Protecting Namibia’s Rhino from extinction

• By Vitalio Angula

ZIMBABWEAN born and Namibian bred Salmon Vermaak is a towering figure with a calm disposition. He sits down with Confidente to share his eight-year journey in nature conservation as Head of Namibia Wildlife Protection.

A police officer by training, twenty-four years ago, he left the Namibian Police Force to assume a position as Head of Security at a mining company. Seven years later, in the year 2015, he was offered an opportunity to protect a game farm in the Dorbabis area of central Namibia.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, Vermaak remarks when queried by Confidente on the demand for Rhino horn for medicinal purposes in oriental markets.

“There are suggestions that Rhino horn possesses no medicinal value but a belief system enforced by culture could have a placebo effect on those who drive its demand,” Vermaak explains.

“Not only that, but Rhino Horn is also a status symbol in the east,” Vermaak notes.

“If you have an ashtray made of Rhino horn, it is a sign of affluence in those nations, and this is what drives the demand in the trade of the horn which costs on average 1 million Namibian Dollars or 55 187 in US Dollars per kilogram on the black market at the current exchange rate,” Vermaak further explains.

The Kunene region in Northern Namibia is home to the desert adapted Black Rhino, the last remaining free-roaming Black Rhino in the world.

Fifty years ago, they numbered over 100 000 but due to poaching driven by the illicit demand for their much-prized horn their numbers have dwindled exorbitantly.

Today there are less than 5000 Black Rhino globally and Namibia is home to about 1600 of these endangered beasts.

About Namibia Wildlife Protection

Namibia Wildlife Protection is a security company specializing in the protection of Black Rhino and other wildlife.

They offer their services to private game farms for a fee.

Vermaak, the head of the organization describes himself as someone with a close affinity to nature.

“We employ over ninety people and watch over half-a million hectares in farmland,” Vermaak shares with Confidente.

“At the moment we provide our services to about 30 game farms. Five years ago, in 2018 we came to an agreement with a game farm in the Otjozundjupa region of central Namibia to protect their game in return for them building a training center for us to equip rangers with the necessary skills to undertake our anti-poaching activities,” Vermaak explains.

Tracking is second nature to me

One of the cornerstones of fighting against poachers is the use of tracking to identify where they (poachers) are headed.

“I can’t take you out of the city and teach you how to track. It takes years of knowledge and experience. Years of getting your eye honed in to see certain things,” Vermaak explains.

“What we teach our rangers at the center is the process. We have established a technique of tracking that is unique. We only need one thing and that is the direction of the track and we leapfrog the suspected poachers by intercepting them where we anticipate them to be. If the track is identified before 10:00 in the morning, the chance that we will catch the poachers before the end of the day is very good,” Vermaak remarked.

Vermaak mentions that the process he uses cannot be discussed in full detail because of the sensitivity of the work he does and he also wouldn’t like to give too much away in terms of the methodology used in their anti-poaching drive.

A surge in poaching

In the past twelve months, October 2021 to October 2022, Namibia has seen a drastic surge in incidents of rhino poaching with at least seventy-four rhinos poached. This is compared to forty-three in 2021 and forty in 2022, according to official statistics provided to Confidente by Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Tourism and Forestry, spokesperson Romeo Muyunda.

Vermaak said this can be attributed to syndicates moving from South Africa to Namibia.

“I am sure rhino poaching syndicates are moving across the border because of how much flack they are getting in South Africa,” Vermaak suggested.

The anti-poaching units in S.A. are better equipped and better resourced than those of Namibia,” he further added.

The Black Rhino Protection Fund

This initiative by Vermaak is used as a vehicle to generate international funding from corporates and NGOs interested in nature conservation.

“On custodian farms, not many have the resources to afford our services. We currently protect 35 000 hectares for free. The idea is to raise money in order for us to continue providing this service. It costs about N$ 40 000 or USD 2240 to protect 10 000 hectares of farmland per month. Because Namibian farms are so huge, ranging between 15 000 to 20 000 hectares, we need at least four rangers stationed at these farms at any given moment. This can be a costly exercise,” Vermaak explained.

Vermaak also runs a Volunteer Project, a training course and program that equips participants with the skill of being rhino protection rangers.

The ten-day course is targeted at local and international clients and has an objective of sensitizing and creating awareness on the plight of the critically endangered black rhino and also raising financial resources for Vermaak and his team.

