Scientist and conservationist John Ledger returns to Kunene

edger (right) with conservationists Garth Owen-Smith (left) and Bennie Roman
edger (right) with conservationists Garth Owen-Smith (left) and Bennie Roman

John Ledger is reading an article on fairy circles at Puros campsite. He has come full circle, so to speak, having started out as a medical etymologist studying insects in Namibia, moving on to run the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa for seventeen years before 'retiring' to sell solar water heaters, and becoming Associate Professor of Alternative Energy at Johannesburg University. Back in Namibia he is excited to learn that after decades of speculation and research by various academics, it seems that Namibian fairy circles are created by termites.

Dr Ledger has always been fascinated by wildlife, and his efforts to save and protect endangered species in Namibia endeared him to the pioneering conservationists who started the conservancy movement in Namibia, bringing wildlife in Kunene back from the brink of extinction. That's why he is in Puros, in the heart of the Kaokoveld on a tour organized by Conservancy Safaris Namibia, IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development ad Nature Conservation) and the WWF, to thank him for his support back in the 1980s.

Conservation has transformed Kunene. It is as if the desert has sprung back to life over the last few decades.  Conservancy Safaris Namibia has just emerged from the Hoanib River, arguably the most scenic route in Namibia, after an encounter with desert adapted elephants. The day before it was rhinos, and the day before that lions in Torra Conservancy.

Resting in in the river bed, the lions had been sleepy. They were relatively easy to find thanks to Dr 'Flip' Stander's Desert Lion Research Programme. Flip fits radio collars to lions – one of the trickiest tailoring jobs in the world – so now we know that desert lions have expanded in range and number throughout Kunene thanks to two things: the new abundance of wildlife for them to prey upon, and the increasing willingness of farmers to tolerate them because of the income that wildlife tourism brings to the area.

We were in three 4x4s making our way across Torra Conservancy when we spotted rhinos for a second time. The first sighting had been a young bull chasing a cow, which just wasn't interested. They had trotted fast across the rocky mountainside, and in vehicles or on foot we had no hope of catching up with them. But this time, just south of Palmwag, we saw two cows, each with a calf, trotting across the hillside opposite us. We were upwind and making a din, so they knew we were there. Rhinos have poor eyesight but a keen sense of hearing, so we kept quiet. All four animals wheeled in a circle, trying to sense where we were, then hearing the engines and smelling us they set off up a hillside.

Garth-Owen Smith is probably the best guide you could have in Kunene. He walked these hills as a young man, drumming up support for conservation among the local people. He will tell you that Boas Hambo, a Himba local, is better. So with Garth at the wheel and Boas swaying on top of the lead vehicle, we had a good chance of seeing the rhinos near the top of the hillside, where the track led.

It was a bumpy and slow ride uphill and we were looking ahead rather than to the side, so everybody was taken by surprise when a calf with the mother behind charged up the slope to our left and galloped at a terrific pace right across our path. Tourists reached for cameras too late; but not Boas, perched on top. His main role – as well as tour guiding - is to track the rhinos in the area for Save the Rhino Trust and IRDNC. His picture is a poem of power and speed. Later we looked at it in detail and Boas pointed out the radio collar fitted around the cow's left foot. “It's Nina,” he told us, born in 1985. “She has had five calves and this one is a year old.”

Save the Rhino Trust and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism know most of the black rhinos in Kunene, where they live in comparative safety from poachers thanks to communal conservancy game guards. But SRT and the MET don't let on how many there are, or their location. Poaching has reached crisis proportions in neighbouring South Africa, and Namibia has to be on guard.

The arguments for and against a legal trade in ivory and rhino horn rage back and forth. The South African government wants to be able to sell ivory legally, and similar arguments can be put forward for legalizing the trade in rhino horn. John Ledger is a scientist and is keen to look at the arguments logically, so for a while the debate swayed one way and then the other inside the Land Cruiser. If there is a legal trade, then wouldn't that just encourage the poachers to shoot more rhinos and try to sell the horns through legal channels? But if the trade was legal and governments took a share in tax, wouldn't they try harder to stamp out poaching?

About one thing there is little argument: wildlife in Kunene has increased not only due to periods of good rains since the extreme drought of 1981, but because local people see a value in protecting it. If tourists come to view rhino and hunters shoot big game in controlled numbers, the community benefits from the income through conservancies. The concept is called sustainable use. Is there an argument for the sustainable use of rhino horn? The debate continues, but one rhino was illegally shot for its horn this year in Kunene – one too many.

Garth Owen-Smith and Dr Margie Jacobsohn have worked in conservation for most of their lives and they met in Namibia's arid north-west. Garth was a conservation pioneer, persuading Himba and Herero chiefs to appoint game guards (until then, poachers to a man) from the community. In return for food rations the game guards patrolled the rugged terrain and prevented poaching, giving wildlife its first chance in decades to recover.

