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Dispatches : Travel

A Balkan Journey: Slovenia to Croatia

Heavy storms and a 100-year flood battered the Balkans in May, but by the end of the month, the sun appeared and I was bound for Slovenia and the northern head of the new Via Dinarica hiking trail, which follows the Dinaric Alps, a 620-mile string of peaks spilling south and east from the Alps proper.

My goal: to walk several sections of the route, which, like the range, parallels the Adriatic Sea and connects countries down the length of the Balkan Peninsula. The main artery of the Via Dinarica—named Outside’s Best New Trail for 2014—is called the White Trail. It crosses, in geographic order, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo.

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For countries along the Via Dinarica, the hope is that this megatrail corridor—a project funded by the European Union, the United Nations Development Programme, and the U.S. Agency for International Development—will eventually showcase an underutilized mountain range to a global audience. The route would act as a vehicle to highlight the breadth of the region’s outdoor adventure possibilities and often-overlooked Old World culture and promote environmental awareness. With any luck, it could also ignite and galvanize camaraderie among the range’s historically contentious neighbors.

“Connecting the dots, combining resources and offers, and sharing a common visual identity will help put the Via Dinarica on the outdoor traveler’s radar,” Tim Clancy, media consultant for the project, wrote in an email. “It will provide sustainable incomes for mountain folks as well as youth (where unemployment is as high as 60 percent in many places), and it will force governments’ hands in establishing better channels of cross-border communication and cooperation because of tourism, border-crossing issues, and branding.”

But with all that the Western Balkans countries have endured the past 20 years—hell, the past 500 years—imagining that a trail could act as a tourism engine while also loosening the grip and memory of dictatorships, cross-border wars in the former Yugoslavia, and intolerant fate seems, at the start of our journey, mighty ambitious. The plan does possess one giant trump card: Few acts are as simple, straightforward, beautiful, and universal as a hike in the mountains. For visitors such as myself, this is the brand-spanking-new Via Dinarica’s hopeful, peaceful plea.

Driving through western Bosnia, however, nothing appeared brand spanking new. Old men in coveralls and women with kerchiefs scored black soil with hoes that looked as if they’d been handed down since the Habsburgs. A horse pulling a red wooden carriage filled with hay loped past the occasional burned-out building—souvenirs from the 1990s Yugoslav conflict. Villages were demarcated by symbols devoted to higher powers. The call to prayer, bellowing from a mosque’s minaret, gave way to clover-shaped Orthodox crosses, which morphed into Catholic churches taking shape on the next horizon. Everywhere, axes splitting wood paced the drive with a discordant, metronomic orchestra.

As we drove north, the two-month, six-part journey became real. My trek will begin in karst- and cave-filled Slovenia. Afterward, I will hike through Croatia, which, like Slovenia, is a member of the European Union. Known more for its coast, Croatia possesses a jagged relief of dramatic mountains, including the trail’s namesake: Mount Dinara. Some of the most epic hiking will take place across Bosnia and Herzegovina’s virgin forests and sweeping, untouched vistas.

Then, I’ll take part in a 500-kilometer bicycle ride across Bosnia to commemorate the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Next, I move into Montenegro to experience the Tara Canyon, the deepest river canyon in Europe, and Durmitor National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Finally, I will hike into Albania, home to the rugged Prokletije Mountains and the 8,839-foot Maja Jezerce. I’ll end in Kosovo, one of the world’s newest countries and outdoor-adventure destinations. 

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During each stage, I will travel with a different cast of vagabonds—mountaineers, outdoor enthusiasts, and climbers—who will hike and bike with me and provide local expertise. The exception will be a Dutchman named Thierry Joubert, a friend and mountain guide with a these-aren’t-the-droids-you’re-looking-for demeanor, who runs the Bosnian-based eco-adventure outfitter Green Visions. Thierry has lived in the region for 22 years and will be my partner in crime throughout the journey. 

