of our staff and Board members, the Strategic Plan will be completed before the end of 2016.
At the core of our mission to save the rhinos is each individual rhino life, and we are proud to share that in the past six months, we have not lost a single rhino to poaching in SRT’s range.
Working in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, other field-based conservation organizations, local communities and the Namibian Police, we now have 17 teams operating across the region at any given time, and the effectiveness of these teams is evident in their sightings.
Every month patrols are seeing more than half the population of individual rhinos in SRT’s range, including special sightings of individuals that haven’t been seen in some time, and rhinos with new calves. This is significant given the vast size of the rhino range, the low density of rhino and the extremely rugged terrain we must navigate in order to locate them.
Since the start of the year, SRT tracking teams have tripled the number of verifiable sightings since 2014 and reduced costs from N$ 5,500 per sighting to N$3,000 per sighting, a strong indicator of the teams’ efficiency.
The teams’ presence in the field is acting as a strong deterrent to poaching. In fact, our intelligence operations noted that twice in the last few months, poaching suspects revealed that when they were searching for rhinos in SRT’s range, they were put off by the presence of SRT trackers and vehicles, causing them to abandon the search and seek out other areas that are less well covered. Obviously this presents problems for rhinos in Namibia and isn’t a permanent solution to poaching in SRT’s range, but it is proof that our joint patrol teams are doing their jobs and doing them well.
SRT’s intelligence and investigative operations are growing in importance and effectiveness, and their skills and information are highly valued in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and law enforcement circles.
The importance of the work being done by SRT is also gaining in prominence within Namibia. In August, Simson Uri-Khob accepted the Windhoek Observer Newsmaker’s award on behalf of SRT for the first prize in Conservation.
Meetings with the Minister and Permanent Secretary of Environment and Tourism are leading to more collaborative support from the Namibian Government, while the Brandberg Rhino Run and Cycle Tour, the RMB Ride for Rhinos, the Southern Africa Land Rover Association event, and the Traditional Authority trip and the protest march for “no bail” for poachers are a few examples of recent events that exposed more Namibians to the work being done to save the rhino and turning interested participates into advocates for rhino conservation.
To strengthen our efforts in Namibia, on International World Rhino Day on 22 September 2016, SRT is launching One Voice, a national outreach campaign to take a stand in support of rhino conservation and against poaching. From the President of the Republic of Namibia and the First Lady, Namibians from all walks of life are adding their voice to say as one – SAVE OUR RHINOS. Our goal is to boost information sharing and education, and build a sense of rhino custodianship nationwide.
The popular Namibian artist, Elemotho collaborated with other Namibian artists on an original song that will be the anthem of our efforts to save the rhino and will be released on September 22nd, World Rhino Day.
We are proud of our achievements but we are also well aware that the threats to our rhinos are ever present and getting stronger. It is our job to stay several steps ahead of them, and with your continued support, we pledge that we will do all we can to Save the Rhino.
Namibians never want to claim that we had rhino in our country, and together, with your support, we are committed to conservation and the protection of rhinos for the future generations.
The SRT field trackers have adjusted well to the new regime introduced during the year, which involved going out on patrol for longer periods. After evaluating them, they have been split up in patrolling groups where it was determined which trackers were appropriate for monitoring and patrolling whilst other were identified as efficient for APU (anti-poaching unit) patrolling. Now that the teams were all clear on what they were out to do in the field, proper information assimilation has picked up well.
With the new valuable addition of Dr Axel Hartmann as COO, the Director of Field Operations Lesley Karutjaiva has the necessary support in taking care of the logistics of managing the new patrolling regime. Lesley has worked closely with Science Advisor Jeff Muntifering to set up the new computer-based data management system at the Ops Room where all relevant data capturing is maintained.
Lesley is currently conducting in-house training for SRT field trackers and Rhino Rangers involving the following:
• Training in following and tracking of rhino spoor
• Correct completion of identification forms
• Photography and interpretation of rhino body conditions
• Monitoring and reporting of rhino behaviour
• Evaluation of the habitat of the rhino
All in all, patrolling efforts have increased tremendously. The efforts are a clear proof of the immense work performed by SRT field trackers in combatting our poaching crisis. Human monitoring evaluation has been sharpened and all threats are continuously communicated to the Namibian Police for immediate action.
The drought continues to be a negative factor in the Kunene; the natural mortalities we have experienced are mainly related to the drought conditions. The latest victim of the drought effect was a baby rhino estimated to be three months old. DNA samples were taken and are being examined to confirm the reasons for its death.
Another factor which seems related to drought is the manifestation of wandering rhinos. Because of their need for water rhinos are continuously travelling closer into settlement areas and are in constant danger of falling prey to poaching or exposure.