The story is told in Garth Owen-Smith’s epic book 'An Arid Eden'. The real struggle wasn't with the community, which had always lived with wildlife and did not wish to live in an empty Eden. The fight for hearts and minds was with Nature Conservation, the South African government agency. To the government, Owen-Smith was a thorn in their flesh, working together with local people rather than telling them what to do.

Early conservation efforts in Kunene had been supported by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African NGO, but in 1985 that all came to an abrupt end. The EWT was given an ultimatum by South African government officials: the Trust either stops funding Owen-Smith, or it will never again be allowed to work in national parks in South Africa or South West Africa, as Namibia was then known.

For a while, the blackmail worked. Owen-Smith lost his funding. Conservation was once again in the hands of government staff, which did not support the concept of community control of wildlife, and it looked as though the pioneering work had come to an end.

Not so: Garth’s partner, researcher Margaret Jacobsohn, contacted the newly appointed Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, John Ledger, who came to see for himself. John quickly realized that money from the Trust was being used to pay for government employees who were not truly interested in conservation. John is a man with a big smile, but he can be deadly serious. He went back to SA determined to change the EWT Board’s mind about the Namibian project. His argument prevailed, and with a small amount of renewed funding, Owen-Smith was able to rebuild the community game guard network and make it effective again. This was a new start. Soon afterwards, Garth and Margie Jacobsohn co-founded IRDNC, the field-based NGO which today provides technical, logistic and financial support to more than half of Namibia’s 79 communal conservancies.

John Ledger also started organizing fly-in safaris to Kunene. Wealthy tourists would rough it for a while, seeing the rugged beauty of the land through Garth and Margie's eyes, treating the local people as equals, and witnessing the beginnings of wildlife recovery in the area. Influential people with money were keen to support the conservation cause. Things started to improve. At Independence in 1990, EWT was able to help IRDNC obtain international funding through the WWF.

That's why John was invited back by IRDNC and WWF, hosted by Conservancy Safaris Namibia – to say a big thank you for supporting community conservation at a time when the Kunene pioneers were regarded as troublemakers by government. The safari organized for John and his wife Amy was the best present possible: a tour of a landscape populated by wildlife once in danger of extinction.

In a way, Conservancy Safaris Namibia is the direct result of pioneering work three decades ago, when Garth persuaded poachers to work as community game guards in return for food rations, and encouraged the first tourists to visit the area. The fledgling safari company is jointly owned by five northern conservancies, with capitalization from a Swedish backer. In the future it should provide income to its conservancy owners.

For the pioneers, it has been a long journey, which has not yet come to an end. Another drought is looming – hopefully not as bad as the early 1980s. Poaching could easily spill over from South Africa into Namibia. The old enemy was the South African army killing wildlife for food and for fun, and locals shooting for the pot. The new enemies are organized gangs, equally happy to deal in drugs and rhino horn. Margie and Garth are now officially retired, but still active as tour guides, trustees of the safari company and of IRDNC. They see great hope for the future, with a new generation ready to take on the task.

Boas Hambo is just one of the younger conservationists moving into the front line. In Puros Conservancy, Garth, John and Boas had found a lion print in the sand and were discussing the problems that lions could cause as the drought intensifies and game moves into other areas. Cattle will be the lions' prey, and farmers will be less willing to tolerate them. As humans, we love pictures of lions, but are more wary of the real thing.

Margie tells a story (Garth says she tells it wrong, but lets her anyway). They were sleeping on bedrolls outside in the Hoanib riverbed when Margie heard a noise. Waking up she saw a lion at Garth's foot and shrieked. Petrified with fear she then watched the lion bite Garth's foot, at which point he woke and leapt up. A couple of seconds later they were standing in front of the lion, then Margie says that Garth “disappeared”. She thought her time had come. Then a shot rang out. Garth was standing behind her with a smoking shotgun. Unharmed, the lion retreated into the bush. “Why didn't you shoot it?” cried Margie; after all, he could hardly miss from that range. Garth replied that he had a second barrel if the lion refused to leave. It wasn't doing any harm.

The safari continued towards Puros community campsite over the Giribis Plain, where fairy circles populate the ground, with Kunene’s mountains on the horizon. John, the etymologist was thrilled by the new conclusion that sand termites, Psammotermes allocerus, eat grass roots, forming circles in the sand. Water collects in the circles and feeds the grass around them, which in turn benefits wildlife.

Thanks to pioneering conservationists supported by the Endangered Wildlife Trust under John Ledger, wildlife in Kunene continues to flourish.

Garth Owen-Smith’s history of conservation in the Kunene tells the complete story. An Arid Eden is available from Namibian bookshops.

Steve Felton
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