The Rhinos of the Namib (commentary)

by | 18th August 2015

Commentary by Cyril Christo

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

It was dusk when we followed two massive male white rhinos passing in front of our car near Etosha in northern Namibia. Lysander, just nine, was ecstatic, watching a primeval explosion of power ambling in front of our car reminiscent of the times when rhinos ruled the earth. At dusk, in the sun infused dimming amber light, the blackness of an all-presiding night was pressing upon us. Our guide’s red lights shone on the spectacle of this gold and black collision magnifying the magic of this ineffable rite. We watched spellbound as these two males jousted in a meadow turning around each other like wrestlers from a bygone age. In the theatrical splendor of the moment, their power reverberated as they had for thousands of millennia before the onslaught of human time. Later that night twelve more white rhinos moved in single file in front of our car like a procession of gladiators, armored in grey like the bedrock and soil surrounding them into the deepest recesses of that continent where mankind was born.

It lies on the far southwestern coast of Africa, a basaltic theatre of red rock carved from the skin of Gondwaland when Africa and south America were joined at the hip 180 million years ago. The last volcanic eruption erupted over this desert version of Jurassic Park when T. Rex was lord of the universe. Here slow moving solitary black rhinos browse among undulating hills and giant emerald green euphorbia bushes like grey Pleistocene tanks amidst the oldest desert on earth, the Namib. This saurian landscape could have been the place of origin for the super rhinos, Paraceratherium that once dominated the earth as the largest mammals ever to walk the Earth, so large they would have towered even over modern elephants. Now it is a race against time to save the last free roaming rhinos where they used to dominate the landscape like slow meandering soldiers across the African continent.

Recently a spate of rhino poaching has started to undermine the community based conservation efforts of one of Africa’s great success stories. Cheetahs have been the bastion of Namibia’s wildlife efforts in the last generation. And the success rate has been impressive, reaching out to local farmers to work with wildlife groups to relocate and save a species that could have been lost two generations ago. But of late the Chinese influx and their near insatiable hunger for ivory and rhino horn has started to take its toll on this country of 2 million. Syndicates whose bloodlust knows no bounds have targeted the outback of this near model African nation. In Etosha, Namibia’s flagship park, about 50-60 rhinos have been poached this year. We had come to investigate Namibia’s elephants, but here in the final frontier of Africa, a deadly plague of poaching undermines the future of the third largest mammal on earth.

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

After walking several hundred yards with Augustus, and Martin crack bush trackers, in the premier black rhino habitat in the world, we found a mother rhino with her calf near a euphorbia bush. She had not been de horned of the hyper-trophy so coveted by global poaching syndicates, as many of her neighbors had, in a last ditch effort to save her species. The vainglory and superstitious insanity that drives the global commerce in rhino horn could hardly be mentioned in the outback. The prize we had come for was just to be in the presence of the fabled behemoth, a being which lurked in the imagination of our ancestors like few other. Was the rhino the fabled origin of the unicorn? This was one of the beings that haunted the cave dwellers of Chauvet and Lascaux This was a being whose blood nourished Paleolithic hunters from 30,000 years ago.

We had left our camp at 6 in the morning and targeted the springs two hours from camp, where rhinos regularly drink. En route we also found some elephant tracks which made the day all the more remarkable because no elephants had been spotted in over five months!. In the ensuing moments, the ghost of Paraceratherium, and its thundering steps, reigned over the imagination. Somewhere in the blistering outback of this primeval and heat-blistering garden of Eden, the progeny of the greatest mammals ever to walk the earth still reigned. Martin and Augustus gingerly followed the rhino tracks over a hill, like diminutive human ants, walking over the terrestrial skin of a geologic giant and waved to us that we should follow. In the distance an oryx watched our every move and eyed us with the vision of an antelope constantly on watch for desert dwelling lions. Would this lonesome antelope give us away? Would the rhino warn the rhino and precipitate her escape? The rhino must have suspected our presence but did not run away from us, we who had come so far to behold her. After a twenty-minute stint, we finally came within 300 feet of her and her one year old calf. She knew we were there and even moved a few steps on several occasions. Once, she even lay down next to the euphorbia bush that was her safety blanket, luxuriating in the shade of a magnificent bush that is one of the mainstays of her diet, and which is poisonous to most other species. We watched her partly mystified by the near perfect stillness of this gargantuan mammalian leftover from a bygone age still holding on, on the edge of the bearable world. Here was a living boulder whose very existence symbolized the precariousness of the life force and what humanity was doing to its earthly brethren. Here before us was a modern day Excalibur whose horn, its one great defining luxury, harbored the seed of its potential demise forever. In the antediluvian air that enveloped us, before the mythic magic of this ponderous but graceful monster, the heart was stilled to the pace of the eons that had preceded us. Here was a being half unicorn, half dinosaur inspired. We were mere interlopers before a gargantuan whose motive for being on this earth was as pure and stolid and free as the bedrock on which it roamed.

