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The Really Wild Show: Namibia's pioneering conservancies

Ruth Styles

12th May, 2011

From the endless red dunes of the south to the teeming game reserves of Damaraland, Namibia is home to some of the world’s most important eco-systems. Ruth Styles went to find out how local people are helping to preserve them

earts in mouths, we watch as a group of elephants emerge from a clump of euphorbia bushes onto a patch of gently waving grass. Shining emerald leaves are forced aside to reveal ochre soil as the enormous animals blunder through the foliage. All of a sudden, one moves aside and a tiny baby appears, swinging its trunk with gusto. So new is the little creature, it’s the first time our guide, Johann, has seen it.

Tails flicking lazily, the elephants settle down to contented chewing while we exchange glances and smile excitedly, elated at having seen one of the world’s most iconic and endangered animals – the desert-adapted African elephant – in the wild. 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have seen anything at all. Poaching in the 1980s saw Namibia’s elephant and black rhino populations hunted almost to extinction, saved only by the likes of the WWF along with far-sighted politicians and local people. A solution was duly found. That solution is the conservancy.

Currently unique to Namibia (although the system is being trialled in Zambia), the Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM), or conservancy, programme adopted by the Namibian government with the help of local safari companies, has seen startling results. Since 1990, the black rhino population has tripled in size, making it the largest in the world according the IRDNC, the Namibian government’s main conservation body. Taken together, conservancy areas and government reserves now make up a whopping 36 percent of Namibian territory including 100 percent of the coastline, the entirety of the Namib desert and a big chunk of the Kalahari.

And it doesn’t end there. According to the Predator Conservation Trust, an NGO dedicated to the preservation of the world's big cats, the lion population of the Namib witnessed an annual increase of 30 percent during the first half of the last decade. The springbok population too has seen astonishing growth with the IRDNC figures pointing to well over 70,000 today, up from a paltry 2000 in the early 80s. So what’s the driving force behind these incredible results? The answer is people power. Making use of the classic poacher-turned-gamekeeper concept, safari companies and local people have clubbed together to give Namibians a financial incentive to preserve their unique eco-systems. The conservancy system means taking locally owned land such as Damaraland’s Torra Conservancy and turning it into an ecotourism venture, run by safari operators but controlled by local people who own both lodges and land.

‘Communities are afforded the dignity of rising out of ultra-poverty upon their ancestral land,’ says Wilderness Safaris’ Rob Moffatt. ‘Governments revel in unexpected returns from protected areas, helping to justify their commitments to biodiversity conservation and Wilderness Safaris alone creates thousands of jobs and livelihoods. Lives are changed and everybody benefits.’ ‘The reason that the Namibian model [of conservation] has been so successful is because of community buy-in,’ says Drew McVey, African Species Officer at WWF UK. ‘Communities see rhinos and other game as imperative for the success of tourism which provides jobs. One of the best things about it is that the wildlife itself, and the benefits it brings, belong directly to the people.’ And what wildlife it is.

Damaraland, home of the Torra Conservancy and the Damaraland Camp, supports animals like the black rhino, desert-adapted elephants, Hartmann’s mountain zebra and a plethora of antelope species including gemsbok, springbok, kudu and oryx. Some are unique to the area, many are endangered and most are rare.

Located in the heart of the Huab River Valley, 90 kilometres from the Skeleton Coast and possessing spectacular views of the Brandeburg Mountains, the Damaraland Camp is an open-air affair built local style from natural materials such as local grasses and dead wood. The camp manager, Maggie, grew up in the nearby village and returned to Damaraland after stints in other Wilderness camps in Sossuvlei, Etosha and Caprivi. And she’s not alone. The majority of the camp staff, from chefs to guides, are locals, passionate about the rugged Damaraland vistas and the wildlife it hosts. People from the nearby village, the owners of the camp, are also involved in green projects such as an Environment Club to teach children about the importance of conserving their panoramic surroundings, and Wilderness-led projects such as Children in the Wilderness; an initiative that brings disadvantaged Namibian children to the camps to learn about their natural heritage.

Further south, the story is repeated at Wilderness’ Sossuvlei camps, Little Kulala and Kulala Wilderness Camp. Although situated in a government reserve rather than a conservancy, once again, the input of locals is what’s making the difference; in this case for the breathtaking ruby dunes of the Namib desert. ‘[Projects like these] can help place a value on conservation,’ says Justin Francis, co-founder of award-winning eco-travel website, ResponsibleTravel.com. ‘This has a knock on effect within the local community too. When done well, such projects working alongside local people provide an opportunity for locals to earn an income and help facilitate a respect for the land and the wildlife connected with that land.’

Little Kulala, with its chic, pale interiors and private outdoor showers, offers a base for travellers who like a little luxury with their lions, while the Kulala Wilderness Camp is more family friendly but no less comfortable. What both have in common, besides local staff and panoramic views, is an impressive environmental ethos. Both have space for only limited numbers and both work hard to reduce water and power consumption, while minimising waste and eliminating litter. This, says Justin, is exactly how ecotourism should look. ‘By hosting limited numbers of tourists, as opposed to large numbers that put a strain on natural resources, at any one time; eco lodges and conservancies can ensure that they minimise any negative environmental impact. This low density, low impact tourism is, I believe, the best and most responsible approach.’

Out in the rosy lunar landscape of the Namib, there’s a haunting sense of isolation and connection to nature, facilitated by the broad horizons, thyme-scented air and the endless expanse of ochre sand. The oldest desert in the world, the Namib is home to an array of species, including ostriches, antelope, desert foxes and hordes of birds, all surviving in one of the most delicate eco-systems on the planet. In the midst of the dunes, cracked, pale yellow clay pans offer silent testimony to the baking temperatures and lack of water, both of which have led to the evolution of some very special wildlife.

In Damaraland too, a place where rivers appear in the morning and are gone by midday, the flora and fauna living in the rocky landscape are uniquely adapted to desert life and are all the more precious for that. Namibia is the only country in the world where desert-adapted elephants can be found and it’s one of the few where the black rhino can still be seen in the wild. Thanks to its network of conservancies and reserves, and the efforts of responsible safari companies such as Wilderness, their future looks assured.

Need to know
Namibia’s conservancy scheme is supported by WWF-UK, which is currently working on programmes to reintroduce the black rhino to areas that saw populations wiped out by poaching in the 1980s. Safari operators, including Wilderness, are working with the WWF and local conservancies to help facilitate reintroduction and educate communities.

A seven-night trip, with one night in Windhoek, two nights in the Namib-Naukluft Park at Kulala Desert Lodge and two nights at Damaraland Camp costs from £3,704 per person sharing. This includes scheduled flights with Air Namibia from Frankfurt to Windhoek, with British Airways feeder flights from London Heathrow to Frankfurt, light aircraft transfers between camps in Namibia, all accommodation, meals and activities. www.wilderness-safaris.com

Photos: Dana Allen and Ruth Styles

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