Last year Namibia made headlines when it initiated a project to capture and transfer approximately 146 wild animals from its national parks to its long-time political ally Cuba. The project was christened “Noah’s Ark 2” and is currently in its second phase – the first batch of animals already living in a Cuban zoo. Among the animals trans-located were Big Five game, as well as animals more common in Namibia such as ostrich and oryx.
The project is reported to have cost the Namibian government at least N$ 25 million and the Cuban government a further U$ 15 million to accommodate the animals when they arrive in Cuba. The translocation, according to the Namibian government, complies with wildlife trade watchdog CITES’s regulations. The enormous cost of this venture left me perplexed as to who was actually benefitting from this whole deal.
Cuban zookeepers said the introduction of “African animals” is necessary to restock the stagnant gene pool of Cuban zoo animals. The government also hopes to boost the local tourism market and bring in much needed cash by having exotic animals in its zoos. On a micro-level, this may seem plausible. But looking at the bigger picture of Noah’s Ark 2, I cannot see how the sudden transfer of so many wild animals from Africa to a tropical Caribbean island can benefit the animals. Considering the stress and hardships the animals suffer during their capture, passage and translocation to an unfamiliar environment, the language of this consignment seems to echo terms used during trans-Atlantic slave trading.
The precise details of the deal between the countries are unclear. The Namibian government referred to the project as a “gift” after an envoy to Cuba in 2010 allegedly promised a donation of wild animals to Cuba. These allegations prompted conservationists in Namibia and abroad to suspect the Noah’s Ark 2 scheme was a “favour” from the SWAPO-dominated Namibian government to Cuba, in recognition of Cuba’s military and political support during the pre-independence liberation movement.
It appears once again that animals are being used as expendable “wild” cards to foster long lasting diplomatic between the Cuban and Namibian governments.
Other translocation types include moving animals for commercial hunting purposes, where game is transferred for the purpose of being shot on different hunting ranches. Though this concept may be hard to stomach, trophy hunting benefits conservation efforts in other areas with the enormous financial gains it attracts. Also translocations seek to eliminate human vs. nature conflict, where animals are relocated to safer, less populated locations.
Translocations are sometimes necessary – especially when the alternative is for the animal to die in its current location. But transferring 146 free-living wild animals, from national parks where the animals are theoretically best protected, without any immediate threat to a zoo is unnecessary. Surely there were less public and expensive options available for Namibia to “thank” the Cuba?
As it was, Namibia received negative publicity for its role in Noah’s Ark 2. Cuba will continue in its struggling economic state with the expenses of a few more depressed lions and elephants. Admittedly, none of the game sent to Cuba was transferred illegally, nor is the translocation likely to damage existing game numbers in Namibia permanently.
What has been damaged is the wild animal’s status in the eyes of the Namibian government. In one deal, Namibia essentially put its entire wildlife population up for sale by way of paying for Cuba’s support in military aid and other expertise in wild animals.
Still, this is better than killing the animals and selling off the meat and trophies to some other buyer that Namibia owes a thank you to – a scary proposition, considering the number of donor countries Namibia has had in its past. But in principal, the line is getting blurry – dead or living wild animals have a price on their heads. And this is in Namibia, a country with a relatively good reputation when it comes to conservation issues.
If states are serious about protecting their wildlife, or as they’d have it “natural resources”, they must remove any notion that animals living within state-protected national parks are (or could be) for sale.