A great deal has been written about conservation in Africa, much of it over-simplistic and intentionally emotive. As an informed visitor you are in the unique position of being able to see some of the issues at first hand, and to appreciate the perspectives of local people. So abandon your preconceptions, and start by appreciating the complexities of the issues involved. Here I shall try to develop a few ideas, touched on only briefly elsewhere in the book, which are common to most current thinking on conservation.
First, conservation must be taken within its widest sense if it is to have meaning. Saving animals is of minimal use if the whole environment is degraded, so we must consider conserving whole areas and ecosystems, not just the odd isolated species.
Observe that land is regarded as an asset by most societies, in Africa as it is elsewhere. (The Bushmen used to be perhaps a notable exception to this.) To ‘save’ the land for the animals and to use it merely for the recreation of a few privileged foreign tourists – whilst the local people remain in poverty – is a recipe for huge social problems. Local people have hunted game for food for centuries. They have always killed those animals that threatened them or ruined their crops. If we now try to proclaim animals in a populated area as protected, without addressing the concerns of the people, then our efforts will fail.
The only pragmatic way to conserve Namibia’s wild areas is to see the conservation of animals and the environment as inseparably linked to the development of the local people.
In the long term one will not work without the other. Conservation without development leads to resentful local people who will happily, and frequently, shoot, trap and kill animals. Development without conservation will simply repeat the mistakes that most developed countries have already made: it will lay waste a beautiful land, and kill off its natural heritage. Look at the tiny areas of natural vegetation which survive undisturbed in the UK, the USA, or Japan, to see how unsuccessful they have been at long-term conservation over the last 500 years.
As an aside, the local people in Namibia – and other developing countries – are sometimes wrongly accused of being the only agents of degradation. Observe the volume of tropical hardwoods imported by the industrialised countries to see that the West plays no small part in this.
In conserving some of Namibia’s natural areas, and helping its people to develop, the international community has a vital role to play. It could use its aid projects to encourage the Namibian government to practise sustainable long-term strategies, rather than grasping for the short-term fixes which politicians seem universally to prefer. But such strategies must have the backing of the people themselves, or they will fall apart when foreign funding eventually wanes.
Most Namibians are more concerned about where they live, what they can eat, and how they will survive, than they are about the lives of small, obscure species of antelope that taste good when roasted. To get backing from the local communities, it is not enough for a conservation strategy to be compatible with development: it must actually promote it and help the local people to improve their own standard of living. If that situation can be reached, then rural populations can be mobilised behind long-term conservation initiatives.
Governments are the same. As one of Zambia’s famous conservationists once commented, ‘governments won’t conserve an impala just because it is pretty’. But they will work to save it if they can see that it is worth more to them alive than dead.
The best strategies tried so far on the continent attempt to find lucrative and sustainable ways to use the land. They then plough much of the revenue back into the surrounding local communities. Once the people see revenue from conservation being used to help them improve their lives – to build houses, clinics and schools, and to offer paid employment – then such schemes stand a chance of getting their backing and support. It can take a while...
Carefully planned, sustainable tourism is one solution that can work effectively. For success, the local people must see that visitors pay because they want the wildlife. Thus, they reason that the existence of wildlife directly improves their income, and they will strive to conserve it.
It isn’t enough for them to see that the wildlife helps the government to get richer; that won’t dissuade a local hunter from shooting a duiker for dinner. However, if he benefits directly from the visitors, who come to see the animals... then he has a vested interest in saving that duiker.
It matters little to the Namibian people, or ultimately to the wildlife, whether these visitors come to shoot the wildlife with a camera or with a gun – as long as any hunting is done on a sustainable basis, that is only a few of the oldest ‘trophy’ animals are shot each year, and the size of the animal population remains largely unaffected. Photographers may claim moral high ground, but should remember that hunters pay far more for their privileges. Hunting operations generate large revenues from few guests, who demand minimal infrastructure and so cause little impact on the land. Photographic operations need more visitors to generate the same revenue, and so may have greater negative effects on the country.
The Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) is a small organisation directed by Garth Owen-Smith, a Namibian nature conservator, and Dr Margaret Jacobsohn, a Namibian anthropologist who worked amongst the Himba people for years.
They set as their goal ensuring the sustainable social, economic and ecological development of Namibia’s communal areas, and have been working towards it since the mid-1980s. The directors have received several international environmental prizes, and the IRDNC now employs a staff of over 30 and more than 130 rural community workers.
The IRDNC was one of the pioneers of the community game-guard scheme in the Kaokoveld, involved as early as 1983, and later helped to set up some of the community campsites there. It facilitated the important projects to return money from lodges to local communities at Lianshulu and Etendeka, and was also involved with setting up the joint venture between the community and Wilderness Safaris which is behind Damaraland Camp.
Typical of the organisation’s low-key approach, when asked they emphasise how they have always worked as part of a team with the government, various NGOs, community groups and like-minded organisations in the private sector. (Namibia’s Save the Rhino Trust is another notable player in much of this work.)
National parks and private reserves
In practice, there is room for both types of visitors in Namibia: the photographer and the hunter. The national parks are designated for photographic visitors, where no hunting is allowed.
Many private ranches now have game on their land and style themselves as ‘hunting farms’. They are used mainly by overseas hunters (primarily from Germany and the USA) who pay handsomely for the privilege. The livelihood of these farms depends on hunting, and so it must be practised sustainably.
There are very few countries in Africa where land is being returned to a more natural state, with fewer livestock and more indigenous game, so Namibia is a great success story.
In March 1995 the Namibian Cabinet passed a new policy on wildlife management, utilisation and tourism in communal areas (areas occupied by subsistence farmers rather than large-scale commercial ranches). This followed five years of consultations, and much study.
Many interested groups, including the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) have been closely involved with the formulating of this policy, and it enabled a whole new type of community projects like Damaraland Camp to get off the ground.
The new policy finally encouraged the linking of ‘conservation with rural development by enabling communal farmers to derive financial income from the sustainable use of wildlife and from tourism’. It also aimed to ‘provide an incentive to the rural people to conserve wildlife and other natural resources, through shared decision-making and financial benefit’.
Put simply, this gave a framework for local communities to take charge of the wildlife in their own areas for sustainable utilisation – with decisions made by the local communities, for the community.
Community Game Guard scheme
This scheme (originally called the Auxiliary Game Guard scheme) started in the 1980s and has been behind the phenomenal recovery of the desert-adapted populations of elephant and black rhino in the area. In its simplest form, a community game-guard is appointed from each community, and is paid to ensure that no member of the community hunts anything that they are not allowed to hunt.
These aim to enable local communities to benefit very directly from passing tourists. The community sets up a campsite, and then a central community fund receives the money generated – and the whole community decides how the revenue is spent. Once the tourists have stopped to camp, it also gives the community a chance to earn money by guiding the visitors on local walks, selling curios or firewood, or whatever else seems appropriate in the area.
There are now several community campsites in the Kaokoveld, and an increasing number in the Caprivi area.
Namibia lies far from Africa’s ‘original’ big-game safari areas of East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania, and from the newer destinations of Zimbabwe and Zambia. Aside from Etosha and Caprivi, Namibia doesn’t have the density of game that visitors would expect for such a trip, or the warm tropical shores which they would expect for a beach holiday (anyone who has been to Lüderitz will surely agree).
Thus Namibia doesn’t generally attract first-time visitors who simply want to see game, or see game and lie on a beach. This combination accounts for much volume in the travel business. Therefore few cheap charter planes arrive in Namibia, and there are only a handful of large hotels, most of which aim more for business people than tourists.
The growth in Namibia’s tourism is in self-drive individual trips and small-group tours. These are perfect for the small lodges and guest farms, which can’t take big groups anyhow. It is allowing many small-scale tourist ventures to develop and thrive – utilising not only the few famous national parks, but also old cattle-ranches and otherwise unproductive sections of desert.