In Europe, in the 16th century Albrecht Durer, the great artists and lithographer, made a sketch of an Indian rhino that was shipwrecked off the coast of Italy. Some say no animal woodcut has been as influential as this piece that rocked the European imagination like few others in art history. In this solitary outpost of Namibia, a fable still haunts the living sands of a seemingly inexhaustible stretch of time, far from the madding crowd. But outside pressures are gaining on this imponderably perfect beast. In the quiet hot rage of an all presiding intelligence, known as the desert, a phantasm with a miraculous defense on its nose reminded us that this land was no place for man. More importantly, it reminded us to stay away and that if we were to lose such a fantastic being, the rocks surrounding us would no longer be a place of wilderness and would no longer constitute a place of revelation, but a tombstone for our species. There are plans to airlift many dozens of rhinos from South Africa to Texas, ironically the very place where major trophy hunting clubs reside. After the slaughter of Cecil, the lion in Zimbabwe, Africa, the US and the world should indeed rethink the policy of trophy hunting, even old rhinos, for it is a lame man’s game. The US has the money but does it have the will and the heart to stop the taking of innocent lives, whether they be wolves or elephants or lions or polar bears or rhinos? Conservation and execution are poles apart and there is much evidence to show that trophy hunters are impairing the overall populations of mammals all over the African continent and indeed the world.

The US should also do everything in its power to strengthen the endangered species act, here at home, lest visionless bureaucrats and politicians let the wilderness bleed out of the human experience. In the larger war to save the giants of the earth, the loss of the rhinos and elephants in this time is rending us into moral dwarfs. The fight is on for holding on to what is left. Their extinction, by failing the life force, would signal a prelude to our walking off the cliff of time. We are a young species, not even adolescent in evolutionary time but we are also acting as if we were senile towards everything even remotely sentient

It is appropriate that a major elephant researcher in South Africa told us that we would save ourselves by poetry and not just science. She meant that we had to find the inner consciousness and heart to transform our dialogue with the earth, with life itself. Our emotional engagement with existence has to be retrieved and immediately or why do people have children at all? It is the battle of our time. In the ravishment of sheer beholding, a single black rhino and her calf, transformed us into worshippers of the still marauding life force, moving rock and muscle become one, a giant upon the earth still bearing her sword of Excalibur upon her face, like a beacon of the incalculably wondrous.

Cyril Christo is a photographer and film-maker. He has been interviewed previously on Mongabay, including Butchering nature’s titans: without the elephant ‘we lose an essential pillar in the ability to wonder’, Ten years after Lost Africa: a retrospective on indigenous issues, and Predator appreciation: how saving lions, tigers, and polar bears could rescue ourselves.





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Is ‘human rights’ the right approach for protecting the interests of forest-dependent people?

by | 23rd February 2014

Commentary by Dr. Prakash Kashwan, University of Connecticut

Nature conservation is often promoted in the name of the greater good of humanity. However, in a large number of cases, nature conservation is associated with increased militarization of resource control (see the select bibliography below). International conservation organizations have responded to such concerns by developing proposals for what they refer to as ‘rights-based approaches to conservation’. Some of the biggest conservation organizations have also come together to form the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights (CIHR), which is a consortium of international conservation NGOs that seek to improve the practice of conservation by promoting integration of human rights in conservation policy and practice. This editorial is intended to shed light on the effectiveness of the proposals and initiatives intended to protect the rights of indigenous and other forest-dependent people affected adversely by national and international programs for nature conservation.

Rainforest in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The immediate trigger for this essay is a blog post by Professor Rosaleen Duffy of SOAS University of London. In the said blog, Dr. Duffy shares her reflections about the London Conference on Wildlife Trafficking. Concerned about the increasing militarization of wildlife conservation policy and advocacy, Dr. Dufy suggests,

    “We are witnessing a greater call to arms to ‘combat’ and ‘fight’ poaching. More boots on the ground and more weaponry runs the risk of escalating a poaching war as each side gets locked into an arms race and an increasingly deadly conflict (for rangers and for hunters/poachers). It runs a second danger that local communities will get caught up in the war regardless, because of their proximity to heavily fortified protected areas.”

Moreover, Dr. Duffy adds that “the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights was not mentioned at the conference at all”, even though many of the organisations in ‘United for Wildlife’, the organization which hosted the conference, are signatories. While Dr. Duffy’s focus is on the militarization side of the equation, her reflections should also make us pause and ponder over whether the rights-based approaches to conservation have served the lofty goals that international conservation organizations often espouse in the rights declarations issued from time to time. For the past decade or so, almost all major international conservation organizations have agreed on certain principles of “rights-based approaches” to conservation. The principles are discussed in about half a dozen reports published by international conservation groups and cited in the Kashwan paper cite below. These proposals draw upon international human rights discourse to advocate for the rights of ‘indigenous communities’ that project proponents must strive to protect during the implementation of conservation projects.

