Namibia’s Black Rhino Custodianship programme was launched 25 years ago to increase the number of black rhinos by ensuring better protection against diseases, natural disasters and poachers. Another aim is wider distribution and to reintroduce black rhino to historical rhino habitats all over the country by 2030. Diceros bicornis bicornis is the black rhino subspecies that occurs in Namibia.

The Namibia Professional Hunting Association (NAPHA) has presented its 2019 Conservationist of the Year Award to the 35 participants in the custodianship programme for their selfless dedication to the cause. The custodians, many of them NAPHA members, are 25 commercial farmers and private companies as well as ten communal conservancies. Cattle and game farmer Siegfried Wilckens received the award, a challenge cup and certificate on behalf of his fellow custodians.

All black rhinos in Namibia are the property of the state. Most of them live in nature reserves and on state land outside protected areas. As part of the custodianship programme the first six black rhinos were transferred to a private game farm in April 1993 under an agreement signed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the owner of the farm. Another five rhinos were relocated to another private farm in July of the same year. The combined area of those two farms was 29,300 ha. Since then the custodianship area provided by game farmers, private companies and communal conservancies has grown to 796,900 ha; more than 500 rhinos are now under custodianship. The Gondwana Collection is also part of this unique and very successful project.

A black rhino cow with a calf is not to be trifled with. Even a bull that becomes too pushy will be at the receiving end and will quickly take himself off to avoid the pointed horns and the concentrated power of the angry cow. The calf is only a spectator in this argument.

The first rhinos that were placed into the care of custodians were mostly from Etosha National Park, later followed by a number of animals from Waterberg Plateau National Park. Years later some free-roaming rhinos were relocated from the Kunene Region. In the end, animals born under custodianship were ready for placement. Currently they account for 30 percent of the rhinos.

The growth rate is higher in custodianship areas than in the rhinos’ original habitat because mainly young animals are relocated. Each group that is released into a new area includes a slightly older male to take over the role of the breeding bull without unnecessary power struggles. As soon as a group has multiplied to a number that is close to the maximum carrying capacity of the area, offspring is transferred to other custodians. The growth rate of black rhino was 6% for all of Namibia until poaching took on rampant proportions in 2014. Since then the rate has dropped to 3.6%.

Rhino custodians derive no direct benefit from the rhinos in their care. The rhinos always remain the property of the state and they may not be sold or hunted. They may be used for purposes of tourism (photo safaris), but custodians are very reluctant to do so. Because of the poaching scourge they prefer to keep the location of their rhinos under wraps. Rather than reaping financial gains, the custodians incur considerable costs. They are responsible for the safety of the black rhinos entrusted to them and in times of drought they also have to pay for their fodder and water supply.

As a result of the devastating drought and the economic downturn, rhino custodians currently find themselves in a very difficult situation. Apart from enormous financial pressure, the danger of poaching has increased dramatically: since the Ministry of the Environment has roped in the police and the defence force to protect the national parks, poachers are turning to private farms. Initiatives are urgently needed to ensure the successful continuation of the rhino custodian programme.

The unusually extreme drought forces even the otherwise nocturnal black rhino to visit waterholes during the day to cool down. Rhinos cannot sweat and therefore look for cool and shady spots during the day. These pachyderms weigh up to 1.4 tons.

“Just to keep the rhinos safe on the farm, which is now run by my son, costs 500,000 to 600,000 Namibia dollars a year. That doesn’t include any fodder yet”, Wilckens said in his acceptance speech. Many of the rhino custodians are game farmers and while the severe drought continues they have to feed other animals as well. Trophy hunting covers part of the cost. The sale of game has come to a standstill, however, since nobody wants to buy game when there is no grazing and fodder. Even in the next few years hardly any game farmers will be able to sell some of their animals because others cannot afford to buy after the drought. Sponsors are now urgently needed to help not only with the rhinos in our national parks, but especially with all those in the care of custodians on various farms.

Namibia’s black rhinos do not belong to the state, the conservancies in which they still roam free or to the custodians of the custodianship programme – they belong to all of us!

Author: Dirk Heinrich


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