Locals are key to Namibia’s rhino success even in the midst of a poaching crisis
A desert adapted black rhino in north-west Namibia. Photo by: Dave Hamman Photograph.
Africa’s rhinos are in a state of crisis. Poaching for their horn, on the rise since 2008, has resulted in the deaths of thousands of animals and pushed the continent’s two species—the white and black rhino—against the wall. The crisis has become so bad that in South Africa rhino deaths may soon outnumber births, a gloomy statistic after more than a century of efforts geared toward the animals’ recovery. Yet, despite the crisis, there are pockets of rhino territory where poaching remains rare and rhinos live comparatively unmolested. Indeed, one of the brightest spots for rhinos is in Namibia, where desert-dwelling, Critically Endangered black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) are safeguarded on a daily basis by locals, who view the living megafauna as a community asset.
“Ever since formal rhino conservation in northwest Namibia began in the early 1980s, innovative institutions, such as the conservancy model and Namibia’s Rhino Custodianship Programme, evolved to place local people, and their values, at the center of the solutions to address the poaching,” Jeff Muntifering, a conservation biologist with the Minnesota Zoo, told mongabay.com in a recent interview. “These strategies were more geared towards STOPPING POACHING rather than catching poachers. By investing energy and resources into strategies that make poaching a socially unacceptable act, we hope to compile evidence that demonstrates the various roles that local communities can play towards improving rhino security.”
Although employed by the Minnesota Zoo, Muntifering spends most of his time in the harsh, dry landscapes of wild Namibia, working with local people and organizations like Save the Rhino Trust. Often touted as a conservation-friendly country, Namibia has the second largest population of black rhinos in the world, after South Africa. According to data from 2010, Namibia has about 1,750 black rhinos making up more than a third of the world’s global population. But the black rhinos of Namibia are unique, thriving even in a harsh, desert-like landscape. They have evolved to survive without water for several days and have even developed resistance to the toxic chemicals in plants that they depend on during long droughts. They also have much bigger ranges.
“On average male and female black rhino in Kunene have home ranges that span nearly 200 square kilometers (about 50,000 acres) which is between 50 to two times larger when compared with other black rhinos persisting in Natal (South Africa) or the Serengeti, for example,” Muntifering explains, adding “I, personally, have tracked a rhino by donkey that passed our camp early one morning only to come up empty after a continuous 10 hours and over 20 miles of ground covered!”
Save the Rhino Trust and Minnesota Zoo staff out on donkey patrol in Namibia. Munifering is on the far right. Photo by: Dave Hamman Photograph.
Rhino conservation in Namibia looks a little different than many other places. Here, local communities work with the government to set up programs, known as conservancies, to support wildlife, such as rhinos, on communal land. In return, communities have set-up exclusive deals with eco-tourism outfits and, in more remote places, sometimes work with safari hunting outfits for revenue. While the government is responsible for the rhino’s survival, it’s the local communities—including trained rangers—who keep them safe on a day-to-day basis. With jobs and revenue connected to rhinos, local communities have come to view these nearly two ton beasts as their own. According to Muntifering, this means locals are much more willing to report suspicious behavior or overheard conversations to authorities in an effort to protect their own.
Muntifering says it’s this work with local communities that has made Namibia’s rhino conservation program one of the most successful in the world, even as poaching runs rampant elsewhere.
“Catching poachers is certainly important but, in my opinion, does not address the underlying problems that drive poaching. Strategies that harness local values and institutions to promote pro-rhino behavior are likely to be more effective in the long-term since they seek to change the attitudes, intentions, and ultimately behavior of the people most likely to be exposed to and tempted towards engaging in poaching activity. A critical mass of committed local people working hand-in-hand with law enforcement would be a formidable barrier to would-be poachers and is likely the only measure that will stand up to the relatively huge financial rewards that poaching currently provides.”
That doesn’t mean Namibia is wholly safe from the rhino poaching scourge. Last year the country lost at least 20 rhinos—a far cry from the over one thousand lost in South Africa—but an uptick that has officials worried enough to start de-horning some rhinos.
“We all knew in Namibia that we were not immune to poaching and that sooner or later we would be targeted especially as poaching became more difficult in other countries,” Muntifering said. “Chinese mining companies are also moving closer into rhino and elephant areas and a number of Chinese have already been arrested under the possession of ivory and rhino horn.”
