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By Austin Adventures Guides /

The idea, why…..

The idea of an exchange visit was conceived in a unique open air “board room”, in Namibia’s great Kunene region, Omatendeka conservancy at Otjomumbonde. Otjomumbonde area is the Omatendeka conservancy’s wildlife sanctuary. The area is endowed with much needed natural springs and great vegetation making it well suited for farming; however the conservancy has set it aside for wildlife therefore its attractiveness for tourism development. In this arid area, land use and management plans involve making substantial sacrifices by the communities who are generally described as farmers and not conservationists despite their well-known successes in conservation. These sacrifices are sometimes rewarded with unique tourism developments such as the planned Otjomumbonde lodge. It is a beautiful site in a pristine environment. Serenity combined with sincerity to connect people divided by not only an ocean but also lifestyles and cultures. Despite these divides, their souls connected in a common purpose and similarities in their love, respect and appreciation of nature. More similarities came to the fore, their common fight and plight to conserve and preserve the environment; this is why it was decide to undertake an exchange visit for Namibians to the US for both nations to share in their common journey.

The mastermind behind the exchange visit is Dan Austin of Austin-Lehman Adventures; a passionate visionary, an energetic individual who love life and all in it, particularly the stories of people as it relates to their space and history. In Namibia he was inspired by the harmony and balance of people and wildlife and their love for the environment which manifests through their passion for sharing their story and their environment with visitors.

The composition of the invitees covered people from Namibian conservation hotspots and a combination of veteran eco-tourism practitioners both in communal conservancy areas as well as government concession areas. In its entirety the group included representatives of key stakeholders making it appropriately representative of the relationships required and in most cases responsible for the successful implementation of eco-tourism and conservation operations in Namibia.

These relationships are a web network involving the government, conservancies, non-governmental organizations, donor agencies, and private sector tourism investors, to mention but a few. Conservancies’ successes of conservation on their land are very well celebrated in Namibia over the years and continue to be the case. Amongst the selected representatives for the exchange visit is conservancy concessionaires, this is the latest government initiative to further extend natural resources management rights and benefits to conservancies neighboring protected areas. This allocation of concession rights to conservancies has not only increased the conservation foot print of the conservancies but also put at their disposal more resources from which to benefit. Unlike in the past where the concession rights were given to private sector operator, now the private sector operators are contracted only as operators and are only given rights to conduct their operations by entering into an agreement with the conservancies that hold the concession rights.

The delegation also comprised a fair reflection of the Namibian peoples’ cultural diversity, with representation of people from the far northwest, the central north and far north east as well as people from the central heart land of Namibia giving both a rural and an urban reflection of the issues concerning sustainable utilization of natural resources.

The visit, what we saw…

Zoo Montana visit: A great welcome by the enthusiastic “Zoo Man” who has a voice that cuts through the mumblings of non-attentive visitors in the group, filled with passionate yet educational presentation of information of the various species in the collection of the zoo.
The tour through the zoo began at a well calculated significant stop for foreign visitors to see the Bald Eagle, America’s national bird appropriately welcoming visitors on a tour into the American wildlife kingdom, not only at Zoo Montana but for what was to follow during out tour of many wildlife sightings in the parks. To the delegation, a zoo is a new experience even though in Namibia there are various initiatives that operate with wildlife kept in captivity but in general parallels could be drawn especially regarding how the animals ended up in the zoo as well as their confined future in this captive environment. For majority of the group members, there was a general sense of mixed feelings regarding the freedom of the animals and their adopted constricted behavior. Nonetheless the essence and conclusions drawn are that these animals, despite their sad tales of what happened and what could have ended up in their death, have been offered a second chance at life at the zoo, maybe even a much better chance compared the their wilderness-dwelling families.
Their new role of Zoo Montana is to serve as ambassadors of their world out there and spread the message of their plight directly to their biggest enemy, the human race. The evening was enjoyed mingling with a high profile team from Billings including the Mayor and several representatives of congress, people entrusted by the masses with championing their prosperity including that of the wildlife and the environment. They are key role players in decisions that should bring justice, equity and a harmonious co-existence of man and beast.

The Crow Tribe dance: To cap the evening, a journey down the historical footsteps of the Crow Nation/Tribe was undertaken. They passionately shared their heritage and history and brought to life their increasingly threatened rituals and infected everyone with rhythm to join in song and dance.  We witnessed how music transcend boundaries of any kind be it tribe, race or nations from far across the oceans. The motion of dance to melody is a universal language and we full well connected and melted into the Crow’s cultural pot for the evening.
Meeting the Crow Tribe/Apsaalooke Nation who have a reservation “conservancy” in the rural areas of Montana State, a state fully branded by their ancestors through their connection to the land, the names of the main natural  features such as rivers and mountains and grass plains bears names with meanings and cultural significance of the Crow nation. This is a story many a people can relate to and people in the delegation can relate fully. The challenges they face are similar to the challenges many Namibians face.

