Namibia is a breath-taking country. Spend a week traveling from place to place, and at the end of your journey you will swear you somehow visited seven planets. The contrast from region to region is extraordinary … lush tropical greenery grows wild on the banks of the Okavango, Kwando and Zambesi Rivers, but away from the water soon pales into the dense, mysterious bushveld of the escarpment. Continue west, and the landscape tumbles precipitously into the silent vistas of Kaokoland, Damaraland and the Desert Region. Once visited, you will never cease wondering when to return.
But is Namibia a photo-destination for those wishing to see its wildlife? The country would like to think so. It spends a lot of money trying to attract visitors to its national parks and conservancies, most of whom probably assume that the animals they encounter are safeguarded by appropriate national policies and responsible local stewardship.
Regrettably, this is not always be the case. In far too many places, the protection fauna may once have enjoyed appears to be eroding as fast as the desert sands, and paradoxically, Namibia’s wildlife might now be at far greater risk from its own national government and local conservancies than from natural predation, or the poachers that have become a scourge of neighbouring countries like South Africa.
This may be rather tough talk, but even the mildest curiosity and research on the subject suggests that – in some areas – wildlife conservation has degenerated into a loose, cynical, and anything-goes exploitation of animal resources … fuelled by who-knows-what motives. Chroniclers of this evolving drama have suggested cronyism, corruption, political vote-buying, insensitivity, or indifference. Whatever the cause, the effects are obvious.
What country issues hunting licenses for animals that are endangered or teetering on the edge of extinction? Or executes lions, a pride at a time, at remote conservancies while its iconic national park imports the creatures from private reserves to make up for shortages? How about allowing hunters to decimate animals migrating through your territory from neighbouring countries? All these things are happening in Namibia, and – if this abuse persists – it will not be long before those who care about wildlife and its conservation vote with their feet, and seek more ethical destinations.
Consider events that are recent, or taking place at this very moment:
The widely-publicised granting by Namibia’s government of a hunting permit for a wild black rhino attracted a hostile, almost worldwide response. The decision – whatever the motives – was astoundingly insensitive, given the wholesale destruction of these creatures all over Southern Africa. Nobody is quite sure what has happened since, but a reasonably informed guide believes that the planned victim was substituted by a “farmed” animal. Given the price-tag of the rhino licence – around US$350,000 – the bureaucrats responsible obviously remained determined to pander to the successful bidder.
However, what didn’t quite make the headlines at the time was a decision even more astonishing. This time elephants were involved …
Elephants are creatures that need a lot of water – two hundred litres or more a day – and thus are most often found in places with permanent and ample water supplies. But there are tiny groups that, over thousands of years, have adapted to the harsh environment of desert regions and become able to survive conditions in which their better-watered kin would barely last a week. These unique animals, found only in Namibia and Mali (on the very edge of the Sahara), are terribly few in number – just a hundred and twenty or so in Namibia, according to the most reliable estimates. And in terms of survival odds, even a rhino might look relatively secure by comparison. Eighteen of Namibia’s Desert-Adapted Elephants are mature bulls, and reliable reports recently emerged that hunting licenses have been issued to kill nine of them – half of all those that remain.
Has Namibia lost its senses?
It would seem so. After the rhino fiasco, what government would risk rubbing salt into an already gaping public relations wound? But the bureaucrats involved appear to be as thick-skinned as the animals they seem so comfortable to consign to extinction. As the extraordinary decision garnered wider publicity, accusations surfaced of vote-buying (it is an election year, after all), and corruption. The first response was to issue denials, but eventually the decision was acknowledged – along with a refusal to rescind it. Two bulls are already dead, and the rest will follow.
The killing of the second bull apparently added farce to the tragedy, and may even have exacerbated the situation. A professional hunter, guiding his German customer to the herd in which the desert elephant to be slaughtered was located, found himself and his client surrounded by the animals. He fired a shot into the air to warn them off, so the story goes. One bull, possibly recognising the gunshot as the same sound that preceded the fate of the first animal to be killed, charged at the professional hunter and trampled him. The hunter now lies in hospital, gravely injured. (There has been a notable shortage of get-well cards). The animal that tried to defend its family was subsequently shot in retaliation, presumably by the Namibian wildlife authorities. And the client, indignant at not having shot his paid-for elephant, is demanding that another bull be assigned to him for slaughter. Will the nine licences now have to be increased to ten? No one will say.
