Say the words “conservation,” “wildlife protection,” or “sustainability” and you’re going to lose a lot of people. Not necessarily because they don’t care, but because let’s face it – it’s not a sexy topic. It can’t compete with something funny or entertaining because it quite simply is not. It takes time to process and understand, and brainpower to comprehend why you should care.
But — it’s real, it affects us all no matter where you live, and those who care about travel, seeing the world, and experiencing its beauty and cultures – should take note of one country in particular that is making those very words sexy indeed.
Today marks World Rhino Day, a tradition started in 2010 to raise awareness about rhino poaching and the illegal trade of rhino horn. While many countries in Africa are well-aware of the issues facing the Black Rhino, one is not just setting the bar high, but serving as the model for all others to follow.
Did you know the world’s rhino population has declined 90 percent since 1970?
Namibia. Home to the highest sand dunes in the world and the deepest canyon in Africa. Located on the southwestern coast of Africa, bordering Angola, Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa, Namibia has a population of 2.2 million and covers 824,292 square kilometers (318,259 square miles). That’s roughly half the size of Alaska.
For three decades the Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) has been monitoring and patrolling Namibia’s rhinos. Despite being a young country – they gained independence from South Africa in 1990 – Namibia is quickly showing the rest of Africa what it’s made of.
In fact, Namibia is the only country in Africa where black rhinos are being translocated out of the national park to communal conservancy land areas where they will be safe from poaching. They have one of the largest road-based wildlife counts in the world, and yet their conservation success stories stand out in sharp contrast to most African countries where wildlife populations and habitats are rapidly declining.
Namibia may be the greatest African wildlife recovery story ever told, thanks in great part to the fact that 42 percent of their land area is under some form of conservation management with 76 communal conservancies working closely with private reserves and national parks. (That’s a dramatic increase as there were just 42 last year, having begun with four initial conservancies in 1998.)
The model is starting to catch on. In fact, just today, luxury experiential travel company andBeyond announced that they have earmarked six white rhino to be translocated from their Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa to Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Learn more here.
So what does it all mean? Let’s make this really simple. Safaris are epic. When you go on safari, you want to see wildlife and lots of it. I recently spent two weeks in East Africa, and it wasn’t until the very last day of safari that we finally saw a Black Rhino. Many of the other guests were disappointed to have not seen one at all. If the wildlife isn’t there, the tourists won’t come. That translates into economic losses countries like Namibia can’t afford; not if they want to continue to grow and prosper.
So we turn to the dreaded words – “sustainable tourism” – which for Namibia and most of Africa means finding a way to promote tourism in a manner that has the least impact on the environment, while protecting that very environment from threats, be it poaching or over-development of the land.
In the travel industry we hear these terms all-too-loosely used. Just because you have double flush toilets and don’t wash the towels every day does not make you “eco-friendly.”
This past week in Montana and Wyoming, a delegation of 14 Namibians from the tourism, conservation, land development, and government sectors visited with US-based landowners, Native American tribal leaders, government representatives and park conservationists to share ideas on how tourism fits into their respective ideologies and onto their lands. (Learn more about the group here.)
What was called a cross-cultural “no borders” exchange evolved into an inspirational and fun week of hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, and touring through Montana and Wyoming. But the focus was on the sharing of information so that both the U.S. and Namibian representatives could learn from one another and bring innovative, new ideas into their respective projects.
One of the most fascinating discussions was with Martha Kauffman and Jeff Nelson, of World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s Northern Great Plains branch, which spans more than 180 million acres and crosses five U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. As large as California and Nevada combined, this short- and mixed-grass prairie is one of only four remaining intact temperate grasslands in the world.
The natural parallel was the human-animal conflict – in the Northern Plains dealing with wolves, while in Namibia the cheetah, both causing havoc for livestock. Throughout the week, this theme was discussed from every angle, whether among tribal leaders on the Crow Reservation, environmentalists and conservation experts, and notably among Western ranchers who visited the group at 320 Ranch near Big Sky, Mont.
“The cowboys reminded me a lot of our Hareros back home,” said Martha Mulokoshi, a project officer for Namibia’s WWF.
