Oops! The Mortifying Mistake I Made Tracking Rhinos in Namibia


The beautiful black rhino. (Photo: Susan Portnoy/Insatiable Traveler)

By Susan Portnoy

As I followed the three rangers and my guide, Bons, across the endless plain of rocks in Namibia, I replayed the two big rules in my head: 1. Be quiet, and 2. If something happens, do whatever the rangers tell me to do.

I was on a morning game drive as a guest of Desert Rhino Camp in the Palmwag Concession along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Situated in the midst of the largest population of desert-adapted, free-roaming black rhinos on the continent, the camp is dedicated to their survival — and its efforts are the cornerstone of the camp’s appeal.

Wilderness Safaris, which owns and operates the camp, works closely on conservation efforts with Namibia’s Save the Rhino Trust (SRT). Together they offer guests the unique opportunity to join SRT rangers in vehicles and on foot as they track, monitor, and assess the conditions of the black rhinos in the region. Poaching is currently the biggest killer of black rhinos (any rhinos actually), and as of 2014, there are only 5,055 left in Africa. The Asian market, mostly China, spends thousands of dollars on them; they pay nearly $65,000 for 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rhino horn.

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Given their expertise, it’s no surprise that my guide and our rangers knew quite a bit about our subject, a big black rhino the size of a suburban van whom they identified by a rip in his front horn. His name was Kangombe (pronounced kan-gome-bay), and he was 38 years old. In the wild, a rhino is expected to live about 40 years, making Kangombe an old man — but you’d never know it by looking at him. He was a bruiser, the Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson of rhinos, and despite his advanced years, he was the dominant male in the territory.


Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is a harsh and unforgiving place but also incredibly beautiful. (Photo: Susan Portnoy/Insatiable Traveler)

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We approached downwind on foot so as not to startle him. Rhinos have poor sight but exceptional hearing and smell, making it necessary for visitors to be stealthy. Like most animals, black rhinos have a natural fear of humans. But they can also be aggressive and, despite their appearance, surprisingly fast and light on their feet. If Kangombe opted to charge, the rangers would distract him while Bons looked after my safety. No one carried a weapon.


Three Save the Rhino Trust rangers — Denzel, Jason, and Efraim — and my guide, Bons Roman, look for rhino. (Photo: Susan Portnoy/Insatiable Traveler)

We stopped on the crest of a small slope parallel to Kangombe’s path. He paused to mark his territory, a common practice among males of many species. Unceremoniously, he swept his tail to the side and squirted three large streams of urine behind him. “This is MY home!” his pee declared. Other male rhinos crossing that line would be tolerated if they submitted to his rule, but if they challenged him, it could get ugly. According to the information collected by the rangers over the years, Kangombe’s territory is more than 300 square miles. That’s a lot of land to pee on.

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There are only 5,055 black rhinos left in Africa due to poaching. I hope Kangombe lives to die of old age. (Photo: Susan Portnoy/Insatiable Traveler)

Slowly and silently, we crept forward. Fifty yards from Kangombe, the rangers motioned for us to stop. It was photo time. When I clicked the shutter, Kangombe whirled around and faced us. We froze and waited. His ears twitched as if he were fine-tuning an antenna. We’d blown our cover, but he didn’t appear stressed, and the rangers nodded that I could continue shooting.

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Confession: I talk to the wildlife I photograph. I murmur little compliments like, “Aren’t you handsome?” or I say what I think they’re thinking, like, “Eww … I don’t like this piece of grass,” or, “Why are those people staring at me?” So as I was taking his Vogue shot, I began to whisper. Within a millisecond, I felt a not-so-subtle finger stab my shoulder and the eyes of my companions burrowing a hole in the back of my head. And at the same time, Kangombe looked in our direction. Whoops! I guess following the rules was more difficult than I thought. I flushed with embarrassment.

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But wait, it gets better (or, actually, worse). After Kangombe resumed his regularly scheduled activities, it happened. To my horror, my cargo pants began to chime, a singsong melody one might find in a dancing-ballerina music box. The rangers lunged in my direction, all our hands fumbling for the Velcro pocket on my thigh. I’d completely forgotten about an alarm I’d set on my iPhone days before.


Me in my baggy cargo pants — the ones with the dreaded iPhone — photographing Kangombe with my guide. (Photo: Susan Portnoy/Insatiable Traveler)

Par for the course in situations like this, I was so anxious to make it stop that I became increasingly uncoordinated. I couldn’t get the phone out of my pants. I was mortified. Kangombe immediately stiffened and faced us, lifting his head to smell the air, his ears pointing sharply in our direction. I could sense the rangers’ angst.

To be clear, the biggest worry was that Kangombe would flee and my sighting would come to an end. That said, black rhinos are known for charging humans when they feel threatened, and it would be bad for the camp’s business if a guest were to get hurt (even if it was her own fault).

Thankfully, once I managed to turn off the alarm, Kangombe relaxed and began chewing on a dainty piece of shrubbery that was dangling from his mouth. I, however, was racked with humiliation and cycled through a range of silent “I’m sorry” faces at my comrades that was comical at best. I told myself I couldn’t be the worst guest they’d ever had. At least that’s what I hoped.

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