Because of the above-mentioned factor our trackers have started making it a habit to include awareness-raising in their patrols in areas where high levels of human-animal conflict have been identified. They approach the community in the relevant conservancies and brief them on the importance of having rhinos in their area and the aid we need from them to successfully accomplish our work in protecting the rhino. Slowly but surely, trust is building up in the community.
Finally, the confirmation of new life. The new rhino calves born in this reporting period are the ultimate proof needed by Save the Rhino Trust that the fight is worth it. Despite the drought and devastating rhino poaching crisis we are getting reassurance from Mother Nature that our efforts are recognised and appreciated.
Save the Rhino Trust Namibia (SRT) and Wilderness Safaris have extended their Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on black rhino conservation for a further five years. The partnership, which began in 2003, involves SRT providing a tracking experience for guests at Wilderness Safaris’ Desert Rhino Camp, while tourism income supports the SRT team based at the camp and includes a bednight-levy donation. The latest MoU also includes support and cooperation at Wilderness Safaris’ Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp and the Mudorib Gate.
In response to the recent upsurge in poaching in the Kunene, SRT has been tasked with initiating a proactive measure that involves trackers being deployed to monitor suspicious human activity in the rhino range. Four new trackers have been recruited from SRT’s Rhino Rangers Programme and bases were reduced from five to three to centralise control better. SRT Mai Go Ha! Base Camp has been converted into a secure operations Command Centre for the regional rhino protection effort and operations have been reorganised into two rhino patrol sections: Rhino Monitoring and Proactive Patrol (anti-poaching). These two sections are strengthened by a community outreach unit. Bolstered protection efforts have led wildlife crime syndicates to focus on other rhino populations in Namibia, but it is likely they will target the Kunene region again and SRT is well prepared for the next wave.
In February 2015, Dr Axel Hartmann, a veterinarian and SRT’s longest-standing trustee, assumed the full-time role of Chief Operations Officer. He is responsible for streamlining operations, working in close collaboration with SRT CEO Simson Uri-Khob. Additional trustees have also been identified to strengthen governance and bring further skills to the Board.
Due to increased risk and new focus on the proactive measures, SRT tracker teams no longer patrol alone and instead joint patrol teams comprise SRT trackers, Rhino Rangers, Ministry of Environment and Tourism field staff and Namibian Police and Special Field Force members. The emphasis of these patrols is to look for illegal or suspicious human activity based on a robust mapping system whereby patrol track logs can be downloaded and overlaid onto a map to determine effectiveness of area coverage.
The Kunene region is experiencing another serious drought cycle. Patchy, sparse rainfall has caused dispersal of rhino to areas with better browse, wandering into some of the critical areas in which a number of incidents have occurred in the past two years. The drought has also had a significant impact on breeding performance with recorded natural deaths outnumbering births. Coupled with the poaching outbreak, this could indicate that the Kunene black rhino population is currently in decline.
Five suspected poachers have been arrested as a result of a collaborative response by Save the Rhino Trust, Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism, NAMPOL and the Protected Resource Unit.
SRT trackers reported suspicious tracks on 12 June and initiated the response protocol while continuing to follow the spoor. Swift police action to block all exit routes from the area led to the arrest of the five suspects the same afternoon, who were found in possession of rhino horns, a rifle and butchering equipment.
The carcass of the 13-year-old rhino cow was found the day after the arrests. This follows a period of 173 days of no rhino poaching incidents in the area.
The Wilderness Wildlife Trust, in partnership with Nissan Pupkewitz, has facilitated the donation of two 4×4 vehicles to SRT to help combat the threat of poaching and secure critical black rhino populations in the Kunene region of north-west Namibia. The handover of the vehicles took place in Windhoek on 12 May 2015.
“We are extremely grateful for the ongoing support from our donor, Jeffrey Neu, and assistance from Nissan which enabled us to purchase and donate these vehicles to such an important conservation initiative. It is imperative to ensure the buy-in and support of local communities to combat any poaching threats quickly and decisively, and these new vehicles will increase SRT’s monitoring capacity and emergency response times to ensure the long-term protection of black rhino in Damaraland”, said Russel Friedman, a Trustee of the Wilderness Wildlife Trust.
The vehicles will operate on a cost-share basis between SRT and Wilderness Safaris Namibia. They will boost the already-high standard of field-based monitoring taking place for roughly 75% of the Kunene’s black rhino population and help guarantee an effective ground presence. “We will continue to closely track and monitor the health of the rhino population in Kunene and enhance our innovative efforts to develop and deliver responsible rhino-based tourism models”, Friedman added. “Such efforts will slowly but surely help towards achieving our goal of securing a future for the unique desert-adapted rhino.”
