An Arid Eden Review

Picture courtesy of Neil Jacobsohn
Picture courtesy of Neil Jacobsohn

Garth Owen-Smith's 'Personal Account of the History of Conservation in the Kaokoveld' ends with a plea to the young: "If you believe in a cause and are prepared to stand up for it with passion and perseverance, you can make a difference." This book is the autobiography of a man who made a difference. So much so that if you just say "Garth" in Namibian conservation circles, everybody knows who you are talking about.

Garth first visited the Kaokoveld in the north-west of Namibia in 1967 and found a landscape he loved, and the people he would associate his life's work with. As a young South African from a mining town with "cockroach infested tunnels" he was stunned by the beauty of Namibia's "Arid Eden", and began to take notes that would form the basis of this book.

He begins with a story worthy of a novel, beautifully written and shocking, that describes the killing of a bull elephant for its ivory, and he sets the scene for an unfolding drama of conservation politics, bound up with the history of southern Africa on its way to liberation. As a young man Garth Owen-Smith was uncompromising, a quality that was to lead him into trouble with the authorities that labelled him a 'security risk', and a quality that kept him steadfast in the pursuit of a dream: that the Kaokoveld might one day return to its native state, as it was before colonialism, drought and poaching took their toll on the wildlife of the area.

As a young man, Garth set out on his travels, and the reader can enjoy being taken on a cycle ride around southern Africa. The writer provides a fascinating insight into the white cattle rancher's perspective of Rhodesia's descent into civil war, which adds a significant chapter to the history of the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe.

The liberation wars provide a valuable perspective for the struggle to conserve wildlife in Namibia, where the villain of the piece was the white man's land grab, which took the best land for farming and left the rest for the black man, while telling him he was no longer allowed to hunt. Reduced to poverty on the margins of apartheid, locals resorted to poaching to be able to eat.

The book gives chapter and verse on the large scale killing of wildlife, starting with the Dorstlandtrekkers who killed over 100 elephants in one mass slaughter, continuing with the excesses of the SADF and police who "ate their fill", and including the hitherto suppressed details of PW Botha, South Africa's Minister of Defence and later President, on a hunting expedition with an army helicopter to kill endangered black-faced impala.

Garth is at his best when telling the story of the herds that roamed the land, and the mad slaughter that followed the white man's occupancy of it, followed by the years of drought that killed so much wildlife. And then the last straw; the ruthless killing of elephants and rhino for their tusks and horns. From a starting point of half a million, the black rhino was brought almost to extinction.

After his first visit, Garth Owen-Smith struggled to return to the Kaokoveld at a time when entry was only granted to officials under the apartheid administration. Working for the Namibia Wildlife Trust from its inception, and for a pittance, he was one of the pioneers building a bridge between black and white, government and people, that led much later to the establishment of communal conservancies.

It was at Wêreldsend, an abandoned farm that became the centre of conservation efforts in the area, that Garth sat together in the early 1980's sucking on pipes with members of the local community, and came up with the idea of community game guards – poachers turned gamekeepers – who would protect rather than hunt wildlife. But without food in people's bellies, there was little incentive for conservation. It was later at Purros that Garth broke new ground again by offering 25 Rand to the community for every guest he would bring to visit, ushering in the idea of a tourism levy. The money would pay for maize meal, and in turn the locals would not kill the elephants that trampled the crops.

You can get lost in the vastness of the Kaokoveld, and also in this book. I must confess to losing my way in the detail of treks up and down valleys, and Garth's extensive notes on the conservation squabbles that took place in the pre-independence era. The book will be a treasure trove for those reaching for ammunition to relive old battles. But it is a valuable and detailed resource, fully indexed, for historians and conservationists alike.

The conservation war has been largely won with the establishment of communal conservancies. Perhaps new battle lines have yet to be drawn between the supporters of traditional agriculture and the foot soldiers of conservation, but An Arid Eden suggests that conservation has to be the final victor. Leopards are changing spots as tour companies realize that local people who don't benefit from tourism will have little incentive to protect wildlife. Communal conservancies are now earning incomes from joint venture lodges, and are allowed to hunt game for meat, and to sell trophy hunting rights.

The start and growth of the communal conservancies are discussed near the end of the book at breakneck speed, with due recognition of everybody involved, but the development of the communal conservancies is not yet over, and will have to wait for its own historian.

The introduction of tourism, game counting systems and quota setting for hunting, has meant that finally people from very different backgrounds, who sat around the fire and smoked pipes together, would see the realization of a dream: that indigenous Namibians would once again benefit from wildlife.

Steve Felton
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