by Richard Pooley
White Rhino, Okonjima, Namibia* Photo: R Pooley
“Not again! What’s the fascination with African wildlife? You can see it all in Attenborough’s documentaries.” Such was the reaction a few months ago from a member of my family when I told them I was off to Namibia for a couple of weeks in October/November (and an extra few days either side in South Africa). It was a familiar refrain. This time there was an extra point scorer: “Besides it’s bad for the planet. Long-haul flights. Your Greta Thunberg wouldn’t approve.”
This last dig was one of the reasons why my wife didn’t join me, much though she has enjoyed three previous trips to eastern and southern Africa. Aviation is responsible for about 5% of global warming. The average annual carbon footprint per person in the UK is 12.7 tonnes CO2e (Carbon Dioxide equivalent, a term which groups all the greenhouse gases into one common unit). I flew economy London – Johannesburg – Windhoek and back, a total footprint of 3.471 tonnes CO2e: more than a quarter of a Brit's average yearly amount in just 26 hours. Tut, tut.
In the UK my wife and I use our car as little as possible. We walk to the supermarket to buy food. This has to be done more frequently than in the past. More exercise. Good. We usually go by train to our house in France. So, why harm the planet by flying all the way to southern Africa? There are two reasons, one emotional, the other economic.
David Attenborough does indeed produce superb documentaries on the Earth’s wildlife and wild places (though he and his team must produce vast amounts of greenhouse gases doing so). Likewise the people at the National Geographic and Discovery TV channels. But fascinating and moving as such films are they cannot give you the holistic, multi-sensory experience that comes from ‘being there’. They appeal to the visual and auditory senses. But they cannot, for example, give you that intoxicating smell of water on the wind which announces the arrival of the Rains after months of drought, which has had me more than once dancing in the rain and floodwater of Africa. Nor the delicious chickeny, slightly fishy, taste of crocodile meat cooked over mopane wood. Nor, to be negative for a moment, the aches and scratches after hours of juddery driving over corrugated dirt roads and rock-strewn tracks in 35-degree heat, at risk of being snagged or stabbed by thorns, all willingly borne in an attempt to see, maybe, a rare animal or bird.
Take one experience of many I had in Namibia. Together with two trackers and a guide I was out shortly after dawn in the desert moonscape of scattered basalt and granite rocks of the vast Palmwag Concession (5,500 sq. km.) which borders the aptly-named Skeleton Coast. The only plants are those which can survive the lack of water and intense heat – a stunted shepherd’s tree (Boscia albitrunca – with the deepest known roots in the world; one in the Kalahari measured 68 metres or 223 feet), a tiny quiver tree (actually an aloe - Aloidendron dichotomum - its fat branches hollowed out by the Bushmen/San to make quivers for their arrows), and many Damara milkbushes (Euphorbia damarana – highly poisonous to humans – 11 tin miners in Uis died after eating meat cooked over a fire made from its wood – but browsed happily by black rhino and oryx).
Damara milkbush, Palmwag Concession, Namibia Photo: R Pooley
I was hoping to find and get close to a black rhino. Though not too close. Unlike their white cousins, they are notoriously aggressive and will charge at the slightest provocation. Despite the harsh terrain, lack of water and intense heat, the black rhino in this area are thriving, free from their greatest enemy – poachers paid by criminal gangs in China and south-east Asia who have conned their male clients into believing the cartilage that makes up a rhino’s horn will give them an erection.
When, as a teenager in the later 1960s, I first visited a national park in Africa - Luangwa Valley in Zambia – I would see a black rhino on almost every game drive. By 1998 there was not one left in the whole country. In some parts of Africa, including Zambia, black rhinos have been reintroduced in this century. There are believed to be around 5,000 left in the world. The largest concentration are here in the Palmwag. Why? Because of tourists like me who pay to see the animals and learn their behaviour from trackers who themselves may well have once been poachers.
