[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Namibia – Leading Africa in Community Wildlife Conservation

By John Ledger

In 1967 a young man of 23 took a vacation from his job on a mine, working underground deep below the dry surface of South West Africa. Through the good offices of a friend who worked in government, he was allowed to visit the Kaokoveld, a restricted ‘native reserve’ the size of Belgium, in the north west of the country, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, and on the north by the Cunene River, the border with Angola. It was an experience that changed his life, and also the destiny of wildlife conservation in this vast southern African country.

Garth Owen-Smith was astonished to find the local people and their livestock living alongside wild animals of every description, from elephants and rhinos to springbok, gemsbok and kudu. He resigned from his mining job, and set off on a bicycle to Botswana and Rhodesia, desperately looking for employment that would enable him to fulfil his dream of working with wildlife in wild places. He found none, and returned to Durban in Natal, the province of his birth. He applied to the Department of Bantu Administration and Development (BAD) and in August 1968 he reported for duty as an agricultural supervisor based in Opuwo, the dusty little administrative centre of the Kaokoveld.

He explored the vast region and learned much about the local people, the wildlife and the arrogance of the South Africans who were in charge of governing South West Africa. Originally annexed by Germany in 1882 during Europe’s ‘scramble for Africa’, South Africa was asked to invade the territory by the Supreme Allied Command at the start of World War I. In July 1915 the outnumbered German colonial forces surrendered, and a military government maintained law and order until June 1919, when Pretoria was given control through the Treaty of Versailles, consolidated in 1921 as a ‘C Mandate’ by the recently formed League of Nations. South Africa implemented its particular brand of racial segregation in the territory under its mandate, seeking to create separate areas for the different tribes of native people living in the country.

Garth clashed with his superiors over the illegal hunting of game in the Kaokoveld, and after two and a half years was transferred, without explanation, to a post with BAD in Natal (he discovered later that the real reason was that he was regarded as a ‘security risk’). He resigned from that job, went to university and did various and diverse other things, all the while dreaming of returning to the vast open spaces of the Kaokoveld.

After visiting Australia, and finding it rather boring in comparison to wild Africa, Garth managed to return to the Kaokoveld for a brief sojourn in 1973, working on an ethnobotany project for the Windhoek Museum. Then a stint in Rhodesia saw Garth managing one the Liebig’s cattle ranches, while also becoming involved in Allan Savory’s pioneering experiments on intensive grazing systems. As the war escalated in that country, and friends and colleague started to pay the supreme price, Garth was given an opportunity to return to South West Africa as an employee of the Department of Nature Conservation, initially stationed in the south of the country, before being transferred to Etosha National Park in 1980. In 1982 he resigned to join the newly-formed Namibia Wildlife Trust, with his salary guaranteed by the South African NGO, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) for at least two years. At last he had returned to his beloved Kaokoveld!

But it was depleted of its wildlife wealth by years of drought and poaching. Everyone had participated in the slaughter, including the South African military, civil servants, opportunistic hunters as well as the local people, who had been given .303 rifles and ammunition to defend themselves against the ‘freedom fighters’ of SWAPO (South West African People’s Organisation). Having lost their livestock in the drought, they killed wild animals for food. But the elephants and rhinos were often killed by the more sophisticated hunters, including military men in helicopters.

Garth was faced with turning around this dire situation, in an area of nine million hectares, with very few resources indeed. His previous contact with the local people of the Kaokoveld convinced him that their support and co-operation would be the key to conserving wildlife and restoring its numbers to their former abundance. Together with a local headman he had befriended, Joshua Kangombe, Garth came up with the idea of hiring ‘community game guards’, appointed by their own headman, to look after wildlife in their designated areas. They would get a small cash allowance and also rations sufficient for their families. Several former poachers changed their ways in return for a less risky life, with the assurance of daily meals besides! This was the start of one of the world’s most remarkable nature conservation successes.

Owen-Smith, Garth (2010). An Arid Eden. A Personal Account of Conservation in the Kaokoveld. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Jeppestown, South Africa. Soft cover, 15 x 23 cm, Colour and monochrome photographs, 610 pages.

This is Garth’s story, an excellent book that should be read by anyone interested in Africa and wild places. Today Namibia has become a top destination for hunters, who play a critical role in ensuring the success of this remarkable effort to build a rural economy on the value of wildlife. The important ingredients are all in place: the proprietorship of the animals lies with the landowners, whether private or communal. These landowners are allowed by government to use their wildlife to create wealth and improve their lives, and government also protects these landowners from those who would illegally hunt their animals.

Initially equipped with a single Land Rover, two assistants and six community game guards, the challenges that Garth faced were indeed daunting. Nonetheless, with the support of the community leaders, and a number of successful prosecutions and convictions for illegal hunting, the situation slowly turned around. However, politics again reared its ugly head, as South West Africa was still under the control of Pretoria, although nature conservation issues were handled by the Department of Nature Conservation (DNC) in Windhoek, staffed largely by South Africans. There was a conflict between the DNC and the Damara Council about the land-use of a large section of the Kaokoveld, and Garth was seen to be on the side of the local people.

