Seven million hectares, seven thousand kilometres, three hundred people, twenty-seven conservancies, two weeks... The numbers may sound impressive, but what do they mean?
Namibia has been innovative and successful in developing community-based monitoring systems. A prime example is the annual North-West Game Count: what began as a pilot project in 2000 has become the largest road-based game count in the world. The count is repeated religiously at the same time and with the same methodology each year. It provides useful population estimates, as well as trends over time, both for individual conservancies and for the entire area it covers. Wildlife numbers in individual conservancies may vary significantly from year to year due to large scale game movements, triggered by the erratic rainfall in this open system. Yet regional populations of game such as springbok, gemsbok and zebra have shown remarkable population increases since the formation of conservancies in the late 1990s.
Conducting a project of this scale requires an incredible amount of time and effort, but can be an extremely rewarding experience. Aaron Price, an American intern with the World Wildlife Fund, describes his experience being part of the annual game count:
"So there I was…on top of a WWF 4x4 truck luggage rack with a sleeping pad to help me brace for rugged road bumps, snapping away with my Canon camera, frantically switching between my two lenses depending if I was going for wildlife or wide scenery shots, trekking across the Sesphontein Conservancy, helping conduct the worlds largest wildlife game count survey with the Namibia Ministry of Environment and Tourism staff and other various NGOs. When you’re out in the bush looking for wildlife and doing game counts, one has to wake up super early. Try having everything ready to go at 5am! At midday the animals lay down in the grass and avoid spending time and energy when its hot, so you have to start early. But the colors and charismatic wildlife one finds is absolutely breathtaking. I almost had to pinch myself to make sure I was really seeing all that beauty.
During the game count I saw baboons, elephant, oryx, giraffe, jackal, kudu, ostrich, springbok, warthogs, and mountain zebras. There were probably other lions, rhinos, cheetahs, etc. but special survey techniques are needed to pick up their numbers. That morning, Chris said there might be a chance we could see elephants but wasn’t promising us anything. Just before we saw the elephants, there was a herd of oryx I was taking pictures of, and when we came around this mountain my jaw dropped: we found elephants walking in a dry river bed! Tall, brown, quiet, and slow. It’s amazing how well such large animals can blend into a landscape."
If you are interested in taking part in a game count, tour operators such as Biosphere Expeditions offer visitors the unique opportunity. Their game count trip which was honoured in the Wall Street Journal's "Best Volunteer Travel" list.