Where’s The Wildlife?
June 2015, Volume 13-3

I live in prime wildlife habitat on a private farm in the Khomas Hochland. Every morning before sunrise, I walk a few kilometers through the hills, always along the same route, to check our water infrastructure. On some mornings, I see dozens of gemsbok, a handful of kudu, and a few warthogs; on other days, the tracks of leopard, brown hyena, or aardvark.

There are weeks during which the landscape is dominated by cattle, often with a sprinkling of wildlife amongst them. As is the case for much of Namibia’s farmland, wildlife and livestock share the land – and the land is more valuable and productive for it. Steenbok and duiker are a common sight where I walk, as are jackals and baboons. On some lucky mornings, I spot a honey badger, or an aardwolf.

Yet there are many days when I see nothing. No exciting new tracks, no game. The wildlife is free to move; cattle fences pose no barrier. I know it is there, somewhere in the greater landscape. It’s just not always there for me to see. That’s part of the excitement.

Wildlife is never distributed evenly across a landscape. Game distribution depends on a great many factors, both at a local and large landscape level. In Namibia, rainfall and resultant grazing and browse, as well as the availability of surface water, are foremost amongst the drivers of game congregation and dispersal. In times of plenty, wildlife may be seen in great herds; when it’s dry and barren, the wildlife disperses in small groups in all directions. Natural predation, human disturbance and competition with livestock all play an important role in wildlife distribution and abundance. So do topography, soil composition and vegetation types. Species preferences for particular habitats and foods, even individual animal behavior all influence wildlife movements.

In large open systems without fences, and particularly in the open, arid areas of north-western Namibia, wildlife fluctuations can be perplexing. During times of abundance, we stand in awe. When conditions change and wildlife seems to vanish, we jump to conclusions. Our human nature tends to focus on the best we’ve seen and use that as the yardstick. When we see a lot of wildlife during our travels, we think it should always be that way. If we are used to the high densities of wildlife found in Etosha, our expectations of wildlife viewing may become skewed. And when we don’t find what we expect, we ring the alarm bells. Where has the wildlife gone?

Yet is that always justified?

Two weeks ago, I experienced perhaps the most spectacular wildlife sightings ever on a journey through the north-west. I’ve been travelling regularly through the Erongo and Kunene regions as part of my work (and leisure) for a quarter of a century. I’ve been lucky to see huge herds of springbok and gemsbok; I’ve experienced giraffe, elephant and rhino at close quarters, come face to face with predators. I have passed through vast landscapes devoid of game, when conditions were more favourable elsewhere. And I have never been as awestruck by such a diversity and abundance of game in one small area as I saw on my last trip. Perhaps I’m overrating the experience, because it came unexpected within the current doom and gloom about declining wildlife numbers, drought, over-harvesting and poaching in the north-west.

During our drive into the area along the main roads, we saw very little game. Yet when I walked out into the hills from our first camp before sunrise, in an area that has had only a sprinkling of late rain, I immediately came upon larger aggregations of springbok, Hartmann’s mountain zebra and gemsbok. A lone jackal slinked away at my approach. The spotted hyena that had called during the night remained hidden.

A couple of days later, driving along small side tracks into another area, we suddenly came into valleys of plenty. Late rains had flushed the red lands green. The sudden abundance of wildlife was astonishing: springbok in their thousands, Hartmann’s mountain zebra in their hundreds (with countless small foals amongst them), groups of gemsbok in all directions; giraffe moving in their stately ways amongst them all; a small group of kudu by the track. And on that one afternoon, just passing through, we saw half a dozen rhino! All the rhinos were dehorned, a strange yet reassuring sight in this time of rhino crisis. From our tents that night, we heard the wonderful, rasping call of a leopard somewhere nearby, a sound like a heavy saw through wood.

I sat in late afternoon light on another day, watching a single herd of hundreds of springbok suddenly break into a joyful display of pronking. Again, there was wildlife dotted across the land in all directions. And while I didn’t know where to look, three rhinos ambled out into the afternoon sun. Soon an ultralight aircraft circled over the valley on an anti-poaching patrol, dispelling my thoughts of the rhinos being an easy target. That night, in my tent pitched on a small mountain pass, I heard the distant but distinct roar of a lion.

What privilege to experience all of this; here, in community conservation areas far from national parks. Here, where local communities manage a balance between traditional stock herding and newer income streams from wildlife use through tourism and hunting. Uses that can be carried out sustainably through the management systems of communal conservancies and the control mechanisms of the ministry of environment and tourism.

On the last morning, on my way south, I came across a family group of twelve elephants by the main road. Large cows, small calves and juveniles ambled along the road, feeding on mopane.

The wildlife of the north-west is there. In many areas it is under strain from three years of severe drought. In some places it is under pressure from human influences, including the activities of both local communities and visitors. But the north-west is not a national park, and it never will be. It is communal farmland, where local people have the right to choose their preferred mix of livelihood activities. And it is this dynamic mix of people, places and wildlife that makes the community conservation areas of Namibia so special.

Author: Helge Denker, The Namibian, 2015.06.04