People power
Emma Gregg discovers how community tourism is working in Namibia.

 

I’m sitting in the shade in Puros, a scattered Kunene settlement backed by dusty, crumpled hills. It’s early enough for the heat to be manageable. A Herero girl throws me a grin as she skips between the shop and the schoolhouse. Here, at the centre of the village, there’s a strange stillness. A weighty discussion is unfolding. Its participants include conservancy chairman Leon Kasupi, desert lion expert Flip Stander and two of the village’s recently-appointed lion conservation officers.


There’s a worrying issue afoot. The desert-adapted lions which patrol the Hoarusib gorge – a beautiful, rock-walled riverbed just a short drive away – keep straying too close to the village. Rain has fallen further inland, causing every antelope to desert the gorge in search of fresh grazing. The lions are hungry enough to eat a horse – but a donkey or two will do.


The people of Puros are torn. They can’t afford to let predators prey on their livestock – let alone threaten their children – but they’re determined not to eliminate them either. With the help of Dr Stander, they have committed to a conservation programme that should, in time, generate useful tourist revenue; already, the trickle of visitors coming to see “their” lions is growing.

A different kind of holiday
I can tell it will take time to find a solution, but I feel privileged to witness just a part of such a crucial debate. It’s definitely not a typical holiday experience. But this is no ordinary holiday – I’m visiting Kunene with Conservancy Safaris, an innovative new luxury safari company that’s wholly owned by the communities of the conservancies it visits. It aims to show visitors the real stories behind Kunene’s glorious landscapes and wildlife, and is a prime example of community-based tourism, a field in which Namibia is beginning to excel.


Community-based tourism is one of those terms that may sound as if it’s all about staying in family homes – but in fact it’s an umbrella term for a variety of operations including safaris, lodges, campsites and cultural encounters. All bring you face-to-face with locals and local issues in some way, and all are owned by the people on whose ancestral homelands they operate.


Grounded, green and gorgeous
Some projects are small and beautiful. A dedicated membership organisation, the Namibia Community Based Tourism Assistance Trust, can help you track them down. Several rural communities run craft cooperatives, creating handmade paper products, clay pots or recycled-material baskets, and selling them through visitor-friendly craft markets. Others run eco-tours or host cultural events which keep music and dance traditions alive – and, in some cases, spice them up.
The community-owned campsites found in some conservancies are particularly appealing; if you travel with Conservancy Safaris, you’ll stay at several. Many have stunning views – nestling beside a riverbed that’s an oasis for elephants, or tucked into a cave with views overlooking semi-arid grasslands.


During my stay in Puros I drop in at an independent project run by a group of local Himba women. Realising that visitors are interested in their customs, they built a mini-village with the intention of inviting tourists to visit. For a small fee, you can see how they build shelters, grind ochre to cover their hair and skin, or smoke their skirts and wraps with myhrr. The smoke is truly pungent but the visit is a breath of fresh air. It’s far more dignified than those outsider-run village tours which teeter close to voyeurism, giving cultural tourism a bad name.

Making it happen
Other projects are more ambitious: Conservancy Safaris’ programme of high-end camping tours is an obvious example, but several communities own luxury lodges, too. Most would agree that such enterprises seem throroughly laudable, but given that the owners may have limited knowledge of the tourism business and meagre funds, it’s natural to wonder what to expect.


However, some projects are resoundingly successful. For Torra Conservancy, the answer was to set up a partnership with Wilderness Safaris, a tourism company with a long-standing reputation for conservation and community development. Together they created Damaraland Camp, an award-winning tented lodge, fully staffed by conservancy residents. It’s a gorgeous spot from which to explore desert elephant country.


Conservancy Safaris are hoping to go one better with their new wilderness camp, Etambura in Orupembe Conservancy. This, and their growing programme of special-interest safaris, have been made possible by a generous loan from a Swedish benefactor, the assistance of local NGOs, and the hard work of a team of paid tourism professionals led by Russell Vinjevold. “Etambura will be our proudest achievement so far,” says Russell. “It’s going to be very beautiful, and 100 per cent of its profits will go to the local Himba and Herero people.”

Spreading the benefits
The best community-based tourism enterprises enable people, flora and fauna to flourish. Recent figures suggest that efforts to defend threatened species such as those being made in Puros are paying off: according to Chris Weaver of WWF Namibia, Kunene’s desert lion population has increased from about 30 in 1995 to around 120. “This is a major indicator of the recovery of game populations and increased tolerance of communities towards predators,” he says.


Both Conservancy Safaris and Wilderness Safaris are also particularly proud to be connected with the Save the Rhino Trust, a community-based conservation initiative which over the course of nearly two decades has turned the tide on black rhino poaching in Kunene. “Rural communities now know that tourists are willing to pay a great deal for a unique wildlife experience such as rhino-tracking,” says Rob Moffat of Wilderness Safaris. “Since they have a share in this income, they have a strong incentive to assist the conservation process. That’s great news for them, great news for rhinos – and of course, excellent news for visitors too.”

 

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