IT was a time to rejoice. It seemed to be the only logical way forward. The path had been laid out for us. The truth shone as clear as an unmuddied lake. We were bright-eyed and idealistic. Inspired and energetic. A brave new world.
It was the year 1995.
I had just joined Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), a WWF-funded NGO that was charged with the responsibility of empowering local rural communities through conservation. The goal was to establish communal conservancies that would enable the people to take ownership of their wildlife and natural resources.
The year 1995 was also a time of good rain. The best in human memory. Springbok fawns abounded across the veld.
It was with pride that I drove my bakkie from village to village, seeking out the community game guards. I was amazed by the beauty of the landscape and the free-ranging wildlife. I was especially proud of the panda sticker on the bakkie door.
For me too it was a new beginning. I hailed from the Kruger Park where local people were kept away from wildlife with fences and guns. I was born into and benefited from an oppressive system. It was time to make amends. Give something back.
We were going to make impoverished rural communities benefit from their wildlife. At the same time we were going to conserve that same wildlife. I was part of that process.
For the last twenty years I was part of that process. I still am.
I remember the exciting conception period. Befriending the community members by keeping elephants out of their meagre fields. Winning their trust by saving their crops. Training community game guards and doing game counts.
The communal conservancy legislation was passed through parliament in 1996.
After three years in IRDNC I joined a safari company in the Kunene region. I witnessed game lodges springing up all over communal lands. I saw agreements between conservancies and tour companies. Joint ventures for the benefit of all. Private operators would pay communities for the privilege of tourism on their land. Local community members would be employed and trained and empowered. I saw many young men and women grow into highly professional adults. It was a wonderful period of growth. It felt good.
The conservancy policy went even further. The conservancies were granted hunting rights. The conservancies made agreements with professional hunting enterprises. The conservancy members could also hunt for the pot and own use.
This was after game counts were conducted and quotas were worked out.
The good rains of 1995 turned into a wet cycle that lasted until 2011. It was a time of bounty. Plains game proliferated and black rhino numbers increased. More newborn elephant calves were noted among the small desert-adapted herds. The desert lion made a remarkable comeback. What a pleasure it was to take foreign travellers on a safari through this arid African Eden.
Soon the world took notice. Conservation awards started pouring in. Namibia was hailed as the world leader in community-based conservation.
There was enough for everybody. The money came trickling in. First slowly and then a little faster.
It was never a flood. But it was enough to whet the appetite for more.
Promises of wealth and riches created expectations. The expectations became too big. Then the rot set in.
The first signs of the decimation of wildlife came with the introduction of the shoot and sell policy. I first encountered it on the Giribes plains on the boundary of the Purros and Sesfontein conservancies. In this policy, outside contractors get permission to shoot plains game on a large scale to supply their butcheries elsewhere. This seemed to be a profitable venture for the conservancies.
I saw freezer trucks parked on the plains while gemsbok, springbok and zebra were being slaughtered and loaded. Bakkies were driving in different directions, returning with dead animals to be transported. On my second encounter with these shooting teams, the back registration plates of the freezer trucks were covered with duct tape.
In 2010, I encountered such a shooting party on the border of the Skeleton Coast Park. It was late November and a desert rain shower transformed the gravel plains to a green flush. There was a concentration of gemsbok, including several nursery herds. The cows had already given birth and it was no time or place to hunt gemsbok. The shooting parties of three bakkies were driving off-road and indiscriminately shooting into these herds. I reported this to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and was assured that the practice was perfectly legal. There was no MET official present during the shoot.
Later there were newspaper reports of a large quantity of dead zebras being left out in the sun to rot, after one of these freezer trucks broke down.
The road between Sesfontein and Purros is a beautiful drive. It used to abound with gemsbok and springbok. After shoot and sell was introduced, wildlife visibly diminished.
Elsewhere, signs of this practice also became visible.
Another alarming occurrence was the high mortality rate of elephants in the Purros conservancy. A recent study argues that the Hoarusib - Hoanib river elephant population has declined by 30% in the last 10 years. At least two cows and one bull were shot illegally. Another was wounded, recovered and then disappeared. Another was shot after it killed a tourist at a campsite. One died of complications with a radio collar. Orphaned calves disappeared and three elephants have emigrated upriver. The total resident elephant population at Purros at present numbers six individuals.
Purros has always served as a model of people and elephant co-existing and benefiting each other through tourism. That does not seem to be the case any more.
Black rhino poaching in the communal areas started in December 2012. The last isolated incident before that was two decades ago. The number of poached rhinos varies from source to source, the most conservative number being 18 in the Palmwag and Etendeka concessions and four more in the Uukwaluudhi conservancy to the north-east. I do not speak for poached rhinos outside the communal lands. The current spate of poaching has sparked bitter debate and accusations and counter-accusations. I will not dwell on that.
The facts are that only one arrest and conviction had been made - of a poacher caught at the beginning of the onslaught. Evidence points towards organised crime and intimidation. There is a cloak of silence over events. It seems as if conservancy or community members are harbouring criminals. Critically endangered species that stand as symbols of successful community-based conservation are being slaughtered. Why now? Why after all these successes?
Where have we gone wrong? Where are the flaws in our system?
When I studied nature conservation in the mid-eighties it was drummed into our heads: “If it pays it stays.”
It seems that even for conservationists, wildlife and wilderness have no place if they cannot be of financial value to people. Never was this doctrine more evident than in community-based conservation in Namibia. It is all about money.
Financial benefits to the community were the focus. National pride, ethics, aesthetics and sound ecological practices shared a sad second place. If any place at all.
Everything must have a price tag
Our relentless quest for financial benefit bred one thing: GREED.
It set the stage for disaster. Enter a higher bidder and all principles go out the window.
The higher bidder has entered. Unscrupulous foreign investors, with a lot of financial backing, have come with a new incentive: wildlife products. Rhino horn, ivory, pangolin, lion bones, meat, hides, organs. Everything now has a higher price. It is “good business”.
Will we stand up to this new threat? Will good people be bought and corrupted? Will our ethics and principles and our connection to the wilderness prevail?
Our clinical and non-emotional approach towards wildlife and wilderness will not be enough to stem the new wave of exploitation. We must look into our hearts again. We must remember that we are part of nature. Not owners and manipulators. This earth will not tolerate our greed forever.
We as Namibians stand to lose our reputation as splendid conservationists. A reputation means nothing until you have lost it.
The other day we travelled for several days around the Brandberg. It is a magnificent area. Pristine arid habitat. We travelled through four communal conservancies. It was an area renowned for its desert-adapted wildlife. The ancient art on its rock faces bears testimony to that. It is also known as the most bio-diverse place in Namibia. The first rains have fallen and the grass was in seed. Our total game count was: Two Cape fox, three springbok and eight giraffe.
It seems we are failing.
* Chris Bakkes has been involved in conservation and ecotourism, mostly in Namibia's north-western areas, for more than two decades. He is an acclaimed author of eight books published in Afrikaans, with a selection of his work translated into English and published under the title 'Bushveld, Desert, and Dogs: a Game Ranger's Life' (Human & Rousseau) in 2012.