Namibia's female rhino rangers make an impact beyond the areas they survey

Women like Erlyn Tauros are challenging stereotypes, supporting families, and protecting the world's only free-roaming black rhinos

Portrait of Erlyn Touros, rhino ranger in Namibia

For 21 days each month, rhino ranger Erlyn Tauros's home is a canvas tent in the sun-beaten wilds of northwestern Namibia. She walks up to 19 miles daily and more than 300 miles per cycle across some of Africa's harshest terrain. With about five days between each trip into the field, she sometimes feels like she spends more time in the company of wild animals than she does with her four children. The work is hard, but rewarding. "Seeing a healthy rhino makes me happy. A struggling rhino upsets me," she said.

Erlyn became a rhino ranger for the Uibasen-Twyfelfontein conservancy in 2019. The area forms part of a large, contiguous landscape in Namibia’s Kunene region. It is home to a population of unique desert-adapted black rhinos and small communities of Namibians who share space with wildlife. There are 86 conservancies in Namibia like the one that employs Erlyn. Through these community-run areas, local people manage and benefit from the wildlife they live with through jobs, proceeds from tourism, and other sustainable resource use.

"When we understood that rhino poaching was going to hit Namibia, communities, traditional authorities, non-profit organizations, and conservancies got together and started the Rhino Ranger program because the communities wanted to help," said Andrew Malherbe, COO of Save the Rhino Trust, a Namibian non-profit that helps protect desert-adapted black rhino and other wildlife species. In the 1980s, Namibia lost more than 95 percent of its rhinos to poaching. Four decades later, through collaboration with the Namibian Government and local people, the black rhino population of Kunene has grown. Today, Namibia is home to the largest population of black rhinos on Earth.

After returning from the field, Erlyn Tauros prepares a meal at home with her nephew.

The "desert-adapted" black rhinos in Kunene are the only truly wild black rhino population remaining in the world, living on unfenced communal lands and outside of national parks. The rhinos survive in the rugged, dry landscape, under a scorching sun. Here, they feed on the ubiquitous euphorbia bushes, toxic to the touch for humans. Lions and elephants roam the landscape too. Yet, soft-spoken Erlyn thrives here. "As Damara-Nama, our upbringing is in nature. You learn to live from the land at a young age," she said.

Incredibly, when Erlyn applied to be a rhino ranger, she'd never actually seen a rhino. Yet she developed a fascination for the species by listening to stories about rhinos from rangers in her community. She also needed a job; there are few opportunities in these remote parts of Namibia. "I was scared at first, but now I can do anything another ranger can do," she says proudly.

Rhino Rangers like Erlyn are salaried employees of conservancies. Save the Rhino Trust and its  partners Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation and Namibia Nature Foundation provide the rangers with food and equipment and logistical support vehicles. When the program started in 2012, most candidates were men. Today, around 60 rhino rangers operate in 13 conservancies, and six are women.

"I am the sole breadwinner," says Erlyn, admitting that it's a struggle to leave her kids for long periods. It's also hard to stretch her salary to cover her monthly responsibilities, which extend to financially supporting her mother, siblings, and nieces and nephews. Her hopes and ambitions for the next generation are modest - education and the opportunity to support themselves. Job creation linked to conservation remains the goal of many of Namibia’s conservancies.

Most of the world's remaining black rhinos live in national parks. Namibia hosts the only population that roams free.

The desert landscape may seem inhospitable but is home to black rhinos, elephants, lions, zebras, and other wildlife. 

Out in the field, Erlyn has a reputation amongst her colleagues for being an early-riser, just as the sky is tinged pink by the sun. She prepares a simple breakfast of maize meal porridge and dons her hat, khaki fatigues, and sturdy boots. And then she walks, sometimes with fellow rhino ranger Jessica Iubate, sometimes with a different ranger. They photograph and capture data about every rhino they see and are rewarded for the quality of their images, the distances they walk, and other information that feeds into the comprehensive database run by Save The Rhino Trust Namibia.

Erlyn says their best defense against the often unpredictable black rhinos is her knowledge of the land. "You can safely encounter rhinos if you observe them and have learned to understand their behavior. Although I have been charged before, black rhinos have a clear comfort zone; respecting this and paying attention to the wind direction is usually enough to keep you safe.” Rhinos have poor eyesight but a very strong sense of smell so she tries to stay upwind of them.

Years ago, more experienced rangers taught Erlyn to notice the signs of an animal passing through an area. Now, she can tell an individual rhino from the impression of its feet or how it navigates the terrain. “I tell [my children] about the animals I meet and why I care for them,” she says. “I want them to see them someday.”

Eryln Tauros spends 21 consecutive days a month in the field and is the sole breadwinner for her family