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Feature Story
Photo of a black rhino
Return of the Black Rhino

by Rick Bass

With a little help from some friends, a rare and magnificent beast makes a comeback.

It is the oldest desert in the world, a garden of burned and blackened-red basalt that spilled out of the earth 130 million years ago in southwest Africa, hardening to form the arid landscape of Namibia, the driest country south of the Sahara.

Black rhinos blossomed from African ground some four million years ago. Maybe this difference -- the 126-million-year wait between the two events -- is how long it takes to construct from dust and wind and a dab of rain, and from that other, last thing, spirit, a rhino. There is no other flowering of which I am aware, no iris nor orchid, as convoluted and specific and fantastically beautiful as the rhino, no pollinating moth whose desire is as elegantly fitted to its flower as the black rhino is to the landscape of northwest Namibia, known as the Kunene region.

There are few places that get less rain. An inch a year might be expected; two inches would be considered a wet year. The sun beats down on the black and red stone, baking out any vestige of moisture, so that the landscape disintegrates grudgingly, millimeter by millimeter, across the centuries. The desert floor is a fabric of fist-size cobbles rounded not by antediluvian floodwaters but by the uncoiling release of time, and by the wind burnishing the stubborn basalt.

It's curious that the land would give rise to such a huge, capable, and utterly improbable rhino, rather than having life in such an austere environment hedge its bets and spread that same biomass across a far greater number of less dramatic organisms, life forms that would require far less maintenance. Why call in nearly all of one's cards, so to speak, and place all of one's chips on the table in the form of these super-survivors, muscle-clad giants with feet the diameter of wash baskets, squinty-eyed almost to the point of blindness?

As recently as 1960, approximately 100,000 black rhinos roamed the continent of Africa. By the mid-1990s, their numbers had dwindled to around 2,500. Even by the 1980s, fewer than 40 remained in the Kunene region. (The black rhino, Diceros bicornis bicornis, is not black at all -- there are several theories about the origin of this misnomer -- but as ghostly pale as the more common white rhino of South Africa.) Poachers, serving demand for the dead, dry skin of rhino horns -- used for ornamental and ceremonial dagger handles in Yemen, and ground to powder for a traditional Chinese medicine to treat colds -- have been for a long time a limiting pressure on black rhino populations. But the rhinos' lonely position in the crossfire between Communist Angola and the U.S.-backed South African Defense Force during the late 1970s and early 1980s worsened matters; both sides were accused of poaching rhinos and elephants to help fund the war. A drought during the war years accelerated the rhinos' free fall, until a group of conservationists began publicizing the threat and working to bring the black rhino back from the edge of extinction in Namibia.

A small band of us is hunkered low. All day, our keen-eyed trackers -- Joseph, Leslye, Himba -- have been following the fresh prints of a mother rhino and her calf across the red desert, our bodies moving through the heat with liquid, mindless resignation. The only way to endure the heat is to become the heat. At first, the mother rhino's passage seems to me all but undetectable, save for the occasional chunks of dung we encounter, logs the size of pieces of firewood, with the gnawed-up, frazzled ends of the highly toxic euphorbia bush forming the fabric of the leavings. Eventually, I can sometimes see, in places where the rhinos have shoved a cobble aside, the fresh, round pie-plate of a hoof in the dust, with each of the three toes visible -- but then nothing, only more basalt.

We follow the trackers as they follow the tracks. To the horizon, in any direction, we can see nothing but stone. We pass a sparkling spring, one of only about a hundred known and mapped watering holes in Damaraland, a region comprising approximately half of the 9,653-square-mile Kunene, and spy the fresh, soft track of a lion, the paw wider than my outstretched hand. Emerald saw grass surrounds the marshy spring -- it would be very easy for the lion to remain there, hidden, lying in wait -- and we give it a wide berth.

Between the occasional hills are rubble piles of volcanic necks, shafts from which the basalt flowed vertically into the world, towers that only now are beginning to sag and crumble -- acquiescing, finally, to the inevitable disintegration of all physical things.

We pass over into a small, gentle valley in which the desert swells again to the horizon, the trackers veering left and right, following the script of the rhinos' mysterious passage. Seen from above, our movements might resemble the curious dance of bumblebees or some other heat-drunk insect. We pick our way through the loose scree, watching the ground before us. Beyond the Edenic yet potentially dangerous spring, the only signs of life besides our wandering selves are the euphorbia bushes, nearly spherical clumps of dusky green. In some ways the euphorbia seems nearly as miraculous as the rhinos, able to withstand the horrific hardpan heat in the long days of high summer, with temperatures down in the rocks reaching well in excess of 130 degrees. The plant resembles a green Medusa, with thousands of cylindrical tubes of flesh radiating upward, creating as much surface area (and dead-air space between) as the fins, or baffling, on a radiator: a valuable adaptation, because the increased surface area helps the plant disperse heat it would otherwise retain.

Mike Hearn, our host, is at age 32 the director of research for the Namibia-based Save the Rhino Trust. Besides being physically charismatic -- he is tall and broad-shouldered, a former rugby player, with a deep tan and wild-flowing, sun-streaked brown-blond hair -- Mike radiates a kindness and gentle humility that have served him well in the community-outreach aspects of his job: visiting with and listening to the scattered human communities at the edge of rhino country, devising economic development models that rely on protecting rhinos rather than killing them, building an economic framework wherein a living rhino is far more valuable than a dead one. Working with the Namibian government and local communities, Save the Rhino Trust, founded in 1984, recruited guards, sometimes the very same people who had been poaching the rhinos, to protect them. Possessing tracking skills and intimate knowledge of the landscape and the rhinos' movements, the workforce was already emplaced. Like a shadow, each guard followed the rhinos -- and other endangered large mammals -- at a distance, a guardian angel armed and loaded. It took only a few shoot-outs for everyone to understand that the rules had changed, had turned suddenly upside-down. In 20 years the rhino population in the Kunene doubled. The trust's scientific research -- including an ongoing census of the remaining rhinos -- and its outreach to local communities have helped establish a modest rhino-based tourism and conservation industry in the region.

When Mike came to Save the Rhino, in the early 1990s, he possessed the two qualities that the organization most needed to advance its programs: affability and compassion. The fact that he was movie-star handsome seemed to authenticate his presence all the more: He didn't have to be here. He could have been off making films in Hollywood or raising funds in London.

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Rick Bass is a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council and is the author of 21 books of fiction and nonfiction. This fall, Houghton Mifflin will publish his new story collection, The Lives of Rocks.

Photographer Ed Kashi has traveled to more than 60 countries for National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, and Time, among others. His photo documentary, Aging in America: The Years Ahead (PowerHouse), was a finalist for the 2003 Pictures of the Year book award.

Map: Blue Marble Maps

OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council