“The tagline of the Via Dinarica is ‘connecting naturally,’” Thierry said from the driver’s seat, resuming a sentence he’d started before he handed his passport to the border patrol officer. “But what the trail actually does is reconnect people across the Balkans from Slovenia to Albania.”

Though we won’t walk the path step for step, we will be pioneers of sorts. (Most expeditions will be about a week long, and we will occasionally use transfers along the way, due to time constraints.) The nascent trail, fully actualized conceptually, still lacks much in the way of signage, maps, and publicity—even here in the Balkans. Mountain associations along the route have started to jump on board, but for many locals the term Via Dinarica is as foreign as my mama’s homemade apple pie.

The part that won’t be foreign about the Via Dinarica for experienced through-hikers familiar with European trails: the rush of trekking from summit to summit, from hut to hut, from village to village. The difference for those who have hiked in Western Europe: This trail has some polishing yet to do. For folks who like to discover places while they’re still wet-paint-fresh, the time is right for a trans-Balkan jaunt.

I’ve hiked multicountry European megatrails before. In 2007, I walked from Trieste, Italy, up and over the Alps to Monaco on the well-groomed and tourist-heavy Via Alpina. Connecting eight nations, the Via Alpina was the inspiration for the Via Dinarica, which started to take shape on paper in 2010. The skeletal frame for the Via Dinarica, in the process of being fully marked, combines long-standing hiking paths, shepherds’ tracks, smugglers’ routes, and former World War II military trails carved by partisan soldiers while outmaneuvering Nazi regiments.

The populations spread across the Via Dinarica speak three distinct languages and observe four religions. Their histories were molded by the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches in 1054. Their empires were carved up by the Habsburgs, the Ottomans, and the Venetians. Their alliances are ancient. Their rifts are current.

Though the countries of the Balkans have a long history of mountaineering, for the most part people here don’t consider hiking a birthright like those in France or Switzerland might. With the exception of Slovenia and to a lesser degree Croatia, mountain huts aren’t evenly spaced the way they are in Western Europe. Trekking here can be untamed at times. Trail markings can be inconclusive. Maps are precious. Advice from locals and shepherds is even more so. A local human guide’s consultation is often necessary. If one gets lost, it could be for a while. Worst-case scenario: You end up in a Balkan village and take up residence. Best-case scenario: You find a Balkan wife and learn obedience.

“The Via Dinarica is challenging from a sport perspective,” continues mountaineer Kenan Muftić, who was the trail’s project manager during its original planning stages. “But it is removed, and the conditions aren’t perfect like in other places. And,” he looked at me with a mischievous glint in his eye, “it’s wild.”

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The reasons for that wildness are manifold. Some explanations are theoretical, and some are concrete. Theoretically, this isn’t Western Europe. People here are tough. Rare is the generation that hasn’t known hardship of the sort that most living Americans will hopefully never see. My people are from here (my paternal grandfather emigrated to the States), but by every definition I am a delicate flower in comparison.

More concretely, the great outdoors here are, by design, less developed. Massive swaths of the region are unsullied, unindustrialized, and nearly untouched. There are primordial forests. For decades, this region has bucked modernity—through communism and conflict—in an unwitting quest to remain one of the last wild places in Europe. Locals make their own cheese, concoct their own brandy (called rakija), and cook coffee on ancient iron stoves. Shepherds still wander remote hilltops and along craggy mountaintops. Hidden rivers, canyons, and lakes pop up from behind peaks as if a director had moments before called out, “Places!”

And then there’s the war. Folks here—including frequent tourists like me—are desperate to get past the war. At best, the subject is boring for locals. At worst, the fear is that by focusing on the war that splintered Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995, visitors will continue to focus on the war. I won’t go too far down this rabbit hole then, except to say two things. First, the war was devastating in every way a war can be: physically, psychologically, governmentally, and economically. Second, tourists are absolutely safe here. Full stop.