Namibia has also come under heavy criticism from some conservationists and animal rights activists after it become known that the country had offered a few of its black rhinos for trophy hunting. Big game hunter, Corey Knowlton, triggered the debate after vigorously defending himself on social media and talk shows. The backlash spilled onto Save the Rhinos—which had to issue several responses—even though it had nothing to do with the decision, which was ultimately made by the Namibian government.
For his part, Muntifering believes the debate over trophy hunting is one worth having, but could have been more respectful and productive.
“Posting threatening and defaming statements on the internet and hacking emails helps neither break the political gridlock nor improves the situation on the ground for rhinos,” he said. “In fact, it has created significant distractions from the everyday challenges and realities rhinos face —that roughly three rhinos are still being poached daily across Africa. I would like to think that all this negative energy could be re-projected in a more positive way for rhinos and the people working tirelessly to save them.”
Muntifering points to the fact that trophy hunting currently provides around a quarter of the income generated for rhino conservancies in Namibia. Moreover, some remote, local conservancies depend almost entirely on trophy hunting payouts—which can be substantial, for example Knowlton bid $350,000 for the right to kill a male rhino.
The power in partnerships: the rhino conservation crew at Desert Rhino Camp. Muntifering is second from the right. Photo by: David John Weber.
“As with most industries, there are good and bad examples [of trophy hunting] and I think ethical and social problems do affect parts of the industry here in Namibia and do little in the way of improving trophy hunting’s image as a conservation tool or create conservation value for wildlife at the local level,” Muntfering said.
To date, Knowlton has not gone ahead with his hunt as he awaits a decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether or not he could bring the rhino back home as a trophy. The service has received 15,000 comments on the issue. While Knowlton’s hunt has garnered a ton of attention, Namibia has actually decided to cull five rhinos this year, including one sold off to another American big game hunter.
Muntifering work is not only notable for his efforts to protect rhinos in crisis time, but also—as a fulltime zoo employee—he represents how some zoos are moving towards more on-the-ground conservation work.
“In the past, it was rare to hear or see a zoo logo or employee outside of the zoo doing ‘conservation.’ Today that has certainly changed as zoos are contributing to field conservation in a variety of ways,” he said, adding that this has also translated into much-needed, additional fundraising for Namibia’s rhinos. “Since I became a Minnesota Zoo employee, over US$300,000 of new funding for rhino conservation was secured entirely from private contributions and distributed straight to the front lines in Namibia, helping more than double the number of trained, equipped, and motivated local rangers monitoring rhinos.”
In a 2015 interview with mongabay.com, Jeff Muntifering talks about how Namibia’s rhino program include—rather than excludes—locals, how he helps train new local rangers, and the role of zoos in field conservation.
An Interview with Jeff Muntifering
Black rhino and calf in Etosha National Park, Namibia. Photo by: Yathin S Krishnappa/Creative Commons 3.0.
Mongabay: What first drew you to rhinos? How did you end up in Namibia?
Jeff Muntifering: My ‘invitation’ to Namibia was actually a box of cheetah poop delivered to my Minnesota doorstep in November 1999. I had fallen in love with Africa a few years prior during a semester abroad in South Africa in 1997 while studying as an undergraduate at St. John’s University in Minnesota. I was bound and determined to return and, after gaining some field experience in Minnesota studying wolves, met Dr. Laurie Marker (a fellow American who had started a cheetah conservation program in Namibia—the Cheetah Conservation Fund) at a zoo conference in Minnesota. She was looking for someone to set up a study that examined what cheetahs were eating. Although I can’t say that picking through poop was on the top of my ‘things-I-would-love-to-do-in-Africa’ list, beggars can’t be choosers and I jumped at the chance.
I landed in Namibia in January 2000, with my box of cheetah poop, and spent two years studying various aspects of cheetah conservation before being introduced to Namibia’s wild north-west during a two-week visit in 2002. The student research program that I was leading had been invited to assist a small local organization, Save the Rhino Trust, with a rhino census and explore other opportunities to collaborate on rhino-related research. Our first rhino tracking adventure was led by teams of local trackers whose skill and dedication to locate and observe the elusive and temperamental black rhino in this harsh, unforgiving landscape was, and still remains, one of the most remarkable and admirable feats that I have ever experienced. We partnered with Save the Rhino Trust in September 2003 and it was the combination of the inspiring people, the harsh yet beautiful landscape, and the courageous locally-grown project to save rhino in a rather unconventional way, by engaging and empowering local people to see value in keeping rhino alive, that got into my blood. That was more than 11 years ago and I have never really left. In 2009, I accepted a dream job working for the Minnesota Zoo but remain primarily based in Namibia acting as an adviser to Save the Rhino Trust and local communities to help secure this unique population of black rhino and the wild lands they need to survive.
