“It’s a very peaceful animal if you treat it with respect,” chuckles Simson Uri-Khob, referring to a creature that’s dominated his life for the last three decades.
Despite several close shaves and a lot of tree climbing, the 58-year-old car mechanic turned conservationist insists that beneath those robust layers of body armour, rhinos have a gentle heart.
Recalling the first time he saw a rhino in the wild, he says: “We didn’t realise she was hiding a baby. She came straight for us, so I shot up a tree.”
He’s scrambled up thousands ever since – not that there’s much vegetation to be found in the rugged, dry landscape of Namibia’s Kunene region.
Stretching 25,000 square kilometres, right up to the Angolan border, the vast desert area provides a home for the largest free-roaming population of black rhino – a desert-adapted sub-species whose numbers dropped to 60 at the height of a poaching crisis between 2012-2014.
“We didn’t lose any from 2017,” says Simson, who was appointed the first black African CEO of Save The Rhino Trust.
This success is largely a result of improved community engagement. A rhino ranger programme trains local people to monitor the animals and allows them to earn an income guiding tourists. A collaboration between three conservancies, Desert Rhino Camp, managed by Wilderness Safaris, provides a permanent base for activities.
The value of eco-tourism to the region became apparent when lodges closed during the pandemic and two rhinos were poached. One of the animals had been tracked by The Duke of Cambridge when he visited Namibia in 2019.
“He was sad when he heard the news,” says Simson. “He will always be sad if he hears a rhino has been poached.”
Although he was only in the country for a brief period, Prince William made a big impact on communities in awe of speaking to a future king.
A natural leader, Simson also has a unique gift for engaging crowds.
Rising from humble beginnings as a welder fixing cars for SRT, his story is an inspiration to aspiring African conservationists. By listening and showing solidarity with his team, he has garnered a loyal following.
“The trust I’ve built with my staff is my great pride,” he says. “We are one family. I will always listen if they have a problem. I know we can solve it.”
Sadly, there will “never be enough boots on the ground”, but dedication, enthusiasm and commitment go a long way.
Constantly searching for new ways to manage the enormous area, Simson has embarked on a new project using mules to access remote, difficult places.
Although much of his time is now spent travelling between communities or advising government officials, he still relishes every moment of being out in the field; it’s a reminder of why he chose this challenging but rewarding career.
“It’s amazing to see these animals wandering around here in in such a big open area,” he says. “I other places, you might find them fenced in a park or a zoo. Here, if they run, they will run forever.”