Sandwich Harbour – a dehydrated oasis?

Many visitors to Namibia have heard of the myths and legends surrounding the historically important wetland at Sandwich Harbour. A lagoon steeped on one side by one-hundred-metre tall dunes, cooled by the roaring waves of the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Shipwrecks, treasures, abundant wildlife, inaccessibility… Sandwich has it all.

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Above: The remaining wetland at Sandwich Harbour on a day when the sea was particularly rough.

As one of the few places along the Namibian coastline that had perennial water, Sandwich became an important, if remote, stopover for both local Khoi people and European sailors from the 19th century onwards. A small settlement grew and Sandwich had numerous houses, a meat cannery and plentiful freshwater.

Yet the sands of time and waves of change (both idioms in this case seem unusually appropriate) have drastically altered this wetland. The relentless winds have resized, reshaped and repositioned the dunes. The sea and the currents have eaten away the shore and deposited sand in other parts. It has to be one of the most dynamically changing ecosystems in the world.

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Above: Ruins at Sandwich Harbour – this particular building was a former lodging for Ministry of Environment officials. 

Yet the one change not entirely dictated by the natural shifts of the Namib may be the most critical. The wetland, so long a magnet for all form of life in the area, is quickly disappearing. In times gone by, Sandwich’s freshwater came from an aquifer fed by the ephemeral Khuiseb River flowing under the dunes and resurfacing at Sandwich Harbour before it reached the sea. A similar system occurs at Conception Bay fed by the Tsondab River and at Meob Bay fed by the Tsauchab River further down the coast. Very little freshwater remains – nothing compared to the quantity that justified the building of a settlement at Sandwich.

It appears the underground water reserves are drying up. Sandwich Harbour is the most obvious example because its close proximity to Walvis Bay allows for more visits on a regular basis. Additionally, the wetland’s historical importance has meant a greater body of literature and popular memory of the area exists, making Sandwich the most visible victim of indirect water mismanagement.

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Above: The saltwater section of the lagoon. This is by far the largest section of the lagoon nowadays.

The population growth along the coast, especially at Walvis Bay, is a factor. More water is also needed to satisfy the demand for the industrial growth set to happen at Walvis Bay harbour. The water obtained for the urban areas is mostly drained from the Khuiseb River. As a result the freshwater lagoon at Sandwich is becoming smaller due to groundwater extraction upriver by the town of Walvis Bay.  Another extractor is becoming more prominent: a recent and significant increase of lodges and growing settlement on the border of the Namib Naukluft National Park, especially around the tourist hub at Sossusvlei. This phenomenon is also visible when one looks at the water quantity (or lack thereof) at Conception Bay and Meob Bay, which are supplied by the Tsondab and Tsauchab aquifers respectively.

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Above: The remaining vegetation is fed by the small amounts of brackish water that surface at the lagoon.

Undoubtedly the increase of tourism has brought prosperity to lodge owners, national parks and the Namibian economy. But the building of infrastructure and accommodation to cater for the increasing traffic of tourism and other travellers to the Namib Naukluft area is putting immense strain on the already meagre aquifers. Not enough water is being allowed to seep under the dunes to replenish the coastal wetlands and the wildlife they support.

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Above: A map showing the catchment areas and aquifers of Namibia.

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Above : A zoomed-in image of the map showing Conception Bay, Sandwich Harbour and Meob Bay and their corresponding catchment aquifers. The big blue arrows indicate the water seepage under the dunes.

(Source: Ben Strohbach. Mapping the Major Catchments of Namibia. National Botanical Institute)

The precedent is thus: how does one regulate the amount of water that lodges can draw from aquifers outside the Namib Naukluft National Park before the water moves into a protected area? And while there seems little to lose other than the largely inaccessible wetlands in the Namib dune belt in this case, how will the Namibian government respond when other, more serious clashes of water interests come into play if it has not been able to protect the wetlands at Conception Bay, Meob Bay or Sandwich Harbour? What will happen if, for argument’s sake, the next national park to fall victim to water or aquifer mismanagement is the Etosha National Park?

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Above: Flamingoes are just one of the many species of birds that can be found at Sandwich due to the ecosystem that has been present there for hundreds of years.

In the meantime, the coastal operators that fill their Land Rovers with hundreds of tourists each year and drive to Sandwich Harbour will increasingly have tell yarns of what this famous wetland used to look like. Only time will tell how long the freshwater and the ecosystem it supports will last – but if rules around water usage and regulations are not clearly defined in the law books or communicated to developers in the very near future, entire ecosystems on the Namib Naukluft coast could be under severe threat.

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Do People Have a place living in National Parks?

In recent years many new national parks have been created both in Africa and around the world. This is a problem!

