The rhino in the room

Running with lions, sleeping in trees and never taking a day off… Phoebe Smith meets the man in charge of one of Namibia’s APU’s who fights tirelessly to protect the critically endangered black rhino.

Paid partnership with Onguma Nature Reserve

The rhino in the room

A day in the life of Onguma’s anti-poaching unit

Running with lions, sleeping in trees and never taking a day off… Phoebe Smith meets the man in charge of one of Namibia’s APU’s who fights tirelessly to protect the critically endangered black rhino

To listen along to this story on Onguma’s anti-poaching Unit, or to pause the playback, click the play button:

“I’m currently facing a charge of attempted murder,” Jonathan Strijbis’ face doesn’t betray a hint of emotion as he matter-of-factly explains the latest predicament he has found himself in thanks to his job protecting one of the most endangered animal species in the world.

As he looks at me in the purple light of an early Namibian morning, the temperature so low our breath is clearly visible, I can’t help but snuggle further into the fleece-lined poncho he’s brought for me. 

It might not be a phrase you expect to hear when sitting in the middle of the Namibian bush on a safari vehicle, miles from the nearest lodge. But then his job description defies all expectations.

Jonathan – or Yona as everyone calls him – is the reserve manager at Onguma Reserve, a 360 square kilometre segment of former agricultural land (that’s 360 times the size of the Isle of Gibraltar), which borders the eastern edge of Etosha National Park.

© Jan Joost & Nadia Snijders

While the crowds flock to its more famous neighbour, those in the know stay for at least a couple of nights in Onguma itself which is home not only to 50 different animal species including elephants, lions, leopard, oryx and over 230 species of birds, but – also – two new white rhino and a family of the critically endangered black rhino.  

Their presence should be one to be celebrated, and certainly, for tourists, the mere chance to see one of these rare specimens in the wild is a huge draw. But in their scarcity lies the problem, and the reason for Yona to be here: poaching.

There are thought to be fewer than 6,500 of them left in the world (according to the International Rhino Foundation’s 2023 figures) and that makes their horns, those keratin protrusions made from the same protein that forms our hair and nails, valuable.

This is particularly true, says Save the Rhino, in China and Vietnam where they are a sought-after ingredient of ‘traditional medicine’ as well as a status symbol to show your wealth.

“A raw rhino horn can be sold for $69,000 per kilo, and if it’s been worked, you get up to $120,000 per kilo,” explains Yona, as we keep our eyes focused on the gaps between the leadwood trees, looking for movement.

“It’s an insane amount of money. And unfortunately, in Africa, a lot of people struggle with unemployment, so when they are offered $20,000 – more than they could ever earn working legally, for getting one horn – it’s not difficult to understand why they take it.”

As such, poaching was once rife here. That was until Yona set up the Anti-Poaching Unit (APU) in 2018, following a year that saw eight healthy adults killed for their horns, and led to a major manhunt in 2019 when two armed poachers were spotted in the reserve.  One of them was severely injured and though Yona saved his life, the poacher then accused him of attempted murder, later dropped to manslaughter, which is still a charge he is fighting. 

“It’s not uncommon,” he explained when we stopped to make some coffee and listen to the sound of a giraffe munching on leaves up ahead. “Syndicates operate here, and they want to cancel me, as I am the problem that stops them from making more money. They want me gone.”

Such is the threat from these organised criminal groups that Yona’s team members cannot be identified or even tell their family members what they do, in case their partner’s or children’s lives are threatened.

“They want me gone”

“It’s selfless really,” said Yona, “You don’t get the reward because it’s a secret, so those doing this work are some really special people.”

As we drove further along the track, Yona pointed out the near-camouflaged campsite of a couple of members of his team who have to effectively live out with the wildlife while on shift.

As I looked at the tiny tent, a black mamba slithered in front of our land cruiser and disappeared into the wild sage bushes. It was a pointed reminder that for the APUs it’s not only the poachers who present danger – the wildlife they are out there to look after are also a constant threat – whether it’s snakes in camp, lions trying to steal their food, or even the black rhino themselves.

“The problem is they are quite aggressive by nature,” laughs Yona as we arrive at a waterhole, where signs of the rhino linger everywhere but the ungulates are nowhere in sight. “They like to charge at anything and our teams have been charged at on many occasions.”

