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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : March 2000 : Nature Watch camels come to rescue of the black rhino "Ship of the desert" used to fight poachers

Nature Watch camels come to rescue of the black rhino "Ship of the desert" used to fight poachers

By Clare Pillinger
March 12, 2000

- RANGERS using camels to patrol previously inaccessible terrain are at the forefront of an anti-poaching campaign to protect the endangered black rhinoceros from extinction.

The pioneering project enables anti-poaching teams to gain access to the most rugged mountains in northern Namibia to assist in monitoring the world's only surviving truly wild population of black rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis).

Before the First World War, German soldiers used camels for patrols of the inaccessible mountain areas in the former German colony, then called South West Africa. Now the rangers are using descendants of those camels.

In 1970, there were approximately 65,000 black rhinos in southern Africa. Today, it is estimated that there are fewer than 2,500, about a quarter of them in Namibia, notably in the Kunene region. The rapid decline in numbers is a result of the demand for rhino horn, predominantly in the Far East where it is used in the production of traditional medicines, and in Yemen where it is carved into dagger handles for tribesmen.

Mike Hearn, a British conservation biologist, is co-ordinator of the Save the Rhino Trust's camel patrol project. He said: "The rugged mountain terrain means a high percentage of the area can only be covered on foot. Rangers used to use donkeys to carry limited supplies but the patrols were restricted to small areas because they could not go far away from water. Camels, however, are capable of carrying heavier loads than donkeys, including supplies of fresh water for trackers.

"Now 10-day patrols of the most inaccessible areas are possible, enabling us to monitor rhino movements more extensively and effectively. Funds permitting, we are hoping to introduce more camels to the project."

Three trained dromedary camels (Camelus dromedarius) and a rotating team of 10 game guards regularly patrol the more inaccessible parts of the 25,000 sq km rhino range, an area almost the same size as Belgium. Other patrols are carried out on foot and in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

The camels, which are capable of running at speeds up to 40 miles per hour, are direct descendants of those used by the German solders in the early 1900s.

Dromedary camels, with their hump of energy-storing fatty tissue and broad feet adapted for walking on soft sand are, like black rhinos, well suited to the harsh desert conditions. The black rhino - also known as the hook-lipped rhino - is capable of going for up to four days without water. Camels can go for much longer without drinking and can lose as much as 40 per cent of their body weight and still survive, though extended periods without water weaken them.

One way that camels are able to conserve water is through the concentration of their urine and dung; their fresh dung is so dry that it can be burned.

The exact number of black rhinos which survive in Kunene, in the arid north- west of Namibia, is kept secret so as not to encourage poachers to the area. The rhino population there has more than doubled, however, since the Save the Rhino Trust's monitoring projects started.

Each camel-borne tracker is equipped with a camera, binoculars and a log book. Fresh rhino tracks are followed and the rhinos observed at close range. The details are recorded and the information is logged on a computer database. Each rhino is identifiable as an individual by the unique shape of the two horns on its nose and distinguishing marks on the ears.

Black rhinos are solitary creatures and highly dangerous if disturbed. Despite their cumbersome appearance, they are surprisingly fast and agile. They rely on their hearing and sense of smell to locate threats as their eyesight is poor.

The black rhino's triangular prehensile upper lip is ideally suited for browsing, unlike the mouth of the larger white, or square-lipped rhino (Ceratotherium simun), which is a grazer. The black rhino's most favoured food is a desert plant, Euphorbia damarana, which is highly poisonous to humans.

The Save the Rhino Trust is backed, among conservation organisations in Britain, by the David Shepherd Conservation Foundation and Rhino Rescue. Since its first anti-poaching patrols - on foot and by off-road vehicle - were launched in the mid-Eighties, rhino poaching in Namibia has declined dramatically.




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