The group was also enthralled in a discussion with Dylan Hoffman, Director of Environmental Affairs for Xanterra, the largest national and state park concessioner in the U.S. With a backdrop of Old Faithful faithfully spouting at 90-minute intervals, the general consensus among the group was how well organized our national park system seemed to be, and how concessioners like Xanterra overcome the challenge of being profitable in a non-profit landscape that is devoted (and mandated) to protect and preserve the environment.
During the trip through Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks, two quotes in particular stood out for Usiel Ndjavera, tourism business advisor for WWF: For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People, as it reads on the arch at the North Entrance of Yellowstone, dedicated in 1903 when Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone, and Leave no trace, which entered our popular culture in the 1970’s when groups like the Sierra Club began advocating minimum impact camping techniques. “That says is all,” Ndjavera said.
The visit and tour itself was organized, planned and executed by Dan Austin, owner and founder of Austin-Lehman Adventures based in Billings, Mont., who extended the invitation last May after his first visit to Namibia. He had the foresight to know that such a opportunity would open doors and potentially affect change in an inspired, positive, fun way that so often gets lost in the finagling of words and competing interests in more “official” capacities or forums.
Who benefited the most from the 10-day tour is up for debate. Perhaps we can call it a draw because while the Namibians are returning home with a wealth of ideas and perspectives, their conservancy model will certainly remain on the minds of all the U.S. reps they met, as it’s more collaborative and less political than the U.S. model could ever hope to be.
Putting it simply, Namibians set aside land – namely the conservancies – in order to protect their natural resources and wildlife. As they do this, they employ and often educate the local community. What may otherwise be a suffering rural area then becomes a more vibrant, livable, sustainable place to live by improving the local economy while offering a safe haven for threatened wildlife. Better still are the positive effects it has on tourism, with increased interest to visit areas with an abundance of wildlife, again flooding the economy with tourist dollars. It’s paying it forward in an almost perfect circle – sustainability at its best.
“Namibia exemplifies a true education into how private and public sectors collaborate with host communities,” Dan Austin said. “In the process, not only are communities benefitting in ways previously unimaginable, but the national tourism product is being redefined in more equitable and sustainable ways.”
Austin-Lehman is consistently winning awards for their tours and practices, giving back to the global and local communities with programs such as Wheels of Change, which provides donated bicycles to communities in Namibia and Kenya, and Preserve a Park, which offers a portion of guest fees to a designated National Park every year. Since the park program began in 2010 ALA has donated over $10,000 to organizations promoting park conservation and preservation.
At the end of the week, each Namibian had a different highlight moment. For many, it was the exchange with the Crow tribe who reminded them so much of their ancestral cultures at home. For others, it was the stunning geothermal activity at Yellowstone National Park, the parks management systems, and concessions models. And for still others, it was the capstone of the week – a slice of Americana taking in the first win of the season for the Montana State University Bobcats football team, for whom Austin’s son Andy is an offensive lineman.
Most impressive was the reaction and warm welcome Namibia received across the board, from 20,000 fans cheering and welcoming them to Bobcat stadium, to an 11-year old boy at a restaurant asking to shake their hand because he “had never met a real African before,” to showing them the ropes – literally – as many took their first horseback ride and kayaking trip ever.
At the closing dinner, perhaps Dan Austin said it best: “You came here as friends, and you’re leaving as family.” No borders indeed.
- Four of the five species of rhinoceros are in danger of extinction in the wild, due mostly to illegal trade in rhino horn and increasingly, to habitat loss.
- Four of the five remaining species of rhino will become extinct in the wild in our lifetime if we do not take action to stop poaching and support rhino conservation.
- Rhinos have been slaughtered to near extinction to fuel the unwavering demand for rhino horn products in China – and recently, Vietnam – all based on myths and superstitions about so-called “medicinal properties” of rhino horn; some believe it be an aphrodisiac.
- Rhino horn has no medicinal properties, no curative benefits, and no magical powers.
- If not for conservation efforts, there would be no wild rhinos alive today.
Note: Look for the launch of Austin-Lehman’s exciting new destinations and programs for 2013 – they recently announced doubling their African Safari program with new itineraries and camps in Namibia and Botswana.