A Minnesota biologist hopes to save black rhinos from extinction by using economic development to keep poachers at bay.
Jeff Muntifering treks across wide expanses in Namibia, on Africa's southwestern coast, encouraging villagers to preserve the species in exchange for tourism dollars, as part of the Africa-based group Save the Rhino Trust.
He says he can't imagine doing his work anywhere else.
"Think of Minnesota with about 70,000 people, a couple tarred roads, and a single fence," he said. "This place is magic."
Last year, the Minnesota Zoo and the Nature Conservancy partnered to fund rhino conservation efforts. The zoo hired Muntifering to help implement a Namibian government program designed to save one of the world's most endangered species. There are just 4,000 black rhinos left in the wild.
The Black Rhino Custodianship Program aims to move the animals into areas where community members agree to protect the species. In exchange, the community can enter into contracts with private tourism companies and keep the profits.
Thirteen rhinos have been relocated into seven areas since the program began in 2005.
"We basically can't move rhinos into communities fast enough to keep everybody happy, which is unheard of," Muntifering said.
Poachers killed over 90 percent of the black rhino population between 1970 and 1990. Hunters pursued the massive animals for their horns, hacking them off with machetes and leaving the animals to die.
The horns sell for as much as $10,000 a kilo on the black market and are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
"It's still a scary thing to look back on...how fast that many animals were wiped out," Muntifering said.
Namibian conservation efforts begun in the 1980s have reduced poaching. The country is now home to one-third of the world's wild rhinos.
Conservationists keep track of the numbers in a database, using ear markings and horn shape to identify the animals. They also give each rhino a name.
A few months ago, Muntifering and a local team set out in search of a pregnant rhino named Sharon. By the time they found her, she had given birth to a male calf.
The baby rhino needed a name, and the team leader, glancing up at Muntifering's Minnesota Zoo shirt, settled on "Sota."
Muntifering says the Minne(sota) connection makes sense.
"I think we have a special place somewhere inside of us that speaks to big, wild places, Boundary Waters, growing up at your cabin up north," he said.
Muntifering says he hopes that sense of connection will persuade Minnesotans to donate money to save the species.
And, he admits he just likes the idea of having a baby rhino named Sota roaming across the Namibian plains.