Thanks to pioneering community conservation schemes and inspirational individuals, Namibia is that rarest of things: a wildlife success story. as Wanderlust founder Lyn Hughes found
One morning – that’s all it takes to fall for Namibia. It’s something to do with all that spectacular space – the southern African nation has one of the lowest population densities on the planet. But it’s also to do with how that space is cared for.
Garth picked up a stone from a pile of rocks that had been stained white. “The male rhino likes to mark its scent by using urine. Its penis points backwards – this is splashback.”
It was the fourth day of my exploration of southern Kunene, led by the Gandalf-like figure of Garth Owen-Smith. We had driven by 4WD through vast, ancient landscapes: gravel plains, flat-top mountains, brooding granite outcrops, plains of basalt boulders. It’s an arid, rugged land, the oldest desert on earth. However, despite the seemingly harsh conditions, we spotted plenty of life, from groups of skittish oryx, with their distinctive long, straight horns, to mountain zebra, ostrich and springbok.
At night we camped in one beautiful spot after another: in a tree-fringed dried-up riverbed; on a sandy hillside with dramatic views; next to a pretty river, running despite a two-year drought; and at Wereldsend (‘World’s End’), an education centre at the forefront of the community conservancy movement.
I had been tempted here by the possibility of tracking desert elephants, lions and rhinos. But, just as fascinating, was hearing about the human element of Namibia’s conservation story.
The statistics are staggering. The country has the largest number of free-roaming black rhino in the world, and the largest number of cheetahs. It is the only country where lion numbers are increasing. Elephants, too, have grown in number, with the desert elephants of the north-west increasing from around 20 in 1995 to 150 now. What’s more, the majority of these animals live outside national parks.
“There are elephants just down river from here, and we know lion are around,” Garth had announced on the first evening. “If you need to get up in the night, just go behind your tent!”
Around 46% of Namibia’s land is protected in some way, and this percentage is creeping up all the time. Uniquely, conservation is even enshrined in the country's constitution. But Namibia's approach is very different to the rest of the world. It was Garth who first pioneered active local involvement in conservation, proposing that communities would help take care of the wildlife, and also reap the benefits that followed.
After Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990, the way was cleared to move forwards with the idea of communal conservancies; by 1998 the first were formed.
The community gains in several ways. Trophy hunters come to shoot carefully selected animals, creating a very lucrative revenue stream. The increasing number of game animals means that some need to be ‘harvested’ each year, providing locals with meat. But tourism is the biggest growth area, and now the biggest earner. Lodges are set up as joint ventures between communities and investors, providing both revenue and jobs. Rhino monitors are recruited from the community; local people also have the opportunity to become guides and trackers.
There are now 79 community conservancies in Namibia, with more to come. They cover nearly 20% of the country, and one in five rural Namibians lives within them. The people have chosen to live with the wildlife.
We’d stopped by a spring, which was marked by salvadora bushes and overlooked by a cliff. This was to be our best chance of seeing a rhino, so our other guide, Boas Hambo, had walked down to the spring, through the bushes, while we held back at a safe distance. When he returned he was agitated and breathless.
“There was a little leopard cub, just a few metres away.” Which inevitably meant that there must be a mother leopard very close too. And she wouldn’t be impressed at our appearance – only the previous evening, amid hair-raising stories of animal encounters, Boas had told us how a lion could be chased away, but not an angry female leopard: “She’ll just keep on coming.”
As we went to leave the spot, there was movement on the cliff-face. A leopard was making her way purposefully up it, her cub a few metres behind. Within seconds they’d disappeared over the top. “That’s only the seventh leopard I’ve seen,” said Boas. I hoped it was a talisman.
It was desert lions that we had been hoping to see the day before. Renowned lion researcher Dr Philip ‘Flip’ Stander had popped by our camp on the first night, and revealed that he was searching for two sets of lions – a mother with some new cubs and a small group of sub-adults. He was intending to dart two of the lions to collar and measure them, and promised he would let us know when he found one group or the other.
The next day we’d followed the dried-up bed of the Huab River, and came across a set of tracks from the night before. Looking around we came across another set of tracks in the sand, and then another larger set. It was the sub-adult group.
Flip had driven over in his distinctive khaki-coloured Land Cruiser and jumped out, bushy-bearded and barefoot. Obsessed with his beloved lions, he is out night and day looking for them; his arms were covered with felt-penned data. Flip burned with intensity as he discussed where the lions could possibly be.
He’d headed up into the mountains to look for them, and we’d diverted to Slungpost, where a lion-proof kraal (cattle enclosure) had been built. With the region in drought, the herders were taking the cattle further afield to find water and grazing, but this made them more vulnerable to lions. As a sobering insight into the problems the community face, we heard that 18 months ago this was a herd of 70 cattle – now it was just 19. With lion numbers growing, there is increasing conflict.
Back at camp we’d been told that Flip would phone in by satellite if he came across the lions – but that could be at any time, even three in the morning. I’d lain awake all night, fully dressed, hoping for the call. But it never came.
We kept spotting rhino tracks and piles of droppings, but nothing fresh. “Let’s try the Springbok River,” said Garth. “It’s about our only chance unless we are extremely lucky.”