In the long term, this is a huge advantage for the country. Tourism is set to continue growing slowly but steadily – but without the boom–then–bust experienced by countries like Kenya. Every month new small camps, lodges and guest farms open for visitors; most try hard to retain that feeling of ‘wilderness’ which is so rare in more densely populated countries, and much sought after by visitors. Namibia has so much space and spectacular scenery that, provided the developments remain small-scale and responsible, it should have a very long and profitable career in tourism ahead.
Perhaps Namibia’s most promising developments in this field are its successes in linking tourism with community development projects. The community game-guard scheme has already safeguarded the populations of desert-adapted elephants and black rhino in the Kaokoveld, whilst a number of community campsites are thriving in the area.
Both projects are now extending their reach in the Caprivi area, assisted by trail-blazing individuals and organisations like the IRDNC. Tourism is a vital source of revenue for many of these projects and, if it helps to provide employment and bring foreign exchange into Namibia, this gives the politicians a reason to support environmental conservation.
The tourist’s responsibility
Visitors on an expensive trip to Namibia are, by their mere presence, making some financial contribution to development and conservation in Namibia. There are several things that they can do to maximise this.
If camping, they can seek out the community campsites, and support them. They can use the local people there for guides, and pay for the facilities. Even travellers on a lower budget can thus have a direct impact on some of Namibia’s smaller, rural communities.
If staying in lodges, they can ask the lodge operator, in the most penetrating of terms, what he or she is doing to help local development initiatives. How much of the lodge’s revenue goes directly back to the local community? How do the people benefit directly from the visitors staying at this camp? How much of say do they have about what goes on in the area where these safaris are operated?
If enough visitors did this, it would make a big difference. All Namibia’s operators would start to place development initiatives higher on their list of priorities. At present, a few operators have really excellent forward-thinking ways of helping their local communities – Damaraland Camp being a real flagship, and the focus for much attention.
Some others make a form of ‘charity’ donation to local communities, but otherwise only involve local people as workers. Whilst this is valuable, much more is needed. Local people must gain greater and more directs benefits from tourism if conservation is going to be successful in Africa, and Namibia is no exception.
Big-game hunting, where visiting hunters pay large amounts to kill trophy animals, is a practical source of revenue for many ‘hunting farms’ which accept guests. Some also accept non-hunters or ‘photographic’ guests.
It is interesting that the rich killing animals for sport is usually regarded as ‘hunting’, whilst the poor killing them for food is generally termed ‘poaching’. That said, though many find hunting distasteful, it does benefit the Namibian economy greatly, and encourage farms to cultivate natural wildlife rather than introduced livestock. Until there are enough photographic guests to fill all the guest farms used for hunters, pragmatic conservationists will encourage the hunters.
If you don’t hunt, but choose to stay at these places, ensure either that you are comfortable with hunting per se, or that there are no hunters on the farm whilst you are there. Arguments over dinner are surprisingly common.
Planning and Preparations
There are several airlines flying to Namibia from Europe. Some are direct, and all are reliable. Most fly overnight, so you can fall asleep on the plane in London, and wake in southern Africa ready to explore. The time difference between western Europe and Namibia is minimal, so there’s no jet lag.
All the airlines will help you with information, but they sell their own seats at the ‘published’ fares. These are considerably above what you can expect to pay if you shop around. If you plan to hire a car or arrange some accommodation in advance, then speak to one of the UK’s specialist tour operators — like Sunvil Africa before you book your flights. They will often offer to arrange everything together, and quote one cost for your whole trip – flights, car and accommodation. This may seem a lot, but compare it with the cost and hassle of putting the various components together yourself and you’ll find that the better operators offer excellent deals.
From the Americas
South African Airways operates direct flights between Miami International and Cape Town, which connect with numerous regional flights to Windhoek. Alternatively, many travellers from the US approach Southern Africa using connections via Europe, joining Air Namibia’s flights in London or Frankfurt, or even travelling on one of the many carriers servicing Johannesburg, and then connecting through to Windhoek. Start your research by looking in the classified section of the New York Times, which has a good section on discount flight specialists.