In the ‘Land Use Policy’ paper cited below, I have shown that while human rights discourse may be useful in drawing attention to the plight of local communities, and may even be helpful in justifying such rights for forest-dependent people, but they do not help us in dealing with the challenges on the ground. I have argued that the key challenge on the ground is to bring in some semblance of accountability of government agencies who continue to exert strong territorial control over territories set aside as state forests by the fiat of colonial and post-colonial governments. Governments own and control more than 86% of the world’s forests, a percentage which is much higher in the developing countries. Government forestry agencies have continued to pursue programs and policies that are heavy on the discourses of participation, but devolve weak rights to local communities.

While the key argument that I make in the paper is to emphasize the importance of holding the state to account, a careful reading of the evidence presented in some of the works cited below would also show that international conservation-groups have not invested in the efforts to hold the state to account for two specific reasons. First, international conservation groups prefer centralized control of forests and wildlife areas because they believe that such control is instrumental to the promotion of effective nature conservation. Indeed, as Dr. Duffy commented in response to the comments on the Just Conservation blog, “Where states are engaged in repression, forced displacement, human rights abuses, etc. wildlife NGOs often stay silent.” Second, and, perhaps more importantly, any efforts to hold the state to account are likely to draw attention to the accountability of international nature conservation groups. Dr. Duffy’s reflections about the London meeting, and many other reports about the militarization of conservation published on this website and portals such as ‘Just Conservation’, should serve as a wakeup call.

In conclusion, it is important to assert that any questioning of the effectiveness of rights-based approaches in conservation should not be construed as an argument against the importance of either nature conservation or the rights of people who are affected most directly by international nature conservation. Indeed, the questions that I have raised above are borne out of a shared interest in achieving each of these important objectives. The argument is that we must ask some hard questions about the criteria that should be used in prioritizing the goals of nature conservation over the rights, in particular the land and livelihood rights, of forest-dependent people. Most importantly, in the interest of nature conservation and the fundamental rights of forest-dependent people, international conservation agencies will have to stand up to governments and government agencies that continue to work with the intention of maintaining territorial control at any cost. We should stop thinking instrumentally about rights. Instead, we should deliberate seriously about the social, cultural, political, and economic rights, which must be recognized as non-negotiable.

Recommended Readings

  • Agrawal, Arun, and Kent Redford. “Conservation and Displacement: An Overview.” Conservation and Society 7.1 (2009): 1-10.
  • Brockington, Dan, Rosaleen Duffy, and Jim Igoe. Nature Unbound: Conservation, Capitalism and the Future of Protected Areas. London; Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2008.
  • Kashwan, Prakash. “The Politics of Rights-Based Approaches in Conservation.” Land Use Policy 31.0 (2013): 613-26.
  • Larson, Anne, and Jesse Ribot. “The Poverty of Forestry Policy: Double Standards on an Uneven Playing Field.” Sustainability Science 2.2 (2007): 189-204.
  • Peluso, Nancy L. “Coercing Conservation: The Politics of State Resource Control.” Global Environmental Change 3.2 (1993): 199-218.
  • Ribot, Jesse C. “Choose Democracy: Environmentalists’ Socio-Political Responsibility.” Global Environmental Change 16.2 (2006): 115-19.
  • Rodríguez, J. P., et al. “Globalization of Conservation: A View from the South.” Science 317.5839 (2007): 755-56.
  • Sikor, Thomas, et al. “Redd-Plus, Forest People’s Rights and Nested Climate Governance.” Global Environmental Change 20.3 (2010): 423-25.




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Photo: Lake Pehoe in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

by | 15th April 2012


Lake Pehoe in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile





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Picture: the threatened Khone Phapheng Falls in Laos

by | 14th April 2012


The spectacular Khone Phapheng Falls in Laos is at risk from a dam that would divert water from its flow.





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Picture: Blue-eyed butterfly

by | 5th April 2012


Butterfly in Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park





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Picture: rainforest on Peucang Island, off West Java, Indonesia

by | 2nd April 2012


Rainforest tree on Peucang Island. More pictures of Peucang Island.





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Picture: Blue-footed poison frog

by | 31st March 2012

Blue-footed poison frog (Oophaga pumilio)
Blue-footed poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio) from Panama





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Picture: tropical beach in Indonesia

by | 28th March 2012


The beach on Peucang Island, Java. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.





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Picture: Hammerhead shark

by | 28th March 2012

Hammerhead shark
Hammerhead shark. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.





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Mola: the ocean sunfish (picture)

by | 27th March 2012

Pacific sunfish
Photo by Rhett A. Butler.





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