Way over to the east, things are not much better …
The Zambesi Region of Namibia, (recently renamed from Caprivi), is a long, narrow strip of land extending eastwards, bounded by Angola and Zambia to the north, and Botswana to the south and east. There’s not much by way of wildlife in the narrow, westerly section of the region, but its foot-shaped eastern section is a hotbed of activity – because animals regularly move through it between Botswana in the south and Angola to the north on seasonal migrations.
Before continuing, perhaps it would be helpful to make my position clear on the subject of hunting …
Being an occasional meat-eater, it would be utter hypocrisy to deride hunting animals for food. On the contrary, eating antelope like oryx, kudu, springbok and impala may be a lot healthier than eating beef. Wild animals such as these, bred on bushveld farms for food, are rarely fed the hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals routinely stuffed into domestic cattle by commercial beef farmers. And they are usually shot by the farmer to order, or by customers preferring to collect their own food. The already leaner and cleaner meat thus also avoids further pollution by the flood of adrenalin produced by cattle passing through a slaughterhouse. So the game farmer who has purchased land, fenced it, stocked it with edible wild animals, fed and protected them, and harvested them humanely for food is simply running a business placed somewhere along the human food chain.
Trophy hunters are a different matter entirely, because they do not generally kill for food – they kill because they like it. Many people who value wild places and wildlife (including myself) are profoundly uncomfortable with this, for a host of reasons. But will human society ever evolve beyond such casual violence, and ban trophy hunting universally? It’s doubtful. There are just too many individuals whose spending power drives the industry, and, like it or not, trophy hunting revenue is much more readily earned than the proceeds of wildlife photo-tourism. Despite this, Botswana bravely banned it from early in 2014, but the hunting opportunities that abound elsewhere in Southern Africa provide a wealth of alternatives. (Even Zambia recently dropped a longstanding moratorium, but continues to protect cats and elephants.) So trophy hunting is going to be with us for some time yet.
However, in any country where trophy hunting is permitted, one thing is critical – NEVER mix hunting and photo-safaris. Animals that are exposed to hunting become wary of people and vehicles, difficult to find, watchful, and – in the case of some of the larger species – very, very aggressive. So if almost every animal you come across bolts in the opposite direction, or elephants regularly threaten to attack your truck, or hippos charge at your boat instead of submerging to get out of the way – they are almost certainly being hunted nearby.
Regrettably, (as anyone visiting the eastern section of the Zambesi Region may find), Namibia is trying to play both games, at the same time, in the same place. And this policy is going horribly wrong.
Nkasa Rupara National Park in the south and Bwabwata National Park in the centre (both of which border the Kwando River) are supposedly there to protect wildlife – but neither have fences, and migrating animals routinely cross into and out of the parks. If the animals in Bwabwata travel on the wrong side of the Kwando river, they often enter hunting “conservancies” (more about these later), where they are killed by hunters sold licences issued by the Namibian Government, and distributed by local Chiefs. A similar fate awaits those that exit to the north or east of Nkasa Rupara National Park. The licences themselves are based on “game counts” submitted by the various “conservancies” each year. The Chiefs and the Government usually split the spoils.
None of the animals that leave these national parks “belong” to the conservancy Chief on the other side. He has spent nothing providing protective fences, or stocking the area with game purchased for hunting, or feeding these animals when times get tough. His “game counts” could be (and probably are) wildly inaccurate, since animals cross the river constantly. These creatures are simply profitable targets of opportunity, no more, and it is difficult to appreciate the scale of the greed and carnage that goes on here.
To get some idea, follow this link to an article in Petersen’s Hunting magazine, in which trophy-hunter Skip Knowles gleefully describes his trip to the Caprivi (now Zambesi) region of Namibia.
The killing spree he details takes place along the very same Kwando River, right on the borders of Bwabwata National Park. Animals on the wrong side (or even in the wrong half) of the river are decimated by Skip and his entourage. And nothing is spared … elephants, hippos, crocodiles, leopards, you name it. There is a particularly appalling passage in which Knowles describes how a female elephant, attacking the hunter who had just shot a bull from her herd, is shot in turn. A hundred metres across the water, the elephants would all have been safe. With carnage like this available, it is no surprise that Namibia is in the world’s top three trophy-hunting destinations.