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For the purposes of the Via Dinarica, the war had another, unexpected effect. Especially in Bosnia, the war changed the mountains conceptually. For many, mountains still represent the frontlines during the four-year conflict in the mid-1990s. Armies lobbed mortars into cities from peaks and ridges. Hilltop snipers aimed at children scurrying through streets carrying water.

“A generation of fathers and grandfathers stopped taking their kids into the mountains,” says Samer Hajrić, a Bosnian mountain guide, who was in our SUV on the way to Slovenia. “There is a gap in the tradition.”

And there are the landmines. Landmines are a big problem, especially in Bosnia, which was supposed to be mine-free by 2009. According to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Mine Action Center, mines still cover 2.4 percent of the country, and their complete removal is now projected for 2019. However, safety concerns for trekkers are minimal. Most mine-risk areas are clearly marked. The rule here is “if you don’t know, don’t go.” Translation: If you aren’t absolutely sure about where you’re about to hike, get a guide. You’ll learn more about the trail and the culture, and the price, relative to the United States, is cheap. 

Sound like a lot to digest before a hike in the mountains? It is. The Balkan Peninsula is a beautifully complicated place. Readers should think less about trekking here in terms of reaching lung-busting elevations and more from the perspective of achieving personal-best cultural interactions.

 

After leaving Sarajevo, we had one goal on our first day: get to the Postojnska Jama in Slovenia, the self-proclaimed “best-known cave in the world.” An admittedly tourism-heavy affair, the entrance to Postojna’s 21 kilometers of labyrinthine underground passages is a giant Secessionist-era manor with an apron of cafes, fast-food eateries, and trinket shops. The spot is, however, emblematic of the karst substrate that will cover much of my hike through the Balkan Peninsula’s western half. 

We arrived late in the day and zoomed through the cave on a train moving at a speed that could only be the result of a driver ready to go home to dinner with his wife. We whisked past the stalactites and stalagmites that are indicative of the subterranean level here. Much of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia is riddled with such caves—porous limestone carved by underground rivers—making it one of the largest karst fields on the planet.

The next day, we set off on the first of three days of hiking. We met up with Jernej Jež, a Slovene geologist working with the Geological Survey of Slovenia, appropriately, and a member of the nearby Mountaineering Club Podnanos. As we hiked to Veliki Snežnik, the highest peak in the region at 1,796 meters (5,892 feet), Jež explained that the Dinaric Alps, composed of carbonate rocks, were formed after the Adria microplate plate, moving north and east, collided with the European plate and was tucked underneath. He moved his hands to display a thrusting and folding motion as if he were making an invisible crust-and-mantle Dagwood sandwich.

We walked to the summit of Snežnik Mountain, strewn with patches of grass covering pocked limestone like bad teeth under an unkempt beard. We looked across the southern frontier of Slovenia, often called Little Switzerland. Jež stopped making his earthen hoagie and swung an arm, pointing in the near distance with Vanna White–like grace: “That is Croatia.”

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Coming down from the mountain, we walked past World War I bunkers and tank traps built to protect the border. A mama brown bear saw us and hurried her two cubs over the next ridge. “The Via Dinarica is a perfect plan,” Jež said a few kilometers later when we reached Sviščaki, the next mountain hut. We ordered beer. After a mandatory discussion with the hut’s owner about which of Slovenia’s main beers is better, Union or Laško, Jež continued, “It connects places with similar geographies and different cultures. With different but also the same histories.”

After leaving Jež, we debated our next move. We had originally planned to walk across the border to Croatia, but hiking through countries with relatively new political realities is a logistical challenge. Though both Slovenia and Croatia are EU members, the latter has yet to be admitted in the Schengen Area: a border-free zone that, according to the European Commission’s website, “guarantees free movement to more than 400 million EU citizens.” Rather than risk a large fine and the administrative headache of getting caught illegally crossing the border, we drove through passport control. (Croatia was admitted into the EU in 2013. Rumor is that it will be admitted into the Schengen Area in 2015.)

