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Desert rhinos, agile as goats, are losing a fight for survival

Frantic efforts are under way to save the desert rhino before poachers send it the way of the dodo. There are only 25 desert rhinos left in the world. Like the desert elephant in this part of Namibia (South-West Africa), this type of rhino has only recently been considered a distinct subspecies of an animal that needs the plentiful vegetation of savannas and forests to survive.

But the scientists' sudden interest in their uniqueness has almost certainly come too late for both animals.

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In 1975, about 300 of these special black rhinos lived and even thrived in the glittering sand dunes and vast black gravel plains of the Namib Desert. Today, only about two dozen desert rhinos live. Many carcasses have been found with the horns ripped off by chain saws. This suggests the work of white rather than African poachers.

Battling against what appears to be a highly organized poacher network is a handful of persons on the ground. They must cover a rugged terrain of some 9 million acres in Namibia's northwestern Kaokoland and Damaraland.

Artist Blythe Loutit and her game-ranger husband Rudi, spend every available moment tracking the rhino and elephant by Land Rover, on foot, or horseback. They journey up parched riverbeds, black slab mountains, and gravel plains. They carry photographs and Identikit cards of each rhino with its name, relevant data , and any identifying nicks on the ears or bumps on the nose.

The two rhino-watchers list the plants the animals have eaten, note droppings , record spoor, memorize their pathways, and mark off rubbing rocks. They also locate their waterholes - but keep these a tight secret, for it is here that poachers lie in wait for the animals at night.

Following the rhino is not an easy job. Despite their massive size, the 31/2 -ton animals that normally lumber across the flat bushveld have developed the agility of goats. They climb steep paths up the schist mountains, sometimes 7, 800 feet above sea level, and will sidle down narrow ledges to reach a precious mouthful of vegetation.

The desert rhino must take what he can in this achingly dry land, and his home range is the largest of any rhino in Africa. It can stretch over 800 square miles, and these rhino have been recorded as traveling for four days and more than 100 miles in search of food.

Desert rhinos feed on about 350 different plants, even the poisonous euphorbia. The rhino's knowledge of the area's hidden waterholes, sometimes as far apart as 45 miles, is passed from generation to generation. Experts say that once the desert rhino is exterminated, there is little chance of its being replaced by other rhino from vegetated areas with no idea of where to find water.

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The rhino here threaten neither people's lives nor their livelihoods - since, quite simply, no one lives here. One reason it is on the verge of extinction is that Asians believe its horn is a powerful aphrodisiac and medical cure-all - even though scientists point out that rhino horns are like human fingernails, and have no medical value.

Under pressure, Hong Kong and North Yemen have now prohibited the import of horn. Export of most rhino products from South Africa was stopped in late 1979.

Yet the trade still flourishes. In 1980, Japan imported 587 kilos (1,291 pounds) of rhino horn from South Africa, according to official statistics. Wildlife experts say the horn originated in Angola, Zambia, Namibia, and Tanzania and was funneled through South Africa. Some wildlife sources believe that the poaching network is being run by Asians in high positions in South Africa.

Meanwhile, the tiny group of rhino-protectors battle on in the far-off Namib. They have formed the Namibian Wildlife Trust to try and save the remaining desert rhino and elephant. The group has the backing of several international conservation groups.

Though battle for the remaining desert rhinos is not hopeful ''so little is known about how these animals cope in this rugged region,'' write naturalists Esmond and Chryssee Bradley Martin, ''that every possible effort should be made to preserve them.''

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