European ‘rewilding’ group learns from Namibian conservation

Wild boars in Berlin
Wild boars in Berlin

Next time you see a warthog by the side of the road when you drive north from Windhoek, just remember that there are 4,000 wild boars living around the city suburbs of Berlin.

In Namibia we tend to believe that Europe has lost all of its wildlife, and it nearly did. After all, wildlife is what Europeans come to see in Namibia, because it is harder to find in Europe. But that’s set to change thanks to an initiative called Rewilding Europe.

Thirteen ‘Rewilders’ – European conservationists – have just completed a tour of Namibia’s wilder areas to look for similarities between Namibia and Europe. What can Namibia teach Europeans about bringing back wildlife and creating the conditions where people and wildlife can coexist?

There was plenty to see and learn. In Kunene there were only 1,000 mountain zebras in the early 1980s. Now there are around 27,000. More antelopes and other prey means more predators: lions, cheetahs and leopards. That means more problems for farmers, but also more opportunities to earn a living from tourism and the visitors who come to see wildlife.

In Europe it’s a different story. While Africa’s human population is growing, it is diminishing in Europe. But both continents have one thing in common: migration to the cities. In Europe, the reduction in population and urban migration means that ever larger areas of farmland are being abandoned, leaving areas to become wild again.

But after centuries of human use, land does not just become home once more to the countless species that were eradicated in the past: wolves, bears, antelopes such as reindeer, and the bison. Two things have to happen. Species need to be re-introduced, and people have to learn to live with wildlife as they did in the past.

The Rewilding group assists in the translocation of wildlife, just as we do in Namibia. Now, in Kunene, we have the world’s largest population of free ranging black rhino. In Europe the Auroch – the ancestor of the modern cow – became extinct over 200 hundred years ago, but with careful breeding of cattle that are its near relations, the Auroch is back, and roaming in a wild area of Europe.

The Rewilding Europe organisation is only three years old, but it is having an impact, starting with 9 pilot sites. Europe now has 17,000 bears (that’s 5,000 more than the USA!) and 12,000 wolves. Exploring how people can live together with wildlife is part of the Rewilder’s mission to Namibia.

Many of Europe’s wild places are also a huge economic opportunity on a continent where small farmers struggle to make a living. The group visited Kunene’s joint venture tour lodges to see how wildlife viewing is managed at Grootberg, Palmwag and Damaraland Camp, and how conservancy members are benefitting from tourism.

As is often the case, study groups visiting Namibia bring fresh ideas for NACSO members to learn from. Perhaps, as we also learn to tolerate wildlife better, we may also see more warthogs around our city suburbs and locations.

Steve Felton
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