Mongabay: How have Namibia’s black rhinos adapted to the desert? What behavior differences do you see?
Jeff Muntifering: Probably one of the most noticeable differences in behavior for the black rhino that persist here in Namibia’s northwestern Kunene Region is their movement patterns. On average male and female black rhino in Kunene have home ranges that span nearly 200 square kilometers (about 50,000 acres) which is between 50 to two times larger when compared with other black rhinos persisting in Natal (South Africa) or the Serengeti, for example. A few individuals are reported to have ranges over 700 square kilometers (173,000 acres). I, personally, have tracked a rhino by donkey that passed our camp early one morning only to come up empty after a continuous 10 hours and over 20 miles of ground covered! These rhino can cover some serious distances and this is even more impressive when you consider the rugged, resource-limited landscape in which they must survive. They can also go longer (two-three days) without water than most other black rhinos. They have also developed a unique tolerance to the toxic chemicals found in a suite of native Euphorbia plant species that occurs throughout their range which also constitute a major portion of their diet in the desert—especially in drought periods.
NAMIBIA’S BLACK RHINO SUCCESS
Mongabay: Namibia has an incredible track record of safeguarding rhinos during the current poaching crisis. What’s their secret?
Using GIS technology to improve local land-use planning. Munifering is second from right. Photo by: Minnesota Zoo/Save the Rhino Trust.
Jeff Muntifering: I think Namibia, especially the northwest Kunene region, has a few traits that are certainly in the rhino’s favor: very few people, rugged and remote terrain, low density of rhino and only black rhino—the vast majority of poached rhino are white rhino—and a long history of strong local support for conservation. The first three we can thank ‘Mother Nature’ for, but the last point I will elaborate on as a strength and unique aspect of Namibia’s approach in the Kunene.
Ever since formal rhino conservation in northwest Namibia began in the early 1980s, innovative institutions, such as the conservancy model and Namibia’s Rhino Custodianship Programme, evolved to place local people, and their values, at the center of the solutions to address the poaching. These strategies were more geared towards STOPPING POACHING rather than catching poachers. By investing energy and resources into strategies that make poaching a socially unacceptable act, we hope to compile evidence that demonstrates the various roles that local communities can play towards improving rhino security.
Mongabay: Why are locals key to safeguarding rhinos, and not necessarily increasing, militarizing enforcement?
Jeff Muntifering: I think it’s useful here to differentiate between strategies that seek to stop poaching versus catch poachers. Obviously there is some overlap but there are also many differences. Military enforcement primarily aims to catch poachers. This is evident in the training and equipment that conventional anti-poaching rangers receive and the field tactics they use to fulfill their missions. Catching poachers is certainly important but, in my opinion, does not address the underlying problems that drive poaching. Strategies that harness local values and institutions to promote pro-rhino behavior are likely to be more effective in the long-term since they seek to change the attitudes, intentions, and ultimately behavior of the people most likely to be exposed to and tempted towards engaging in poaching activity. A critical mass of committed local people working hand-in-hand with law enforcement would be a formidable barrier to would-be poachers and is likely the only measure that will stand up to the relatively huge financial rewards that poaching currently provides.
Mongabay: Will you tell us about the partnerships between Save the Rhino, tourism companies, and local communities? How do these benefit all stakeholders?
Jeff Muntifering: Nearly all of our strategies in Kunene involve some form of collaborative management and decision-making. We saw rhino-based tourism as a key mechanism that embodied many of the values being sought by local people and that could extend our monitoring reach. We have been piloting and evaluating this idea at Desert Rhino Camp, a joint venture tourism operation between Wilderness Safaris, the three neighboring communities and Save the Rhino Trust since 2003. Wilderness Safaris benefit by being granted exclusive user rights to a large pristine wilderness by the communities (who are rightful tourism concessionaires of the land through an agreement with the government) and a unique rhino tourism experience to sell for top dollar. The communities benefit through the provision of roughly 25 local jobs and a guaranteed 10 percent of turnover cash payout each month—which typically amounts to roughly US$100,000 each year.
