Flamingo - Nature - The world’s largest game count in the spotlight
The charter plane is scheduled to arrive at dusk. We are alone at Sesfontein airstrip, surrounded by African bush, although the sounds of goats and the braying of a donkey hint at nearby village life. We consider turning on the headlights of our Land Cruisers to help guide the pilot. If it gets much darker, he won't be able to see the strip from the air.
Finally we hear the distant din of a single engine. The Cessna 210 takes some minutes to cross the vast valley. The touchdown is smooth. We greet ABC News anchor Dan Harris, cameraman Almin Karamehmedovic and Lee Poston from WWF-US. As we drive to Sesfontein, it is already completely dark. Sesfontein is not our destination; it’s just the closest place with a landing strip. We drop off the pilot, who will stay the night and return to Windhoek tomorrow, and head north west along a dwindling dirt track climbing into the hills. This is the remote Kunene Region in north-western Namibia. The nearest tar road is around 200 kilometres to the east.
In the bounce of the headlights, springbok and gemsbok – the most abundant of Namibia’s desert antelope – cross the track in front of us. We immediately start discussing conservation and the state of wildlife in Namibia. The team has come to Africa to cover a variety of environmental stories. In Namibia it is the annual North-West Game Count. Namibia’s Community-Based Natural Resource Management Programme is being internationally recognised as a global model for community-based conservation.
In the mid-nineties, the government devolved rights to local communities to manage the natural resources in their area by forming conservancies (clearly defined tracts of land, managed by communities through an elected committee and an approved management plan). People were suddenly able to derive significant benefits from wildlife and other resources, which was impossible under South African apartheid rule. This led to a rapid shift in mindset from seeing wildlife as a threat or meat to be poached for the pot, to embracing natural resources as an opportunity for socioeconomic development. A remarkable and unparalleled wildlife recovery has been the result.
Conservancy formation is demand-driven – as more and more community benefits are generated, more conservancies are forming. There are currently 55 registered communal conservancies in Namibia, covering over 15% of the country. Over 230 000 rural people – 12.5% of the national population – live within them and in 2008, around N$42 million in benefits were generated for communities.
Conservancy management includes active monitoring of wildlife populations through annual game counts. The North-West Game Count is the largest road-based game count in the world. It is a truly Namibian conservation initiative of immense proportion and ambition: between 250 and 300 people actively participate to count game throughout an area of some 7 million hectares, covering a total distance of over 7 000 kilometres of transects. The count is done more or less simultaneously in 27 adjacent conservancies and three concession areas to avoid double counting of game. It is a superb example of positive collaboration between the conservancies, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) and a number of facilitating NGOs. A lot of food for discussion, and we talk practically non-stop while we drive for another good hour through the darkness – covering only 40 kilometres along a track that becomes fainter and bumpier as we go along.
Finally we arrive at Ganamub, a scattering of huts and stock enclosures – and, for three nights, the base camp of the counting team of around 30 people. We have dinner around the campfire, with bright stars shining above. We talk of tomorrow’s schedule, African wildlife and conservation. Having seen fresh lion tracks that morning, the talk soon turns to them. In the African night, wildlife and the dangers it might pose suddenly become very tangible. We are in no danger – the lions are elusive and avoid humans. But it is wonderful to know that they are around, and that their numbers in the north west have increased from around 25 in the late nineties to well over 100 today. We don’t talk for much longer. Everyone is tired and counting starts early.
First light. The crisp, cold air of the African dawn. People huddle in small groups around smoky fires, enjoying a quick bowl of cereal and a hot cup of coffee. There are several counting teams made up of staff and volunteers from the conservancies, from the MET and local NGOs. Once all transects in the conservancy have been counted, data is consolidated into overall results and discussed at a feedback session. This might take place under a tree, with data sheets pasted to the side of a Land Cruiser. There is a lot of community interest. People discuss how the data fits in with day-to-day monitoring done by the conservancy. Population numbers and trends are vital in determining utilisation quotas and the community understands the value of monitoring. In a few weeks, all the data from the count will be turned into a poster that is used by all stakeholders for information-sharing and planning.
The ABC News team has a wonderful time, getting good footage of desert-adapted elephant, giraffe, ostrich, zebra, gemsbok, springbok and a variety of smaller wildlife. Our search for the elusive black rhino and desert lions remains unsuccessful – we only find fresh tracks. But the scenery makes up for the wildlife that we do not see. The local, often very traditional cultures add another dimension and put the wildlife in its context of rural livelihoods. We are not in a national park. We are on communal land, where local people live with sometimes dangerous wildlife.
We also see some of the tangible benefits of community-based resource management: the new school at Purros (funded by Wilderness Safaris as part of a joint-venture agreement), the conservancy office, the recently installed water infrastructure, local lodges and campsites – some owned and run by the community, others with joint-venture agreements – that provide significant benefits through job creation and direct income. These benefits are vital in ensuring long-term conservation. They enable communities to live with wildlife, rather than perceiving it as a threat to other land uses.
Long days filled with countless impressions of Africa, of wildlife, people and livestock – living together. But journalists are always on a tight schedule. The charter plane soon returns to take them back to Windhoek. From there they will travel on to South Africa, Madagascar and Uganda to cover other conservation initiatives. Each story will have its own particular accents and points of interest, but the successes of community-based conservation in Namibia will be a unique highlight.