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An effort funded by the Minnesota Zoo to save endangered black rhinos in southern Africa is showing unprecedented results, going nearly two years without a poaching incident and recently marking the birth of 17 calves.

“We’ve been really excited about what’s happening,” said Seth Stapleton, the zoo’s field conservation director. “It’s one of those stories we love to tout because it’s a nice, refreshing success story.”

Many zoos fund international conservation programs, but the Minnesota Zoo’s rhino program — now in its 10th year — is unusual, officials said. It funds a full-time biologist in Africa, while the more common model is for zoos to fund another organization’s conservation work, Stapleton said.

Jeff Muntifering, the Minnesota Zoo’s Namibia-based conservation biologist, said some of the rhino program’s recent success is due to Mother Nature. The 17 baby rhinos were born only after a historic drought recently ended, which had kept rhinos from reproducing for nearly two years.

But the other victory, a dramatic reduction in poaching, comes largely from the program’s community-centered philosophy, Muntifering said. He, along with several groups, work with local residents to ensure that live rhinos are more valued than dead ones.

“What we try and do is support them by creating this almost impenetrable buffer area around the rhinos where local people simply will not tolerate poachers,” Muntifering said during a recent visit to Minnesota.

The community-based initiatives are working, he said. Since 2017, locals have turned in 18 suspected rhino poachers.

A zoo’s effort to promote a particular species typically is tied to a zoo exhibit, said Matt Brown, the Nature Conservancy’s Africa director, pointing to the Denver Zoo and its focus on Grevy’s zebras.

That’s not the case with the Apple Valley zoo, which has no rhinos (if you don’t count a couple of bronze ones). But Stapleton said focusing on saving a well-known animal can be a good way to drive enthusiasm for conservation.

“Sometimes that’s an easier approach to take because it’s this big, charismatic animal that people will gravitate to,” he said.

About 5,500 black rhinos survive in Africa today, and 1,500 to 1,800 of those are in Namibia, a nation of 2.6 million on the Atlantic Ocean. Muntifering wouldn’t say how many live near him in northwest Namibia, where rhinos roam freely, for fear of their safety.

“For there not to be a poaching incident [in 22 months] is pretty phenomenal,” Brown said.

Rhinos elsewhere aren’t as lucky. In neighboring South Africa, poachers slaughter an average of two rhinos a day for their highly prized horns.

Keeping hope alive

Conservation programs at the Minnesota Zoo range from efforts to protect mussels, bison and butterflies to an international project for wild horses in Mongolia. The international programs are funded through the Minnesota Zoo Foundation and receive no public money, officials said.

The Minnesota Zoo’s rhino project has a budget of $250,000, of which $150,000 comes from the zoo, Munti­fering said. That includes his salary.

Muntifering, a native of Sartell, Minn., was living in Namibia doing cheetah conservation work when he learned of the nonprofit Save the Rhino Trust and its work with the world’s largest free-ranging group of black rhinos.

He took a look at the landscape, spent two weeks on rhino patrol and “that was it,” he said. “I was sold.”

Sartell, Minn., native Jeff Muntifering, at front lower right, gathered with a group of Rhino Rangers — local Namibians who are paid to track and protect the country’s black rhino population from poachers — in this photo from the Minnesota Zoo taken in 2013.

Muntifering describes the creatures as vigilant yet curious animals with poor eyesight that browse through bush areas looking for twigs and leaves to eat. They will defend themselves, he said, but they’re not as aggressive as some people think.

“They’re living dinosaurs,” he said. “So imagine seeing them out in this timeless moonscape that Namibia is. You can’t replicate that experience.”

Poachers killed 20 rhinos in the region in 2013, more than any other year he’s been there. The prize: rhino horns.

Rhino horn is a valuable commodity, prized in China and Vietnam for its purported medicinal properties. It’s also a status symbol given as a gift or part of a business transaction, Muntifering said.

“It’s very scary because, if you can imagine, what is it that’s going to make [rhino horn] absolutely priceless? The rhinos go extinct,” Munti­fering said.

Rather than investing in guns and fences, however, his goal — and that of the groups he collaborates with — is to get the local community involved.

Muntifering spends half his time helping Save the Rhino Trust analyze rhino data collected each month. He also researches how to increase local tourism and coordinates the Rhino Rangers, community members paid to track rhinos daily. Muntifering provides incentives and outfits them with equipment they need, such as boots.

A newer strategy is the Rhino Pride campaign, which engages the wider community, from farmers to schoolchildren, in celebrating all things rhino. Rhino Pride offers youth clubs, hosts sports tournaments and even commissions songs about the creatures.

Muntifering said the rise of creative solutions to poaching in Africa makes him optimistic, as do the attitudes of younger Asians disgusted by the rhino horn trade.

Does he have hope for rhinos’ future? “I sure do in Namibia,” he said.