By Christian Dietrich
Dr. Chris Ingram and I traveled earlier this year to Namibia in southern Africa to provide medical kits and first aid training to rangers working with Save the Rhino Trust (SRT). These unarmed rangers serve as the last line of defense between a population of critically endangered black rhinos, and poaching gangs constantly seeking to profit from highly prized rhino horn (which is sold in Asia for its supposed medicinal qualities). It is the immense task of rangers conducting such tireless patrols in a remote environment that compelled Dr. Ingram and me to find a way to directly assist their work. Photos of our trip can be found below in the Trip Photo Gallery.
Donor aid to conservation groups often focusses on the initial needs of rangers – uniforms and boots, food and fuel, tents, binoculars, etc. – but usually there are fewer resources available for the next level of needs, such as the emergency care for a ranger who is seriously wounded or faces a life-threatening illness. This is even more pronounced in the area we visited where the nearest doctor is a half day’s drive away, and where rangers, who are on the frontline protecting an iconic species, themselves lack first aid equipment. So this project served as a way to combine my conservation work with Dr. Ingram’s medical skills. Not only would first aid supplies and training potentially help save rangers’ lives during an emergency, but it could also help them patrol more effectively in the knowledge that their leadership values their health and well-being.
Conducting patrols in Kunene’s unforgiving lunar landscape is a serious feat of endurance. The region is near Namibia’s northern border with Angola, and sits between the Skeleton Coast – where the Namib Desert runs to the South Atlantic Ocean – and Etosha National Park, which is dominated by an enormous salt pan. Kunene has been referred to as the ‘arid Eden’ for the amount of wildlife it boasts despite little annual rainfall. However, prolonged drought cycles, coupled with human and livestock encroachment, and poaching, have created serious problems for wildlife and wild habitat survival.
The black rhino is distinguished from its larger cousin, the white rhino, by its beak-shaped upper lip that allows it to browse on plants, unlike the white rhino that has a broad mouth and grazes on grass. Black rhinos are more reclusive and shy, and are a critically endangered species with a population of only about 5,600 spread through Southern and Eastern Africa, compared with about three times that number of white rhinos. Namibia’s Kunene region is home to just a fraction of Africa’s black rhinos, but it is one of the most important populations from an ecological perspective: Kunene’s rhinos are free-ranging, unlike those confined in many national parks; and, these rhinos are original to the area, whereas many rhino populations elsewhere had been hunted to local extinction, and then reintroduced and restocked in national parks. Furthermore, Kunene rhinos are the largest population of rhinos on earth to exist on community lands.
The rangers we assisted are employed either by SRT or about one dozen communal conservancies, which benefit from eco-tourism in the region, and are entrusted to protect the wild habitat. As a result, there is a balancing of ecological requirements, and the needs of subsistence farmers and herders living in the region. This is quite different than a national park where rangers are government employees, and local communities often have little say in landscape management, if they had not already been removed from the park at its creation. Wildlife conservation in national parks often resembles a more militarized operation, but the community conservancy model empowers locals, and members of these communities serve as ‘boots on the ground’ to deter poachers. Detractors of this model note that community leaders can at times cater too much to powerful constituents to the detriment of conservation – such as those with large herds of livestock competing for the same water springs as rhinos and other wildlife during times of drought. However, the rangers we met were incredibly dedicated to their work, and to protecting what they saw as their community’s heritage, as well as a financial resource through eco-tourism. They are also acutely attuned to the arrival of potential poaching gangs targeting rhinos, often under the guise of livestock herding.
Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) was the vanguard in synthesizing the varied community approaches in Kunene, and the organization now provides the majority of logistical support for rhino monitoring both for their own ranger staff and for the community-employed rangers. For the community rangers, known as the Conservancy Rhino Rangers, the communities pay salaries, and SRT provides food, transportation, uniforms and field supplies, and rhino sighting bonuses (a direct incentive for better monitoring). Although they are unarmed, the fact that the rhino rangers are always out in the landscape tracking and monitoring the rhinos’ movements – usually unbeknownst to the rhinos – deters poachers in many cases. The Namibian National Police also have embedded officers with the rangers to facilitate law enforcement measures against poachers, and to assist the unarmed rangers.