There is no question that governments and citizens should promote conservation efforts protecting endangered fauna and flora (by putting aside generally large tracts of land), which is essentially what a national park is.

Yet the creation of national parks historically and still does lead to a clash of interests between humans and nature. And unusually this does not necessarily involve the destruction of protected areas in the interests of lucrative mining or drilling rights.

National parks in Southern Africa are traditionally seen to exclude people. All people. Not even those people who lived on the land for hundreds if not thousands of years.

In a previous article I suggested that if governments were serious about conservation efforts, they would even protect sought-after areas. This leads to an inevitable clash of people interests and nature interests over what areas should be declared conservation land.

For example: a high rainfall area with good soil and rolling hills has as much potential to support large numbers of endemic game as high yielding agriculture.

I however did not address the which people get evicted from national park land and who gets to stay.

In Namibia and South Africa, the Apartheid Regime with its forced removals paved the way for people-less national parks. Creating South Africa’s famous Kruger National Part led to the removal of 1500 Makuleke people from their traditional land in north Kruger in 1969. Even earlier, in 1954, the area now known as Etosha National Park used to be inhabited by the both Ovambo people in the north and Hallom Bushmen in the south. After having always lived in that area, these people were evicted from the park in and many were left landless.

Conservationists also suggest that people living in the newly proclaimed Dorob National Park, such as the Topnaar people native to the Kuiseb River, should no longer be allowed to live in the park on the assumption that their presence and their livestock would endanger wild animals living in the Namib Desert. Yet the Topnaar people have always lived in the Kuiseb  valley and their livestock survive off the water and vegetation in the river – much longer than any government decreed the area a National Park.

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Above: The small settlement at Homeb along the Kuiseb River in the Dorob National Park is home to people and domestic livestock.

It also appears government is often at odd with the local or original inhabitants of the parks. The Yasuni National Park in Ecuador’s portion of the Amazon rainforest is a UNESCO Biosphere site and is claimed to be the world’s largest biodiversity hotspot. It is also host to three Native American tribes. And significant oil reserves.

When controversy arose in 2007 around the construction of oil roads in the territory, it seemed corporate pressure forced the Ecuadorian government to cave into corporate pressure instead of attending to the Ecuadorian Indians. President Correa said he would leave the 850 million barrels of crude in Yasuni untouched if the rest of the world would compensate for the financial loss his country would endure by keeping the drilling rigs at bay. The response has so far been unpromising and according to National Geographic’s report on Yasuni this year, the Ecuadorian government’s patience is wearing thin. This month violent clashes and reprisals between indigenous forest peoples were reported for the first time. The violence is reportedly directed at people seen to be assisting the oil drillers.

National parks or private game reserves for wild fauna and flora could also be seen as reserving land to the advantage of one people over another. In effect it seems scarily similar to the reservation of land for Native Americans in the USA or the Apartheid Group Areas Act of 1950s South Africa. In fact the official beneficiaries of these reserves are the animals and plants – but since when do wild animals deal in dollars, tenders or land ownership?

Etosha and Kruger are enormous tourist attractions and provide income for government and nature conservation efforts. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, many privately owned game reserves and lodges have sprung up that tap into South Africa’s unique and lucrative market that promotes wild animals and nature. Yet it also allows the owner of the land unprecedented power in dictating which people and how many people can live in a specific area.

Land is arguably the biggest bargaining chip of restitution, compensation and historical memory in post-Apartheid Namibia and South Africa. Clashes over land were seen as the main source of armed struggle, particularly in Namibia.

So the creation of reserves, whether they are genuinely concerned about the welfare of local fauna and flora, is an increasingly important issue in deciding what will become of the land, the people that run it and the animals that live on it.

Restitution may be the answer. The Makuleke won back their land north of the Kruger and decided to invest in a series of lodges that aided both their community and conservation efforts. When the Bafokeng people regained ownership of their ancestral land in the North West Province, they did not turn the place into an enormous game reserve. Instead they tapped into the platinum wealth under feet and enriched themselves with relative success.

In the end it appears the fate of the land is in the hands of the people that hold sway – and it is their choice as to how they conserve of exploit their surroundings. As resources, by which I’m generally referring to minerals, oil and precious metals, become scarcer, clashes of interests between people are likely to become more frequent. The question of who rightfully holds sway over the land, conservation area or not, will need to be answered.

Also governments are being forced to make tough decisions regarding their commitment to promoting the land rights of all their people or guarantee of tenders, tourism and taxable income provided by National Parks and private game reserves.

The WWF’s anti-poaching campaign ads – striking a balance

In a time when  nations are competing for every small resource that falls within their borders, the world economy is sluggish at best and the lure of a capital fortune is seemingly greater than ever before, the World Wildlife Fund mission to prevent the further extinction of animals appears a tough one. In light of the above mentioned circumstances, how do you stop the seemingly relentless slaughter of a variety of endangered animal species?

