Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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It's all fun and game in the wilds of Namibia by Stanley Johnson

Published in The Express 9th June 2012

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We heard the lion roaring soon after dawn. From the balcony of our chalet in the amazing newly built Dolomite Camp in the recently opened western section of Etosha, Namibia’s largest and probably most famous national park, we scanned the waterhole on the plains below. Where was he – or she – we wondered? As we watched, the lion roared again, not once but a dozen times.

According to the scientists who have studied them, the average full-throated roar of an Etosha lion lasts for 36.6 seconds, and is repeated between four and eighteen times. Apparently the roar of a Kenyan lion lasts a few seconds longer, but as we stood there that morning my wife and I were in no mood to quibble.

“The lion’s obviously had its breakfast,” I said to Jenny, “let’s go and get ours.”

An hour later, we found not one but eleven lions. Unlike some of the national parks and game reserves in some other parts of Africa, the authorities in Etosha request visitors to stick to the gravel or dirt roads which, on the whole, run east to west across the park. Unless the kill is made close to the road, you won’t necessarily be able to view a lion at close range as he feasts on the carcass of a zebra, gemsbok, impala, springbok or whatever. This may be a disappointment to some. But I am sure the authorities are right. I am not sure what the lions feel, but I definitely prefer the less-intrusive approach.

As it happened, we were lucky that morning. The lion we had heard roaring earlier that morning had killed about three hundred yards into the bush. Though we could not get a clear view of the carcass, even with binoculars, we were able to count at least eleven lions in the pride: one big male, three females and six or seven gambolling cubs.

We must have spent an hour there that morning, standing up in the back of our Toyota Land Cruiser, with the telephoto lenses balanced on the roof of the vehicle.

As far as I was concerned, this particular moment was one of the high points of an amazing trip to Namibia. Like many other conservationists, I have been horrified at the dramatic decline in lion populations in many parts of Africa. Taking the African continent as a whole it has been estimated that there has been a 30–50 per cent population drop in the last twenty years. In 1975 the number of free-ranging lions in sub-Saharan Africa was roughly estimated at 200,000. At the end of the 20th century, numbers had dwindled to below 100,000. By 2005, population counts concluded that numbers could have plummeted to as few as 16,500.

On our first full day in the country, Kathryn, our brilliant driver and guide – she was highly competent and knowledgeable besides being the greatest fun – drove us over 500km from Windhoek to Etosha. En route, we had a welcome break when we were able to call in on Tammy Hoth, a director of the AfriCat Foundation, an organization dedicated – inter alia – to protecting Namibia’s large carnivores and to demonstrating that even outside the protected areas it is possible to minimize human-lion conflict.

Tammy and her husband run a sanctuary for wild animals, including half a dozen lions that are able to roam over several hundred hectares. Perhaps more importantly, AfriCat works with the local farming community to demonstrate that it is possible for farmers and carnivores to coexist. Tammy grew up as one of four siblings on the Hanssen family farm. But more than twenty years ago, the Hanssens changed from being farmers to becoming major conservationists.

“The Hanssen family proved,” Tammy told us, “that the only way to manage livestock farming in prime carnivore country was to adopt methods of keeping young calves out of the wild at night and protecting small stock, such as sheep and goats, with herdsmen and guard dogs.”

The point Tammy and AfriCat insists on is that both sides benefit. Half of Namibia’s population of lions (around 500 out of the 1,000 total) actually lives outside the protected areas. The benefits to both wildlife and tourism from peaceful coexistence are immense. With the growth of communal conservation areas, as well as freehold conservancy areas, the areas under conservation management in Namibia have grown from 13 per cent of the country in 1990 to 42 per cent today, equivalent to the total area of the United Kingdom.

When we left the Dolomite Camp, we drove east through Etosha visiting the vast Etosha Pans and spending the night at Okaujuejo Camp with its famous waterhole. Thousands of animals may visit Okaujuejo and other waterholes in the dry season.

Separated from the waterhole by a low stone wall, you can observe at close quarters what must be one of the most extraordinary wildlife spectacles in the whole of Africa.

Competition for drinking space is fierce. Springbok and other smaller animals often wait patiently for hours for their chance to drink after dominant species like elephant and gemsbok have moved off. If for some reason you aren’t able to visit Etosha to coincide with the dry-season, then book a return trip for another time.

On our penultimate day in Namibia, we drove down from Etosha to Okonjima, the Hanssen family home, where Tammy’s sister, Donna, and brother Wayne still live. I shall never forget the thrill of being driven round the 16,000-hectare private estate, now wholly dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of endangered wildlife.

There are around 2,500 cheetahs in Namibia, about a quarter of the world’s population. When we consider that 95 per cent of these actually live on farmland, not in national parks, the importance of resolving human-animal conflicts, and of finding a way for farmers and wildlife to coexist, becomes blindingly obvious.

In global terms, Namibia’s population of 3,500 leopards is almost as important as its population of cheetahs. In 2008, the IUCN classified the African leopard as “near threatened”, stating that the subspecies might soon qualify for “vulnerable” status due to habitat loss and fragmentation and that they were becoming increasingly rare outside protected areas.

So what happens to the leopard in Namibia is truly vital for the African leopard’s future survival. I shall never forget the sheer passion and enthusiasm of Rohan, the AfriCat guide who took us out into the bush on our very last morning in Namibia to look for leopards. We had started late because it had been raining hard all night. Leopards, he said, like human beings were not so keen on the rain. But he had a hunch they were up there on the hill somewhere and he kept on forcing the vehicle through the bush.

We were extraordinarily lucky that day. We saw not one but two leopards at close quarters, as well as a pair of cheetahs perched high on a termite mound, looking around to see what the morning might bring forth.


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