Lion in the Dune?

Lion in the Dune?

No! Because there aren't any!
NPR’s Namibia stories this week distort the overall complexities of human-animal conflicts in Africa as whole. The reporting by Christopher Joyce was an admirable portrayal of one very unusual country’s struggle with wildlife, but when he generalized he was quite wrong.

I hope you listened to the two reports, one on Monday and the other on Tuesday. Read this, then listen to them, again.

Many issues regarding wildlife, hunting and social responsibilities of any country are universal. How to make use in a profitable and sustainable way of these natural resources is an ongoing struggle that I feel is being successfully addressed throughout most of Africa.

But not necessarily the ways Namibia is trying. How Namibia approaches this diminutive national resource is very much different from the rest of “Big Game” Africa. Namibia is a very, very unusual place.

The thrust of Christopher Joyce’s reporting for NPR was that the only way that wildlife can be preserved is by privatizing it. Maybe for Namibia, but dead wrong for Africa and the vast majority of the rest of the world.

A little bit bigger than Alaska, the country is mostly uninhabitable. Nearly half (the western regions that border the Atlantic Ocean) is so dry that some fishermen grow up never seeing rain. Much of this area is the Namib Desert, which is pure sand, and some of the most spectacular dunes on earth are found here.

There is very, very, very little wildlife compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, compared to practically any other random part of the world. I can’t emphasize this enough, because Namibia is where many outstanding wildlife research projects have occurred recently. Some have even led to major discoveries (about elephant verbalization, for instance). But this may be the case, indeed because the wildlife here is so scarce.

The NPR report itself confirmed there might be 125 lion in the entire country. That is about the same number of lion for this massive 325000 sq. miles as found in tiny 100 sq. mile Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. For a similar area in East Africa the size of Namibia there is likely upwards of 50 times as many lion.

And that metric applies pretty well for any other wildlife comparison between Namibia and the main wildlife viewing countries of Africa. The exception could be oryx and springbok, two antelope species which do exceedingly well in very dry environments. But except for these two antelope, Namibia is not a place to go to see wildlife.

The most famous wildlife park in Namibia is Etosha Pan, which is about 7% of the entire country’s land mass (22,000 sq. miles). It’s hard to find an animal census for the park, probably because it’s not very good. The Namibian government claims there are 2500 elephant (dubious) and makes the grandiose claim that, “It is well known that Etosha has the single-largest population of black rhinos in the world, but the actual count is kept secret so that this fact – and the population of rhinos it defines – is never threatened.”

Such unsubstantiated remarks need to be taken with a lot of grains of salt, of which Etosha has a vast supply. Moreover I’m absolutely sure there are many more black rhinos in places like Lewa Downs in Kenya as well as in a number of South African private reserves.

Namibia’s richest wildlife area is the eastern Caprivi Strip, the area squeezed between Botswana and Angola which is hardly 300 sq. miles large. This is where many of the private wildlife reserves Christopher Joyce discussed in his radio reports are located. Interestingly, though, it was not where Christopher Joyce of NPR spent most of his time.

The reserves Joyce reported from may have the least amount of wildlife of any of the collection of private reserves in Namibia, which does make it a compelling story as to how they are trying to exploit the little they have. But I am concerned that at no time did he explain this serious difference between Namibia and the more popular areas for wildlife viewing in Africa: i.e., there is hardly any wildlife in Namibia.

(Joyce spent most of his time on the few reserves on arid, near desert terrains where the provocative topic of hunting was raised. I thought he did a decent job with this topic although he might have considered interviewing the equally if not larger segment of the population in Namibia that opposes hunting. Nevertheless, this is a topic universal to privatization of wildlife reserves throughout the continent.)

The Caprivi is a beautiful, wooded and riverine area with a varied biomass, and what to do with it is a critical issue but keep in mind how small an area this is. It may contain up to three-quarters of all Namibia’s non-desert wildlife, but it is one one-hundredth of the country in size, only one quarter the size of Yosemite National Park.

I hope you see where I’m going with this. To call Namibia an African wildlife destination is really rather stretching it. It has some extraordinarily unusual wildlife, because of its extraordinary desert ecologies, well worth a zoologist’s interest. But to consider it a viable tourist destination for wildlife is a ruse.

Namibia’s attractions are grand, but they do not include wildlife.

And it’s probably precisely this reason that the government wants to develop the little that remains as best they can. Fair enough. And it may, indeed, be true as Joyce suggests that privatization of such a minimal resource is the only way to sustain it…in Namibia.

But this strategy is absolutely not an evidently good one for more normal environments elsewhere in Africa, where the wildlife is more naturally abundant. In fact, it’s a major and often contentious issue in areas that have naturally abundant game. Personally I’m in the camp of folks who do not believe that privatization of important national resources like wildlife is good.

And when Joyce ended his final episode by claiming the people “from all over the world and Africa” were coming to Namibia to learn from their privatization projects, I started to laugh then became rather irritated.

It’s like suggesting farmers are traveling to New York see how to grow corn. There is some corn grown on Long Island, and probably in very creative and interesting ways, but it’s sure no general model.

Private wildlife reserves are flourishing all over Africa, hundreds more than in Namibia, because they have much more wildlife to show off. Now it could be that the particular model for Namibia’s privatization is better, say, than Tanzania’s WMA (Wildlife Management Areas) or South Africa’s private wildlife zoning ordinances, with regards to fairness to the local population or to the wildlife or whatever. But Joyce didn’t explore this.

Namibia’s future is not with wildlife. Its tourism development must — and has, actually, at least until now — feature many other wonderful things before wildlife. Wildlife could be the icing on the cake of a fabulous Skeleton Coast safari, but the cake is substantively without animals.

Moreover, Namibia’s broader economic and social development is not with wildlife. It is squarely with how to divide the special wealth from its rich deposits of uranium, diamonds and a few other minerals; and with the growing conflicts with its rapidly developing indigenous populations like the Ovahimba.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be fascinated by the story Joyce told. Just put it in perspective, which he should have done but didn’t.