Rhinos are territorial. They mark their range with urine and dung, which they kick to help spread the scent, not least because some of it sticks to their feet. “They copulate for 30 to 45 minutes,” Garth told us. “That may be why the horn is considered an aphrodisiac in parts of the Far East, even though it is only hair.” Made of keratin, the same substance as hair and fingernails, rhino horn has no magical properties at all – but try telling that to the growing middle-classes of Vietnam and China.
At Wereldsend Garth had shown us the shocking sight of dozens of rhino and elephant skulls. They dated back to 1982, when he first arrived here to work for the Namibia Wildlife Trust. In his first year he found the carcasses of 52 poached rhinos and 148 elephants. However, he was instrumental in getting community guard positions created, and in winning local support. When a rhino was poached by a local in December 2011, the poacher was named by the community and arrested within 48 hours.
Garth is modest about his role in the creation of community conservancies and their success. “The story is not mine – I’ve been given too much credit for it. The people who really deserve the credit are the people of this area. They have shown the rest of the world what can be done.”
It is true that there are many who have helped the conservancy movement succeed, and they have had the support of various bodies, including the WWF and World Bank. But it is clear that Garth has been a catalyst. Even the company we are travelling with, of which he is a trustee, is owned by Herero and Himba communities.
We drove on past a ‘forest’ of welwitschia plants, their two leaves shredded to ribbons by hundreds of years of weather. Often referred to as living fossils, these extraordinary plants are believed to date back to the Jurassic period, and individual plants can live for 1,000 years or more. Indeed, some may be more than 2,000 years old.
Endemic to northern Namibia and southern Angola, they are an arresting sight. And at least they are not poisonous like the most common plant we saw, the infamous Euphorbia damarana. Stories about it abound, from the legend of the miners who died after eating food that had been barbecued over euphorbia branches, to Garth’s eye-watering tale of an acquaintance who’d got a few drops of the plant’s milky latex on his hands, and then gone for a pee...
We pulled up, and examined a set of fresh tracks, which were heading down towards a dried-up riverbed, fringed by salvadora bushes and mopane trees. Boas equipped himself with a radio, camera and binoculars, and headed down towards the river. Only the night before he had told us how you should never track alone: “You can be so busy looking at the tracks that you can walk straight into the
Although famously grumpy, black rhinos have poor eye sight. So, providing you see them first, and keep your distance, you should be alright. Nevertheless, Boas had run us through his Rhino Survival 101 the night before: 1) don’t wear black or white; 2) don’t wear perfume; 3) keep quiet – their hearing is at least twice as good as a human’s; 4) wear walking boots; 5) work out your escape route.
Boas, a Himba, had seen his first rhino when he was a toddler – the animal had meandered right past his house, causing the whole family to run inside to hide. At the age of six he started to tend his family’s goats, and developed a healthy respect for all wild animals, including the rhinos, which he would take care to avoid surprising.
These days Boas is more worried about bumping into an elephant. Kunene’s desert-adapted elephants are nowhere near as habituated to humans and vehicles as the animals you find in some of Africa’s national parks. The previous day we had come across a large bull with a fine set of tusks. He was browsing in
a lush reedbed, next to a pool formed by a spring. We kept a respectful distance from him and, although aware of our presence, he kept his back to us as he got on with the serious business of eating.
“...And that’s not good for us,” said Garth, pulling on his pipe. We had driven on and up a steep hill that overlooked an epic view. From the dried-up riverbed far below, two curious giraffes stared up at us. On the plain behind them was a herd of mountain zebra and – visible through the binoculars – small groups of ostrich, oryx, kudu and springbok.
There has been a two-year drought in the north-west, and many of the animals looked skinny. They can usually find water as the area is scattered with natural springs but it is harder to find food. In many cases, these desert-adapted animals have learned to browse rather than just graze. Even the domestic cows could be seen browsing bushes and trees.
Earlier, we’d had the option to mountain-bike rather than take the vehicles. I’d declined but, now, the keen cyclists came huffing and puffing up the hill. We each wandered off in silence to contemplate the view; it felt as if we had Africa at our feet.
At least some good news had come in. “Flip’s alive,” reported Garth, relieved. He had clearly been more concerned about Flip’s lack of contact than he’d let on. Then the radio crackled again – it was Boas. “Come down to the spot where we saw the ostrich earlier. Park there and walk...”
A hundred metres in front of me, in the shade of a shepherd tree, an ear twitched. Gradually more of the shape came into view. Two ears, a heavy head and the great horn of a mature male rhino. It was sobering to think that his horn would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in China or Vietnam. Although we were upwind of him, he turned his huge skull towards us, sensing there was something of which he needed to be aware.
Boas recorded the sighting in his rhino monitor notebook and took a photo. We stood in silence for a few more minutes. There was little sense in causing the rhino any stress by moving closer, so we turned away. I paused, looked back over my shoulder and saw him relax, happily secure and safe in his world.
If booking a trip with another tour operator (or lodge/camp), do ask if any of your money goes to the community conservancies. Tour operators that feature Kunene Conservancy Safaris include Expert Africa.