As chairman of the Kunene Regional Conservancy Association and as a conservationist, it is my duty to respond to the article written by Chris Bakkes in The Namibian of 23 March, in which he says that we are failing in our responsibility to conserve Namibia’s wildlife.
Bakkes is our son. He came from South Africa to join us in 1995. As he said in his article: It was a time to rejoice. The rains were good and wildlife abounded. It was a time for development.
As Namibians, we remember the hard times before outside conservationists arrived and before the first conservancies were formed. My family was forcibly removed from the Etosha area under the Odendaal plan to the Kaokoveld. Despite the harsh environment, the rains were good and I remember growing up among plenty of eland, elephant and giraffe. We learnt to love every living creature.
After independence the government made it possible for us to form conservancies and begin to earn a living from wildlife. Today we are still poor, farming in the semi-desert, but trophy hunting and wildlife-based tourism have brought new jobs to our area, helping us to develop from a nomadic existence to a more modern lifestyle.
As a conservancy colleague says: “The environment without wildlife is like a house without a flower.” And the wildlife is here because conservancies are here, because of our hard work to protect it and to create the conditions where farmers and wildlife can live together.
All of us in the Kunene conservancies are deeply shocked and angry about what Bakkes wrote in his article “End of the game”, which suggests that we are no longer conserving wildlife, but killing it off. Chris is our friend. But we are very angry when he suggests that conservancy members are greedy, and that it “seems as if conservancies or community members are harbouring criminals”, when he talks about poaching, especially of rhinos.
It is time to set the record straight.
Like conservationists everywhere, we are deeply concerned about poaching. When a rhino was killed in our area, it was us who apprehended the suspect and called in the authorities, and the poacher is now in prison. There have been other rhino poaching incidents where we provided information, but arrests have yet to follow.
Kunene is a vast area, hard to police. In Windhoek there are two police forces, yet houses are broken into daily. In the city, as in Kunene, criminal gangs are at work. In our conservancies game guards patrol on foot and without weapons. Even before the recent poaching began, we employed rangers to watch over rhinos in order to provide extra protection.
Conservancies were given custodianship over rhinos by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and we have introduced game monitoring systems: game guard patrols, annual game counts, and event books used to record incidents of suspected poaching. When a rhino, elephant, or any other animal is poached, the conservancies and those who live there suffer, because we earn livelihoods from them.
Kunene is a harsh area for wildlife and livestock. As a young man I saw the drought of 1981. Many animals in the area ranging from Etosha to my village, died. Now the drought has returned. I have recently seen zebras dying before my eyes. We have tried to sell livestock before they collapse. We have appealed to the minister of environment and tourism to increase the hunting quota for grass eating wild animals. It is better to cull them before they die of starvation, and to distribute the meat as drought aid to hungry people.
Yes, wildlife is harder to find when there is a drought. Animals move in and out of conservancies. We know that elephant populations are declining in some areas and we are worried about that, but other populations are growing. Elephants move from place to place. When I look at the springs in my village, I see 10 elephants drinking with us, and I know that there are elephants drinking in the next village and the next one, day and night.
We know the problems and are dealing with them. Bakkes argues that the policy of ‘shoot and sell’ has killed off too much wildlife. Long before his article was written we had looked at the policy and came to the conclusion that selling game meat for cash does not bring sufficient benefits to conservancies and the costs are too high: culling male trophy animals and calf-bearing females are both bad conservation practices.
We care for wildlife, but as farmers and conservationists, we have to manage our environment. As a regional conservancy association we have looked long and hard at the problems of drought, development, and conservation.
In response to the extended drought, we have reduced the amount of animals harvested for meat. We work with conservancies to separate tourism and hunting zones, and we are suggesting that those conservancies earning a strong income from tourism should ban shoot-and-sell hunting altogether.
We cannot just go out and shoot animals. We are engaged in a legal process, with systems in place to monitor all wildlife that is hunted or harvested; systems that we are constantly reviewing and trying to improve.
As I write, I am told that a lion is terrorising the workers at the new lodge we are building to attract tourists to Omatendeka Conservancy. I remember when there were no lions in the area, before conservancies began.
We are the true custodians of wildlife in our country, Namibia. We have inherited the spirit of our ancestors who have always lived with wildlife. Now that we have the possibility to live from wildlife, we are determined to conserve it. This is our livelihood, our heritage, and our right.