Rhinos were hunted almost to the point of extinction by poachers in the Namib. But, thanks to dedicated conservation efforts, significant numbers of these ancient creatures are once again roaming through the desert in Namibia.
Black and white rhinos are the two types of rhinoceros species found in Africa. The black rhino is smaller, but more aggressive.
Although it generally runs away when it feels threatened, it has been known to attack humans.
"The last time it happened was around two weeks ago," says Martin Nawaseb, team leader of a tracker group when asked if he has ever had to flee from a charging rhino.
The reply puts the three tourists present ill at ease. Not surprising, considering they are currently strolling unarmed through the desert with Nawaseb on the trail of the largest free-roaming rhino population in the world.
Around 150 rhinos can now be found in north-western Namibia, living under the protection of the Save the Rhino Trust (SRT).
Nawaseb works for the SRT and says the animals have the organisation to thank for their continued existence. Long periods of drought during the 1970s saw the indigenous Herero, Himba and Damara tribes take over much of the territory previously occupied by rhinos.
Their numbers were further decimated by smugglers, who offered money and food to the impoverished local population in return for horns and ivory, explains Christiaan Bakkes, general manager of the Wilderness Safari Lodge.
The number of rhinos roaming the desert dropped to just 50 animals at one point. But the SRT began employing former poachers as gamekeepers, offering them a sustainable alternative to the short-lived profit, provided by killing rhinos for their horns.
The number of rhinos living in the Namib has tripled as a result, also leading to a marked increase in the number of tourists visiting the area.
The symbiotic relationship between animal conservation and tourism is clear to see in Nawaseb's group. Even before the sun's morning rays have lit up the basalt rocks of the Namib Desert, Nawaseb's colleague, Denson Tjiraso, stands on the loading area of his jeep on the lookout for rhino tracks.
A small giraffe appears insecure as it stands on the dried-out bed of the river Achab. Its parents are nowhere to be seen.
"They could have been eaten by lions," says Tjiraso. The three trackers notice the clear contour of a rhino track and immediately know where to seek out the animal. Tjiraso spots the rhino's outline on a mountain ridge six kilometres away.
The last two kilometres have to be managed by foot. The female rhino's name is Unies and she is wide awake. The trackers normally only follow one animal a day so as to disturb the rhinos as little as possible. But the tourists on today's trip strike it lucky, as Unies is accompanied by her male calf.
The rhinos move on after a couple of minutes, unaware that they probably have the presence of the SRT workers and tourists to thank for the protected environment that they are now thriving in.
IF YOU GO
The best time to visit the Namib Desert is during the dry season, between May and December, as rhinos are easier to spot during this period.
Travelling in Namibia can be expensive, especially when visiting the country's more remote areas. Rhino tours with Save the Rhino Trust start at the desert rhino camp, where a double room costs from around $1320, including all meals, drinks and tours.
- AAPBy Christian Selz