At around 11 p.m., after a teeth-shattering four-wheel-drive crawl that locals passionately warned us to avoid, we entered the Planinarski dom (mountain hut) Hahlić. We sat with Romina Vidrih, who, with two other families, runs the hut for a mountain association that boasts 200 members. The renovated, meticulously clean hut sleeps 40 and sits in the middle of 10 peaks—all a day hike away. Though Vidrih was a seasoned hiker and had bagged many of the summits I was planning over the next two months, she had not heard of the Via Dinarica.

The next morning, we took one of the day hikes to the nearby Obruč peak before setting off west to Risnjak, the northernmost of Croatia’s eight national parks. Designated a national park in 1953, Risnjak covers more than 24 square miles and forms a synapse between the coast and the continent. As we stared across the unmolested, undulating forested terrain, it became obvious how important protecting sensitive chunks of real estate can be, even—perhaps especially—in a small country about the size of West Virginia. The park provides habitat for more than 1,000 different plants, as well as wolves, bears, and lynx.

It’s a nine-hour hike from the Hahlić through the Platak ski center, across Snježnik—a peak inside the park’s western edge—to the Schlosser mountain hut, which sits just below the Risnjak’s highest point, the 1,528-meter (5,013 feet) Veliki Risnjak. While dining on bowls of polenta-and-beef goulash, we spoke with the proprietor Gari Devčić, who was, he proudly announced, named after Gary Cooper. Every day, Gari treks in daily supplies for the hut, recognized in 2013 as Croatia’s best.

“The Via Dinarica is a fantastic idea. We will build a new Yugoslavia,” Gari said and laughed. “It will be great for mountaineering all over the region. We need many more people to come walk around the mountains for us to stay open.”

We woke at five the next morning to summit Veliki Risnjak. From the peak, we—two Bosnians, a Croatian, a Dutchman, and an American—could see the sun rising over Western Europe. Behind us, the light inched across the park and began to illuminate the coast. “It is easy to feel small, isn’t it?” Thierry asked rhetorically as he turned around to watch the Istrian Peninsula and Croatia’s northernmost islands, Cres and Krk, take shape in the dawn mist. Behind them, our next stage: a hike from Croatia’s Velebit Mountains to Paklenica National Park, famous for its climbing above the Adriatic Sea. “Past those waves, the mountains are waiting for us. We have a long way to go to get to Albania.”

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The Land No Man Would Claim

"No man’s land" is a term that, to the modern ear, can sound like stepping onto a battlefield. In fact, the phrase refers back to the idea of unclaimed land (recorded as "namesmaneslande" in the Domesday survey of England of 1086) and still carries an echo of perennial hopes for free land, for places beyond the control of others. Ordinary places become extraordinary in no man’s land.

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Such in-between places remind us how dependent we are on borders—that our sense of order and certainty draws deeply from the knowledge that we are in governed territory. No man’s lands may be vast stretches of unclaimed land or tiny scraps left over from the planning of cities, though the uncertainty of the no man’s land is especially keenly felt in places that the outside world refuses to recognize or that appear to be between borders.

The notion that places might slip down between borders led me on a geographical quest. I went looking for the farthest possible distance between the border posts of two contiguous nations, to see how far they could be stretched apart.

Most border posts face each other. A change of signage, a different flag, a line on the road, all combine to signal that no sooner have you stepped out of one country than you have arrived in another. But what happens if you keep on opening up that space?A few years ago, with the help of hours spent blinking at the tiny fonts favored on travelers’ Internet chat forums, I found what I was looking for. Along a road between Senegal and Guinea in West Africa the distance between border posts is 27 kilometers.