Save the Rhino Trust’s team based at the camp is fully funded and operates on a daily basis ensuring consistent monitoring coverage and that the activity is regulated with minimal negative impact. It is also a great opportunity to provide a rhino conservation message to the tourists that can help build a new global constituency of rhino ambassadors as the experience is very unique and, in most cases, inspiring. I don’t think we can rely entirely on tourism to save rhinos but in our case it certainly has proven to be a powerful tool. We hope to continue learning and expanding opportunities to other communities with rhino in the near future as a means to create a more sustainable and resilient locally-grown rhino conservation culture.
Mongabay: How has the government supported these programs?
Developing and delivering an unrivaled tourism experience that also serves as a rhino conservation tool. Photo by: Minnesota Zoo/Save the Rhino Trust.
Jeff Muntifering: Expanding the options for which local communities can benefit from protecting rhino on their land is a fundamental component and strength of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism’s innovative Rhino Custodianship Program. As the government assumes ultimate responsibility for protecting Namibia’s rhino, the program seeks to establish a win-win scenario for government and its citizens by providing an opportunity for both private commercial farmers and registered local communities on communal land to receive rhino back on their lands in exchange for assistance with regular monitoring.
Namibia’s booming tourism industry has provided the catalyst that has led to the government approving and financing the capture and translocation of nearly 40 rhino into historical rangelands since 2005. These achievements at this scale on communal land in Africa are testimony to a great success story. We are working closely with the government to ensure that any expanding rhino tourism, especially in the face of the current poaching threat, is done in accordance with Namibia’s National Black Rhino Conservation Management Plan’s goals and serves to improve security by decreasing local tolerance to poaching.
Mongabay: Once established, do local communities self-police their rhinos?
Jeff Muntifering: I believe there are two distinct actions in which local communities in our area have demonstrated their willingness to self-police their rhinos. The first action is a willingness to report suspicious behavior or evidence of poaching to authorities. This has been evident on multiple occasions whereby herdsmen have reported rhino carcasses and community members have reported suspicious conversations overheard at social events. In each of these cases, investigations were more effective at producing arrests and convictions were eventually achieved.
The second action is the physical monitoring of their rhinos which has been an area of strong focus over the past couple years. In response to requests from community leaders, Save the Rhino Trust with support from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Minnesota Zoo, spearheaded a new initiative that offered an enhanced training curriculum, state-of-the-art rhino monitoring, field equipment, and performance-based cash bonuses to help re-vitalize a new truly community-based rhino monitoring force. We called this the Rhino Ranger Incentive Program and since the program’s inception in 2012 we have helped train, equip, and motivate 26 new ‘rhino rangers’ from 13 participating communities to conduct quality rhino patrols. The program currently provides coverage for 98 percent of the rhinos and has produced over 1,000 ranger rhino sightings. Our next phase will target the development of new skills and institutional arrangements for fully integrating the community rhino ranger teams into emerging rhino tourism activities in their areas.
These new rhino enterprises will improve security and further promote self-policing by providing a more sustainable mechanism to finance regular patrols while also creating new revenue directly from rhino that, if properly distributed back to the broader community, will enhance the value local people place on keeping their rhino alive and further decrease their tolerance to poaching.
Mongabay: Could the types of programs developed in Namibia be replicated elsewhere?
Building relationships between local people and wild rhino: a local Rhino Ranger observes a rhino cow and calf. Photo by: Minnesota Zoo/Save the Rhino Trust.
Jeff Muntifering: It’s difficult to say precisely which programs or aspects would be replicable as I am not completely familiar with other rhino population contexts. However, I’m sure lessons can be learned from the Namibian experience, especially the fundamental importance of appreciating and understanding the local context in the development of solutions and the critical role that local communities can play when given the power, respect and skills to help save rhino. Since most rhinos persist in protected areas that promote tourism, I suspect that some of our work towards improving tourism’s contribution towards rhino conservation would be useful to others—in particular the ways in which we have engaged local people in both decision-making and developing the strategies such as linking local monitoring teams with tourism operators.
Namibia has pioneered some of the most successful community-based conservation initiatives in the world including the design and implementation of a locally-based conservation management institution known as a conservancy. Whereas the conservancy institution in Namibia has been instrumental in harnessing and catering for local values that are positive for rhino, different countries might find other local institutions to be more effective.
POACHING TRENDS AND RANGERS
Mongabay: Why is rhino poaching a good example of a ‘wicked problem’?
