Black Rhinos: A Success Story in Namibia

We were lucky to find a connection to home on our trip:  we met Jeff Muntifering, a Conservation Biologist for the Minnesota Zoo.  Jeff and his family live in Namibia, where he has worked with Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) since 2002 to protect endangered black rhinos.

Jamie, Lauri, and Jason with Jeff Muntifering and his son Lakano in Namibia
Jamie, Lauri, and Jason with Jeff Muntifering and his son Lakano in Namibia

We’ve learned a lot about things people have done to save animals, and SRT is a great success story.  For the past 30 years, this organization has been successfully protecting black rhinos in northwest Namibia, and has helped the number of black rhinos steadily increase.

Tracking Rhinos, One by One

One thing they do is phenomenal:  their trackers can identify each rhino by sight.  Each month, patrols go out to survey the rhinos in this area.  They survey 25,000 square kilometers (9,653 sq. mi.).  They do it on foot, in vehicles, on camels or donkeys, and occasionally from the air.  (For you Minnesotans out there, it’s an area about the size of the Boundary Waters.)

There are five teams, with four trackers on each team, and they stay out on patrol for two to three weeks each month.  Rhinos are territorial, so they generally stay close to the same area.  Since the rhinos don’t travel too much, teams go to areas where they typically find rhinos; they also follow tracks from springs.

Everyone who works for SRT is a local person, which has helped make the organization so successful.  Local people are not just invested in protecting rhinos — they’re also expert at it.

How do they know one rhino from another?  A key method is by their ear notches.  Rhinos get notches in their ears, from fights, predators, and even from thorns or trees.  Most of the notches are there from natural causes, although in some cases, SRT has added notches to help with identification.  Every rhino is entered in SRT’s database, and each one has a name — “Ben,” “Kangombe” (which means king) and “Don’t Worry” are a few names Jeff shared with us.   There is even a new baby rhino named “Sota,” — short for “Minnesota,” in honor of the support that the Minnesota Zoo has provided to SRT.

Ear notches (from a white rhino we saw in South Africa)
Ear notches (from a white rhino we saw in South Africa)

Some of the rhinos have a chip, or transponder, implanted.  But these aren’t used in tracking; they’re used for identification purposes, much like your cat or dog might have a chip implanted.  In case your cat or dog is lost, a vet can scan the chip to find information about your pet.  The chips used for the rhinos work the same way.

SRT is supported by some funding from outside Namibia, but it is largely supported by rhino tourism.  And, tourism funds help the local community, which is one reason the SRT program has been so successful.  When the community has an incentive to help, it’s much easier to get everyone involved in protecting a species.

SRT Sponsors on a display at their headquarters
SRT Sponsors on a display at their headquarters

Rhinos and Poaching

In Vietnam, when we visited ENV (Education for Nature Vietnam), we learned about the demand for rhino horn, and about poachers that kill rhinos in Africa to fulfill demand in Vietnam and China.

Here, in Africa, we saw the other side of the story.  In some national parks and reserves, we saw gory pictures of rhinos killed for their horns and left behind.  At SRT, we learned of a rhino that survived bullet wounds and its horn being taken.  But this case was unusual; rhinos nearly always are killed when their horn is taken.

The horns are used for medicinal purposes – and sadly, the horns have absolutely no medicinal value.  They are made of keratin, which is the same thing your fingernails are made of.

Made of keratin
Made of keratin
Made of keratin









In many parks, lists are available that tell you how many of a particular kind of animal are in the park.  The rhino number is often left blank, to protect the park’s rhinos from poachers.  In Pilanesberg National Park, in South Africa, there is a computer system that lists where animals have been sighted.  The white rhinos living there are not included in the system; again, for their protection.

About Black Rhinos

Black rhinos are one of five rhino species (Indian, Javan, Sumatran, White and Black).  Both black and white rhinos live in Africa.

You can tell them apart by the size of their heads; white rhinos have enormous heads.  In fact, we learned that baby white rhinos usually walk in front of their mothers, because it’s more difficult for the mother to turn her head.  Baby black rhinos typically walk behind their mothers, whose smaller heads have more mobility.

Black rhinos are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, primarily due to poaching.  Although the number of black rhinos hit a low of only 2,410 in 1995, their numbers have been steadily increasing since then.  By the end of 2010, there were 4,880 black rhinos — the population more than doubled over a fifteen-year period.  SRT protects the largest unfenced black rhino population in the world.

Black rhino
Black rhino, northwest Namibia

We were lucky to see a black rhino in northwest Namibia, and some in Etosha National Park.  White rhinos, which we saw in several places, are a bit more plentiful; there are about 20,000 in the wild in southern Africa.

White rhino, South Africa
White rhino, South Africa

Although black rhinos are endangered, it’s really encouraging to hear about the success SRT and other organizations have had protecting them in Namibia.  There are many endangered animals whose populations are shrinking.  But despite the ongoing threat of poaching, the black rhino population is steadily growing — and will hopefully continue to increase, thanks to the dedicated, long-term efforts of conservation groups such as SRT.


Study Guide Questions

1. Why do baby white rhinos walk in front of their mothers?

2. What are rhino horns made of?

3. What are human fingernails made of?

4. How do the Save The Rhino Trust trackers identify rhinos?


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