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My Wilderness Safari -Jeff Muntifering & the Desert Rhino Experience

Have Fun; Make Change, Part 2

Photo credit: Patrick Giraud, wikimedia commons - Sunset at Naukluft Park, Namibia

Namibia: Best laid plans

Planning my trip to Namibia, I have learned from other travelers: “do see the sand dunes,” “don’t see the seals” (unless you want an eyeful of sorrow, brought to you by overpopulation). I’ve heard that the salt pan of Etosha National Park is one of the most beautiful places to see wildlife and that you can pay $1000 USD per night to stay at a luxury lodge in the wilderness. Reviewers say Namibia’s coastal towns, Swakopmund, Walvis, are nice but sleepy – do see them; don’t plan to stay long.

But as a fan of rhino conservation, I hope to learn what sustainability looks like on the desert, and of course, to glimpse a roaming rhino, au naturel.

According to Dr. Jeff Muntifering of the Minnesota Zoo, there is really only one area in Namibia that has truly wild rhinos roaming freely, and that is in the northwest desert of Namibia’s Kunene region, where he has conducted his rhino research.

Muntifering probably didn’t plan to spend his early career living on a desert, but life has taken him on a ride through odd, evolving career roles.

“My background is in ecological science,” Muntifering told me, “but I spend vastly more of my time trying to understand human decision-making rather than what rhinos eat.”

From where I sit, he’s living the rhino dream.

American-born Muntifering is employed by the Minnesota Zoo as part of its commitment to conservation, but he lives in Namibia researching rhinos “and advancing community-led approaches to improve their protection” with Namibia-based nonprofit, Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), which operates under a memorandum of understanding with the Namibian government – conservation is complicated.

Over the past 6 or 7 years, Muntifering’s research role has morphed into one of consulting. He’s been involved in anti-poaching efforts and has leveraged his expertise to help train those from surrounding rural communities to become anti-poaching rhino rangers. Of late, his work has been dominated by an odd bedfellow, tourism.

Trouble in Rhino Paradise

The Namibian government has long seen wildlife tourism as a potential boon for the 10% or so of rural and indigenous people living in Conservancies. But among the many players – government agencies, NGOs, business partners, and conservancy authorities – no one group has been able to marshal all the pieces – much less wildlife conservation, resource sustainability, rural micro-economics, and tourism – into a prosperous success formula. Over time, they have formed complex partnerships. For the desert rhinos of Namibia, it all came together out of disaster.

In 2012, the global poaching crisis reached the sleepy Kunene desert and the number of dead rhinos that Muntifering uncovered while doing his rhino census began to climb. SRT had seen it before, back in the 1980s and ‘90s. But by 2012, things had been quiet for so long, the staff had dwindled. At that point, Muntifering’s mandate for the government was basically to maintain an accurate rhino census and look for ways to engage the local people in tourism.

Between 2012-13, according to Muntifering’s estimate, the region lost over twenty rhinos. The rhinos needed more rangers, fast.

“When we lost our first rhino in 2012, we had literally just begun pulling together this rhino ranger program,” Muntifering recalls. People from the conservancies had sought out the training. They wanted to be involved in protecting these animals.

“We just knew we didn’t have the capacity to do it. So we had to find a generous donor and really ramp up our staff,” Muntifering says.

The killing peaked in 2014. But by then, something else had happened: news of the rhino’s plight had brought money pouring into wildlife non-profits; Namibia’s rhinos had attracted their wealthy local donor – Canadian mining company B2Gold offering several million dollars of support; the Namibian government stepped in with both funding and manpower; and Muntifering’s rhino ranger training program was in full swing, with dozens of newly trained and equipped local rangers.

After this mass coordination of purpose, 55 newly trained rangers were onboard leading to an 80% drop in the number of poached rhinos over the peak year. Not only had emergency created a beautiful choreography of purpose, but from all appearances, the ranger training, employment, and mission had won the hearts of locals for rhinos.

“We’ve tripled the number of boots on the ground,” Muntifering reports. “These aren’t just boots on the ground. These are local people. They love their land.”