I was awestruck by the landscapes of the Kunene region, as well as its people and wildlife when I first visited Namibia in 1994 as a volunteer for another conservation group, the Cheetah Conservation Fund. I then spent much of my career investigating arms embargo violations in African conflict zones for the UN Security Council, and also worked as a Criminal Intelligence Officer for INTERPOL examining wildlife crime – mainly ivory and rhino horn trafficking. Through this, I helped African law enforcement agencies investigate wildlife trafficking kingpins, and I viewed conservation primarily through the lens of dismantling transnational organized crime syndicates. However, I realized that rangers on the ground play a vital role in stopping the killing, and buying time for national and transnational investigations and prosecutions. It can take years for a rhino horn trafficker to be prosecuted, and getting to the syndicate’s kingpin is a near-impossible task. In the meantime, and independent of law enforcement outcomes, the rhino rangers are tirelessly patrolling the Kunene landscape. Moreover, the fact that the rangers are from local communities means their work is more about monitoring and deterrence, rather than self-defeating militarized anti-poaching.
I was further able to build important friendships during my trips to Namibia, and have been inspired by the dedication and passion of these individuals. SRT’s science advisor, Dr. Jeff Muntifering of the Minnesota Zoo, has spent nearly twenty years in Kunene studying rhinos, and helping to create and maintain the rhino ranger program. He took me on my first trip into the conservancies in his ancient and temperamental Land Rover and introduced me to life at the Wereldsend (“World’s End”) research station. Veteran ranger Boas Hambo, whom I met when he participated in an INTERPOL crime scene investigation training I conducted in 2014, is one of the rising stars of conservation in Kunene. He provided incredible support, patience, and camaraderie to Dr. Ingram and me during our trip, and during my visit to Kunene last year.
A serious concern for rangers during their patrols, and for SRT, has been the availability of medical assistance in case of emergency. The nearest hospital is about a half day’s drive from SRT’s base station at Palmwag, a town in Kunene; and the rangers’ fly camps are often located an additional several hours into the conservancies, and accessible only by 4×4 vehicle – which must be dispatched from the base station. So Dr. Ingram and I developed this project in consultation with Dr. Jeff Muntifering and Andrew Malherbe of SRT in 2019, and used our February 2020 trip as a pilot project to assess longer-term emergency medical needs for the rhino rangers. Furthermore, I thought that Dr. Ingram’s years of experience in emergency medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, and before that as a US Navy doctor deployed to Somalia, would be a huge asset to SRT and the rhino rangers.
The primary goal was to prepare a complete first aid kit for each ranger camp we would visit during our trip to Namibia, and then train these rangers on the use of items provided in the kit. Quite often, medical supplies alone are insufficient especially during emergencies and for people with little exposure to first aid tools – many of the rangers rely on traditional healing remedies, which sometimes are sufficient. We purchased prepackaged first aid kits in Namibia, but these were limited for use in the field, so Dr. Ingram identified a more complete list of supplies, and sourced these additional items in the U.S. He focused on necessities that could save lives, as well as items for smaller and much more common problems encountered during foot patrols over rough terrain. It is extremely rare that rangers face life-threatening emergencies, and while there must be sufficient supplies to address these, the more likely issues involve splinting broken bones, cleaning wounds, and even preventing and treating blisters. This means that any first aid kit really needs a high volume of disposable items. In the end, about 90 percent of the baggage we carried to Namibia was medical supplies to create quality first aid kits that would not be depleted immediately and would serve the rangers’ various needs. Ironically, the biggest difficulty in getting these to Namibia in February was a winter storm that jeopardized the Fishers Island Ferry departure to New London, followed by a seriously delayed Amtrak train to Newark Airport for our evening flight to Africa.
Dr. Ingram prepared a condensed first aid course that could be administered to small groups of rangers at each of the camps we were to visit. He determined that classroom training would be less effective as an initial learning tool, and the rangers are constantly rotated out on patrol, and then return to their local communities. The course also needed to be based on the first aid supplies that could be provided to the rangers and was relevant to their needs. Dr. Ingram used scenarios of typical situations encountered on patrol to show the ranger team members how they could treat a variety of problems, and then coached them on replicating his demonstration, using their colleagues as patients. The course and health check of rangers prior to teaching lasted four hours on average, which combined with four to six hours of 4×4 driving roundtrip to the various fly camps, meant that Dr. Ingram had full days for the duration of our trip!