Given the duration of these flights, travellers often include a few days in Europe as they transit. This highlights the possibility of booking a return USA–London flight (from US$200 return) with an American travel specialist, and a return London–Windhoek flight (from US$1,000 return) with a London specialist. This means that you can using discounted fares for both legs and make a considerable saving. However, do allow a day or so in London between the flights, as your flights will not technically ‘connect’ – and if one is late you don’t want to miss the other.
Travellers in Central and South America, might use the Miami or European gateways, or the direct flights between Buenos Aires and Cape Town, run by South African Airways and others.
From the Far East, there are flights between Johannesburg and most of the major centres in the region, including Hong Kong (with South African Airways or Cathay Pacific) and Singapore (South African Airlines and Singapore Airlines). From Australasia, the best route is probably one of the flights from Perth to Johannesburg, and then connecting to Windhoek.
If you are not flying in, then entering over one of Namibia’s land borders is equally easy. Namibia has fast and direct links with South Africa – good tarred roads and railway service.
Namibia’s borders are generally hassle-free and efficient. If you are crossing with a hired car, then ensure that you have the right paperwork with you before you set off. Their opening hours are as follows:
Buitepos – on the Gobabis–Ghanzi road 07.30–17.00
Impalila Island – over the river from Kasane 07.00–17.00
Ngoma Bridge – between Caprivi and Kasane 06.00–18.00
Mohembo – on the southern side of Mahango 06.00–18.00
Wenella – just north of Katima Mulilo 06.00–18.00
Oshikango – on the main road north 06.00–18.00
Ruacana – near the hydro-electric station 06.00–18.00
Rundu – cross the river to go north 07.00–18.00
With South Africa
Hohlweg – on the D622 southeast of Aroab 06.00–22.00
Klein Menasse – Aroab–Rietfontein road 07.00–21.00
Narochas (Nakop) – on the Karasburg–Upington road 24 hours
Noordoewer – on the Windhoek–Cape Town road 24 hours
Oranjemund – the bridge over the Orange River 06.00–22.00
Velloorsdrif – on the C10 southeast of Karasburg 06.00–22.00
VISAS AND ENTRY REQUIREMENTS
Currently all visitors require a passport which is valid for at least six months after they are due to leave, and an onward ticket of some sort. In practice, the second requirement is rarely even considered if you look neat, respectable and fairly affluent.
Currently, if you are a national of one of the following countries, you do not need a visa to enter Namibia: Angola, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Lesotho, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mozambique, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Scandinavian countries, Singapore, South Africa, Russia and the CIS, Spain, Swaziland, Switzerland, Tanzania, UK, USA, Zambia or Zimbabwe.
That said, it is always best to check with your local Namibian embassy or high commission before you travel. If you have difficulties in your home country, contact the Ministry of Home Affairs in Windhoek on the corner of Independence Av and Kasino St (P Bag 13200, Windhoek; tel: 061 2929111; fax: 061 225834.
The maximum tourist visa is 60 days, but this can be easily extended by application in Windhoek. You will then probably be required to show proof of the ‘means to leave’, like an onward air ticket, a credit card, or sufficient funds of your own.
Namibian embassies and high commissions
A list of the foreign embassies in Windhoek can be found in Chapter 9. Namibia’s diplomatic representatives overseas include:
Angola Rua Dos Coqueiros, PO Box 953, Luanda; tel: (244) 2 395483; fax: (244) 2 333923
Being a member of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) means that there are few restrictions between Namibia and either Botswana or South Africa. If you wish to export animal products, including skins or legally culled ivory, make sure you obtain a certificate confirming the origin of every item bought. Remember: even with such a certificate, the international CITES convention prohibits the movement of some things across international borders. Do consider the ethics of buying any animal products that might be covered by CITES.
WHEN TO GO
There really are neither any ‘bad’ nor any ‘ideal’ times to visit Namibia, but there are times when some aspects of the country are at their best. You must decide what you are primarily interested in, and what’s important to you, and then choose accordingly. See the Climate section for a more detailed discussion of the weather – perhaps the biggest influence on your decision. Then consider your own specific requirements, which might include some of the following: