Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Rhino diaries: The legendary Mad Max

Namibian poster urging the public to report suspicious activities to the authorities. Photo of rhino by Tony Heald. 

 "Rhino coming! Rhino coming!" shouts the helicopter pilot into his radio while circling above the dusty Ugab River valley

My camera is ready for action. As I focus, I am unceremoniously hoisted by the shoulders onto the back of a bakkie. The seasoned rhino trackers have probably saved my life, as seconds later, Mad Max, terror of southern Damaraland (now Kunene River) crashes towards us. 

It is 1991. As the Ministry of Environment and Tourism's Information Officer, I am capturing images of Namibia's second rhino dehorning operation.

Years of drought and poaching have decimated animal numbers in the country's North West regions. Rhino and elephant are among the casualties.

Two years’ previously, as Namibia's war for Independence ground to a conclusive end, poachers seized the chance to track and kill the few black rhino scattered across northern Namibia.

Twenty-three rhino were lost in Etosha National Park in 1989. The last rhino tracks were seen in Caprivi (now Zambezi) Region that same year. Rhino carcasses were not uncommon among the rust-coloured rocks in the dry North West.  

Desperate times called for desperate – and drastic - measures. If poachers killed rhinos for their horns, reasoned authorities - why not remove the horns?

So a series of ‘dehorningstook place in various pockets of the country.

Rhino dehorning in Waterberg Plateau Park 1994. At first, saws were used to remove horns. Later, chainsaws helped to speed up the operation and reduce the down time of animals. 

To catch a rhino

So here I am. We are tracking a rhino called Mad Max. He is the stuff of legend, known principally for his bad temper. Trackers across the region exchange fireside stories about how he lies in wait for them behind spiky Euphorbia damarana bushes.

From the helicopter, a tranquiliser is fired into the rump of the irate creature below.

Mad Max sways drunkenly up the sides of a rocky ravine, snorting angrily. To prevent injury, someone graps hold of his tail and others join in.

Catch a rhino by its tail ... Mad Max is subdued in the Ugab River Valley - note the size of his horn.

Light is fading fast. At last, Mad Max is subdued and a team of some of the country’s most dedicated conservationists - from the Ministry and Save the Rhino Trust  - spring into action.

The sleeping behemoth’s vital statistics are monitored and his two horns are removed. Edges are smoothed and Stockholm Tar seals the stubs.

Once again, we scramble into vehicles as Mad Max shakes from an induced slumber. He rises unsteadily before stumbling into the silent darkness.

‘Five fives for rhinos’

It is hard to imagine that there were no rhinos living within Etosha National Park when it was proclaimed in 1907. Nowadays a visit to Okaukuejo Waterhole reveals up to seven rhino casually going about their business.

Today, communities live with and protect the growing black rhino populations in neighbouring Kunene Region, which boasts the world’s largest black rhino population outside a protected area.  Clearly, something changed.

There are many reasons for this. I will save that for another day.

Government knows that rhinos are their golden goose, attracting tourist and providing jobs.

In 2011, it launched a special hotline that  enables people to send anonymous messages to alert authorities about untoward activities. Posters spring up across the country, featuring a rhino squaring up to the camera to advertise the “55555” hotline. The campaign is soon dubbed ‘Five Fives for Rhinos’.

Five fives for rhino - Minister Nandi-Ndaitwah explains that 55555 is the sms hotline number that the public can use to report any suspicious activities relating to poaching. 

Unite against poachers

“Rhino poaching will steal from you and your family,” warned Minister Netumbo Nandi Ndaitwah at the launch of the hotline. Government, she said, has ‘zero tolerance for poaching’.

But with huge rewards offered for rhino horn by ruthless syndicates, it is difficult to predict if the tide will turn.

Since my encounter with Mad Max, much has been said about whether the dehorning operations worked. That is for you to decide.

But let’s hope that the situation never, ever returns to those drastic days. As World Rhino Day nears on 22 September, let’s unite to fight rhino poaching. Let your children one day go in search of the children and grandchildren of the legendary Mad Max.