Jeff Muntifering: I love the quote by Edward Game and colleagues (Game, Meijaard, Sheil, & Mcdonald-Madden, 2014), ‘Conservation is not rocket science; it is far more complex.’ And I think the conservation challenges posed by the current rhino poaching situation highlights this complexity (which has been termed ‘wicked’) whereby each problem associated with poaching is linked to another problem at another scale in space and time. It is driven and influenced by beliefs, values, and decisions being made every minute every day from remote communities in Africa to bustling cities a world away in Asia and America all connected through an intricate web of players. For these problems, there are no clear solutions because the problems cannot be isolated. This also reduces our ability to make predictions and diagnose failures. In this case, simple solutions will unfortunately not make much difference.
- Game, E. T., Meijaard, E., Sheil, D., & Mcdonald-Madden, E. (2014). Conservation in a Wicked Complex World: Challenges and Solutions. Conservation Letters, 7(June), 271–277. doi:10.1111/conl.12050
Mongabay: Both rhino and elephant poaching have risen in Namibia in the last few years, although still far below most other African countries with rhino. Why do you think poaching is on the rise?
Jeff Muntifering: It’s difficult to say precisely but I suppose Namibia was not on the top of poaching syndicate’s lists since they could operate easier and more comfortably in other countries where corruption and instability created more suitable environments for their underground business. We all knew in Namibia that we were not immune to poaching and that sooner or later we would be targeted especially as poaching became more difficult in other countries. Chinese mining companies are also moving closer into rhino and elephant areas and a number of Chinese have already been arrested under the possession of ivory and rhino horn.
Mongabay: Namibia has recently started using unmanned drones to combat poaching. What are the benefits or drawbacks of this system?
Blending local knowledge with cutting edge technology a team of Rhino Rangers practice using their new rhino monitoring equipment. Photo by: Minnesota Zoo/Save the Rhino Trust.
Jeff Muntifering: New gadgets and technology often present attractive solutions to complex problems. I think drones certainly have a role to play in combating illegal hunting of wildlife but experts are still grappling with how best to use them. I have yet to see any rigorous evaluation and comparison with other forms of aerial or ground surveillance, in particular their cost-effectiveness. I think time will tell what their potential is and how we can best make use of this technology to combat poaching.
Mongabay: You’ve also been involved in training wildlife rangers to protect rhinos. What does this training entail?
Jeff Muntifering: We have developed our training programs in a way that integrates traditional knowledge (i.e. foot tracking) with cutting edge tools such as the latest global positioning systems (GPS) devices and Ultrazoom (40-60x optical zoom with image stabilizer) digital cameras, without getting too over-reliant on technology. We focus on getting the basics right; how to conduct effective patrols that produce good rhino sightings and quality data. We ensure that the training is an ongoing process and that the theory and skills we teach in the classroom get honed during extended on-the-job practical training during joint patrols we lead throughout the year with our partners. Most importantly, we promote the use of simple paper-based tools that help local communities keep track of their rhino. It’s really about trying to creatively build relationships between the local rangers and their rhino by providing targeted training that helps develop deeper understanding of their ecology, behavior, and ultimately what they need to survive.
Mongabay: How do these rangers further strengthen the link between local communities and the rhino?
Jeff Muntifering: The rangers are the direct link between the broader local community and the rhino in two ways. Firstly, since each rhino ranger was handpicked by their community leaders, they are entrusted to ensure that their rhino are alive and well on behalf of the broader community. They accomplish this primarily through their monitoring work. Second, their knowledge of rhino ecology and behavior and exceptional foot-tracking skills place them in a unique position to provide an unrivaled tourism experience that not only funds their monitoring but also has the potential to generate additional benefits (jobs, pride, cash income, etc.) for the broader community. Without the knowledge, skills, and dedication the rangers provide, one of the best mechanisms to increase local value for rhino (rhino tracking tourism) would be highly marginalized.
Mongabay: Namibia has recently come under fire for auctioning off one of its rhinos to be killed by a trophy hunter. The decision created a lot of controversy and sparked some very interesting debates. What do you think? Is the trade off of several hundred thousand in conservation funding worth the loss of an individual rhino, especially one that is Critically Endangered?
Jeff Muntifering: Rather than frame the black rhino trophy hunting debate as money or the moral high ground choice, I prefer to revert to two basic questions: ‘how can we harness local values that foster pro-rhino behavior?’ and ‘who gets to decide?’ In this context, I would suggest that the pros and cons of trophy hunting to harness and create value locally for rhinos be described and evaluated next to the other policy options such as tourism. The stakeholders who understand their specific contexts best can then decide.