It is a bitterly cold June morning at the //Huab Conservancy office just north of Khorixas. Two hours before dawn there is a fire going for pap and tea, and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) officers are chatting with conservancy game guards, rubbing their hands to keep warm as the Namibian National Anthem plays softly from a bakkie radio. With a call of “Ons kan ry,” people jump onto the backs of vehicles and set off at speed to take part in the biggest game count of its kind in the world.
America’s National Public Radio is in Namibia to report on the event. Chris Joyce is a science correspondent, and he has come to //Huab to see the game count in action. Organized by the MET, it covers all of Namibia’s communal conservancies. In the same month every year 200 dedicated field staff using 50 vehicles travel fixed routes through conservancy areas, noting every wild animal they see on a precise grid.
To get a good estimate of the total numbers of wildlife, the area visible from a route is calculated as a percentage of a conservancy, minus odd features like high mountains or sand dunes where there would be less wildlife. Based on experience, two estimates are made: high and low.
The numbers are important. Communal conservancies are a key part of the Namibian government’s strategy to rebuild wildlife numbers that were decimated before independence by drought and poaching. Wildlife attracts tourists who bring vital income to rural areas.
Technical backup for the count comes from a working group which includes the MET and conservation NGOs that provide logistical support like maps, forms, and training, as well as analysis of the data collected.
‘One man’ Mumbalu Matti from the MET pulls out a pocket knife to pierce a can of engine oil. Topped up, the bakkie arrives at the start of its route just as the sun peeks over the mountain. Everybody on the back is frozen stiff. Senorita Namases from the Ministry and conservancy game guard Hans !Haoseb make a note of the kilometre reading and their position on a track leading from Fransfontein to the Huab river valley.
Accuracy is paramount. The team spreads out a grid of the area, which will be used to locate any wildlife they see on the 54 km route. //Huab is not rich in wildlife, which is a pity, because the more game there is, the more income the conservancy can earn from hunting and tourism. Namibia’s 65 communal conservancies already cover 17% of the country, and more are waiting to be declared. Conservancies give rights similar to those of freehold farmers to rural residents. They can set up tourist lodges, usually in joint venture agreements with experienced operators, and they have rights over wildlife, in accordance with quotas laid down by the MET. That means they can earn money from hunting trophies - excess older males - and may shoot limited game for the use of residents.
Despite keenly peeled eyes, One Man’s team sees nothing for two cold hours. Then suddenly there are 6 kudu halfway up the hillside, “males,” says Hans with some satisfaction; “distance: 100 metres.” Later he spots a jackal at 400 metres. Another team has already passed through the Huab river by the time One Man’s bakkie reaches it. The river valley is often home to elephants, and guides bring tourists down the sandy river bed in search of them.
A hunting quota is set by the MET for each conservancy according to the population and trend in wildlife numbers, and it’s a tricky equation. Thanks to careful management and game guards employed by the conservancies, wildlife numbers have been steadily increasing over the last decade. Some species, like springbok, are super-abundant; if the population falls, it can quickly recover again. Other species are more rare, with a smaller base, and it takes a long time for a population to grow. Drought is the biggest worry. Although wildlife numbers have steadily increased since1996, when the conservancy programme began, another drought like the one in the mid-eighties could devastate wildlife and livestock alike, leaving communal farmers in conservancy areas with little to live on.
Naftali Elias is the MET’s Area Manager for Kunene South. For three days he has been leading the team, getting up before dawn and living on rations of tea and pap. At four in the afternoon he calls everybody together to announce the results. Nobody saw elephants, whci disappointed the reporter and his photographer from the USA. They would be counted elsewhere, further down the Huab river. One Man’s team saw the most kudu: 6 of the 14 spotted on the day. Altogether there were an estimated 2,600 kudu in the north west conservancies.
//Huab’s numbers are very similar to last year, and by August when all the figures for the north-west conservancies are in, it’s a trend that is reported all over Namibia – good news for the Ministry, Namibia’s conservancies, and for conservation as a whole. National Public Radio’s Chris Joyce is back the USA working on his story, placing Namibia’s conservation strategy on the global news agenda.