Sossulvlei Dunes

The Nature Conservancy: Conservation in Namibia

Sossulvlei Dunes

Massive sand dunes stretch towards the sky. Skeleton-like dead trees provide striking contrast to surreal scenery drenched in deep orange hues. Africa’s Big Five wildlife species roam amongst the savannah. There are wild beaches, rugged mountains, and the rich cultures of the Himba, Herero and Bushmen people. This is Namibia, a country whose nature and wildlife were once on the verge of disappearing forever. But the nation is now emerging as one of ecotourism’s strongest success stories.  

Waterhole Photo Blind

Journeys to Namibia often include the Skeleton Coast, a wild stretch of coastline where the desert reaches right up to the ocean. It was named after the countless shipwrecks and the lives lost there among the dramatic dunes. You can still spot some shipwrecks just offshore, and go sand boarding on the dunes of Swakopmund, which rank among some of the tallest in the world. Another must-visit location is Etosha National Park, one of the world’s largest wildlife refuges and the very best place to see animals in Namibia.

The Kunene region lies between the Skeleton Coast and Etosha, in the far north of the country near the Angolan border. Together with Etosha and the Skeleton coast, it forms one of the largest conservation areas in the world. These 15 million acres of rocky desert, grasslands and dry riverbeds provide habitat for myriad flora and fauna, including endangered species such as the Black Rhino and the Desert Elephant. It’s also home to The Nature Conservancy’s Namibian initiative in collaboration with Save the Rhino Trust (SRT).

Namibia's Desert Rhino Camp

The Desert-Adapted Black Rhino

The Kunene region is best known as home to the last free-ranging population of desert-adapted black rhinos. Their numbers dipped to fewer than 50 individuals in the 1980s, when Save the Rhino Trust was established.

The skin of the black rhino isn’t actually black– it’s brown-gray, just like that of the more common white rhino. The white rhino takes its name from the wide shape of its upper lip. The Afrikaans word for wide is wyd, which sounds like “white,” and the black rhino got its name by contrast.

Unlike many other rhino species around the world, the main issue facing black rhinos wasn’t habitat loss. These animals are extremely adaptable, covering up to 965 square miles in search of water and being able to go for days without it. The greatest threat to the black rhino’s future is poaching, due to the high demand for rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine. A pound of rhino horn can fetch up to $10,000, which is a lifetime of earnings for impoverished locals.

So the biggest concern was how to combat the black rhino poaching problem while considering the economic needs of local communities. Save the Rhino Trust’s solution was to offer more sustainable employment opportunities to former poachers, many of whom were hired by the NGO as wildlife trackers and guards. The Nature Conservancy helps by training community rhino rangers, improving coordination with Namibian institutions and providing strategic fundraising, technical and scientific advice.

Game viewing at Desert Rhino Camp

A Conservation Success Story

Namibia was among the pioneers for involving local communities in ecotourism. Save the Rhino Trust adopted this model in 2003, when they began offering tourism options to provide funding for black rhino conservation. In order to prevent poaching from becoming rampant, it’s crucial to show that conserving wildlife is more economically beneficial in the long-term than hunting.

So SRT started a revenue-sharing system with the local communities in addition to offering opportunities for tourism-related employment. Now, locals have a sustainable source of employment and their general standard of living is improving. Communities in the Kunene region have received more than $500,000 since the program began, showing that when tourism is managed responsibly, it has the potential to benefit both the economy and the ecology of a given destination.

SRT worked to develop a tourism model that minimizes the chances of black rhino disturbance, in order to avoid their displacement. Rhinos tend to shy away from areas with high vehicle traffic and could be scared away by a constant stream of safari vehicles. To prevent this from happening, SRT keeps tourist numbers low, divides areas accessed by tourists into sections, and rotates vehicle traffic between them so that the rhinos can have “rest days.” As a result, not a single rhino has been displaced since they began offering tours.

As ecotourism proves to be a successful and sustainable model for funding conservation, black rhino numbers in Namibia are growing even as populations in other countries continue to decline. Thanks to the efforts of SRT and The Nature Conservancy, their population in the Kunene area has quadrupled and their range is continuously expanding, with more than 60 community game guards trained to patrol the Rhino’s expanded habitat.

Elephants at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp

Travel to Namibia with International Expeditions

The 12-day Desert and Dune safari includes all of Namibia’s “must sees” – from the gorgeous dunes of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay on the Skeleton coast to the famous deep-red desert landscapes of Sossusvlei – with two days of wildlife viewing at SRT’s Desert Rhino Camp. At the camp, activities available include rhino tracking alongside SRT guides and conservationists, game drives to see rest of the famed Big Five, and full-day outings with a picnic lunch to explore the Kunene Desert.

The 13-day Diverse Namibia safari showcases the diversity of Namibian territory, with an emphasis on nature and wildlife viewing. The tour includes an overnight stay near Sossusvlei, a cruise around Walvis Bay to spot Dolphins and Seals, a stay within the boundaries of Etosha National Park, and a visit to Ugab Save the Rhino Trust Camp, where it’s possible to learn more about SRT/TNC Rhino conservation efforts first-hand.

Margherita Ragg is one of the creators of The Crowded Planet, a travel blog whose motto is “Finding nature and adventure everywhere.” She has an MFA in Creative Writing and a background of literary non-fiction writing.