Tusk Conservation Awards: 2015 winners


The Telegraph

Date Published
The winners of the Tusk Conservation Awards 2015 were announced tonight in a ceremony at Claridge’s Hotel in London, attended by Prince William.
The Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa, a recognition of a lifetime of achievement, was presented to Garth Owen-Smith for his pioneering convervation work in Namibia. For more on his work watch the above video.
The Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa went to Emmanuel de Merode for his heroic attempts to preserve the gorilla community in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The third winner was Edward Ndiritu, recipient of the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award for his sterling work to prevent the poaching of elephant and rhino in Kenya.
For more on the awards’ ceremony, see tuskawards.com.
Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa
Winner: Garth Owen-Smith
Garth Owen-Smith is at his most contented when he is out in the bush, in Namibia’s remote, rugged mountainous northwest, a region widely known as the Kaokoveld but renamed Kunene Province by the current government. Call it what you will, it is one of Africa’s most powerful landscapes, a distant and uncompromising desert environment where the footprint of homo sapiens is only lightly felt and where the hardiest wild animals survive – desert elephant, desert black rhino, gemsbok, desert-adapted oryx, to name a few. It may be Africa’s last true wilderness.
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A tall, lean man, bronzed by decades out in the African sun, Owen-Smith has a trimmed white beard, piercing eyes and a kindly expression. Until recently he was a life-long smoker who was almost permanently puffing at a pipe, however a quadruple heart bypass earlier this year, just after his 71st birthday, has persuaded him to give it up. He is called the father of Namibian conservation, a title he would deflect with typical modesty. Although South African born he has spent most of his life in Namibia and clearly feels an intense affinity for this vast desert country that is three times the size of Britain and for its tiny population of just over two million people.
His other location of choice out here is Wereld’s End (Afrikaans for World’s End). Far from anywhere, this is the bustling nerve centre of his community conservation work, a busy environmental and training centre 70 kilometres inland from Torra Bay where upwards of 80 community representatives can be found camping around the compound of stone bungalows with thatched roofs at any one time. He has a small home here that he shares with his long-time partner Dr Margaret Jacobsohn, an anthropologist who he insists has played “as significant role as I have in all of this – most of it could not have been achieved without Margie.”
This week Owen-Smith accepted the Prince William Award for Conservation from the Duke of Cambridge, the latest in a long list of accolades recognising his contribution to the cause of wildlife protection. Like so many of Africa’s veteran conservationists he is not at home in the starched formal surroundings of our conference rooms, lecture theatres and historic dining halls, however he most certainly took pleasure at receiving the award as, he tells me, “it means that people might start listening to me again”.
It is very serious at the moment, and there is no doubt that we are losing too many animals to poachers
Garth Owen-Smith
The award recognises Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn’s pioneering natural resource management programme that links wildlife conservation to sustainable rural development. It comes at a particularly significant time for African wildlife, for there is currently yet another wave of poaching across the continent, driven by international crime syndicates, that threatens key species with extinction, and there remains within the various conservation communities deep divides on how to deal with it. Many observers feel that unless conservationists come up with a global, mutually agreed, solution within the next decade, it may be too late and that key animal species will no longer exist in the wild. To that end Prince William, through Tusk Trust, the charity of which he is patron, has been at the forefront of the fight to save the planet’s megafauna.
It was in 1983 that Owen-Smith set up IRDNC, the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation programme that was to become a significant model for wildlife conservation across Africa. At the time, he says, “there were good conservation practices in the national parks – Etosha and so on – but in the communal areas, which make up 40 per cent of the country, wildlife was being written off.” In the 1970s there were around 350 black desert rhino in the area, but a poaching wave conducted mainly by local Himba and Herero tribespeople, meant that by time Owen-Smith launched IRDNC there were no more than 60 left.
Through the 1980s Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn worked closely with local Himba, Herero and Damara tribal communities and traditional leaders, giving them responsibility for the first time to guard the animals. “We shared the belief that the best people to conserve wildlife were those who had to live with it,” he says. “Obviously there should and would be financial benefit from such stewardship but this wasn’t just about money.
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“The community often said to me: ‘whose wildlife is this? If it belongs to the government then it is their responsibility and we don’t care what happens to it.’ Which is why they were actually supporting the poachers.”
By the time I came to travel around the Kaokoveld with Owen-Smith in the late 1980s, visiting the guardians of the wildlife in remote desert villages, observing community meetings held in the shade of mopane trees, there had been a significant turnaround of the community and the few poachers who were still operating were caught, tried in court and sentenced to severe punishments. Even as a new wave of elephant and rhino poaching broke over the continent around that time, the Namibian model of community ownership and responsibility helped stem the tide and set the parameters for future conservationists.
Today, as another poaching spike engulfs Africa, Owen-Smith is convinced that the Namibian model remains conservation’s best chance. “It is very serious at the moment,” he says, “and there is no doubt that we are losing too many animals to poachers but we have a better chance because we have the local communities on our side. In many other rhino areas, such as Kruger National Park in South Africa, they have hostile local communities, and that makes protection much more difficult.”
His work is not without controversy. One key element of his conservation model is the inclusion of trophy hunting, which remains a fiercely-debated and emotional dividing issue among conservationists. Owen-Smith fiercely defends it. “Trophy hunting is an essential part of conservation,” he says. “Particularly in areas where photographic tourism isn’t possible. It is integral to our programme.”
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He offers as an example his conservation operation in the Caprivi Strip (now renamed The Zambezi Region) which borders Angola, Zimbabwe and Botswana. The general consensus in conservation circles had been that community conservation only worked in a low human density environment such as the Kaokoveld, “so we deliberately took it to Caprivi which has the highest density of people in the region.”
