Tales of an Experienced Guide and Conservationist

IF you want to know what’s going on when you arrive in a foreign city, ask the taxi driver who picks you up from the airport.

Similarly, if you want to find out whether there are elephants in the Hoanib river, ask the tour guide at Fort Sesfontein Lodge. Take time to chat to him, because Petrus Ganuseb can tell you a lot more than that, starting many years ago, before he was the Chief of the Nami Dumab Traditional Authority.

As a boy, young Petrus used to ride down the Hoanib river bed on a donkey to deliver food and tobacco to his older brother, who worked at a diamond mine on the Skeleton Coast. In those days the elephants were plentiful and Petrus learned to read their behaviour. Now, like then, he still knows when it is safe to go close and when to back away.

Ganuseb takes off his hat and scratches his grey stubble of a haircut, and wonders at the stupidity of some tourists. The South Africans are the worst, he says, youngsters with cool-boxes of beers who drive big Land Cruisers much too fast and use them to chase the elephants out of the bush.

Chief Ganuseb is a Damara, but his authority is based on the area, which stretches all the way from Palmwag to the Skeleton Coast Park. Herero and Damara people graze cattle and goats on the sparse vegetation.

Like many people in Kunene region, he remembers 1980 as a turning point: the time of drought, when everything died first the grass, then the cattle and goats, and finally the wildlife. People hunted what little there was, in order to survive. Ganuseb has never hunted. He grows food on a plot irrigated by the six fountains – Sesfontein – and he trades tobacco grown on his plot for goats with the Himba people in the north.

Last year the drought returned and his flock was reduced from a hundred and fifty to just eight.

Back in 1980, Ganuseb was not a chief, but he had influence. Conservationists like Garth Owen-Smith and Chris Eyre were talking to the chiefs and headmen in Namibia’s arid north-west, known then as the Kaokoveld, and now as Kunene region. The chiefs wanted to stop the illegal hunting of wildlife, but did not know how – their people needed to eat.

Together they came up with a novel idea: the forerunner of Namibia’s conservancy movement. If the conservationists could provide basic foodstuffs, maize meal, tea, sugar and tobacco, the chiefs would select community game guards to stop the rampant poaching. Ganuseb chose people he knew.

How did he know they could do the job, and that they wouldn’t continue to poach? He gives a piercing look and says “I knew them.” After independence he was elected Chief, and a lot of other things started to change. The first communal conservancies were formed, giving people rights over wildlife. As the populations of springbok, oryx, zebra and kudu rebounded, limited hunting was allowed.

Game guards were paid a salary, and income to the conservancies from trophy hunting brought tangible benefits to their members. Last year, says Ganuseb, Sesfonein Conservancy paid every member a hundred Namibia Dollars and distributed game meat. The school exam fees of Grade 10 students were paid by the conservancy.

It’s a success story that is vulnerable to reverses. Last year there was a drought. The numbers of springbok and kudu have dropped, so the hunting quota will have to be reduced, cutting income.

Worse, the conservancy committee is riven by disputes, and no benefits have been paid this year. Traditional leaders can only aise, alongside the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and Sesfontein’s main support NGO, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation. Close management and discrete support are needed, but ultimately, the conservancy members have to call the committee to account. Conservancies are democracies.

Chief Ganuseb can tell the tourists at the lodge all about the conservancy, and the wildlife in the dry Hoanib river bed, which cuts a sandy path for 100 kilometres west towards Moumlwe Bay. He has been a guide since 1995 and he loves the job.

He pats his belly guiding puts food on his table, thanks to the increase in wildlife, and thanks to Namibian conservation.

Source : The Namibian