It is not the world’s only attenuated border area. The Sani Pass, which runs up to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho from South Africa, is the most famous. It’s a rough road, although much visited by tourists in 4x4s seeking out the highest pub in Africa, which sits near the top of the pass. The drama of the trip is heightened by the thrill that comes from learning that this is no man’s land. The South Africa border control, complete with "Welcome to South Africa" signs, is 5.6 kilometers away from the Lesotho border office.

Another specimen is to be found in the mountainous zone between border posts on the Torugart Pass that connects China and Kyrgyzstan. Central America also has a nice example in Paso Canoas, a town that can appear to be between Panama and Costa Rica. It is habitually described as no man’s land because, having left through one border post, you can go into the town without passing through immigration to enter the other country. Some visitors relish the impression that the town around them is beyond borders. Partly as a result, Paso Canoas has developed a darkly carnival atmosphere, as if it were some kind of escaped or twilight place.

What these gaps reflect back at us is our own desires, especially the wish to step outside, if only for a short time, the claustrophobic grid of nations. We probably already suspect that it’s an illusion. Shuffling forward in a queue and making it past the passport officer does not mean you are, at that exact moment, leaving or entering a country. Such points of control exist to verify that you are allowed to enter or leave. Their proximity to the borderline is a legal irrelevance.

Yet this legal interpretation fails to grasp either the symbolic importance of the border point or the pent-up urge to enter ungoverned territory.The fact that Paso Canoas is split by the Panama– Costa Rica border rather than actually being between borders doesn’t stop people from describing it as an "escaped zone."Similarly, the steep valley up the Sani Pass is nearly all in South Africa, and the road down from Senegal into Guinea is always in one nation or another, but that isn’t how travelers experience it or even what they want.

{%{"quote":""There is a primal attraction to entering somewhere real, a place that can be walked on, gotten lost in, even built on, and that appears to be utterly unclaimed.""}%}

The attraction of these in-between spaces has a lot to do with the fact that they are on land. Going through passport control at an airport provides no comparable thrill, even though international airspace is far more like a genuine no man’s land than any number of dusty miles on the ground. It seems that escaping the nation-state isn’t all that is going on here. There is a primal attraction to entering somewhere real, a place that can be walked on, gotten lost in, even built on, and that appears to be utterly unclaimed.

Some of the overland tourist trips that occasionally rumble along the Senegal–Guinea highway offer camping in the no man’s land as part of the package. Like other examples, it’s a zone that provokes people to muse on allegiance and belonging. In his essay Life Between Two Nations, the American travel writer Matt Brown describes encounters with villagers along the Senegal–Guinea road that provoke speculation on the nature of national identity:

I stopped my bike to chat with the woman pounding leaves. I asked in French (my Pular only goes so far), "Is this Guinea?" "Yes," she answered. Surprised that she even understood French, I posed a follow-up question. "Is this Senegal?" I asked. "Yes," came the reply.

A little later Brown sits on "a nationless rock" and imagines these villagers as freed from the "archaic, nonsensical national borders drawn up by greedy European leaders at the Conference of Berlin over 100 years ago." Stretching out border posts does seem to break the seal on the national unit. The resultant gap may not be of much legal import, but for travelers on the ground it creates a sense of openness and possibility.

Yet while travelers may relish this expansiveness, the consequences for those who have to live and work in such places can be less positive, such as heightened insecurity and a sense of abandonment. This is one of the reasons why African states have been trying to close the gap in such anomalous spaces. The African Development Fund, which supports economic infrastructure projects across the continent, has made "establishing juxtaposed checkpoints at the borders" of its member states a priority, including at the Guinea–Senegal border.

What most concerns the fund’s members is the impact that these distant border posts have on the flow of trade. Along the Guinea–Senegal route there are nightmare tales of vehicles being sent back and forth by officials who keep asking for new documentation or demanding new bribes. In-between land can easily turn into a place of bureaucratic limbo where both travelers and locals are uniquely vulnerable to tiresome and corrupt officialdom. Patches of ground "between" nations are places that can be thought of as free, but they are also places where we are reminded why people willingly give up freedoms for the order and security of being behind a border. 

Excerpt from Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. Copyright © 2014 by Alastair Bonnett. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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High Society, Higher Trails

The Leadville Race Series is right around the corner, and if you've scored one of the two suites at the Governor's Mansion, consider yourselves lucky. The historic building on Eighth Street is not only blocks from the race start but also among the few accommodations in town that offer full kitchens complete with cook tops, refrigerators, microwaves, toasters, and coffee makers (runners, you can cook your oatmeal or cream of wheat exactly to your liking on race morning).

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/leadville-mineral-belt-trail-view_fe.jpg","caption":"You'll feel like you're on top of the 10,000-foot town when you wake up at the Governor's Mansion."}%}

Athletes will also love that each suite (which can sleep up to four) has its own entrance and private bath; no waking up everyone on your floor at 3 a.m. as you're sneaking out to the race start or attempting to clear your bowels for the tenth time that morning. 

The first-floor Jesse McDonald suit, named for the former Colorado governor who built the house in 1893, opens into a formal parlor with high ceilings and a gas fireplace. In fact, the Victorian decor—lace curtains, floral wallpaper, antique furniture—makes you wonder for a moment if McDonald himself might come through the front door.

The property is now owned by Jo Ann and Jaime Stuever, who relocated to the Centennial State from Florida in 2005. "Both Jaime and I feel that if you are going to change your life, do it in a big way," Jo Ann says. "I always dreamed of living in an old Victorian house, and when I first walked in the front door, I knew the Governor's Mansion was perfect."

During the past nine years, the couple—in addition to learning to ski—has enjoyed hosting guests and sending them out on adventures in and around Leadville. In fact, they became so engrained in the community that in 2011, Jaime was elected as Leadville's mayor. If you ask him, he'll tell you all about the town's mining history and how it came to be the highest incorporated city in North America.

Surrounded by the highest peaks in Colorado, the quintessential mountain town main street boasts several sporting goods stores, antique shops, and eateries, all in a half-mile stretch. Start your day with an early morning latte and breakfast burrito at City on a Hill, a charming coffee shop that roasts its own beans and showcases local art (this summer, Precision Peaks grace the walls; you likely won't be able to leave without purchasing your favorite mountain).

If time allows, explore the area's many trails (check out the Mineral Belt Trail, which loops 11.6 miles around town, or go father afield to Turquoise Lake or Mount Elbert). Afterward, refuel at High Mountain Pies or grab a late-night beer at the Silver Dollar (what the saloon lacks in local draughts, it makes up for in atmosphere).

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/leadville-downtown-saloon_fe.jpg","caption":"The one and only saloon is the perfect place to have a cold one and bask in the glory of the Wild West."}%}

And don't forget about the second-story deck back at the Governor's Mansion. It just might be the best place in town to watch the sun set over the Rockies and prop up your tired feet.

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Your Travel Photos Are Helping Rhino Poachers

Seeing a rhino in the wild is one of Africa’s quintessential safari experiences and a lump-in-your-throat moment for those lucky enough to realize the dream. This is what you came to the continent for, right? 

Maybe you’ll zoom in with your SLR camera and snap some great shots that you’ll edit later and share online with friends. Or perhaps you’ll take quick pics on your cell phone and post on Facebook or Instagram within minutes.

Either way, what you might not realize is that the second you share that photo online, you could be helping a rhino poacher find his next victim.

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Finding Rhinos

The Hospitality Association of Namibia recently posted a photo on its Facebook page of a sign hanging in a safari vehicle that reads: "Please be careful when sharing photos on social media. They can lead poachers to our rhino. Turn off the geotag function and do not disclose where the photo was taken."

Geotagging is the process of automatically including geographic information in cell phone pictures. When you share your photos with others, the information is embedded within the photograph, and anyone with access to the Internet can extract that data from your picture.