We are now working on the next phase of the project with Save the Rhino Trust to expand upon the results of our February visit. The first step is to hire a full-time staff member to be based in Palmwag to oversee the restocking and resupply of field first aid kits, and who also serves as a ‘patient advocate’ for rangers’ longer-term medical needs. The field first aid project cannot be a one-off supply of exposable equipment that will become depleted over time. Instead, for this to be a longer-term success and resource for the rangers, the kits need to be constantly checked, with an inventory taken and supplied to each of the ranger teams as they head to the field, and returned to headquarters after their three-week patrols. We also found that some rangers have longer-term chronic medical issues that could be more detrimental than a lack of first aid equipment. A patient advocate can track chronic health conditions of those rangers and make sure they have the correct supplies of medication before heading out on patrol, assist them in accessing the national healthcare system, and traveling to a hospital in another part of the country for more serious health issues.
Second, we will identify a doctor in Swakopmund – a five hour drive from Kunene region – who can regularly visit Palmwag to conduct routine assessments of the rangers’ health. This doctor could diagnose and track more important chronic issues, and prescribe medication and testing or procedures through the national healthcare system. Most of the rangers we worked with had never been examined by a doctor, and rely on two basic medical clinics in their region. As such, certain important issues and preventative health measures are missed entirely.
Third, we will contract a Namibian field first aid instructor to provide advanced and repeated training for all rangers, and hopefully with the future assistance of Dr. Ingram. So it is my hope that the island can spare him for another two-week “vacation” in Africa.
In closing, I wanted to share a memory of Namibia from last year. While visiting the rhino rangers in May 2019 and sleeping out in the bush at one of the fly camps, I woke before dawn and chatted with the rangers as they prepared a fire and breakfast. One of them – veteran ranger Boas Hambo – noted that a small light flashing in the sky and slowly progressing overhead was the daily South African Airways flight from New York City to Johannesburg. This flight crosses the mid and southern Atlantic Ocean in about thirteen hours, and regularly makes its first landfall in Africa at 35,000 feet above the Skeleton Coast, and then over Kunene. Watching this tiny light in the pre-dawn sky made me realize that usually, I am the one in the plane peering out of a window, staring at empty landscapes, while these rangers, and others like them, are on the ground living in harsh and unforgiving conditions, relentlessly protecting this critical black rhino population or other endangered species. It is this idea that provides me some reassurance that even while I am idle or engaged elsewhere and Africa is a distant memory, there are dedicated folks a world away fighting to protect our natural heritage.
For more information about Save the Rhino Trust, please visit: www.savetherhinotrust.org
Or contact Christian Dietrich: firstname.lastname@example.org.
TRIP PHOTO GALLERY
Photo Credit: Christian Dietrich
Click any photo to see a larger version or scroll thru the galleries.
Ethiopian Airlines business class was a great start to the trip, but it was a long haul! The flight was 16 hours from JFK to Addis Ababa (with refueling in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire) and a late-night arrival in Ethiopia. We slept a few hours at a local hotel, and then had an early morning flight of 5 hours from Addis Ababa to Windhoek, Namibia.
2: Long but excellent roads on the trip up north from Windhoek to Palmwag, Kunene region. Arrived jetlagged and drove a few hours north to a small lodge nestled in front of a hill of boulders. A beautiful place to overnight, and wake at dawn to explore around the lodge. We then had a six-hour drive further north, and finally got into some more wild areas, with kudus on a mountainside, elephant tracks along the road, and then elephant mother and calf in a ravine. Arrived close to sunset in Palmwag, a small oasis in the ‘arid Eden’.
3: Dividing up the medical kits at Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) base in Palmwag. We needed a complete first aid kit for each ranger fly camp. Usually, there are several rangers and a police officer stationed at the camps for a period of three weeks before a new rotation arrives. We purchased basic medical kits in Namibia and augmented them with more advanced supplies that we brought in four suitcases from the U.S. With the guidance of veteran ranger Boas Hambo we would deliver half of these kits to ranger teams, with the other half awaiting distribution later, with more first aid training.
4: Beginning to work at SRT base camp in Palmwag, and taking vital signs of an SRT ranger. Recording of vital signs and basic medical assessments will be important for a future project to provide rangers with regular medical assistance.
5: The Palmwag lodge, a few hundred meters from SRT’s base camp, looks out into a valley with a source of permanent water springs. This in turn attracts wildlife, and one bull elephant, in particular, has become accustomed to the lodge, as well as raiding farms of nearby villages. Incredible to see him at a distance, and even more impressive when he ambles into the lodge!
6: Dr. Ingram’s first visit to a fly camp, and about five hours roundtrip driving. Initial data is recorded on the health of rangers, as well as any medical complaints or issues they might have. Included is taking temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure, checking breathing, dentition, and for any signs of abdominal pain. For most rangers, this is their first examination by a doctor. Then comes the first aid kit familiarization and training. These photos show the arm splint, finger split, and neck brace training. Dr. Ingram instructed using a volunteer and then assessed the other rangers’ practicing the skills on each other.
