In Season ATWS

Tomorrow! The day after the second issue of In Season, Windhoek will be hosting the Adventure Travel World Summit – the first time the summit has come to Africa – putting Namibia firmly on the top of the world's travel agenda. Around 650 delegates from the adventure travel industry and another 65 top travel writers from around the globe will descend on Windhoek and Swakopmund for the Summit.

How come? For Namibia, it all began in Aviemore, Scotland in 2010 with a talk to the Summit by John Kasaona, who began by telling delegates that God gave the black man time, but the white man a watch, so please excuse him if he ran over time. His presentation was about Namibia: how he had grown up as a goat-herder in Kunene in the days when wildlife was scarce due to drought and poaching, but how things had changed. John is now co-director of IRDNC – Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation – tasked with overseeing more than twenty Namibian conservancies where wildlife has recovered and tourism is becoming a major industry. The delegates in Scotland were entranced.

Fast forward to 2011, Chiapas, Mexico, where the charismatic Namibian Minister of Environment and Tourism, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwa took a high-powered team to lobby for Namibia to host the Summit – the Olympics of tourism. On stage in Mexico the diminutive Chief Mayuni from Caprivi turned out as always in an immaculate pin-stripe suit and leopard-skin hat. He explained how wildlife numbers have grown in his conservancy, thanks to translocations of valuable species from parks into the Caprivi conservancies, and thanks also to the anti-poaching efforts of communal conservancy game guards. He took the Summit by storm.

By the start of the Adventure Travel World Summit in October, 2012 in Switzerland, it was already a well-known secret that Namibia would host the Summit in 2013 – starting tomorrow! Just to make sure, a choir from Doro Nawas Lodge, a joint venture between Wilderness Safaris and Doro !nawas Conservancy, wowed the audience with songs in Damara-Nama. The deal was in the bag and the ticking clock was handed to the Namibian delegation to remind them that they had a year to prepare. Africa finally had the watch as well as the time!

Communal conservancies in a nutshell

A travel journalist arriving from the USA might think he has arrived in paradise. From a tented lodge in Kunene region the safari vehicle moves through majestic landscapes, conjuring up elephants, giraffes and possibly lions. In the evening by the fireside, stories will be told about Namibia before dinner is served; after which the chef and waitresses may sing to the guests in a local language.

It wasn't always that way. Back in 1981 Namibia, or South-West Africa as it was known, was suffering from a devastating drought. Wildlife was on the brink of local extinction. The situation was made much worse by rampant poaching. Locals shot for the pot, and the South African defence Force killed for profit and fun. Rhinos were machine gunned from helicopters. The future looked bleak.

However, a dedicated group of conservationists set out to change things. Foremost among them were Garth Owen-Smith and Dr Margaret Jacobsohn, co-founders of IRDNC. The first step was to engage with Kunene headmen and chiefs, and ask what they thought of the situation. All of them wanted wildlife to return to the plains, but nobody knew what to do. Owen-Smith's suggestion was novel: he would arrange for payments to community game guards if the chiefs themselves would appoint the guards. Payment would be in food at first, and the game guards would report to the chiefs, not to South African Nature Conservation.

The approach yielded dividends. Himbas and Hereros who had been active poachers were now active game guards, watching out for suspicious activity and tracking down poachers. After a few convictions the poaching rate fell, and the rest was history.

In 1996 the Namibian government allowed for the establishment of communal area conservancies – areas where rural Namibians would have control over wildlife much as private farmers did. A conservancy had to be run by an elected committee and had to have a game management plan. It was answerable to the Ministry of Wildlife, Tourism and Nature Conservation as it was then known. The first four were formed in 1998.

As wildlife numbers increased, conservancies were allowed to sell trophy hunting concessions and to hunt for meat in line with strict quotas agreed with the Ministry. And with increasing wildlife numbers tourism was able to take off. Joint venture lodges run by conservancies together with private sector partners started to spring up, bringing jobs to conservancy members, and income to conservancies to spend on things like boreholes, soup-kitchens for the elderly and student bursaries.

A Gift to the Earth

In the 15 years since the first four conservancies were formed, another 75 have come on board, making a total of 79 communal conservancies covering almost a fifth of Namibia. Add in state protected areas such as national parks and tourism concessions, and the freehold conservancies on private farm land, over 45% of Namibia is under some form of conservation management, and the good news is that the areas link together, providing large landscapes where wildlife can roam free.

As a result, wildlife recovery has been spectacular. In 1980 there were only 1,000 Hartmann Zebra in Kunene. Now there are over 27,000. The numbers are similar for springbok. Other game such as kudu and gemsbok are present in large numbers, which has increased the predator base. Put simply, there are more lions, cheetahs, leopards and hyaenas. Elephant numbers have increased fourfold and the black rhino, once critically endangered, is protected. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism is translocating black rhino out of national parks and into communal conservancies, confident in the knowledge that community game guards are watching over them.

This “Gift to the Earth” of 79 communal conservancies will be recognized by the WWF, which will make a Gift to the Earth presentation to President Pohamba tomorrow in Parliament Gardens, where the Adventure Travel World Summit kicks off.

Signing up for adventure

Many of the travel writers coming for the summit will be going on 'Pre-summit Adventures' organized by Team Destination Namibia, an ad-hoc committee including the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the Hospitality Association of Namibia, the Namibia Tourism Board, and Windhoek and Swakopmund Municipalities. The team is a mix of public and private sector representatives.

The idea is that world-renowned travel journalists will spread the message: Namibia is a great holiday destination. In Season can give its readers the flavour of one destination that African Nomads will be taking writers to: Zambezi Region, previously known as Caprivi, where world-class lodges nestle by the Kwando and Linyanti rivers, and offer tours into Mamili and Mudumu national parks.

Nkasa Lupala tented Lodge is deep in the bush. To get there you ford a backwater of the Linyanti and pass down a narrow sandy track where elephants often watch the 4x4s passing by. The lodge itself is a simple construction, open to the river and the plain beyond, where lion have been seen hunting buffalo in plain view of the breakfast table. The Italian cooking is exquisite. The owners are the Micheletti family, originally from Italy, together with Wuparo Conservancy. All of the staff are from nearby villages.

Not least Hans, a friendly and knowledgeable tour guide who drives visitors into Mamili National Park, just a few hundred metres from the lodge. Not that you need to leave the lodge. Elephants sometimes wander through and lions grumble nearby at night. Mamili is a wetland paradise, just across the Border from Botswana, with 400 species of birdlife, not to mention rare antelope such a lechwe and sitatunga. The lodge offers river trip through the reeds and a spot of fishing.

and on to Swakop

The real business of the Summit takes place in Swakopmund between the 28 and 31 of October. Namibia will host the first plenary event, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, still in love with her previous Environment and Tourism portfolio, will address the world's tourism press.

The Summit is an 'invite only' affair, but there will be a Namibian Pavilion in Swakopmund, showcasing communal conservancies and Namibian conservation, as well as crafts, small mining enterprises and indigenous natural products. Did you know that Commiphora wildii, a resin harvested from trees in Kunene by Himba women, has traditionally been used by them as a scent, and is now exported as an ingredient to French perfume makers? That must be the subject of another article In Season, later.

Steve Felton
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