Namibian conservancies learn the American wayBy: STEVE FELTON
THE United States of America is “a land full of waters” says Gustaph , still wearing a US Cavalry cap and fresh from a study tour with a group of Namibians to Montana, Yellowstone National Park and California.
The tour was the brainchild of Dan Austin of Austin-Lehman Adventures who had visited Namibia, and was so impressed by the way communal conservancies work together with private tour operators and lodges in Kunene, he invited a group of Namibians on a study tour to Montana, USA.
The group included conservancy management, representatives of World Wildlife Fund and the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organisations (Nacso), private tour operators and the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism: a cross-section of people intimately concerned with making joint ventures between conservancies and the private sector a success.
For Omatandeka Conservancy chairman Tjiundukamba, everything in the USA was “BIG”. First the hospitality: Dan Austin went “overboard” with the food and transport. But for Namibians like Tjiundukamba and Cebens Munanzi, from Wuparo Conservancy in the Caprivi, the meat was way too red. Cebens flips his hand left and right and says “that’s how it was cooked – red in the middle”.
If Dan Austin found Kunene awesome, the Namibians felt much the same about Yellowstone National Park. First established over a century ago, the park is the crown of US conservation, inset with jewels of mountains, forest and water.
Grey wolves, which have been re-introduced to the area, were a particular fascination for the Namibian group, because the cattle ranchers outside the park are complaining about wolf attacks on elk (an antelope species) which are hunted during the lean season, bringing extra income to the ranchers. Much the same happens in Namibia, with lions and hyenas preying on cattle, with subsequent income losses.
But it was the size of the animals that impressed Alex Ndango, chair of Muduva Nyangana Conservancy in the Kavango. “Bison are rather like buffalo, but with smaller horns and a massive body.” Elk are like kudus, only larger, and with an impressive array of horns. Even the cattle are larger, according to Tjiundukamba, who spreads his arms out wide. Not just the cattle on ranches. The group spent the evening with the Crow Indian Nation, who live on a reservation near the town of Billings. The Crow live by cattle ranching, and their cattle are big, like everything stateside.
The Crow had a story to tell that resonated with the Namibians. They were forced to speak English, converted to Christianity, prohibited from hunting, and couldn’t travel off the reservation without permission. It sounds like an American Odendaal Plan, with homelands and pass laws, but as in Namibia, things are changing for the Crow. For a start, many go to college, and some to university.
They were fascinated to hear about the Namibian conservancy model, with income coming to residents through control over wildlife and tourism. In the USA, hotels are in private hands, and those in parks are with government agreement. But why shouldn’t the Crow run joint venture tour operations on their reservation, rather like a conservancy? That was the joy of the learning exchange, with lessons learnt from both sides.
Tjiundukamba was impressed by the Crow vegetable gardens. Not only do they sell to nearby hotels in the park, “they eat them” observed the Herero, and they are “good for the blood”.
After horse riding on a nearby ranch, Tjiundukamba thought that riding trails would be a great idea in Kunene, where Omatendeka Conservancy runs a camp site and has a joint venture stake in a lodge. “Our horses are small, and ideal for tourists, and they can climb rocky hills and go where vehicles can’t get to.”
Cebens Munanzi says that he will have a lot to tell his conservancy in Caprivi. First about the toilet. He was impressed by the pristine condition of US parks. The group spent a night camping on an island, where the eco-tourism mantra of “take only photographs, leave only footprints” was taken very seriously. Only a portable toilet was provided, to prevent pollution of the water table: important lessons for Caprivi camp sites.
Munanzi had the task of making a presentation to the TIES eco-tourism summit in Monterey, California. The International Eco-Tourism Society has an annual indaba to exchange ideas and best practices. Some participants were not quite sure where Namibia is, and were mostly unaware of the conservancy way of doing things.
Munanzi admits to being nervous. It was his first presentation to an international audience. But at home he is a lay preacher, and he soon warmed to his theme, explaining where Wuparo Conservancy is, how it manages human/wildlife conflict, how it runs a camp site and has a highly successful joint venture with Nkasa Lupala Tented Lodge, just outside Mamili National Park.
For the group, the tour was a great success. They did leave footprints behind: many more people in the US tourism industry know about Namibia and its communal conservation programme. And the group brought back much more than photos: ideas for improving camp sites, for eco-trails, for litter collection; and for hospitality.