I saw two rhinos that day. One, a 29-year old bull, allowed me to get close enough that I could have taken a photo with my phone without zooming. But I hadn’t come primarily to take photos, much to the surprise and obvious pleasure of the Save the Rhino Trust trackers, Lazarus and Cissé. I just wanted to be there and watch and learn. Lazarus had known the rhino for most of those 29 years. Cissé spoke for him:
“He’s getting too old. He does not get too angry any more. But he still has the biggest territory. He will mate soon. When the rain comes.”
“What if it doesn’t come?” I asked. There has been no rain since December last year.
“He will still mate. Gestation is 15 months. So, next year’s rains are what is important for the calf’s survival.”
I learned later that this rhino had had his horns cut when young, a common practice in Namibia in order to make killing rhinos pointless. But, like human fingernails, rhino horns grow back. This one had a very long front horn.
2000-year old Bushmen/San rock engravings at Twyfelfontein, Namibia. Present-day San say this was a blackboard to teach children animal shapes and tracks. Can you spot the snake?
If you scoff at my emotional and selfish argument for going to Namibia, you need to consider the economic and conservationist argument. There were fifteen tourists staying at the Desert Rhino lodge in the Palmwag the two nights I was there. We provided direct employment to at least twice that number of people. Namibia at 820,000 sq. km. is four times the size of Great Britain yet has no more people – 2.5 million – than can be found in Greater Manchester. Mining accounts for 37% of the country’s exports. But tourism is coming up fast. It’s now the third largest generator of income and employs far more people than mining does. Crucially, much of the money raised from conserving Namibia’s wildlife is going back into local communities. Norman Carr, a pioneering conservationist in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, said back in the 1960’s that “governments won’t conserve an impala just because it’s pretty” but they, and local people, will do so if they can see that it’s worth more to them alive than dead. 86 communal conservancies, covering about 163,000 sq. km. and involving some 190,000 people, have been established in Namibia. These allow local communities to take charge of the wildlife in their area and decide for themselves how to earn money from its conservation. I stayed in six lodges across northern Namibia. All were full of mostly European tourists (especially Germans and French). Each one was staffed and managed by Namibians.
You'd be excited too if you found so much lush greenery in a dried-up riverbed. Photo: R Pooley
We humans need to cut our carbon footprint as much as we can. But there is little point in “saving the planet” if we and our domesticated animals and cultivated plants are all that’s left in it. We must also save Earth’s wildlife and wild places. Without people willing to go far and pay good money to experience Nature, there will be no more Nature to experience.
*The name is a result of a linguistic misunderstanding, probably by a monolingual Englishman: ‘white’ from the Afrikaans ‘wye’, meaning ‘wide’. This rhino uses its wide mouth to eat grass. The smaller, but no darker, black rhino has the pointed snout needed by a browser of bushes.
As it happens such an Afrikaans-English misinterpretation caused a problem during the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup between South Africa and England on 22 October. I was with some South African rugby fans in a National Park four hours north-west of Johannesburg. During the match a white English player, Tom Curry, complained to the referee that the black South African hooker, Bongi Mbonambi, had used a racial slur during a scrum. The British media were uncharacteristically vague about what was actually said. My amused Afrikaans-speaking friends were crystal clear. Their team speak Afrikaans to each other so that their opponents don’t know their tactics. Someone on the South African side of the scrum asked which team was putting the ball into the scrum. Mbonambi, his head squeezed between two English heads, bellowed: “Wit kant” (“the white side”, i.e. the English, who wear white). Shout that with a typical South African accent and you may understand why Curry was offended. Even so...
Many thanks to Sandy Wood, founder and managing director of Johannesburg-based Pulse Africa, the tour operator who arranged my Namibian trip. Born and raised in Kenya, where I first met her in 1974, Sandy has long been my go-to person for any trip I wish to make to eastern and southern Africa. She’s never let me down. Contact her via www.pulseafrica.com if you want to 'be there’.