The effect on photo-tourism is utterly predictable, and it’s difficult to take Bwabwata and Nkasa Rupara seriously as “National Parks”. If you choose to visit them, measure the passage of time that elapses once animals spot your vehicle and depart in the opposite direction. Horseshoe Bend, for example, is a lovely curve on the Kwando River – in Bwabwata National Park – where you may sometimes find a few hundred elephants in half a dozen small herds, all drinking at the water’s edge in the late afternoon. As soon as they note your arrival, the creatures depart with the utmost haste, … bulls, cows, calves, trumpeting loudly with trepidation. Some that don’t may turn aggressively towards your vehicle, and it’s possible you will need to get out of there. Or take boat rides on the Kwando and Linyanti Rivers (the Kwando by another name) – the number of hippos that charge furiously at your boat is astonishing.
The local guide might dismiss it all with something like “Oh, it’s a new park and they’re not used to cars and boats …”, but don’t believe a word of it. These animals have been hunted regularly, and are convinced you are there to kill them. If you’re still planning a photo-visit to these parks, take a long lens and a good travel insurance policy.
As an aside, I might comment that the degree of interaction possible with wild creatures like elephants – when they are not threatened – is remarkable. Elephants’ brains are actually slightly larger than ours, and capable of very sophisticated thinking. They are highly intelligent, have a keen sense of humour, and the extent to which they can be approached when they feel safe may surprise you.
Watch this brief video clip of a young bull introducing himself to a pair of humans in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park. (The guide is none other than the legendary “Stretch” Ferreira).
Meeting elephants on foot (1) from David Marcus on Vimeo.
Here’s another Mana Pools visitor making the acquaintance of the venerable elephant bull Big Vic, who is unexpectedly joined by his entourage (a little group that follows the huge creature around all day in the hope of feeding off his scraps.). Note how the patriarch briefly waves the approaching elephants away, knowing that the little calf’s mother could become nervous with humans so close. Mr Ferreira appreciates this too, and backs away when the calf’s mother moves forward on left side of the screen. Big Vic’s sang-froid remains intact throughout.
VBV from David Marcus on Vimeo.
Who could be warped enough to wish to kill such a gentle giant?
And when wild elephants become comfortable with a regular human audience, some are even compelled to entertain us. Watch this young elephant bull clowning for spectators at the waterhole adjacent to Okaukuejo Camp in Namibia’s Estosha National Park. Just a teenager showing off …
VEP from David Marcus on Vimeo.
Mature bull elephants like Big Vic and even younger animals are usually calm and patient, with a restrained and measured approach that could teach their human cousins a thing or two. But when they and their families are attacked by trophy hunters, they respond exactly as we would in the same circumstances. Unfortunately for their survival, they don’t possess guns or the wherewithal to use them. (If they did, I suspect that people like Skip Knowles would get their kicks hanging out in the safety of their local abattoirs instead, and leave Africa’s animals alone.)
Let me turn to a contradiction-in-terms, Namibia’s “conservancies”.
In theory, they comprise specific geographic areas shared by wildlife and humans alike, in a form of a partnership designed to generate revenue for the local community and provide a degree of protection for the wild animals that populate them. They attract the establishment of tourist lodges, who hope to guide their guests around the area on photo-opportunities, and the local community gets a (frequently large) percentage of lodge sales revenue along with the jobs that lodges naturally create.
With that income, the community is expected to look after the conservancy and its wildlife, and guard domestic goats and cattle from predation (leopards and lions find them much easier to kill than wild prey). Additionally, the Human-Wildlife Self-Reliance Scheme – a government-run system of compensating communities for livestock losses to predation – is available, subject to certain (rather reasonable) conditions … no compensation for livestock killed at night that were not in a secure enclosure, or when members – warned of predators in the area – take no action to protect domestic animals, or fail to carry out recommended improvements to stock enclosures.
