Garth Owen-Smith, a great African conservation visionary and globally recognised pioneer in community conservation, died on 11th April after a long battle with cancer. His life and work partner of 36 years, Dr Margie Jacobsohn, was at his side. Garth’s vision of community-driven conservation, which he began to put into practice in Namibia’s arid northwest during the 1980s, laid the foundations for the country’s internationally acclaimed communal conservancy movement which now covers roughly 20% of the country and has influenced grassroots conservation efforts as far away as Mongolia, Romania and Montana.
Today there is growing consensus that the people who live in the last remaining wild places on earth are key stewards of the biodiversity found on their lands. Over 50 years ago, when Garth Owen-Smith arrived from South Africa to work as an agricultural extension officer in then South West Africa’s rugged and remote Kaokoland, such notions were revolutionary. At that time, wildlife was the property of the state and nature conservation was the domain of white government officials whose job was to keep unruly locals from poaching state-owned animals. Widespread illegal commercial poaching, much of it by South African officials, combined with the worst drought in living memory, had decimated once rich wildlife numbers. With bare bones funding from the Endangered Wildlife Trust , Garth understood that safeguarding wildlife required putting local people in the lead and working in partnership with them. Operating against the South African apartheid system, and at great personal risk to himself, Garth worked with traditional authorities and rural communities to appoint community rangers accountable to their own communities, whose aim was to stop poaching and not merely to catch poachers. These men went on to help solve more over 22 serious poaching cases. Within a couple of years the massive decline of wildlife was halted, and a local vision of wildlife being more valuable alive than in a cooking pot had been nurtured.
In the late 1980s, Garth and Margie built of the pioneering work in the northwest to establish the Namibia NGO, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), creating what is today Namibia’s leading community conservation NGO. When Namibia gained independence in 1990, a community-based approach to wildlife management resonated with the early idealism of the new government and community-based conservation was integrated into government policy. By this stage Garth had become a Namibian citizen and focused IRDNC’s work in the northwest Kunene Region and later also in the floodplains and woodlands of the Zambezi Region in the northeast, where IRDNC had started working in the early 1990s at the invitation of traditional leaders.
IRDNC was instrumental in implementing the empowering communal conservancy legislation and now supports close to 50 of Namibia’s 86 registered communal conservancies, with some of the conservancies in northwest Namibia hosting the last free-roaming populations of black rhino outside of national parks and state protected areas. In addition to the conservation successes, including desert lions expanding back to their historical range and an almost three-fold increase in the number of elephants in Namibia, the conservancy programme has had a massive socio-economic impact generating GBP 6.5 million returns to local communities.
Over the course of several decades, Garth overturned the traditional conservation establishment with his unwavering conviction that conservation would only succeed if the people who lived alongside wildlife took on the rights – and responsibilities - to manage natural resources. His conservation contributions have been internationally recognised, with Garth and Margie being recipients of numerous distinguished awards, including the 1993 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa, the 1994 United Nations Global Environmental 500 Award, the 1997 Netherlands Knights of the Order of the Golden Ark Award, and the 2015 Prince Willian Lifetime Conservation Award from Tusk Trust.
Garth and Margie were an extraordinary leadership team, with the ability to translate vision into implementable strategies. Their remarkable partnership (and beautiful romance evident in the sparkle in Garth’s eyes during the robust discussions and warm embraces they regularly shared) steered IRDNC through many difficult years – including funding crises and political turmoil - and they both remained board members deeply concerned for the work of the organisation.
A key to the success of IRDNC was the formidable team he and Margie built up – hiring passionate and committed people who were given the space to take responsibility and be accountable for their work. He developed close collaborations with other visionaries and partner organisations, who were instrumental to what he achieved.
Garth believed that conservation priorities should be dictated by local communities. He fought resolutely against so-called experts, who had limited local knowledge, informing decisions about what IRDNC should do or how its resources should be used. He had earned his expertise the hard way – not through university degrees but by immersing himself in the places where he worked and developing a depth of insight and respect for the local ecosystem and wildlife, and knowledge of the people, built on long-term relationships and trust that could never be learned in educational institutions. He once said: “The long-term conservation of wildlife will not be achieved by military tactics, on computer screens or at workshops, but by field conservationists who build relationships with the people living with wildlife or around our national parks.”
After stepping down from the co-directorship of IRDNC, Garth and Margie helped to mentor Conservancy Safaris Namibia, a tourism company owned by five Himba conservancies themselves. When the company experienced financial difficulties, Garth invested a chunk of his limited savings into the initiative, in a gesture that typified his lack of interest in personal financial gain. He was known to kickstart projects by funding them from his own pocket. Hundreds of people have been beneficiaries of his personal generosity when they have been in need.