“With the ever-growing threat of poaching on our doorstep, we are proud to partner with Wilderness Safaris to support SRT and increase its vehicle fleet dedicated to rhino monitoring in Kunene. We hope that the new vehicles will assist SRT in ensuring adequate mobility for the field-based monitoring taking place within the Palmwag Concession, as well as strengthening its patrol efforts in high-risk areas within the Concession and surrounding buffer areas”, says Rayno Keys, Fleet Consultant.
The last few months of the reporting period have been tremendously turbulent for SRT, with organised crime syndicates starting to target rhino in the area with military precision. SRT has had to adapt and intensify its efforts in the face of this threat.
Participation in joint patrols has increased significantly since SRT requested assistance from Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), the Namibian Defence Force (Nampol) and Special Field Force (SFF) from the beginning of September 2014. These patrols made it clear that the poaching crisis was real, and the statistics gathered formed the basis of the MET’s decision to start “Operation Dehorning.” The exercise was helicopter-based and reached areas that had not been covered on foot for some months. As the programme progressed, more rhino carcasses were found and it became clear that poachers had turned what we thought was our strength into a weakness: the vast difficult terrain was not creating a natural barrier to poaching, but rather a poaching haven.
More training has been given to MET field staff, Nampol and the Rhino Rangers, including teaching them how to effectively record information using cameras, GPSs and identification forms. The patrols included teaching them how to scour the area for any H-I-D (Human Induced Disturbances) and the removal of snares and harmful obstructions for animals. In addition, “Scene-of-Crime” training was provided in order to prepare MET and SRT field staff to correctly handle and prepare a crime scene involving illegally hunted wildlife for the Wildlife Crime Investigator in order to ensure convictions.
SRT, together with Nampol and MET, has also carried out translocations in instances where rhino have wandered into settlement areas with a high risk of poaching.
Due to an increase in poaching and illegal hunting across Namibia, Save the Rhino Trust opted to conduct all of its training in the field. A patrolling operation, called Mini Census, was conducted with the aim of scouring the area in search of rhino carcasses or any illegal activities that could potentially lead to poaching in the Kunene region. The teams utilised vehicles and donkeys, covering all the concessions in the conservancy during June, July and August. During the census, six rhino carcasses were discovered, as well as an old carcass of an illegally hunted rhino without its horns.
In a Strategic Planning Meeting in August, a decision was taken to get the Rhino Rangers more involved in the operations of patrolling and monitoring. The Rhino Rangers have a full understanding of the operations at SRT, know the conservancies well, and with additional staff on board, SRT will be able to cover more ground, leaving no gaps for would-be poachers or illegal hunters to infiltrate the region.
To address the challenge of teams being located far away from rhino areas, fly camps have been erected in the most vulnerable areas as identified by senior staff in the field. Partial funding has been sourced and these satellite camps will be used for the exclusive use of Rhino Ranger teams to base their patrols.
In other news, Simson Uri-Khob has been promoted to the position of CEO.
The Advanced Rhino Monitoring Course has been developed and the first training phase was completed from 27 – 30 May 2014. In total, 21 rhino rangers representing all 13 participating conservancies were in attendance. So far, 15 rhino rangers who had passed their Basic Monitoring Course received the first phase of Advanced Monitoring training, while six new trainees received their first phase of the Basic Rhino Monitoring course.
All participants received training in the use of the Event Book System, a standard wildlife and poaching monitoring system implemented by game guards across all conservancies in Namibia, and the new Rhino Report Card system. Additional on-the-job training is planned for subsequent joint patrols in the coming months. November 2013The Trust supported the important work of the Communal Rhino Custodian Support Programme (CRCSP) involving nine conservancies.
The overall aim of the CRCSP is to assist the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and Communal Rhino Custodians by providing new incentives to ensure more effective rhino patrols are conducted. The following were the planned tangible outputs:
– 6 joint patrols per annum for each conservancy
– Joint patrol reports compiled by 3 Team Leaders who will lead the joint patrols
– Rhino ID forms and photographs from each conservancy every second month
– Rhino Sighting Bonus claim forms from each conservancy every second month
The actual tangible outputs achieved were as follows:
On average, joint patrols occurred slightly less than planned (average 4, with the rangers who joined later in the year doing 1 or 2). This was largely due to the unanticipated interest in the programme which resulted in two new conservancy teams joining part way through requiring team leaders to conduct additional training patrols.
Further, a capture operation caused on month to be dedicated to this activity. All patrol reports were completed as planned by each team leader for the month (33 including one month with no joint patrol reports due to capture) and all rhino ID forms and photographs from joint patrols have been submitted to MET.