Anti-poaching squads seem most vulnerable in the areas they are most needed. They are often underarmed, underfunded and pushed towards the lower-priority area of many governments’ agendas, particularly in poorer Third World nations. Yet the biggest monster seems the insatiable hunger for the artefacts, bones, tusks, skins, horns or meat of wild animals.

The idea has been mooted before, and the WWF has for sometime been trying to  target  the destinations of wildlife products. It’s well-known ad campaign has sought to do just this. Wisely, instead of employing the graphic imagery of elephant and animal slaughter available the internet to shock people into taking notice, the WWF has done a good job of contextualising the animal cost of the wild animal trade. They use images that anthropomorphise animals, giving them the characteristics of humans. Posters, such as the one below, link the animal coat to a live animal. This sends a message that conveys hope of the animal’s survival  rather than desolation of knowing it is already dead without being distasteful.

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Above: An innovative WWF anti-poaching campaign. (Picture courtesy of WWF)

Hardliners may ask how this campaign hopes gain attention. Why not a disturbing image of full-bodied pangolin in a bowl of soup (a delicacy in some Far Eastern cultures)? Or images of headless rhinos and elephants or bloodied tiger coats are so highly effective in shocking audiences that they are more likely to make individuals become vegetarian than take notice of the problem at hand.

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Above: Another TRAFFIC/WWF collaboration that does more to educate people about the nature of rhino poaching than shocking audiences. (Picture courtesy of WWF)

What proponents of this kind of awareness campaign disregard is that many people do not see animals in human terms. Violent images of dead rhinos seek to induce a feeling of guilt in every person who comes across the image, even if the person has never seen a rhino, bought a horn or even a seen illegal rhino horn dealing happen. Individuals rarely feel guilty for the death of an animal, even if they killed the animal. The violent images are translated into a accusation, which every human who feels they are being portrayed as “wrong” resents. Thus violent imagery has the opposite affect of it initial intentions: it pushes potential interested parities away. Additionally its effectiveness can be questioned because people are become very desensitised to violent imagery as a result of its accessible presence in everyday media.

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Above: Yoa Ming’s trip to Northern Kenya was a watershed moment in East-West cooperation in fighting the illegal trade of rhino and elephant products. (Picture courtesy of WildAid)

In contrast, the WWF ads try to connect humans to animals by showing how complicity in the wildlife trade results in an animal death. In China, the name for ivory translates as teeth, and logically many members of Chinese society who were unaware of the nature of the ivory trade assumed that whichever creature “grew the harvested” teeth would be able to grow them back. Such cultural misunderstandings emerged when the WWF and WildAid began using Chinese basketball player Yoa Ming to front their anti-poaching campaigns.

Ming’s visit to Kenya was an important step in reducing animosity many African conservationists feel towards China, who they see as the root of the their troubles. It will take more such innovative anti-poaching campaigns, at the same time reducing alarmist and unhelpful media coverage to assist endangered animals survival.

This is quite a depressing topic. I’ve not even included another 5 candidates that are now extinct. The five animals are perhaps the best known to go extinct in the last thirteen years.

1. Baiji, or Chinese River Dolphin – Yellow River – 2006

Causes:

Reported in Douglas Adam’s book, Last Chance to See, these unusual dolphins have been a victim of China’s rapid industrialisation and economic growth. Its main habitat, the Yellow River, is also a water highway for ships, fishermen and a carrier of waste. Unfortunately the pollution, physical interference of watercraft and underwater sonar distortion that disorientated the dolphins added up to too much disturbance for this uniquely adapted Chinese creature to survive. 

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2. Western Black Rhino – West Africa – last remaining specimens died between 2000-2006

Causes:

One of five Black Rhino sub-species that used to live in Africa, the Western Black Rhino was a victim of poaching that was neither punished or monitored. Like all rhinos, its horn was highly prized for alleged medicinal properties. The former number is unknown, no animals were kept in captivity and it is believed, but not confirmed, that the last individual was killed in 2011.

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3. Pyrenean Ibex – Iberian Penninsula – 2000

Causes:

The ibex is an unusual case of extinction. In addition poaching, it is believed the species could not compete for food sources with domesticated animals in the Pyrenees. There were slim hopes of reviving the species when researchers cloned in 2009, but it the specimen died due to ling defects.

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4. Hawaiian Crow – Hawaiian Islands – 2002

Causes:

Introduced avian diseases, the urbanisation and natural habitat reduction in Hawaii decimated this crow’s population.

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5. Spix Macaw (Little Blue Macaw) – Northern Brazil – 2000

Causes:

This macaw, whose relative the Blue Macaw is the main subject of the 2011 Hollywood animation Rio, has suffered mainly due to deforestation of the Brazilian jungles. Trapping and poaching, as well as being targeting by invasive species such as black rats, contributed to the Spix Macaw’s demise.

