Thikundja Ndando is an old man, blind in one eye. His language is Khwedam, one of the Bushman languages spoken in Namibia. The Khwe people are proud of their bush skills: tracking wild animals, hunting, and gathering wild fruits, or ‘veldkos’. Bushman is a term of pride for the Khwe who live on Bwabwata National Park, a thin finger of land sandwiched between Angola to the north and Botswana to the south.
The term ‘San’ is more politically correct, reflecting values from outside Chetto Village, where Ndando lives; and it is outside values that are threatening Ndando with the destruction of his way of life, and with hunger.
Many people in in Europe and the USA want to see an end to trophy hunting, and are lobbying for a ban on the import of trophies from Africa and elsewhere. There are strong arguments on both sides. Wild animals are beautiful and many are endangered. Surely killing them is wrong, some argue, especially animal rights groups. On the other hand, influential conservationists in southern Africa often disagree. Trophy hunting causes few animal mortalities, but earns significant income for conservation. Paradoxically, wildlife populations are less threatened in countries where legal hunting takes place.
Ndando lights his pipe and thinks about this. He is with a group of elders and game guards employed by a conservation group called the Kyaramacan Association in Bwabwata National Park. They are hearing the arguments against hunting, and learning that lobbyists are asking members of the European Parliament to sign a petition favouring a ban on trophy imports.
“In the past we hunted with a bow,” he says. “Then we followed. When the animal fell we called our people to come and get meat. When conservation began, we agreed, and decided to select game guards to protect wildlife. We thought this would help us to get income and meat”.
Under conservation legislation enacted in 1998, rural Namibians living in conservancies have rights over wildlife in their areas. They can hunt for meat and sell animals for trophy hunting – but only according to strict quotas set by the environment ministry, following an annual game count. Income from trophy hunting pays game guard salaries, and the meat is distributed to villagers.
“It is little, but it helps us to survive,” says Ndando.
The Khwe in Bwabwata now feel that they are treated with respect as a people, who do not have to survive on hand-outs. Without hunting, Ndando does not see how he will survive. In May, he says “we expect the hunt to start, and after that we will have meat. If the European Union wants to stop hunting, they should load trucks of cattle to bring here for us to eat, or kill them in Europe and send us the meat.”
For the Kyaramacan Association game guards, the main problem in the area is not legal hunting, but poaching: international wildlife crime. “People from Zambia and Angola are destroying our area,” says Ndando, referring to syndicates which kill elephants for ivory. The game guards make daily patrols, using their age-old bush skills, to pinpoint illegal movement and sometimes, sadly, to find elephant carcasses. They work together with rangers from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism in the area, who are empowered to make arrests.
Bwabwata is a national park with a difference. People are allowed to live within its multiple-use area, in harmony with the wildlife they have always loved, respected, feared – and hunted. There are only small plots of maize around the houses. Meat and veldkos – tubers and wild fruits – are the most valued sources of nutrition. Ndando was a traditional healer, although he is too old to work now. He and the other Khwe at the meeting are afraid that their traditions are being taken away from them. “If we cannot live from hunting, we will have to plough the land,” he says. “And then, where will there be space for wildlife?”