A marriage in a wetland paradise

For the tourist on the deck, it all came right when the elephants lumbered through the camp and into the river, right beneath his feet. For the two thousand people who live in Caprivi’s Wuparo Conservancy, a lot came right when their management committee signed a joint venture agreement to create Nkasa Lupala Lodge.

The Namibian communal conservancy of Wuparo was created in 1999, with the hope of earning income from tourism in the low lying plain between Mudumu and Mamili national parks, right on the border with Botswana. The local villagers suffer a lot from elephants taking their crops. But if there is income to be earned from the marauding giants, things could look a lot better.

Until now the community campsite has catered for tourists keen to see  the large herds of elephant and buffalo in the area. Mamili National Park is the largest wetland area under conservation in Namibia, flooded at times, and teeming with birds and wildlife in the river channels, lakes and swamps.

Adventure and eco-tourism are the buzz words in the safari business nowadays. Visitors to sensitive ecological areas like Namibia’s Caprivi region are keen to leave only footprints, but also to take away photos of wildlife in its natural habitat, untamed and free.

Nkasa Lupala offers unspoilt nature with river trips, game drives and guided walks that bring visitors into contact with wildlife, ranging from the massive – elephants – to the small hovering sunbirds in a diverse eco-system that includes forest, savannah and perennial rivers.

For Namibia’s communal conservancies, Wuparo’s agreement with the lodge points a way forward for KAZA. The WWF helped to negotiate the agreement based on similar experience in other Namibian communal conservancies. Assisting communities to make joint business ventures with lodge and tour operators is a new way of ensuring that conservation happens, because the tourists want to see wildlife, and the communities are able to protect it with anti-poaching patrols, and by zoning their areas, keeping agriculture and tourism apart.

As part of the agreement, the lodge is committed to local staff recruitment, with nearly all the staff coming from nearby villages. Just as important, both partners recognise that visitors deserve the best service possible, so training is the watchword. Not only waiters and cooks, but guides to the wildlife in the area. Once a year, a member of the local community is trained in South Africa to the very highest guiding level.

The lodge should pay handsome dividends to the conservancy, in return for which the conservancy management committee ensures that wildlife is protected by its seven game guards. A joint management committee for the lodge is being set up, and an innovative financial dashboard designed by the WWF allows conservancy management, previously unskilled in finances, to keep tabs on the operation. A percentage of net turnover is paid to the conservancy, with minimum payment guarantees. The more business the lodge attracts, the more income the conservancy receives.

It’s more than a commercial adventure, it’s a two way process based on trust. Without the conservancy and its management of wildlife, the lodge would be a risky undertaking. Without private capital the conservancy would struggle to make ends meet. Perhaps it’s a marriage made in heaven, with the tourists on the honeymoon watching the elephants lumber by.

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