Are Namibia’s Rhinos Now Under Siege?
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 2, 2014
Early this year in The New York Times, I wrote an op-ed in praise of Namibia’s work in restoring populations of endangered black rhinos and, more important, in avoiding the poaching nightmare taking place next door in South Africa (on track to lose 1100 rhinos this year). Here’s part of that piece:
Namibia is just about the only place on earth to have gotten conservation right for rhinos and, incidentally, a lot of other wildlife. Over the past 20 years, it has methodically repopulated one area after another as its rhino population has steadily increased. As a result, it is now home to 1,750 of the roughly 5,000 black rhinos surviving in the wild … In neighboring South Africa, government officials stood by haplessly as poachers slaughtered almost a thousand rhinos last year alone. Namibia lost just two.
But a new report says the poaching situation there has dramatically worsened. Here’s how the story begins, from Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism:
The air over Sesfontein this time of year is usually a peculiar metallic hue, tinged by the talcum-fine dust whipped by the harsh desert wind blowing from the Skeleton Coast, 250 kilometres away to the west.
But today, the white heat seemed bleaker than ever, and another metallic taste stirred in the air: that of blood, redolent of greed and betrayal, of witchcraft and a strange death by anthrax. Boxer was dead.
As the oldest and most experienced tracker of the three-man Save the Rhino Trust’s (SRT) Damara-speaking team, Daniel Alfeus //Hawaxab – aka Boxer – was by all accounts an exemplary employee. At age 37, he had spent his entire adult life looking out for the world’s last free-roaming black rhinos of the Kunene region.
His knowledge of the rugged mountains and deep valleys, watered by secret fountains where the last free black rhinos live, played a major role in the recovery of their numbers after the 1980s slaughter during the South African occupation that left fewer than 20 animals alive. Their numbers now are officially kept secret to deter poachers – but the secrecy also serves to obscure the true state of affairs.
For 20 years, after the last reported case at Mbkondja in 1993, there had been no rhino poaching, as the SRT’s tactics of constantly patrolling the rhino ranges kept the poachers at bay. But on Christmas Day 2012,
the first of 14 carcasses found so far started turning up in the field, at the Kommagorras fountain near Mbkondja.
Mbkondja – a Herero word meaning “struggle” – is a scattered communal farming settlement, roughly halfway between Palmwag and Khowarib, and is where the SRT keeps camels used for foot patrols into the mountains.
Boxer was on the scene quickly and identified a former soldier-turned-cattle herder named Tjihuure Tjiuamba as the most likely suspect. He and two community game guards interrogated him – Boxer was a man known to talk with his hands when necessary, hence his nickname – and Tjiuamba soon pointed out where he had hidden the horns.
He also deposed a sworn affidavit a few weeks later to the police’s Protected Resources Unit, in which he implicated his employer, Efraim Mwanyangapo, as offering him R30 000 for rhino horn and supplying him with two .303 bullets for a rifle he then stole from a man named Jakotwa, he stated.
Jakotwa, a Himba farmer who also kept cattle at Mbkondja, independently confirmed this version. But he has moved away now – there were bad things at Mbkondja he did not want to discuss.
Tjiumba later withdrew his statement in court, claiming it was made under duress. Boxer’s actions, however, provided the legal ground for what has been the only successful prosecution so far, 24 black rhinos later.
So it was strange that no one in the SRT made any effort to get Boxer to the hospital in Opuwo as he lay dying in Sesfontein’s clinic, and that most of colleagues, including all SRT’s management, did not attend his funeral in Sesfontein.
Boxer died alone, in agony. And that had everyone spooked.
Read the rest of the story from Oxpeckers here.