Caring for wildlife, Namibian-style
The African wild dog is Namibia's most endangered mammal species. (Ignacio Palacios/LPI)
If there was ever an animal that could have spawned the legend of the unicorn, it is Namibia’s magnificent Gemsbok antelope. It has two rapier-straight and devastatingly sharp horns, and viewed side-on in the setting Namib sun, it could be mistaken for the mythical creature itself.
Happily, in Namibia, the Gemsbok is not in danger of becoming the stuff of legend. The antelope is the southern African country’s national symbol, and its population is thriving due to the fact that Namibia is one of the few countries in the world that constitutionally enshrines its land and wildlife conservation values. In fact, this poor, arid and sparsely populated land lays claim to one of the world’s most successful wildlife conservation stories.
Populations of vulnerable and endangered animals like desert elephants, cheetahs, black and white rhinoceros, lions and endemic birds are stable or increasing, protected both in national parks and community-managed private lands. Namibia bases its brand of conservation on the principle of alleviating poverty through the sustainable use of its wildlife resources. This means attracting visitors to see the animals, involving locals in the necessary infrastructure, then investing profits back into communities. Locals are employed as anti-poaching guards, and in some places, carefully managed hunting is allowed. It is a win/win strategy for the environment and local communities.
From Gemsbok to African wild dogs, visitors have the chance to spot some of Namibia’s most characteristic wildlife and witness the country’s innovative conservation measures first hand.
With its long horns, bay-coloured coat outlined in charcoal and elegant gait, the Gemsbok is a striking national symbol. Able to live on little water and partial to wild desert melons, it is ideally suited to Namibia’s desert landscapes (the country is 44% desert or semi-desert). Though numbers fell during the Namibian War of Independence (1966 to1988) and throughout the severe droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, the population has since rebounded strongly. There are currently more than 200,000 Gemsbok, with the largest proportion living on privately-owned farming land managed for conservation by communities (although it is possible to spot herds almost anywhere outside of Namibia’s urban areas). To photograph Gemsbok against a spectacular desert dune backdrop, head to the Sossusvlei region of the Namib Naukluft National Park, in the country’s southwest.
The world’s fastest land animal thrives in Namibia. The country is estimated to have about a quarter of the world’s total cheetah population, the majority of which live on privately-owned land conservancies. Public and private conservation bodies have been working for two decades on rehabilitation and capture-and-release programs, to re-integrate injured animals into the wild and help build populations. One of the best places to spot cheetahs is on the Waterberg Plateau, near Otjiwarongo in Namibia’s north. Here cheetah, leopard, buffalo, roan and sable antelope and other endangered species roam in more than 400sqkm of national park and adjacent private conservation land. Close to the park is the headquarters of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, where you can visit their education centre and get up close to cheetahs that have not reintegrated into the wild.
In 1982, after decades of war, people were desperate and poaching was lucrative. In Namibia’s far northwest Kunene region (also known as Kaokoland), black rhinos were almost extinct. Today, Kunene has the largest number of free-roaming black rhino in the world -- the only rhino worldwide living on communally- and traditionally-owned land without formal conservation status. Namibia created a culture of good human-wildlife interactions by involving communities, employing locals in anti-poaching patrols and generating income from rhino-related tourism. Lodges like Palmwag Lodge and Serra Cafema offer varying degrees of luxury as well as trips to see the desert rhino by vehicle or on guided walks.