Plug the longitude and latitude into Google Maps, for example, and you could discover the exact spot where the photo was shot, give or take a few feet. Combine that with the fact that rhinos are very sedentary and often hang out in the same general area for days at a stretch, and you have a potentially serious situation.

"If you’ve got a fresh GPS coordinate for a rhino—or you know where it’s going to water every night—it’s very easy to quickly find and poach it," explains Chris Weaver, director of the Namibia program for World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Rhino poaching has dominated the news recently, as the number of endangered animals killed over the past few years has risen astronomically—all in an effort to sell the horns of the prehistoric mammals. Some believers of traditional Asian medicine think pulverized rhino horn will cure strokes, convulsions and fevers, among other ailments.

Though there is no scientific proof of such medicinal value, rhino horn is nonetheless highly prized—so much so that a single rhino horn can fetch $250,000 on the black market.

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Faux Tourists

As more and more of the endangered rhinos are killed, conservationists and government officials in some parts of Africa have become extremely protective. In fact, they try not to discuss the animals publicly anymore.

"While Namibia would love to boast about its success with relocation of protected species into private parks and the growth of its rhino population and rhino tracking activities, unfortunately such positive news may draw poachers to our area," said Gitta Paetzold, CEO of the Hospitality Association of Namibia. To combat this, several organizations have started educating travelers about how poachers can pluck GPS coordinates off photos that tourists post on social media sites.

Poachers can also examine your photos and identify markers in the background, such as a particular grove of trees or a mountain peak. And some illegal hunters even pose as tourists, going on guided expeditions on game farms or in national parks. The first time this happened, in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, two men killed a pair of white rhinos. The men were later arrested. It’s even happened in India, where poachers killed a pair of one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga National Park.

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Guides, of course, lead their visitors right to where the rhinos are, and the faux tourists may then snap photos without raising any suspicions. Would-be poachers or informants can then send a photo with a location tag to anyone or return to the spot later to seek out the rhino.

Weaver was recently exploring the Namibian desert with some guests when he came across a group of tourists who took an unusual interest in two white rhinos. They snapped more than the typical number of photos of the animals with their cell phones and spent more time with them than Weaver has observed during his 20 years working in Namibia.

"I’m thinking, how would a person know that they’re not just forwarding these photos on to China or Vietnam and saying ‘How much will you pay for information on this rhino?’" Weaver said. "Pass that on, and five minutes later, you’ll have an answer back: ‘I’ll give you X amount for that set of horns."

It’s not a far-fetched proposition. In South Africa, for example, officials have become more vigilant about rhino tourism, documenting the names and visits of tourists. Weaver said he’s even heard of some spots where cell phones are forbidden on safari vehicles.

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How You Can Help

Although visitor photos may inadvertently help poachers on occasion, there is a silver lining: travelers can actually be a huge aid to rhino conservation efforts, especially in Namibia where tour operators work with community members who value wildlife and work tirelessly to protect it.

"You as a tourist are actually making a difference," WWF’s Weaver says, explaining that a portion of tour payments go toward community conservation efforts. "Your tourist dollars create long-term incentives for people to set aside habitat for wildlife and live with wildlife."

To ensure you’re not aiding poachers with your travel photos:

  • Disable the geotag function in the settings section of any smartphone you use to take photos.
  • Strip off the location data on photos previously shot.
  • Be mindful of privacy settings on social media sites. if posting photos of rhinos, only share them with trusted contacts.
  • Pay attention to fellow tourists. If you see someone acting out of the ordinary or hear a few too many questions about where rhinos are and how long they’ll stay there, alert national park staff or your guide. That person could be a poacher informant.
  • Be wary of sharing too much information with overly interested people, such as taxi drivers or hotel staff. If a line of questioning gets too detailed about the location of an animal you saw that day, answer vaguely.

Learn more about what WWF is doing to stop rhino poaching.

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