Annette Oelofse has made a name for herself as a committed wildlife conservationist. She has been protecting rhinos in her Okonjati Game Reserve in Namibia, Africa, for almost 30 years. To this day, she raises orphaned rhinos with incredible dedication and patience before releasing them into the wild to live among fellow members of their species in the reserve. Private owners contact her as well as the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to adopt and raise orphaned calves.
Read the full interview with this impressive woman who gives her best every day to protect rhinos and preserve biodiversity in Namibia.
The protection of rhinos is particularly close to your heart. Can you tell us more about the rhinos in Namibia?
Namibia was the first country to enshrine the protection of the environment into its constitution. Thus, thanks to dedicated conservation work, we are privileged to still have the white and black rhino roaming in the wild today.
In 1993, Namibia established the Black Rhino Custodianship program which strives to do the following: Relocate breeding nuclei to suitable habitats as free-ranging populations, where landowners take the responsibility of providing a safe and healthy environment for them to the best of their ability. We were one of the first Custodians and have contributed an immeasurable amount of time and capital to the protection of the black rhino, despite of it being state-owned. Since then, the black rhino population has quadrupled in Namibia. Unfortunately, poaching in other parts of the country has taken a toll on the numbers again. That’s due to the international greed for their horns, which are valued for prestigious reasons or medical purposes, supposedly, when in fact, they are of zero value. The black rhino has been evolving and adapting to the harshest environments over decades. Now, a species, which has survived for millions of years, is about to be eradicated by humans for a worthless cause.
Namibia’s white rhinos are privately owned. My late husband Jan re-introduced the first white rhino into the Okonjati Game Reserve in 1975. Rhinos are extremely special to me. They are a very gentle and kind, intelligent and emotional species. They just want to live and be left alone.
You have raised countless orphaned calves and released them back into the wild. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Nossi was the first orphaned rhino we received in 1995. She was only seven days old and was brought to us by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Nossi was born prematurely, weighing only 25 kilograms (55 pounds), which is approximately 10 kilograms (22 pounds) under the usual birth weight. She was very weak when she was put into our care. My outlook has always been: where there is life, there is hope. With intense care and dedication – especially during the first three months – as well as with some luck, we saved her. She became part of our daily routine, only weaned off the milk at 18 months. Staying at our side for seven years, she became a companion for more orphans put into our care. She slowly began visiting the wilderness in her own time and finally in year 11 was in calf for the first time. She roams the entire 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) now as part of her species. Even though we do not meet on a regular basis, she accepts me as her rhino mother to this day. She greets me as rhinos do and introduces every new calf to me. In 2021 she turned 26 and gave birth to her tenth calf. A personal ever-lasting connection exists between us, a special bond, which I treasure deeply.
In Namibia, both white and black rhinos still live in the wild. But both rhino species are still threatened by extinction, mainly through poaching. Annette Oelofse has been committed to protecting these animals for more than 25 years. She has made a name for herself through her sustainable and extremely successful approach to rearing.
In the Okonjati Game Reserve, a strong anti-poaching team takes care of the protection of the animals day and night. This includes patrols at the borders as well as surveillance from the air. Special trackers are regularly on the move to identify the individual animals. Each rhino is identified based on photos of their unmistakable lip wrinkles.
You can support Annette Oelofse’s rhino project through the Mount Etjo Rhino Trust.
You have already been called “the rhino whisperer.” Can you describe your special connection to these animals? How do you communicate with them?
I feel honored to be called a “rhino whisperer.” My connection with the rhinos comes from deep within. Over the years I have gained an integral understanding of their body language, their emotional and psychological needs. The orphans read a calmness in my voice, they often greet by searching for my breath, they read my state of mind as much as I do theirs. Every time I meet Nossi in the bush, even if we have not seen each other for several months, we follow the same ritual. Each time we see each other, I am overcome with a very spiritual emotion, leaving me in awe with appreciation for the trust she gives me.
Annette Oelofse was born in Otjiwarongo, a small town in northern Namibia. Her mother had immigrated from Germany in the 1950s. She grew up on a cattle ranch run by her parents in the middle of the bush. Since early childhood, Annette and her three brothers helped with the farm work: driving cattle, vaccinating animals, and milking the cows. They accompanied their father on hunts and later hunted themselves. “Most nights we came home sweaty and dusty. We loved it.” Life in the bush in harmony with nature and her parents’ tireless dedication and diligence made Annette Oelofse the person she is today. In the 1980s, she married Jan Oelofse, a well-known wildlife conservationist. Their son Alexander was born in 1985. For 30 years, Annette and Jan worked together to build the Okonjati Game Reserve. Today Annette runs the reserve and lodges together with her son, his wife Carola, and their two children. She loves nature in all its facets, and also enjoys camping and photography.