The Namibia Wildlife Trust informed him that they were closing down the Community Game Guard project. The EWT agreed to fund the project until he end of 1984; but in the middle of that year, an EWT delegation was told by the DNC officials in Windhoek that they were to stop funding Garth’s salary and that of his two assistants, and that in future the rations for the game guards (paid for the EWT!) would be controlled and delivered by DNC staff. The old epithet of ‘security risk’ was implicit in the actions of those DNC officials, and they clearly saw him as a ‘trouble-maker’. The EWT Board of Management was reluctant to clash heads with government, and equally reluctantly cut off Garth’s livelihood.

After surviving for two years without a salary, a change of guard at the EWT saw the DNC challenged and Garth was once again financially supported by the EWT from April 1987. He wrote a ground-breaking article for the Trust’s magazine entitled ‘Wildlife conservation in Africa: there is another way’, which laid out his philosophy of working with local communities, not against them. With wildlife populations steadily increasing, Garth persuaded the DNC to allow some meat hunting for the local communities who had supported the conservation initiatives, and this helped to create goodwill and bolster the authority of the traditional leaders.

Another initiative of the EWT was to organize fly-in safaris to Palmwag Lodge, which Garth led, and 30 such tours resulted in around 300 people from all over the world experiencing the superb scenery and wildlife of this little-explored land. This pioneering tourism income helped to pay Garth’s salary. A number of these tourists would later become important financial supporters of the project, as well as spread the word back home, and the innovative programme of community nature conservation was beginning to gain momentum. All of this was happening against the background of a fierce military conflict in the northern part of the country and Angola, with the looming independence of South West Africa the subject of intense debate and negotiation at local and international level. On 21 March 1990, Sam Nujoma became the first president of the Republic of Namibia after SWAPO won the democratic election.

The new Minster of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism, Nico Bessinger, was a leading member of SWAPO and had been very aware of the pivotal role that Garth and his partner, Margie Jacobsohn, had played in community conservation in the Kaokoveld. He asked for their help to implement his plans to make nature conservation relevant to all Namibians. So Garth was promoted from a ‘security risk’ to ’government advisor’!

The project morphed into the a non-government organisation called Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), which spread its wings further afield into East and West Caprivi. Major international donors now moved in after independence with significant funding, including WWF, USAID and LIFE (Living in a Finite Environment), a contract between the governments of the USA and Namibia. The EWT did not have the financial muscle of these global big-hitters to play a further role, and moved on to support some community conservation initiatives in war-torn Mozambique.

The final step in this historical process was the creation of ‘communal conservancies’. Under the old South African regime, trophy hunting and game farming on freehold land was already established as a viable economic land-use option based on wildlife. The challenge was how to extend this to communally-owned land? In 1996 the Nature Conservation Amendment Act was passed into law. It made provision for rural communities to register ‘conservancies’ and have ownership as well as management and use rights of the wildlife on their land.

There were many difficulties and obstructions to overcome, but in June 1998, the first four conservancies were legally gazetted and registered. President Sam Nujoma received the WWF-US’s prestigious ‘Gift to the Earth’ Award on behalf of Namibia – but there were certainly many other unsung heroes responsible for this remarkable achievement!

In the nearly twenty years since then, the progress has been astonishing. Interested readers should go straight to www.nacso.org.na for further interesting details. NACSO is the acronym for the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organisations. There are now 83 registered conservancies, covering 163, 017 square kilometers of land, and benefiting some 190,000 people. NACSO comprises funding partners, hunting partners and tourism partners. The Namibian government firmly supports sustainable wildlife utilisation and trophy hunting. Namibia’s wildlife is flourishing, while that of many African countries is in decline (as is the case in Angola, Namibia’s northern neighbour).

While many individuals and organisations have helped to fashion this exemplary state of affairs, the role played by the young man who fell in love with the people and wildlife of Namibia fifty years ago deserves much more than a special mention. Thank you, Garth Owen-Smith!

North of the Cunene, wildlife is under siege

Huntley, Brian J. (2017). Wildlife at War in Angola. The Rise and Fall of an African Eden. Protea Book House, Pretoria (www.proteaboekhuis.com). Soft cover, 17 x 21 cm, colour and monochrome photos, 432 pp.

Angola was one of Africa’s last great wildernesses. Gorillas and chimpanzees shared the pristine rainforests of Cabinda, giant sable antelope roamed the miombo woodlands of Luando, and the enigmatic Welwitschia mirabilis crowded the plains of the Namib. But war, intrigues, and arrogance have resulted in the loss and near extinction of most of Angola’s formerly abundant wildlife and the decay and erosion of a once endless Eden.

In this brand-new book, Brian Huntley lifts the lid on Angola’s tragic destruction of its wildlife and protected areas, writing that “The national parks in Angola are in a chaotic and critical state – a situation that must be recognised for what it is, and widely publicised both within the country and globally”.

While Huntley is optimistic that the situation can be turned around, and he gives a number of recommendations as to what should be done, he also comments: “But evidence-based criticism is not popular in Angola. I have been warned not to return to Angola in the wake of this book’s publication.”

Dr John Ledger is an independent consultant and writer on energy and environmental issues, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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