We woke up in the dark and freezing cold in Namibia’s arid Kunene region. The world’s largest road-based game count just kicked off in early June and I participated in it for the first time as a new NACSO intern. It was a huge opportunity for me to see the Kunene region and the wildlife for which it is famous.
The annual game counts are one of the key activities in conservancies and wildlife concession areas carried out by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) to monitor and manage wildlife, with support from NACSO’s Natural Resources Working Group. The counts are an essential tool to help wildlife managers to make informed decisions during hunting quota allocations for those people living with wildlife, and to monitor wildlife populations.
This trip allowed me to make a special discovery about the region, its people, landscapes and animals. The area is characterised by mountains and hills in some parts and flat gravel plains towards the desert. Though the environment can be harsh and the area is susceptible to drought, people and animals in Kunene have adapted to the conditions.
The Hoanib River which extends through Sesfontein, Warmquelle and the Khowarib Gorge flows only every few years from heavy rainfall in the hinterland of the catchment area. Due to good rainfall this year, the river was still flowing and culminated into a cascade just near by the Khowarib Lodge and community campsite in Anabeb conservancy.
The riverbed has beautiful white sand which makes it safe to walk in the shallow water, but the flow velocity can be heavy sometimes. I learned a lesson when I dropped my flip-flops in the water and just in a blink of an eye they were out of sight. The water from this ephemeral river is used by wildlife, human and their livestock, but it is only available to those nearby. Others have to travel long distances and go deep into the mountains to look for springs in the most inaccessible areas where they encounter wildlife, including predators.
For the first time since 1994, Namibia has not shifted the clocks to accommodate for the winter period, a fact we all seemed to have forgotten. So we all got up early to start with the count at 07:00 am, the standard starting time for game count. When we got to our starting points, we noticed that it was still darker than usual, you could barely see anything. It was funny that nobody remembered, I even joked about it and blamed it on “climate change” since we tend to blame everything on climate change these days.
The first day, I had expected to see lots of wildlife but with the persistent droughts over the past few years, this was not the case. “In the past you could spot animals almost everywhere along the route that, so you had to stop now and then to record them” said Dave Ward, NACSO’s conservation support technician, who has many years of experience with the game counts.
In the Palmwag tourism and wildlife concession area, I saw black rhinos and lions for the first time in my life. I always thought I would freeze if I were to see a lion, instead curiosity got the better of me and I ran towards them to get a better view of the most feared of cats. To my surprise, they just walked away, as if avoiding trouble.
As we sat around the fire with the team and discussed about the trip over a cup of tea, though still startled, it had been worthwhile to see those lions. It slowly dawned on me that the time change had made possible a beautiful sundowner, to reflect on the amazing experience I had in Kunene.