A Daughters Pride

“Besides the dangers of wild animals such as snakes, lions and scorpions, he may walk into in his line of work; the imminent threat of being confronted by the poachers can be life -threatening, but besides that, I am proud of my father and the work he does in the protection of wildlife,” Carmi Vermaak informs Confidente in a telephonic interview.

Carmi Vermaak is Mr. Salmon Vermaak’s daughter. She currently resides in South Africa where she works as an animal behaviour specialist.

“I studied at COAPE and I specialize in Canines. When my father started the courses, I was very involved. I have also attended the classes so I am actually familiar with the work of the Anti- Poaching Unit (APU)”.

NWP, is one of the most active organisations in the world when it comes to wildlife protection and I am extremely proud to be affiliated to them.

“From a very young age my father exposed me to nature and I see the need with my peers who don’t have such an appreciation for nature. This can be small things such as not trampling on a flower in the wild but rather walking around it or polluting the environment which many people take for granted”, (Carmi remarked).

Legalise the trade in Rhino horn

Vermaak believes the de-regulation and lifting of the ban on the trade in Rhino Horn would bring down its value on the black market and make the illicit activity of poaching less viable.

“There are people up there who have vested interests in keeping the trade of rhino horn illegal so they can make money,” Vermaak said.

Echoing Vermaak’s sentiments, Executive Director at the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism, Teofilus Nghitila told Confidente a lifting of the restriction in the trade of rhino horn would have the desired consequence of bringing down incidents of rhino poaching.

“I don’t have evidence but obviously they have created an artificial exclusive cartel. This increases the price of rhino horn because it is not available anywhere else,” Nghitila said.

“If we make this product (rhino horn) available on the market, everyone will be able to access it. Therefore, it does not create exclusivity and scarcity,” Nghitila added.

The Executive Director said if these animals were in Europe or America their trade would not be banned but because they are in Africa those who have less knowledge and experience in the conservation of rhino are the ones with votes to regulate the trade in them.

“They have created this vehicle called CITES (The Convention on the International Trade in Wildlife, Flora and Fauna) to restrict the trade in these species and this is not good for conservation,” Nghitila said.

“Government and range states that have huge stockpiles are struggling to maintain these stockpiles because you are not allowed to trade in them.

Burn the rhino horn stockpile

Namibian based investigative journalist, John Grobler, issued caution towards Vermaak’s theory of flooding the market with rhino horn in order to bring prices down.

‘If you take a high value commodity that is in scarce supply and you offer the same commodity at a much lower price, the one thing that is guaranteed to happen is that the demand is going to explode and it will push the prices back up to the level of the previous position of limited supply,” Grobler explained.

Grobler said the last time they tried out this theory with Ivory stock pile, there was the unintended consequence of a surge in elephant poaching that wiped out at least sixty percent of Tanzania’s elephants.

“There is no real demand for rhino horn. It is just a way for Chinese smugglers with lots of black money that they can’t keep in the bank. They keep rhino horn as a form of currency,” Grobler suggested.

Grobler said the most effective way to kill of the demand for rhino horn is to burn the stockpiles like Kenya has done.

“John Hume from South Africa has been breeding rhinos and dehorning them in the hope of selling the stockpile for billions, at the end of the day, even though the trade is legalized in South Africa, he could not sell any horn. There is no demand for this horn! It’s all just speculative smuggling trade just like illegal diamonds and abalone,” Grobler told Confidente.

Grobler said there is not enough rhino horn to satisfy the demand from Asian markets and ‘flooding’ the market with rhino horn would increase the incidents of poaching which would be detrimental to tourism; one of the largest contributors to Namibia’s GDP.

Conclusion

Namibia is home to the largest population of black rhino; the country is also home to the second largest population of white rhino after South Africa.

Although populations of white rhino are on the increase in Africa and Namibia, they still remain endangered.

Namibia and Botswana have jointly submitted a proposal to the CITES to de-classify white rhino from appendix one to appendix two criteria.

This would allow for the regulated trade in rhino and rhino products such as its prized horn which is currently banned globally.

Vermaak believes this declassification and de-regulation would boost conservation efforts.

“Allowing trade in rhino horn would drive down demand and prices on the black market. It would also incentivize farmers to farm with rhino.” Vermaak explained.

“A rhino horn grows back once it is cut off. It is like a nail,” Vermaak emphasized.

Legalizing the trade in rhino horn is a highly contentious issue!

On one side, are the environmentalists who believe trade in rhino horn should remain banned and on the other side are the governments of countries such as Namibia who would like to dispose of their stockpiles through regulated trade.