This week, I attended a talk presented by the conservationist and biologist, Dr Philip Stander on his decades of work with the desert-adapted lions along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. The event was hosted by Asia 2 Africa Safaris, our travel consultants who designed our safari adventure to Botswana last year.
Dr Philip Stander started his talk by putting into context some realistic yet devastating statistics – whilst there are 7+ billion humans on this planet, and an estimated 400 million dogs, there are only 40,000 lions left in the world, and only around 100 of these special desert lions in Namibia. He covered the plight of these amazing lions as they face conflicts with humans, a losing battle with trophy hunters and an unknown future in the fragile environment they live in.
Dr Stander’s absolute lifelong devotion to his lion subjects is an inspiration to all (puts me to shame actually!) and should be widely commended and supported. However, Dr Stander did not come across as a researcher who wanted fame and glory. He has partnered with National Geographic, BBC and most recently In Nature Productions to film documentaries, but the purpose was foremost to raise global awareness of these beautiful endangered lions. The latest documentary, the “Vanishing Kings”, has won awards in the Cannes and New York film festivals.
The Namibian scenery portrayed during his talk and on the documentaries was jaw-droppingly amazing. Where in the world could we see a lion sitting high on top of a desert sand dune with the Atlantic Ocean in the background? Or a lion on a beach in the midst of a seal colony standing next to a half-eaten seal? Or a pride of female lions trying to tackle and hunt down a giraffe?!
One of the messages Dr Stander shared in his talk was that tourism can in fact have a positive impact on the survival and conservation of these desert lions. It sounded like a strange concept – how can tourism help conservation? Wouldn’t it be the other way around? More a hindrance than anything, right?
Dr Stander explained (and how we understood it from our own trip was) that when a tour operator wants to set up camp in an area, they apply to the government to be granted a “concession” over a designated geographical area. Through negotiations with the government and the local communities, arrangements are made to ensure that local communities as well as the wildlife can derive benefits generated through tourism. In fact, Dr Stander also focuses on training and educating the local communities (often cattle farmers) to understand that the benefits they derive from the lions through tourism can out-weigh the costs they have to bear in living alongside with them (i.e. lions attacking and hunting cattle). In so doing, Dr Stander hopes that lion mortality rates from such human conflicts can be greatly reduced.
In essence, Dr Stander was advocating using tourism to further the works of conservation!!
When Jeff and I visited Botswana last year, we saw some of this in action. The first camp we stayed at was Jack’s Camp which is located in the middle of the Great Kalahari Dessert and on the fringe of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. On our third evening there, after we’ve enjoyed our sumptuous dinner in the “mess tent”, we had made our way to the fire pit to enjoy a glass of wine and safari chit-chat with fellow guests and camp staff. In the far horizon, we could see some smoke and dull flickers of light in a red glow. Immediately, the camp staff all jumped into action – speaking on walkie-talkies, rushing around gathering gear and getting onto Jeeps.
The camp manager who promised to give us a talk on stars and constellations later that evening apologetically told us that he and his team had to go survey the bush fire scene and help put it out. It is their responsibility, not only to run and manage the camp, but also to look after and monitor the happenings within the concession. Early next morning, we heard news that the bush fire was over 80 km away and our camp manager, together with other camp managers in the concession and their staff all worked through the night to contain and extinguish the threat of the bush fire.
One of the highlights at Jack’s Camp was meeting the San bushmen – an indigenous tribe that has lived and survived in the unrelenting harsh environment of the Kalahari Dessert for thousands of years. We took a walk with a group of them (from the old ancient bushman to a 2-year-old toddler) into the dessert where they showed us their survival knowledge, their relationship with the dessert and their fascinating language and culture. The bushmen are actually supported by the operators that run Jack’s camp – our guide who worked at Jack’s Camp was a member of the bushman tribe, and the group was housed and financially supported by the camp as well. Many guests expressed their disappointment saying that the bushmen were not authentic as they were compensated by the camp. However, we saw it a different way. The bushmen’s livelihood, survival and very existence are and has been threatened by modern civilization. Their very partnership with Jack’s Camp may not allow them independent existence but it surely ensures that their heritage is preserved.
Next, we visited Little Vumbura in the northern reaches of the Okavango Delta. Here, the camp operator, Wilderness Safaris, has partnered with the local villages to offer monetary benefits as well as employment and training to local members. In turn, the villages have prospered, their concession has been extremely well-managed and the wildlife within has flourished (very little poaching). We met many of such villagers at Little Vumbura who contributed to the running of the camp in their ways – from guides to kitchen staff to housekeeping and so on. Like our guide who took us out on the Mokoro boats, he knew the labyrinth-like waterways on the back of his hands and his own home is a day’s worth of paddle away! It was a type of giving back. The success of this partnership was very evidently felt at the camp.
We had the honor and privilege of celebrating Botswana Day with a Braai (African communal BBQ) at Little Vumbura. The entire team was so genuinely friendly, open and proud to share with us the history of Botswana, to perform local dances and songs and to exchange with us their way of life and African world views. It was fascinating to learn that wealth was measured by how many cattle heads one own, to listen to the romantic yet scandalous love story entwined with the history of Botswana’s first president and to be captivated by wild safari stories from the guides. Our safari trip wasn’t just about the animals, the amazing exchange with the local people made our African experience that much richer.
We were sad to leave Little Vumbura as 2 nights really wasn’t enough. We continued our trip further north into the Savute Channel on the Osprey Lagoon, one of the many lagoons within the Linyanti Swamp system. There, we stayed at Duma Tau, another one of Wilderness Safaris’ camps. The camp manager was an extremely passionate and experienced former guide with a wealth of knowledge and a library of stories to tell.
We found out from him that the camp we were staying in was in fact a newly built one – the old camp was a few kilometers further down the banks of the Savute Channel. As the camps are built with the lowest environmental impact in mind, there was no evidence that a camp existed or humans have inhabited that area when our guide drove past the old camp site that afternoon. A few days later, the camp manager took us on a “behind the scene” tour of the camp. We were curious to learn how this remote camp operated: how the food and fuel were transported, how the water was filtered till suitable for drinking and how the camp and all its machinery were powered and fueled. Like school kids on a field trip, we were fascinated by the technology behind the solar power system, the sophistication of the fresh water system as well as the above ground sewage system. Indeed, the care and detail Wilderness Safaris took on ensuring the lightest carbon footprint showed its commitment to sustainability and conservation.
Although A2A and Wilderness Safaris did imply to us that our visits fund conservation works (among other things), it really was Dr Stander who said it outright and made no apologies for it. He is a realist – but I also sensed that the plight of these endangered Namibian desert lions has left him with no choice but to be a realist.
It is good to know that our Botswana tourism dollars didn’t just go to fatten the wallets of the hotel/tour operators but that it does go towards a more meaningful cause where the local communities and the wildlife animals themselves are the ultimate beneficiaries.
Of course, it is still a passive way to make a difference, but if someone as learned as Dr Stander believes that tourism is a necessary partnership to conservation (and to save the desert lions!), then every dime counts!
It’s time to plan another trip to Africa! Namibia maybe?