“Quick, there are the elephants,” says Fidi, and beckons the cameraman. “Now follow me and keep as quiet as possible.” Francois, the cameraman, has seen it all. Although he works for ZDF, Germany’s second TV channel, he is a South African based in Jo’burg. His last assignment was reporting on the famine in Somalia. But despite the hard bitten newsman image, he was excited by the elephants. Half an hour later he was back at Fidi’s hut, showing off the pictures to his producer.
Fidi is short for Friedrich Alpers. He works for IRDNC, the conservation NGO with the full title of Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation, and lives at Buffalo, alongside the ruins of the SADF base where South African troops hunted Namibian freedom fighters, with the aid of Bushman trackers.
But things have changed in a way unimaginable two decades ago. Now the Khwe Bushman have the more respectful name of San, and they track game for the Kyaramaçan Trust in Bwabwata National Park. ZDF was in Caprivi Region to report on KAZA, the transfrontier conservation area that will link Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana in a ‘Peace Park’ dedicated to conservation.
The elephants often come for an evening drink on the bank of the Okavango River by Fidi’s simple wooden house. Just a stone’s throw up the river is the MET camp, from where the Ministry of Environment and Tourism controls the western park. Next morning is the game count and the ZDF team is keen to take part in the longest game walk in the world. All in all, 800 kilometres are covered in one day.
Teams of MET rangers and game guards from Namibian communal conservancies walk transects across Caprivi, all on the same day, 18 September. Some of the walks are short – just 3 kilometres. Others are a gruelling 25 kilometres through the bush. The teams note every wild animal they see and every track less than a day old. Add up the kilometres and the numbers, and you have a good estimation of the game in Caprivi.
Bwabwata is a special place. The area was proclaimed as the Caprivi Nature Reserve in the 1960s, but no wildlife management took place because the area was a restricted security zone. Locals were conscripted into the army and weapons proliferated during the fighting. The early 1990s were the high point of poaching by Namibians as well as others from across the Angolan border.
An imaginative idea by the MET led to the establishment of the park, in which people could continue to live and some could earn a living from community camp sites. The park borders on community conservancies, and a similar system of local control over wildlife resources was set up inside the park, where the Kyaramaçan Trust employs game guards who patrol alongside MET rangers, protecting wildlife from poachers and setting controlled fires, to prevent the annual conflagrations that used to roar through the Caprivi.
Since the establishment of the park, the MET has restocked the park with several species. Waterbuck and tsessebe have been released in the Mahango Core Area and are doing well. The area is famous for buffalo herds as well as elephants.
Early in the morning the teams are warming themselves by fires before the count gets underway. From the MET base, it is a long drive to the start of the transects. The back of the pick-up is crammed with people keeping warm from each other’s bodies, which also serve to soften the blows from the bumpy track. The back hatch is open for air and Shitumba’s rifle is thankfully pointing outside.
Each team must have an MET staff member with a rifle for protection, although nobody recalls any incidents with elephants or other dangerous animals. We finally fall out of the pick-up truck, anxious to stretch our legs. The sun is just rising as the walk begins.
It’s a short walk – just 6 kilometres – and we are an odd bunch: Shitumba is the MET man, an Owambo. Myambango is an Mbukushu and Tamugera is Khwe; both of them are game guards for the Kyaramaçan Trust. Shitumba has the gun, and says he has used it to shoot a poacher in the leg before arresting him. Myambango has also found poachers while out on patrol, which isn’t always easy, he adds, if you are unarmed. He has helped to arrest three by tracking them and calling the MET. That sounds simple enough, but sometimes there is no cell phone reception, or he has no credit on his phone, or the MET come late, which is hardly surprising considering the lack of people, vehicles, and the long distances through the bush. But poaching has been dramatically reduced.
Tamugera is the oldest in the group; how old, he doesn’t know. He says he worked in the kitchen at Omega SADF camp during the war years, not as a tracker. He learnt how to track as a young man in the bush, before the South Africans came to fight in Caprivi. His quarry was hares and duikers. He would follow them until they tired, then club them with an axe handle. Now his hunting days are past. After the war he had no income and suffered a lot from hunger. He went back to the bush and looked for veldkos until 1993, when the government provided drought relief. Those were the bad times. Now, as a game guard in the park, he has a salary and a better life.
As we drive back to the MET base we pass a reminder of the war years. A rusting axle of an armoured vehicle lies in the bush. We stop to check the area, and soon enough find evidence of a firefight. Rocket propelled grenades and mines lie in the grass. Dead wood is collected and laid around the unexploded ordinance for the NDF explosives unit to deal with later.
Back at Buffalo, all the results are in. The ZDF team is busy filming as the numbers are totted up. Bwabwata mirrors the rest of Caprivi, with an upward trend over recent years, but with some species it is difficult to be sure. The elephants and buffalos move across borders, which is the whole point of the KAZA trans-frontier concept. In a few years’ time, teams in all the KAZA states should be counting the game as well.