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Namibia’s desert dwelling elephants are unique and must be preserved

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If there is one place in Africa I would name my spiritual wilderness home, it is Namibia’s Kaokoveld and Damaraland. This is a desert, but a desert that throws up huge mountains, long valleys blanketed in golden grass, crystal springs with deep, gin-clear pools, dense fog that rolls in from the Skeleton Coast, and through it all, the people, the OvaHimba.

When that evening fog moves in, the thick jackets come out and the firelight leaps into the shadows. Around the fire is where the stories get told.

One of those stories is about the Khowarib Schlugt – the southern border of the Kaokoveld – a place of legends. It is a magnificent gorge fringed on all sides by towering red cliffs. At odd intervals in the river bed – and most “roads” through the area are tracks in river beds – perennial springs pop to the surface, running a few hundred metres before disappearing underground.

Halfway down the Schlugt is a towering acacia albida tree. This tree is known as “Oom John se Boom”, Uncle John’s Tree. In the mid-1970s, when South Africa was tightening its military grip on Namibia and Angola, the then Prime Minister, John Vorster, used to come here on hunting trips.

Vorster was no longer the strong young man he used to be, and he was hoisted into a broad platform at the base of the tree where two mighty branches split skyward. Here his aides wedged him in with his rifle, and then the Air Force helicopters scoured the side gullies of the canyon for the area’s unique desert dwelling elephant, herding them down into the Schlugt. As they panicked and stampeded down through the fine powder dust of the gorge, John Vorster picked them off one by one with his hunting rifle.

By 1984, when I first travelled to the area with legendary conservationist Garth Owen-Smith, the wildlife was thin on the ground. The desert elephants were secretive and aggressive. A rhino sighting was rare, and on the odd occasion when we saw a gemsbok, it would flee at the first sound of our vehicle.

We moved through a landscape that was beyond extraordinary. There was one main track that unravelled north from Sesfontein, only negotiatable with a tough four wheel drive vehicle. Most of our travelling was done in river beds, in places the only thoroughfares through the rugged mountain ranges. In a month of travelling, we only saw one other vehicle, that of the late Blythe Loutit, as much of a legend as Garth.

By the mid-1980s, a small group of dedicated conservationists, Garth and Blythe prominent among them, had managed to establish a system of community game guards within Himba society who took responsibility for the management and policing of the area’s wildlife, and which evolved into a successful community conservancy programme.

I remember vividly an interview I conducted through an interpreter with a Himba chief called Vetamuna at the village of Etanga in 1984: “When I see the wild animals, my heart is happy, they are like my children, my cattle. When there are no wild animals, my heart is sad. It is as though the graves of my ancestors have been destroyed, or my sacred fire extinguished.”

Since the bad days of the 1980s, and through the dedicated efforts of conservationists like Garth, Blythe and Chief Vetamuna, the wildlife of Kunene and Erongo Provinces – and in particular, the desert dwelling elephants and black rhino – have shown a steady increase.

And that is why I find it inexplicable that the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism has issued permits for nine of the magnificent desert elephants to be hunted.

According to the Conservation Action Trust “the first of the desert elephants, named Delta, has already been shot in Sorris Sorris, well-known as a preferred elephant route, and close to a school” (Sorris Sorris is a small village on the banks of the Ugab River, one of the favourite migration routes of the desert dwelling elephants, a river that I have travelled many times tracking both elephant and rhino).

Philosophically, I dislike hunting, but I have no problem with well controlled trophy hunting as I believe that it is one of the biggest and most effective tools for both preserving wildlife and combating poaching.

But elephant and rhino – and especially the unique desert dwelling elephants of Namibia – are under too severe a threat throughout Africa for them to be included on any trophy hunter’s wish list.

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