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Namibia: An Ecotourism Success Story
Photo by Hans Tammemagi
The Land Rover bumped along a riverbed, passing scraggly trees and splashing through occasional pools that soon would be dry. I was on a safari tour in the Damaraland region of Namibia in southwest Africa. Since leaving camp, we had passed through a parched, barren, rocky landscape. But the wildlife was like Alice in Wonderland.
A row of oryx trotted along a ridge, baboons scampered on a cliffside, orange and green parakeets squawked in a bush. We turned a corner and, suddenly, four elephants were coming right at us, massive, immense, powerful. Luckily, the elephants ambled ponderously past, ignoring us.
This was more than just an African game experience. This was a very successful ecotourism operation in which the local natives are partners.
Later, we visited Fonteine, one of twenty villages in the region. A dozen ramshackle one-story houses were clustered together. Seven families lived here, much as people lived thousands of years ago. They had dogs to ward off cheetahs, goats for food and milk and donkeys and horses for travel. Hidden in this scene, however, is a heart-warming story.
During the early 1980s there was a major drought throughout northwest Namibia. With an abundance of weak livestock, predation by lions increased, causing farmers to shoot them. At the same time, poaching for ivory, rhino horn and meat became rampant. Game numbers declined drastically. And the drought deepened.
Finally, action was taken and wardens were hired to monitor game and resist poaching. Another blessing was the return of rain. By the early 1990s the drought had broken and game was recovering.
In the mid-1990s, studies indicated a luxury lodge would draw tourists and benefit the region. In the late 1990s, Wilderness Safaris, a southern African tourism company, was chosen to develop Damaraland Camp — where I was staying.
Wilderness Safaris is unusual in today’s corporate world: it has the goals of conserving nature and helping local communities. Thus, it built an elegant lodge and ten permanent tents with a small ecofootprint using local construction materials, solar panels, etc. It pays the community for use of the land, hires local people for the lodge and trains them to managerial levels. Most importantly, the ownership and management of Damaraland Camp is shared with the local people, who inject their own distinctive character and cheerful nature. Total ownership will be transferred to the region over 20 years.
The combination of luxury lodge and big-game safaris has been successful at drawing tourists. Wildlife has more than doubled because villagers have become partners in the ecotourism venture and now value and protect their habitat. Best of all, the lodge creates jobs, encourages education and brings funding into the community. Young locals, who previously would have been goat herders, now can pursue jobs and careers in the hospitality industry.
Wilderness Safaris has taken this model to numerous other camps and regions in southern Africa. Perhaps corporations in North America should pay attention.