Far too often, however, theory and practice find themselves worlds apart as conservancies play mutually-exclusive games at the same time, in the same place. The government issues and local Chiefs regularly sell hunting licences for food or trophies, depending on the revenue to be gained. Want to trophy-shoot an oryx? Thirty five US dollars, maybe less, is all you might need in many conservancies to buy a licence. That’s why you may as well leave your camera back at the lodge, because every herd of wild animals runs for its life when it sees your vehicle approaching.
In the far northerly Kunene Region, it would appear that the granting of trophy-hunting licences for desert-adapted elephants has been going on quietly for years. In the words of lodge co-owner Suzi van der Reep:
“I am horrified by what is happening. At the start of the century, we had thirteen bulls who used to visit regularly – we could virtually set our clocks by their arrival to dig waterholes in the dry riverbed. Then within a space of three years, we lost every single one of them to the gun – simply and solely because of hunting permits issued by the MET”. (MET = Ministry of Environment and Tourism). www.annamiticus.com
There is an avalanche of anecdotal evidence about conservancy villages failing to provide adequate cattle enclosures, or failing to take necessary steps to protect animals from predators in the vicinity, or spending government-provided funds intended for such functions on food and alcohol instead. Again, the consequences have been sadly predictable.
The Wuparo Conservancy, centred on Sangwali Village, is just a few kilometres north of the Nkasa Rupara National Park, and benefits from a share of the park’s and adjacent lodges’ revenues. There are no fences separating the park and conservancy.
Generally, wild animals steer clear of human settlements – but Nkasa Rupara’s resident pride of twelve lions left the national park, attracted to the village’s cattle. Adequate precautions by way of proper enclosures and human guards could have protected them, or at the very least minimised damage, and the Self-Reliance Scheme was there to provide the necessary financial safety-net if all else failed. The system didn’t work, and some cattle were killed. (It is not clear if compensation was made available.)
As is so often the case, it’s not what goes wrong but what you do next that counts: instead of seeking a long-term solution that would have protected cattle from future raids and preserved the lion pride for which Sangwali village was also responsible, all twelve lions were shot. Three replacements were imported to the park, and radio-collared so that a satellite tracking system could follow their movements and presumably warn the villagers. (Why not just collar one lioness from the previous pride?) The replacement cats are a ragged bunch and in dreadful condition. If you’re looking for nice (un-collared) lion photos, you would get better stuff at a zoo.
At the Puros Conservancy – literally the other end of the country – conflict between desert lions and cattle has apparently lead to the poisoning of five lions and the shooting of a sixth. By all accounts there are now no longer lions living there. (We couldn’t find any.) There are few other animals either, and worse still, half-a-dozen desert-adapted elephants reside along the riverbed nearby. Once trophy hunters learn of them and offer enough money, who knows what their fate will be? This pattern may well be repeating itself all over Namibia.
This would probably be a good point at which to comment on the standard fluff put out the trophy-hunting industry that its activity somehow “funds conservation and protects wildlife”, “brings money to local communities”, “feeds people”, and so on.
- Trophy hunting begets nothing but more trophy hunting. Its revenues are a drug to which governments and conservancies become addicted, to the exclusion of everything else. Why else have Kunene desert-adapted been shot to virtual extinction, and hunting licences approved for half of all the bulls that remain? Why issue hunting licences for rhino, in the face of worldwide collapse of their populations to poaching? This behaviour is utterly counterintuitive to public relations, let alone conservation … but the money is irresistible.
- Once conservancies appreciate how easy trophy-hunting money is, their wildlife populations are soon decimated. Just visit any conservancy in the west and northwest of the country – there are terribly few animals left. This is “conservation”?
- Nothing could better illustrate the perils of addiction to the trophy-hunting drug than a plan presently being instigated by Namibia’s government – the opening of trophy-hunting concessions inside the boundaries of Bwabwata and two other National Parks. This is unprecedented … the country’s National Parks are the only sanctuaries remaining where animals are safe from the stress of human predation. No other country does this. What’s next on the list – Etosha?
- The International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation is actually pro-hunting, despite its title. Even this organization acknowledges that only 3 percent of revenue from trophy hunting gets to the communities in which the activity takes place. The rest goes to national governments or foreign operators.
