Namibia’s Kunene region represents one of the last true wildernesses in Africa — and a rare opportunity to conserve a vast desert ecosystem and enhance its people’s quality of life.
The frigid waters of the southern Atlantic collide with the world’s oldest desert, the Namib, along the infamous Skeleton Coast, named for countless shipwrecked sailors who perished among its baking dunes. The harsh Skeleton Coast gives life to many uniquely adapted animals and plants, many of which survive by siphoning precious moisture from sea fog.
Further inland lies Etosha National Park, one of the world’s largest wildlife refuges. The Etosha Pan, a dry lakebed left behind when the Kunene River changed course long ago, offers a fleeting oasis during the rainy season for myriad wildlife, including enormous flocks of flamingoes. But for most of the year, the park’s resident animals survive on waterholes fringing the pan.
The region’s community and government lands link Skeleton Coast and Etosha national parks to form one of the world’s largest conservation areas reaching across more than 15 million acres. The Kunene’s rocky desert, arid grasslands and dry riverbeds provide a sparsely populated corridor for iconic wildlife:
- The desert-dwelling black rhinoceros finds its last free-ranging stronghold in the Kunene. A surprisingly agile mountaineer, the rhino often climbs onto ledges in search of succulent plants and cool Atlantic breezes.
- Here also lives the massive desert elephant, led by herd matriarchs with intimate knowledge of the dunes’ scarce food and water sources. By digging waterholes during dry periods, these elephants may even help other animals survive.
Unlike other rhinos and elephants that drink daily, these desert-adapted animals may go three to four days without water.
Back from the Brink of Extinction
Rampant poaching once took a heavy toll on the Kunene’s desert wildlife. In particular, black rhino and the desert elephant were pushed to the brink of extinction as the illegal trade of horns and tusks soared from the late 1970s to early 1980s.
At that time, a group of people concerned about the plight of these animals formed Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) and set out to stop the slaughter. Today, SRT provides security for wildlife and income for local people by employing community members as wildlife guards.
While poaching remains a concern, three decades of collaboration between SRT, the Namibian government and local communities have dramatically curtailed the threat. Ongoing concerns for the Kunene now primarily involve habitat loss, conversion and fragmentation.
The Conservancy's support to SRT helps with a variety of work — from increasing protection for rhino and all the other wildlife, to enhancing the capacity of community game scouts, to improving coordination with MET (Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism). The Conservancy also provides strategic fundraising, technical advice and a science advisor to SRT.
While SRT is primarily focused on black rhino and mountain zebra, their work helps protect a diversity of wildlife and ensures that local community conservancies have the capacity and training to monitor and protect these valuable species for their livelihood diversification and improvement.
Wildlife populations have rebounded to historic highs. Besides the rhino and elephant, the Kunene boasts a full range of large carnivores — desert lion, cheetah, leopard and hyena — as well as healthy populations of hoofed animals, including mountain zebra, giraffe, springbok, oryx and kudu.