Mystery Rhino Could Be Lost Subspecies

AC98 Bruno Nebe

Bruno Nebe using his remarkable tracking skills – he was trained by a bushman

This is the story of a ‘mystery’ rhino and a legendary Namibian bush expert we met on our travels for this project. It’s about a problem rhino bull conservationists weren’t quite sure what to do with and a stubborn visionary whose life’s passion is returning a large area of farmland in Namibia back to it’s natural state.

This newly-created wildlife Eden in the Otavi mountains is called Mundulea, you can go and visit there like we did, and it’s a place where the animals, including a number of rhinos, roam freely, well hidden from the public gaze, largely undisturbed even by the low-impact tourism that helps finance the project. Bruno Nebe, a well-known guide, hosts intimate bush walking safaris there from the quirky, quiet bush camp he’s built.

The rhino mystery story came about when, as part of his ecological restoration work on Mundulea, he was pursuing another pet project to raise awareness of Namibia’s blackfaced impala as a distinct species and not just a colour variation. Bruno needed some help from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), the government wildlife body in Namibia, and got in touch with them to discuss it.

‘We got on to talking about rhinos,’ he told us. ‘And not long after I got a call asking if I’d be able to help them out, because they had this problem rhino.’

‘I said if it’s a problem rhino, I want to know why it’s a problem. I then got a short version of a very interesting story.’

Bruno went on to explain this ‘problem’ rhino’s intriguing back-story. It seems that in 1992 some people within the Caprivi region of Namibia contacted the MET to say they’d seen rhino tracks. The MET decided because of the potential poaching threat and the unrest in Angola at the time it would be wise to take the rhinos away.

AC103 Bruno Nebe, Mundulea

One man’s kingdom: Bruno at Mundulea

When the MET went to check it out they identified the tracks of three rhinos. Two were never seen again, presumably poached, but one, an old cow that was pregnant, was found and moved to safety. She had a bull calf, but later died and the calf was moved to another reserve. The problem was it fought with other rhinos there, killing at least one of them.

Bruno told us that although this black rhino was a bit of a handful he was also quite a special rhino because he was thought to be from a distinct sub-species that’s different to the other black rhinos in Namibia – one that’s considered pretty much extinct.

‘It’s the only rhino in Namibia that doesn’t come out of the western escarpment, it comes out of the Caprivi,’ Bruno explained. ‘Prior to working with any rhinos in the Caprivi, the MET didn’t realise these rhinos were from a different subspecies. But if you follow Furstenberg, a South African taxonomist, he describes the eastern rhino population of Namibia, Botswana and Angola, as Diceros bicornis chobiensis. Whereas on the western escarpment in Namibia, all the way down into South Africa, the rhinos are Diceros bicornis bicornis (south-western black rhinos).

So Bruno decided he would take on the problem/mystery rhino on condition the MET gave him permission to look a little more into it possibly being a chobiensis.

‘We caught him, brought him here, released him and left him. We had a transmitter put in the horn. I asked the MET to leave the tracking up to me, explaining that I would do it as conservatively as possible. At the end of a year he became completely relaxed. A couple of times he saw me, but there was no indication that he would charge. He simply huffed and puffed and moved off.’

In the meantime Bruno, working within Namibia’s special rhino custodianship scheme where private land owners look after state-owned rhinos on their property, brought in more rhinos on Mundulea. When we visited he had nine – all doing exceptionally well. ‘Security’s become more of an issue recently of course,’ he sighed.

AC88 Bruno Nebe with bone collection

Bruno in the rustic bush camp at Mundulea

‘What I would dearly like now, if I could find sponsorship, is to investigate this whole chobiensis thing further,’ he told us. We have the DNA of the mother of this rhino. We have the DNA of her calf. I would dearly like to have the DNA looked at again. If there’s a guarantee of it being chobienesis, I would consider the possibility of keeping the bull separate and then try to reactivate the genetic line through cross-breeding with the Diceros bicornis bicornis (south-central black rhino) cows we have. We would then keep only the female calves and let the bull breed with his daughters.’

‘This bull is only 14 years old so we have possibly 20 years more breeding. By the fourth generation we should be 90 odd per cent on the chobiensis line. And hopefully, in the next few years, as Angola is opened up, there’s a slim possibility we might find one or two more rhinos in Angola. So there’s hopefully a chance to save a subspecies.’

‘That’s my ultimate goal, but in the meantime I would like to investigate the genetics and see how viable it all is,’ he told us.

Bruno says one of the the wildlife vets that’s looked at the bull’s DNA says the rhino might be a hybrid, but it’s not d.bicornis and it’s not d.minor. ‘Even if it turns out it’s hybridised, it’s still do-able. We’re not extinct, we’re half extinct, so the chance is there. It’s certainly not a hopeless case,’ Bruno stressed.

‘Technically all custodian rhinos are the property of the state, so I would have to make a presentation to the MET and make a good case. But I have a good feeling. If we do manage it, it would be something new that Namibia has done. We started the conservancies, Namibia has been very successful at that. This would be another feather in Namibia’s cap,’ he told Project African Rhino.

‘Even if it backfires there’s no harm done. But DNA sequencing does cost money. I’ve worked with the University of Copenhagen on the blackfaced impala, and proved my suspicion that the blackfaced impala was indeed a subspecies far removed from the ordinary impala so that today there’s an obligation to conserve them. ‘

‘Now I’d like to do the same for the chobiensis.’

To find out more about Mundulea visit

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