Hilga

Far from Kunene
Far from Kunene

Last night a cheetah took a sheep. It's a common occurrence in ≠Khoadi-//Hoâs Conservancy says the environmental shepherd sitting outside the conservancy office, waiting for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) representative to arrive. There is going to be a meeting between the MET and the conservancy manager, Hilga Howoseb, about compensation for losses to wildlife. The environmental shepherd says the farmer will be paid N$250, although the sheep might have fetched N$400 at auction.

Paying farmers compensation is a novel, but effective way of getting them to accept wildlife near their farms, and it is one of the strategies that underpinned the conservancy's entry for the Community Benefit Award at the prestigious World Travel and Tourism Council’s ‘Tourism for Tomorrow’ awards in Beijing, China in 2010. Namibia came in the top three. For ≠Khoadi-//Hoâs Conservancy manager Hilga, just taking part was a huge achievement.

"I had never been overseas, or on a plane," she says. "I prayed before I climbed aboard. The Air Namibia staff were so nice, and so were the Chinese hostesses on the plane to Beijing. The flight took 9 hours," she says with astonishment, and then: "Ooooh, Beijing. There were so many planes landing. So many people. At the hotel we stood on the 28th floor and all we could see were other buildings."

A far cry from ≠Khoadi-//Hoas, which means Elephant Corner, and where the Damaraland horizon meets the sky in the far distance. Before she flew to Beijing Hilga visited the China shop in Kamanjab and asked what it would be like. The owner told her that people ate snakes. Perhaps he was pulling her leg, "but they don't eat meat like us, " says Hilga; "lots of rice."

"I was so proud to be there," she goes on. At the time Hilga was among a very small group of  female conservancy managers, and was elated to be able to represent Namibia and its capacity to attract tourists, which in turn brings benefits to rural communities like ≠Khoadi-//Hoâs. Hilga Howoseb knows all about rural poverty. As a child her father didn't earn any money, although her mother brought some income into the house with home made beer. She earned enough to pay for Hilga to get through grade 12, then she passed away. Hilga went from town to town looking for a job, but without success. When she came back home she heard about a meeting that had been called to talk about setting up a community run conservancy, and she attended. The meeting changed her life.

"I was involved from the beginning on," she says, "first getting the GPS coordinates to establish the conservancy borders, and then drawing up the constitution with the help of a Fulbright scholar from the USA. Because I could type on a computer I was made the information coordinator." Together with Bob Guibeb she ran the conservancy, and when Bob left to take up a manager's post at Grootberg Lodge, which the conservancy owns, Hilga became the conservancy manager in 2008.

After the meeting with the MET, Hilga explains about the compensation scheme for livestock taken by predators. Lions often come into the area from the neighbouring Hobatere Concession, and make three to five kills a month. Cheetah kill almost daily. The MET made N$60,000 available to the conservancy, and ≠Khoadi-//Hoâs matched the amount from conservancy funds earned from profits that the lodge generates.

The MET meeting was to assess the success of the scheme, and Hilga pulls out a file showing the balance sheet from December 2010, when the scheme began, to February 2011. A total of 19 sheep, goats, cattle, horses and donkeys have been killed by predators, and N$39,350 has been paid out in compensation.

The environmental shepherds make daily patrols by donkey cart to check for kills, and keep painstaking records, as well as assessing the truth of the claims. All of them can read wildlife tracks and can tell which predator was responsible for each kill. There is a board outside the conservancy office with charts accurately showing wildlife sighting by species, and predator kills in the area.

The benefits to the community from wildlife go well beyond compensation claims. The philosophy behind community conservation is that wildlife brings income to the community in two ways. Firstly, hunters pay large sums to shoot trophy animals. An elephant can net N$60,000; and secondly, tourists come to the area to see wildlife. The Klip river below the plateau where Grootberg Lodge is situated is home to seven black rhino, and their number is growing thanks to the game guarding done by the environmental shepherds. The lodge pays N$30,000 to the conservancy every month: profits generated from tourism.

The money is used for a multitude of purposes that benefit the rural community. Hilga points out the money given for improved school infrastructure, and to build water points. When elephants drink the farmers' troughs dry, the conservancy pays for diesel to pump more water, benefitting wildlife and farm stock alike.

As the afternoon turns to sunset the environmental shepherds are cooking a pot of oryx meat. Before legislation in 1994, locals shooting oryx on communal land were poachers. With the new laws allowing rural people to control wildlife and utilize game in their areas, the poachers turned into shepherds. Wildlife numbers have grown, and quotas set by the MET allow locals to shoot for the pot. Just one more benefit of the conservancy movement.

Steve Felton
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