Where poaching is rampant, it is often because people living among wildlife see more value in selling information about the animals to poachers than in the animals themselves. But the people of Kunene showed a personal connection to saving rhinos. According to Muntifering, more than one poaching attempt has been thwarted by tip-offs from local people.

The Art of Rhino Tourism

As the poaching situation grows less dire, Muntifering can put more attention on optimizing rhino experiences for tourism. Guiding tourists to rhinos is kind of like “peacetime deployment” for anti-poaching rangers. But making tourism work can involve other kinds of contention. Projects only move forward after careful negotiation among village authorities, non-profits, government bureaucracies, tourists, and tourism investors.

Within the Namibian conservancy system, the government owns the animals and the conservancies have custodial rights over the land. Conservancies can enter into leasing contracts as land owners, for example. This means that potential tourism business partners enter contracts as lessees. The combination of building a business with steep up-front costs, such as a luxury lodge, while leasing the land, which is an essential part of the product, makes for risky business, Muntifering points out. He sounds somewhat relieved that he is on the training side rather than the investor side. But it can be just as difficult to reconcile pure conservation investors and lucrative tourism investors. And in the end, does it even benefit the rhinos?

“The bulk of my applied research thus far has really been focused on how to improve tourism’s contribution to rhino conservation.”

In fact, Muntifering did his PhD dissertation on the subject. One thing his rhino observations have taught him is that close, repeated contact with humans does alter rhino behavior. His studies suggested that at a range of 100 meters, you can view a rhino for about 5 minutes before the animal shows signs of “disturbance.” Basically, it moves out of range. Muntifering is concerned that rhinos too-often disturbed by humans might even move out of the area altogether. It’s a test result he doesn’t want to discover the hard way.

So as Muntifering develops protocols for rangers and safari operators, delivering the desired tourist experience poses a challenge: “How to minimize tourist-rhino disturbance at different scales, and then how to basically develop a decision-making model for these complex partnerships,” Muntifering explains. Good solutions can be quickly contorted to meet the tug of entangled interests.

“You often have a business with a conservation organization that often have different mindsets – let’s put it that way. And you have to constantly sort of reconcile those to make the entire enterprise benefit both parties.”

This explains why Muntifering spends so much of his time, lately, in meetings, pondering “human decision-making.” While wrangling so many interests is the hand-wringing part of his work, the rewards are also many.

Muntifering has watched the trained rangers grow fiercely proud of their local wildlife. Close connection to that wildlife is part of their cultural heritage. But for his role in connecting the dots, Muntifering deserves to wax proud discussing the rhino tracking tourism he’s helped initiate:

“The experience we’ve developed over the last 15 years is way more than just making money from rhinos… We create the experience to be more about conservation. This is about joining a team of local trackers, trained by a group of specialists – mostly from Save the Rhino Trust, IRDNC* – to deliver a really high standard.”

For As the local Conservancy ranger teams, they serve as both “income generating opportunities” and models, encouraging more conservancies to get involved. So far, Muntifering and the other specialists have helped five of Namibia’s conservancies create these “unique rhino conservation tourism experiences” in a neat sustainable loop between tourism, rhino conservation, and local interests. 

“What that experience includes is not just a rhino sighting, but demonstrations of how they do their work, how they approach tracking skill, and also feeding back to the guests,” Muntifering says. “Not only do guests absolutely love it, but the trackers themselves. It’s a huge morale booster to know that somebody came all across the world to come and see their rhinos.”

Leave no trace

When I ask Muntifering about the safari protocols designed to minimize rhino  “disturbances,” it sounds a lot like an aikido blend with the environment: cultivate stillness; respect the rhino’s space, move with the elements, and approach the rhino with heightened awareness. If it’s done right, according to Muntifering, the rhino won’t know you’re there. Leave no trace.

“It’s a very holistic experience, not so much focused on just ticking a box that ‘I saw a rhino,’ but tourists go away feeling almost like ambassadors for the rhino.”

I’m in.

So far, only a few lodges in Kunene offer the SRT-informed rhino safari experience, and they work in partnership with Wilderness Safaris, which emphasizes sustainable principles among the 40 or so international camps it operates.

I think I’ll start booking my trip there – Namibia here I come.

*IRDNC = Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation

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