Garth was an incredibly principled person who made great personal sacrifices based upon his drive to place communities at the forefront of conservation. Bennie Roman (1958-2018) one of the first Namibian community leaders to embrace conservation after independence and a close friend to Garth, once said about him: “Garth was somebody that inspired me… It didn’t matter that he was a white outsider. He was like a father figure. He taught me to listen because he was a person who would listen patiently. He came from ‘that’ background and I learnt that not all white people have the same mentality”.
From his home at Wêreldsend (‘end of the world’) in a caravan alongside a tin kitchen, many hours along a bumpy dirt road in Namibia’s dramatic rugged northwest, he hosted a constant stream of colleagues and visitors who usually pitched a tent nearby and stayed for several days at a time. Visitors included traditional elders seeking advice on plans to establish a massive conservation area linking the Skeleton Coast to Etosha National Park, young student interns (many of whom are now in leadership roles across Namibia’s government and private sector) asking for insights into his ecological knowledge, government officials grateful for the diplomacy with which he handled complicated conflicts and members of partner organisations and donors who had become close allies and friends.
He loved Wêreldsend, with its round red basalt rocks, mountains and occasional visits by lions. But he was at his happiest in even more remote locations, along dusty riverbeds where he knew every bend, anticipated each elephant herd, and recognised - and was held in high regard by - Himba pastoralists he encountered as they moved cattle herds between grazing areas. Here he would find a suitably shady spot, safely above the riverbed of seasonal rivers that could roll vehicles when they flowed. Alongside his old Landrover, perhaps with memories of the time when he had to fire warning shots to scare off a lion that had mauled his foot while he and Margie slept, he would he would lay down his bedroll on a tarpaulin, and lay down a tin ‘trommel’ (trunk) containing basic supplies – a blackened dented kettle, tea and limited staples. As the kettle bubbled above the flame of a smoking mopane branch, which he would occasionally bend to stoke, he would fill his pipe methodically from a plastic bag of Dingler’s Black and White tobacco. Garth once said in an interview that the most important tools in conservation are your ears, and he had a gift for listening. His eyes would light up and only once others had talked, and if he thought it absolutely necessary, he would slowly begin to speak. The ideas he shared about people and wildlife, usually over countless cups of tea with the small fire and stunning scenery as a backdrop, influenced many people and are among the most memorable moments to those who had the privilege of working with him.
Garth constantly challenged the status quo and never accepted that things should be done a certain way just because that is the way society has come to accept that they should be done. He did not shy away from conflict and often surprised friends and colleagues with his unconventional and iconoclastic views, especially when he felt that principles were at stake. He had an unwavering belief that given the choice, most people would do the right thing. He often saw potential in people that went beyond their mistakes and obvious flaws, and gave them opportunities to restore their honor and dignity.
There was also a quirky side to him that friends remember fondly. He did not think highly of the views of opinionated youngsters – and jokingly claimed that they could only be taken seriously after they reached adulthood, which he considered to be 25 years and sometimes later, especially for men! He had little regard for certain technical advancements, especially social media and mobile phones. He kept meticulous professional records with a pencil in small tattered black notebooks he carried around in his pocket and kept shoe boxes filled with old notebooks. It is perhaps apt that he has left this world during this unprecedented period of confinement when the world is re-awakening to the pleasures of a slower, more simple life with less noise and distractions.
Garth had two sons, Tuareg and Kyle, from his first marriage to June Owen-Smith. He did not hide the pain of knowing that his boys paid a price for the drive with which he pursued what became his life’s mission. The community leaders and team members that he mentored also regard him as their father. The chairperson of the Zambezi Regional Council, Beaven Munali, who was the first community ranger in the Zambezi, said when hearing of his death: ‘I miss him the way I miss my Dad’. Another adopted son; John Kasaona, the child of the very first community ranger Garth worked with in the Kunene Region, and now the Executive Director of IRDNC, spent his school holidays as a camp hand to Garth, and later studied nature conservation, and returned to his region to dedicate his own career to community conservation.
It is best to let Garth have the final word to this tribute. His book ‘An Arid Eden’ that documents the history of conservation in Namibia’s north-west concludes with this passage:
“My last words are to the younger readers, who can easily be overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of the problems the world is facing today. If you believe in a cause and are prepared to stand up for it with passion and perseverance, you can make a difference. Conserving our natural environment will not make you materially rich, but there is no greater satisfaction than having made our planet a better place to live on, even if it is just in a very small way.”
Garth’s impact was enormous. In Namibia and across the world, he has brought communities to the forefront of conservation.
Garth is survived by Margie and his sons Tuareg and Kyle, and his grandson Garth.