Blythe Loutit and first team of SRT trackers Photo credit SRT.
In 1982, prior to Namibia’s Independence, SRT was formed to monitor the last remaining rhinos in the Kunene and Erongo regions. SRT was officially registered as Welfare Organisation number 53.
Our approach was to hire respected individuals from local communities to perform regular anti-poaching patrols. By 1986, SRT was supporting 3 tracking teams and 10 community game guards and had established a more systematic monitoring programme. Currently this has grown to 11 tracking teams and 66 community game guards.
This called for desperate measures. SRT together with the Directorate of Nature Conservation & Tourism (the former Ministry of Environment and Tourism) de-horned a number of rhinos in an effort to deter poaching. Following the de-horning in the late 1980s, the last recorded poaching event was an isolated incident in 1994.
From a very humble beginning of an artist, author and passionate conservationist, Blythe Loutit had the desire to put an end to the poaching of rhino that started escalating and reached exorbitant levels in the 1980’s. Financed by a few thousand rand and sale of her artwork, using her private Land Rover, rhino monitoring patrols began.
The desert-adapted black rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis) is a true desert survivor. Ancient bushman rock paintings clearly depict rhinos in the region. Yet, for rhinos and many other large mammals in Africa, the late 20th century was a challenging period. Within little more than a decade, some 95 per cent of Africa’s rhinos were decimated. Not surprisingly, in northwest Namibia, poaching during the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s drastically reduced rhino numbers.
By 1982 less than 10 rhinoceros survived in Kaokoland and an estimated 30 to 40 survived in Damaraland. The rampant poaching was exacerbated by a 3-year drought, one of the worst in recorded history, killing off massive numbers of wildlife and livestock.
The mid-1990s also marked SRT’s first range-wide rhino census, which is now repeated every 5 years. SRT also developed a photographic and life history database on rhinos in the region. This bounty of detailed information led to an increase in scientific investigation. Studies focused on documenting survival, mortality and birth rates of Kunene’s rhinos, habitat suitability, community perceptions, and assessing rhino-based tourism venture models.
It influences biological management and land-use decisions across the region. Along with patrols, monitoring and scientific studies, the black rhino recovery in the Kunene has also been aided further by their increased value to local communities through the emergence of a booming nature-based tourism sector with responsible rhino viewing safaris is part of high-end tourism ventures.
In 2003, SRT joined forces with a private tourism company, Wilderness Safaris, to open a completely novel tourism camp, Desert Rhino Camp. This unique tourism product provides tourists with an opportunity to join SRT trackers on foot while they patrol black rhinos in the desert. A portion of the tourism revenue goes back into SRT’s operating costs, including fully supporting the tracking team based at the camp.
The Grootberg Lodge, perched high on the Grootberg Plateau, replicated a similar black rhino tracking experience using radio telemetry and SRT-trained trackers. This is the first tourism lodge in Kunene that is entirely community-owned and is located within the #Khoadi !Hoas Conservancy.
In further response to the emerging opportunity for rhino conservation, an ambitious translocation programme led by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, conservancies and SRT, expanded the rhinos’ range into conservancies that agreed to join the MET’s Black Rhino Custodianship Programme. This groundbreaking programme, initially designed for private wildlife ranch owners, requires rhino recipients to accept full responsibility for protecting and monitoring the rhinos under their care. Conservancies are thus given the opportunity to diversify their tourism products with a major 'draw card' species and join the battle to secure the black rhino’s future in the Kunene Region.