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Written by: John Grobler 

Namibia’s black rhino and the nomadic Ovahimba people’s way of life in the remote northwestern Kunene Region are under grave threat from a deadly combination of drought, Chinese mining and construction ventures and land-hungry communal cattle farmers, leading to the sharpest resurgence in rhino mortalities in 30 years.

14 rhino horns were found in the luggage of Chinese couriers at the airport in March 2014. DNA tests showed 13 of the horns originated from Kunene
14 rhino horns were found in the luggage of Chinese couriers at the airport in March 2014. DNA tests showed 13 of the horns originated from Kunene.

In the political show-down between conservation and industrialisation playing itself out along the Red Line veterinary fence that runs across northern Namibia, the world’s last free-roaming black rhinos are now caught in the crossfire of a larger battle between East and West for mineral resources.

So far, the rhinos have been the losers in this fight: A quarter of the endemic Kunene south-western black rhino (and the world’s last free-roaming rhino anywhere) have died since 2012 of a combination of drought-related causes and poaching. In the past 12 months, 24 of them died of poachers’ bullets, official mortality statistics showed.

In Etosha National Park, adjacent to the east, the rhino carcass count stood at 62 for the past six months, Minister of Environment and Tourism Pohamba Shifeta has confirmed. Sources on the ground however said losses could be 80 or more. All told, around 400 of the critically endangered pachyderms have perished since 2005, with 70% of mortalities occurring since 2012.

Compared to neighbouring South Africa’s staggering white rhino losses, these numbers seem small but they matter: Namibia’s about 1,800 – 1,900 black rhinos make up 40% of the world’s surviving population of about 4,800 – 5,000: all that is left of a population estimated by the IUCN to have numbered 850,000 black rhinos a century and a half ago.

Namibia’s actual black rhino numbers have always been kept secret to protect the animals from unwanted outside attention, but the culture of secrecy has contributed to poaching going undetected for too long, conservation officials conceded.

In spite of repeated warnings since 2009 that Namibia’s rhinos were also at risk, the authorities took no extra precautions or revived its disbanded anti-poaching units in Etosha. It was just one of many acts of omission in a political pattern that characterised a clear trend towards favouring cattle-farming and other commercial interests over conservation. Even when three Chinese – Li Xiaoling (30), Li Zhibing (53) and Pu Xuexin (49), all from Jiangsu Province – were caught with 14 rhino horns in their luggage at the Windhoek international airport, the government maintained that poaching was under control.

Alleged Chinese couriers Li Xiaoling, Li Zhibing and Pu Xuexin, from Jiangsu province, at their first appearance in court
Alleged Chinese couriers Li Xiaoling, Li Zhibing and Pu Xuexin, from Jiangsu province, at their first appearance in court.

The revelations over past 18 months came as a huge shock. Namibia was hitherto widely regarded as an African conservation success story, having nursed the black rhino population back from the edge of extinction from indiscriminate hunting by the early 1980s to a viable population by the early 1990s.  No poaching was reported in Kunene since 1993, and the MET reported only three cases – one in 1997 and two in 2000 – to CITES.

That all changed in 2012. What changed on the ground in the rhino ranges of southern Kunene, an investigation showed, was the arrival of outsiders in the area: Chinese mining and road-building teams, Aawambo cattle speculators and one particular clan of Ovahimba and their cattle. Wherever these groups’ tracks crossed, rhino carcasses were turning up in alarming numbers.

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