There is little photographic tourism in Caprivi and interaction between elephant and rural land-dwellers has been far more confrontational with elephants destroying crops, threatening the people and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Owen-Smith finally persuaded the locals to buy into his programmes and emphasises that high-revenue, low-impact trophy hunting “is now playing a big role in Caprivi.”
The revenues the communities receive from hunters has persuaded them to conserve the dangerous and disruptive animals that live among them and to take an active role in anti-poaching.
Owen-Smith says he has now formally retired from IRDNC and although he is still actively involved in activities at Wereld’s End, he is doing more guiding these days. He and Jacobsohn have set up a tourism company called Conservancy Safaris Namibia in partnership with five local conservancies to put into practice what he says is a “more ethical way of carrying out photographic touris m”. He says he is happy taking travellers out into the vast and beautiful Kaokoveld to share this rare and precious wilderness experience.
As we are talking I remind him of a trip we took through the Kaokoveld in the late 1980s, a trip that had particular resonance for me at the time and remains one of the most significant wildlife experiences I’ve had. We had been driving along the dry Huanib River bed, following a small family of desert elephant, when suddenly they turned off the riverbed and entered a small clearing. “Let’s go and watch this,” said Garth with some glee.
We followed the elephants at a respectful distance and were soon on foot in the clearing. There the group was moving around the bones of a recently deceased elephant, slowly, carefully and, dare one say, thoughtfully. Owen-Smith confirmed that these elephant were indeed mourning a dead relative. Of course, thanks to the later research and writings of Katy Payne, Cynthia Moss and others, we have come to recognise and understand such complexity of elephant behaviour but back then it was only a handful of observers such as Owen-Smith who were aware of it. For me it was a turning point in my understanding of animal behaviour.
So, as we end our conversation we agree that he and I must do another trip into the Kaokoveld before too long.” I am counting the days.
Graham Boynton
Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa
Winner: Emmanuel de Merode
Emmanuel de Merode is a soft-spoken, self-effacing man. A stranger would never know he was a Belgian prince; still less that he has twice faced down violent guerilla groups, survived an assassination attempt and waged an international campaign against a rapacious British oil company. He has done so in an heroic effort to save Africa’s oldest national park that is finally reaping dividends.
De Merode, 45, was raised in Kenya, and educated at Downside and Durham University in Britain before dedicating his life to conservation in Africa. In 2008 he was appointed director of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Unesco World Heritage site of 3,000 spectacular square miles that include snow-capped mountains, volcanoes, swamps, forests, savannahs, more animal species than almost anywhere else on earth and more than a quarter of the world’s 900 mountain gorillas.
Virunga was in a desperate state. For 12 years it had been the epicentre of wars in eastern DRC that caused more than five million deaths. It was infested by armed militias, its wildlife and forests had been plundered, its rangers were demoralised and it was riddled with corruption. The previous director had been sacked for his alleged role in the shooting of five gorillas.
Almost immediately a rebel group, the CNDP, advanced on Virunga and seized its headquarters. De Merode entered the war zone to negotiate directly with its leader, Laurent Nkunda, and secured permission for his rangers to re-enter the park and protect the gorillas. In 2012 another militia, M23, stormed the park’s headquarters, but de Merode and his rangers refused to leave and the rebellion ended in late 2013.
More than 140 of his rangers had died protecting the park so he could not walk away
By then the park faced another major threat. Soco, an oil company based in Mayfair, had entered the park in 2011 to search for oil in Lake Edward. It had secured a concession from the government, but de Merode argued that oil exploration in Virunga would be illegal and potentially calamitous for the environment, the rule of law, the region’s fragile peace and all Congolese national parks.
In April 2014 gunmen opened fire on de Merode’s Land Rover. He was shot in the chest and abdomen, but managed to fire on his assailants until they fled. Though lucky to survive, he returned to work within weeks because, he said, more than 140 of his rangers had died protecting the park so he could not walk away.
De Merode – a pilot who once built his own plane with a Subaru car engine and flew it from Canada to Kenya via Europe- leads a lonely, dangerous existence. He lives in a tent. He seldom sees his wife, the Kenyan paleontologist Louise Leakey, and their two young daughters. But he is slowly reclaiming the park even though a dozen rebel groups remain. He has turned his rangers into a disciplined, well-armed force. Soco appears to have withdrawn, battered by multiple allegations of wrongdoing and de Merode’s relentless international campaigning. Tourists are returning to see the gorillas and climb Nyiragongo, an active volcano containing the world’s largest lava lake.
With characteristic resolve and energy, the Belgian is now pursuing a hugely ambitious, $200 million project – financed primarily by the Buffett Foundation, European Union and DRC government – to secure Virunga’s future. The centrepiece is six hydro-electric projects that will generate electricity for millions of Congolese living near the park, create tens of thousands of jobs and, de Merode hopes, replace two decades of conflict with lasting peace and stability. Given his track record, it would be rash to bet against this easily underestimated man.
Martin Fletcher
Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award
Winner: Edward Ndiritu
Edward Ndiritu has played a leading role in the battle to contain poaching in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Northern Rangelands Trust a vast swathe of northern Kenyan savannah, wetland and forest that is home to approximately 9,500 migratory elephant that live and a significant number of black and white rhino.
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Having worked his way up through the ranks, Edward reached the position of Head of the Anti-Poaching Unit for Lewa and NRT, responsible for the planning, designing and implementation of this massive landscape’s security strategy.
His exemplary leadership has led to a reduction of elephant poaching in the NRT conservancies by 38 per cent over the past four years, and, in 2014, the achievement of seeing Lewa become the only Kenyan conservancy not to lose rhino to poachers in Kenya. His work in promoting security within northern Kenya’s historically volatile areas has resulted in hundreds of stolen livestock being recovered and returned to their owners, apprehension of road bandits and further recovery of illegal weapons.