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Destinations-Special Event in Namibia Featuring Wildlife Conservationists

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The event kicked off with a presentation by the most prominent Namibian conservation hero, Garth Owen-Smith, whose vision of community conservancies transformed Namibia’s approach to wildlife and natural resource management.

Prior to Namibian independence in 1990, desert adapted elephants numbered less than 150 individuals, and black rhino fewer than 60. Garth and his colleagues, frustrated at the disenfranchisement of their communities and its toll on wildlife, founded Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), with the goal of mobilizing and empowering communities to protect their wildlife and stop poaching. The community conservancies that Garth and his colleagues championed are the foundation of Namibia’s success in nearly wiping out poaching and restoring wildlife populations.

AfriCat Foundation, the world’s largest big cat rehabilitation and release center, was our first stop out of Windhoek, where we tracked the reserve’s leopard. Many of Okonjima’s leopard are radio collared, allowing researchers and guides to use telemetry to find them.

VHF tracking involves using a directional antenna to follow the signal given off by a transmitter affixed to a leopard. The guide rotates the antenna until the loudest signal is found, following the signal and checking it frequently until the leopard is hopefully located. Sitting quietly, honing your senses, and attuning them to the sounds of the bush and the radio signal is part of the thrill of tracking.

We awoke the next morning eager for another drive, this time to visit cheetah. AfriCat’s Cheetah Rehabilitation project aims to give rescued and orphaned cheetahs the opportunity to return to their natural environment as they lack experience hunting or are conditioned to captivity. Due to increased interspecific competition with leopard and hyena within the reserve, Okonjima’s cheetah are now in their own separate enclosure, and we were able to visit with two of them, Charlie and Chaplin.

In Etosha National Park we spent an afternoon with Simson Uri-Khob, CEO of Save the Rhino Trust. Today, there are fewer than 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild, and Northwest Namibia may be their last stand, as it is here that SRT Rhino Rangers work tirelessly to protect the last, free-roaming population of black rhinos left in the world. Wilderness Travel is proud to support the rangers, having provided a full mobile camp to keep the rhino guardians out close to the animals. Though Desert-adapted black rhino experienced exceptional population growth in 2018, there is still no time for complacency. If poaching continues at the current rate, rhinos could be extinct within the next decade. Click here to see what SRT is doing to combat this crisis.

We rose early the next morning to be at the gates of Etosha National Park before they opened. Since Namibia is so dry, Etosha’s wildlife congregate around watering holes, allowing for an incredible diversity of species in such close quarters—lions, elephants, giraffe, zebra, and jackal—oh my!

I was lucky to be riding with Jason Nott, the leader of our In the Realm of the Desert Lion. Jason comes from a well-known family of Namibian nature conservators so his unique perspective makes for an even more rich game driving experience.

After lunch and a brief siesta, we gathered for our last two lectures. First up was Dr. Julian Fennessy of Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF). Dr. Fennessy had been in the news a lot in the year leading up to the symposium, with the announcement that three subspecies of giraffe had been upgraded to either “endangered” or “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

WT has offered a world-exclusive safari with Dr. Fennessy since 2017, where participants had the opportunity to assist in the satellite tagging of giraffe. This program alone has generated over $50,000 in donations to GCF, and we look forward to continuing our work with Dr. Fennessy in 2021 as a new phase of research begins. Click here to read the latest report from GCF and learn about the status of giraffe and the threats they face.

The final speaker of the symposium was Dr. Flip Stander, the world’s expert on desert lion, whose decades of work tracking and understanding these great predators has contributed immeasurably to the reduction of human-lion conflict. This was perhaps the most anticipated presentation of the symposium, and yet Flip almost couldn’t make it due to an emergency involving two of his lions. The six-year drought has put immense pressure not just on wildlife, but on the livestock and the people that shepherd them. As prey had moved out of the range of these two lions, they became desperate, moving into a neighboring village where they killed two cattle and came under threat of retaliation. Flip had to diffuse the situation, dart the lions, and transport them out of the area. We were hopeful that he would be able to join us, so needless to say, news of his arrival spread quickly.

Desert Lion Conservation, or the “Desert Lion Project”, is a small non-profit dedicated to the conservation of desert-adapted lions in the Northern Namib. By collecting baseline ecological data on the lion population, Flip can study their behavior, biology, and adaptations to the harsh desert environment. In close collaboration with other conservation groups and local communities, Flip works to find solutions to human-lion conflict, elevate the tourism value of lions, and contribute to their conservation. In another WT exclusive safari, participants join Dr. Stander in the field and witness firsthand his efforts to save this iconic population.

With the conclusion of Flip’s presentation, our symposium came to an end, but not after an official farewell dinner with all of our new friends. The energy was palpable as everyone shared stories of adventures coming to a close, or their excitement for trips just beginning—in addition to the symposium, there was a series of specially designed safaris for clients to join, stretching from the Skeleton Coast to Zimbabwe. Speaker and guides were equally enthusiastic and animated as they joined our guests for dinner, clearly riding high from the past few days and feeling humbled, hopeful, and more motivated than ever to defend the wildlife, landscapes, and people they hold dear.

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