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http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/photos/10-animals-presumed-extinct-in-the-last-decade/spixs-macaw

Top 5 animals to become extinct in the last decade

Conservation parks: wastelands or legitimately protected areas?

South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa recently declared the South Atlantic Oceans of Prince Edward Island and Marion Island would become Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

These become South Africa’s and Africa’s first MPAs. Prince Edward and Marion were previously best known for an alleged Vela nuclear test conducted in 1979 by the Israeli and South African military. The incident was never proven. This declaration is a landmark for South Africa’s oceanic conservation. The islands form part of the 180,000km2 MPA, which is the combined size of Swaziland, the Free State and Lesotho.

The islands once hosted a settlement that shipwrecked crews, sealers and guano hunters used as a temporary base. The introduction and rapid reproduction of cats on the islands midway through the 20th century had devastating consequences for native bird species. Researchers eliminated the cats during the 1990s and today the island acts as a research station for the local bird, ocean and plant life such as albatrosses, penguins, killer whales and Patagonian toothfish stocks. Unsustainable fishing practices affect the islands fauna and resulted in significant economic and ecological losses to South Africa.

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The islands are uninhabited today, hence the ease of making it a MPA. Yet just declaring uninhabited land a conservation area is not necessary a step forward in dealing with human-wildlife conflict. This is because most conflict occurs where animals are in some kind of competition for a particular resource – in most cases this is living space.

Two examples stand out. Namibia’s Dorob National Park, the world’s first conservation area that stretched a nation’s entire coastline was declared in 2011. At the same time, massive uranium finds occurred within the boundaries of the new park. Subsequent development around uranium mining in the coastal towns Swakopmund and Walvis Bay has put pressure on local wildlife and plants. There is also concern some desert landscapes will become destroyed, unusable or uninhabitable. Additionally, the growth of commercial interest in the towns has led to mooted construction of a chemical plant; also, the much-publicised environmental damage caused by the filming of Mad Max on the desert’s fragile gravel plains have undermined the parks existence as a conservation area.

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Above: A chameleon, while a small and relatively common animal, plays an important role in fragile ecosystems such as the Namib Desert. This one just avoided getting squashed by one of Mad Max‘s outlandish vehicles. Source: http://mongabay-images.s3.amazonaws.com/13/0411namib-chameleon.jpg

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Above: The vehicle tracks have scarred the the gravel plains and can take decades to disappear. Source: Namibian Sun

But it is definitely a stride in the direction. Bikini Atoll is a World Heritage site – a destroyed remnant of the dawn and decay of the nuclear age. It forms part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean and endured 23 American controlled nuclear explosions during the Cold War cowboy-days of weapons testing. Today, almost 70 years after the first native people from Bikini Atoll were relocated so safer areas outside the blast and radioactivity range, the islands are still uninhabitable for lengthy periods due to the radioactive poisoning of the plants, animals and land. The explosions permanently destroyed coral reefs, obliterated the islands and radioactivity spread to neighbouring inhabited islands, leading to pregnancy miscarriages for women and increased levels of cancer among people. Islands such as Bikini Atoll were far from civilisation and thus places where irreparable environmental damaged caused by the enormous blasts could be forgotten and ignored.

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Above: The explosion of a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll. The paradisiacal foreground contrasts markedly from the destruction waiting when the dust settles. Source: National Geographic 

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Above: Bikini Atoll today – with a massive crater in the middle of the lagoon, along with radioactive waters. Source: www.nuclearclaimstribunal.com

Another example that has emerged recently is the USA’s federal approval to allow uranium mining to go ahead under 10 kilometres from the Grand Canyon National Park in 2014. This is despite a ban on new hard rock mining imposed by the Obama Administration during 2013. Conservationists as well as Native American groups have filed lawsuits against the Canadian uranium mining company. Many old uranium mines are scattered in the vicinity and were abandoned after the end of the Cold War during the 1990s as the the price for uranium plummeted. In the last 5 years however, the uranium industry is booming again and has led to many companies reopening mines. It appears that this particularly harmful form of mining will threaten a member of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World in terms of radioactivity poisoning.

While the declaration of the MPA on the Prince Edward Islands looks good on South Africa’s conservation credits, a similar government-endorsed declaration in areas where humans and nature have a vested interest would be much more meaningful. Declaring land uninhabited by either animals or humans is reminiscent of the San and Khoi people being forced to live in the unproductive desert regions of the Kalahari by late 19th century colonists. Governments thus need to consider the needs of the endangered fauna and flora when choosing potential conservation areas if their intentions are really to maintain and protect natural biodiversity.