Scary wildlife count in North East Namibia

The elephants did not charge, luckily!
The elephants did not charge, luckily!

Every time we travel to a new place to visit, for fun or do a bit of work, we come back with memories, those we share or keep to ourselves. Here is my story, a tale I gathered while counting wildlife in conservancies of the North Eastern Namibia between the 4th and the 13th September 2015. There are seventeen registered conservancies in this part of the country, all forming part of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. KAZA is one of the largest protected areas in the world, comprising parts of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Conservancy members have rights over wildlife in their conservancies, provided they vouch to conserve and sustainably utilise it.

But what good is conservation without monitoring? How can wildlife conservation take place without knowledge of population estimates, how it is distributed and whether populations are increasing or decreasing in an area over the years? The annual game count was designed as one of the monitoring tools to answer these questions. Wildlife counts in the North East are particularly interesting because they are done by foot, following fixed routes and guided by a GPS. For this particular count, conservancy members, representatives from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and support NGOs gathered under a tree and received a brief training on what was required during the count. In each conservancy, teams of five people were responsible for counting one route every day.

The night before the first count, everyone was somewhat agitated, we were all concerned about “what we would do when an elephant charges”, or “when we stumble upon a group of very hungry lions”. We told each other stories and made escape strategies over the fire. It became easier and more exciting as days went by. Every night, while gathered around the fire, teams would tell tales of their experiences in the field. The first four conservancies were all fun with little dramatic experiences until we reached Mashi conservancy which forms boundaries with Mudumu National Park. While on the count, one team saw a group of 3 lions and I am sure their adrenaline started kicking in. They probably kept their eyes locked on the lions, forgetting there were other animals just as dangerous.  “But I mean wouldn’t anyone?” As they walked for about 200 more meters (with eyes locked on the lions, I assume) they stumbled upon a herd of elephants, just a little too close for their liking. It was a “surprise, surprise” kind of thing for both the team and the elephants. Frightened and out of their comfort zones, the elephants started making “warning sounds” which according to that team were “charging sounds”.  Every one relied upon the other, until the first person decided to run for the hills, and then the next and the next and suddenly almost everyone but the “team leader”. She was left standing and frozen. The elephants did not charge, luckily, but for her that was it, “no more game counts”, this is crazy”, and many more incoherent words were all she could say when she arrived at the campsite. Somehow I am glad I was not part of that team, though a small part of me wanted to experience the moment, because that would have been exciting.

Despite the dramatic and frightening moments, the teams continued with the counts and the data gathered was entered into the national database called Con-info – short for Conservancy Information. The results are printed as posters after the data is analysed and verified. These posters are sent back to the conservancies to help them make informed decisions regarding wildlife utilisation and conservation in their areas.

What I particularly applaud is the commitment from the communities, the willingness to monitor their wildlife, despite the cold during such early morning hours. To me, this is a reminder of the roles we all must play and our responsibilities if we are be true custodians of our environment, working in the interest of our natural resources.

Hilma Scharleen Angula
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