- One often hears trophy hunters declaim that the meat from their kills feeds local communities. Really? Many local communities have their own domestic cattle and goats, which are somewhat tastier than tough elephant meat. Or they are able to hunt their own wild antelope, if necessary. And if trophy hunters are so concerned about feeding rural populations, there are many well-established charities to whom they could donate their permit fees instead, who will provide infinitely better nutrition for the money.
- The vast majority of the human race has a natural aversion to killing – our instincts are creative and protective, rather than destructive. So we visit wildlife parks and admire the animals we see, exclaim at their antics, photograph them, sometime have almost irresistible urges to feed them, (a big no-no, if you care about their survival), and at other times even want to reach out and touch them (another big no-no if you care about your fingers). This is normal behaviour. Even professional game rangers who occasionally have to shoot animals admit finding the task distasteful. As the trophy-hunting industry shows, however, there is a small minority among us who conversely derive great pleasure from inflicting misery and death on these creatures. By comparison, such behaviour seems psychotic. So who would you prefer to have visiting your country?
The apparent lack of communication between Namibia’s conservancies and government, and ineffective implementation of a central policy for coordinating wildlife resources is also worrying. Sangwali and Puros conservancies poisoned and shot their lions. Etosha National Park, on the other hand, had to find and introduce a number of the creatures – obtained from private reserves – because of shortages.
Which provides a neat segue onto the next subject …
Etosha is Namibia’s biggest national park, and has always been a welcome haven from the very questionable practices going on elsewhere. It’s animals are properly protected and isolated from hunting activity, and this will be obvious in their body-language … comfortable with cars and the human bustle that occurs around them. Even black rhinos, notoriously shy and bad-tempered, browse alongside the roads seemingly indifferent to the tourists gawking at them a few metres away. Elephants wave their trunks at crowds lining waterholes, and the younger bulls have even started clowning for human audiences, as you will have seen earlier.
However, let me quote from http://www.etoshanationalpark.org/news/etosha-rhino-killed-cash :
“Earlier this month, for the first time a Namibian black rhino hunting permit was up for grabs outside of Nambia, with the Texas-based Dallas Safari Club eventually auctioning it off for a whopping $350,000
“The permit will allow the anonymous bidder to hunt and kill a specific old rogue male rhino in Etosha National Park. The male is no longer fertile and has been expelled from its fellows.”
(The assertion that the “… old rogue male rhino in Etosha National Park … is no longer fertile and has been expelled from its fellows” is just pseudoscientific claptrap. Male rhinos remain fertile until they die, and no black rhino has ever been “expelled from its fellows” … these creatures are solitary, and have no “fellows” to expel them. I have no idea what “rogue” means either – Etosha’s black rhinos are so extraordinarily habituated to people, the hunter who bought the licence could probably walk up to the animal and put a gun in its ear.)
But if this report is true – i.e. the black rhino described earlier in the article was in fact an Etosha animal – then it may be only a matter of time before a hunting concession is announced within the borders of Etosha too. When the integrity of national parks is traded for trophy-hunting licence fees, anything becomes possible.
In other respects, the park isn’t perfect either – visitor behaviour seems to be getting steadily worse each year, and the camps could use some long overdue maintenance – but nothing more than enforcement and attention to detail is needed to put that right. The key issue – safeguarding animals – is being managed responsibly. For now.
Elsewhere, the time for Namibia to get its wildlife management act together is long overdue:
- Issuing hunting licences for endangered animals – aside from the compelling moral issue – is downright stupid, given the torrent of condemnation it attracts from all over the globe. (Social media just doesn’t let you get away with that stuff anymore.)
- Encouraging photo-safari tourists into the proximity of creatures regularly subjected to human hunting is greedy, cynical and dangerous.
- If it is true that Namibia is planning to establish trophy-hunting concessions within the boundaries of existing National Parks, this would be the greatest breach of integrity in wildlife conservation history.
- Letting down investors is short-sighted. Lodge owners in some conservancies now question the viability of their properties, when the animals their guests arrive to photograph have been hunted to local extinction.
- Finally, and in particular, the country’s tolerance of the abuse of elephants – virtually our cousins in terms of intelligence, humour and awareness – is approaching the unforgivable.
So enjoy the stunning landscapes, my friends. But if you want photograph wildlife, I suggest you send Namibia a message for now, and give the country a miss. There are more ethical alternatives just across the river.
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Copyright © 2014 David Marcus