As we talk, Yona’s phone constantly sounds alerts. In addition to the 24/7 armed patrols, the introduction of anti-tamper and electric fences, and another top-secret monitoring system, he also has installed a huge network of camera traps to enable him to have eyes all across the reserve. And each movement detected sends a photo directly to his phone. 

The difference made by having APUs on Onguma is clear. Since they were established, there have been years with only one or zero cases of poaching and the rhino population is actually growing. But the sacrifice for Yona is clear – he’s never off duty, and he has to stay fit, which he does by daily running in the reserve (with a handgun) often with curious lions on his trail. 

As we arrive to a clearing and he points to a piece of plywood high in a tree which often serves as his bed / nighttime lookout, I am in awe of the work he and his team does. Though the rhino do bring in visitors, they also cost between $4,000-$5,000 each, per year, to protect. But I’m heartened to know that just by visiting we can help.

“Every guest pays a rhino levy,” he explains as we turn a corner and find lunch waiting, along with the Onguma chef and his team who are cooking a feast on an open fire. “It’s included in the room rate and without it we couldn’t survive. The poachers only need to get lucky once, but we need to get lucky every single day.”

From a rise in the landscape where our chairs have been surreptitiously placed, we watch a bush thriving with eland, wildebeest, zebra and impala. And – somewhere out there – the moody but majestic black rhino.

I ask Yona why – with all the threats, from poachers from wildlife – and even from the law, does he continue to do it? He smiles, knowingly.

“This species is on the brink of extinction and someone’s got to help them survive so that future generations will know what a rhino looks like,” he smiles. “If I don’t do it – who else will?!”

Images © Jan Joost & Nadia Snijders

Need to know

GETTING THERE: Access to Etosha National Park and Onguma Nature Reserve in the north of Namibia is via Hosea Kutako International Airport (WDH), 40km / 25mi east of the capital city, Windhoek.  Many people transit via Johannesburg or Cape Town (flying time 2 hours). 

The distance to self-drive to Onguma is 500km/ 270 miles northbound on paved roads and takes roughly 6 hours. The best way to get to Onguma Nature Reserve is by charter flight, straight into Onguma’s own airstrip. You can also land at Mokuti Airstrip (opposite the gate to Onguma) and book a return road transfer, which as of January 2024,  is complimentary.

BEST TIME TO GO: If your focus is on game viewing, the best time to visit is during the dry season between May and October. Wildlife tends to congregate around the waterholes and vegetation is sparse, making it easier to spot wildlife.

WHERE TO STAY:  Onguma Safari Camps offers a choice of five safari lodges to suit all tastes and budgets: Onguma Camp Kala; Onguma The Fort; Tented Camp; Forest Camp and Bush Camp. 

FOOD: Onguma works in partnership with Oshivelo Farm in a corner of the reserve. They employ 150-180 local people (80% women) all year round and in picking season, up to 280. This is one of the main vegetable producers in Namibia. Guests also enjoy “Farm to Fork” produce served at the lodges – and at bush breakfasts and boma dinners under the stars.

MUST PACK ITEM: Pack layers as nights can be chilly but days are hot. For charter flights you are usually limited by weight and must pack in a soft bag so less is more. Bring your camera and a good pair of binoculars – although there are binoculars supplied on some of the Onguma vehicles.

HOW TO BOOK IT: Please contact your preferred travel agent or tour operator or email reservations@onguma.com. You can also check availability and book online The conservation levy every guests pays (US$150 per person per night) goes directly towards conservation and supporting the vital work of the Onguma APU.  

More information

Watch the trailer for A day in the life of the Onguma Nature Reserve here and see the entire docu-series at onguma.com/onguma-media.

This article on the anti-poaching unit in Onguma Nature Reserve was brought to you in partnership with Onguma Nature Reserve, located on the fringe of Etosha National Park in Namibia.

Onguma is home to four of the Big Five safari animals and features five lodges, two campsites and 34,000 hectares of private wilderness to explore.

Onguma would like to thank their incredible photographers whose images inspire people around the globe to visit them: Jan Joost and Nadia Snijders and Bill Gozansky.


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