7: Despite the persistent drought in Kunene, wildlife manages to survive in this harsh environment. We regularly saw springbok (not pictured), giraffe, zebra, and gemsbok (oryx). There are also several locations of San/Bushman rock art depicting wildlife dating back nearly 2,000 years.
8: The trip to the second fly camp was another trek of several hours each way over very difficult roads in a 4×4, but the scenery was spectacular. The camp was situated in a remote location near permanent water holes, which attracted wildlife including predators, as well as rhino. This is how the rangers begin their patrols – by finding rhino tracks and following the animals to then gather movement patterns and positive identification of specific individual rhinos. Dr. Ingram again began his training by first assessing the health of rangers, and consulting with them about medical complaints. These photos show instruction in cleaning a wound and bandaging it, and stabilizing an ankle or wrist sprain, with Dr. Ingram first training on methods, and then supervising the rangers’ practice.
9: Before leaving the fly camp, we assisted the rangers in accessing a waterhole by vehicle. They could not approach on foot due to numerous ambush spots for lions, and concern that a large pride of lions with young cubs had taken up residence in the area. Once we reached the waterhole, the rangers commenced an initial surveillance of the area. There were a variety of animal tracks in the dried mud and clay at the site, including these of a brown hyena (pictured). Soon we heard the lions’ low roars, and then several of the pride’s lionesses gathered on a rock outcropping observing us below. Although remaining close to the vehicle, it was truly incredible to be on foot in the presence of lions! Unfortunately, large prides of lions have been known to prey on rhino calves.
10: We visited another fly camp in the north with a much more arid climate. The rangers’ camping conditions seemed especially difficult at this location, which had been used previously by semi-nomadic herdsmen. Luckily there was a small tree to provide just enough shade for the first aid training. Dr. Ingram is shown covering issues pertaining to when and how to apply tourniquets, splints for arms and legs, and eye wounds. After a long day of training in the heat, Dr. Ingram was able to relax briefly at a local bar on the way back to Palmwag.
11: We had great luck finding rhinos the next day in one of the community conservancies thanks to veteran ranger Boas Hambo! He located the tracks and we left the vehicle to approach the rhinos on foot, downwind and out of sight, taking cover first behind milkweeds (with rhinos visible behind us). Their senses of smell and hearing are strong, but their eyesight is poor, which enabled us to get incredibly close to the animals while they foraged after drinking from a nearby spring that morning, and eventually walked into the hills. Unfortunately, their poor eyesight also leaves them vulnerable to poachers, making the work of the rhino rangers critical. The two rhinos are sub-adult males, one older than the other, and of the same mother.
12: Following the rhino sighting, we drove to our next fly camp and began another training session. The rangers had recently arrived and were still smoking goat meat that would last three weeks in the field. Dr. Ingram took vital signs and discussed personal medical issues with the rangers, then taught his emergency first aid lessons, including splints and disinfecting wounds. On the drive back from the camp we had a number of views of two ostriches running at high speed across the rock-covered landscape.
13: On our last day in Kunene, we were lucky again to track and find two rhinos. This time it was both an old bull and a young male. We climbed an embankment from the nearby water hole, and the rhinos were browsing in a thicket and initially difficult to spot. Given the favorable wind direction, we were able to get quite close to observe the two rhinos before retracing our path back to the vehicle.
14: We joined rangers from the last camp for coffee by the embers of their campfire, and concluded our last training session. We then set off on a six-hour drive to meet with SRT staff in Swakopmund, an old German city built where the Swakop River meets the South Atlantic Ocean, and now one of Namibia’s prominent cities.
15: The drive from Kunene to Swakopmund takes you through the Skeleton Coast where shipwrecked sailors often perished in the desert. The dirt road cuts through the Skeleton Coast Park and then abruptly stops at a T-junction where the desert meets the ocean; and we then headed south, parallel to the desolate coastline. Once in Swakopmund, we were able to brief the SRT staff, and purchase additional items for the first aid kits assisted by local pharmacists, with Dr. Ingram still sporting field attire! After a few days enjoying the cool ocean air, we drove another four hours inland to Windhoek for an overnight before heading home again via Addis Ababa, with fewer suitcases and one oversized souvenir that really should not have been allowed as cabin baggage.