Yellowstone National Park can only be described as a “Must see”, seeing is believing in the truest sense of the statement. It was a visit in History, not only seeing what can arguably be the oldest park in the world but also getting the best chance or the closest chance to hear, feel, see and experience some of the most fascinating goings into grandmother earth’s belly. The park is a geological living museum, a living laboratory for academia that pursues the challenge of getting to understand the workings beneath the earth’s surface. It is a mind-blowing experience for the ordinary and it will not fail to ignite a curios debate in one’s mind about the forces of nature and the spiritual believe of divine powers of some sort. We experienced the soul healing powers of nature, the realization of how small and insignificantly young we are as humans on planet earth and how at times the forces of nature swallows our self-imposed egos over other species and our selfish dominance and exploitation of the resources of the earth all in the interest of the human species, the most destructive and harmful species to the planet.
It is encouraging to note that this Park was set aside for conservation more than 100 years ago. Several success stories of game reintroduction in this park are visible such as the Bison and the Wolves, what is also visible is the ever unpredictable bio-diversity-balance/imbalance that in most cases is best left to nature.  The successful reintroduction of the wolves in the park seems to trigger some form of discontent with cattle ranchers neighboring the park, it appears that the wolves’ territories are spilling over on ranches and that the ranchers are experiencing losses of cattle and a reducing population of Elk that migrates seasonally from the park onto neighboring ranches. This migrating Elk onto ranches provides for a popular lucrative hunting season that provides a much needed alternative source of income during the winter period. The phenomenons above serve both as a sign of conservation success as well as in this case maybe a reminder of the possible reasons why the wolves were fiercely hunted to depletion in the first place.  At the moment, around the wolves issue in the Yellowstone Park, there is an urgent need for conservationists, government to engage ranchers more pro-actively and holistically if lessons can be drawn from our Cheetah Conservation Fund model on the fate of the cheetahs in Namibia. Meanwhile it appears that two even bigger threats to both the ranchers and the parks management and maybe to an extend to Montana and neighbouring states these are wild fires and as was explained a volcanic eruption. These are larger than life threats and therefore beyond anyone’s comprehension, hence left to grandmother nature to decide if not to divine power.
Rural Montana is “cowboy/girl” (gender equality) country; it is a culture, a heritage and a way of life of a people but more importantly an industry and its players who brave it out to rear cattle and hay fields to add their bit to feeding the nation. They are a people with character, a sense of profound pride and hospitality on their ranches and small towns. They are a community and a family, they all have “cow” blood in their veins. Yeah right they will defend their cows. Conservation in their vocabulary is grass lands management, rotational grazing methods and grass species restoration on their ranges as well as rooting out any threats to the cattle be it deceases or otherwise; that is conservation in their language. These guys represent everything tough and rough, big trucks, tough terrains, hectic chores and manual operations in stark contrast of the urban jungle life in this developed nation. They follow a history of their forbearers and continue to cherish a heritage for future generations to come. We did horse riding at a ranch and got a window into the reasons why they probably choose to remain rural, one trail “highway” single file procession, one traffic rule “follow the leader, stop when he stops”, simple “controls” to operate, speed limit is controlled by the cowboy in front. Now why would you trade this for the hustle and bustle of city life if you can eke out a living  in this serene space. After all city dwellers work very hard to earn a holiday the ranchers call their office and the activities such as horseback riding their daily chores.

American football match: Dan Austin’s all time love appears to be football, in the short-time we spend together the word football kept popping up in conversations like some out of control pop up on a computer screen.  He sold the game to the Namibians in record time and worked tirelessly to plant enthusiasm in the group as he knew that making this group understand the game will take the same time it took Namibians to achieve conservation success. Nonetheless he put to good use every second at his disposal and within less than 15 minutes had total strangers at least memorize Andy’s number (his son who plays for the Bobcats) and the color of the Bobcats’ outfits which was necessary for the Namibians for their own safety at the stadium. Needless to say, on top of the above the game was lectured to the group in a typical Dan’s-Lewis-and-Clark version time, which simply means a story of any magnitude compressed to one breath. Determined, excited and motivated the group marched on the stadium with turbo-charged confidence to join the Bobcats’ die hard supporters in cheering the team to victory. The two distinct differences were the Made-in-Namibia chanting which was new on the scene as well as the dancing when the group took to the stage when a band played live music before the match, the Namibians’ rhythmic moves made others seem rhythm-handicapped, the Namibians shook the “stage” and attracted much admiration while at the same time doing their magic to ensure a win for the Bobcats.  As they say the rest is history Bobcats emerged victorious. Something that was must to rescue Dan from a deteriorating change in mood. An elevated Dan expressed as sigh of relieve which was echoed by the group in a typical father-to-children rubbing off energy.

TIES summit: Eco-tourism, sustainable tourism, pro-poor tourism, community based tourism are but some of the main themes and phrases coined over the years in an attempt to define an environmental friendly sustainable tourism concept that serve as the reason for yet another TIES gathering in Monterey, California. The group joined other delegations from all over the world and participated in sessions at the same level as their counterparts while in some cases it was obvious that many nations can learn a thing or two from Namibia’s conservation success as well as Namibia’s successful unique joint venture eco-tourism concept. The various presentations made where not strange to the Namibian delegation, especially the case studies that involved rural/communal/parks conservation and rural based tourism ventures. What was also evident is that Namibia has a long way to go in its application of environmental friendly practices in urban areas. Lessons on recycling and carbon emission reduction can be drawn from the developed world and maybe Namibia is best placed to do it right first time to be pro-active in order to avoid detrimental development planning. The lessons learnt by developing countries is that we must guard against developing only to end up redeveloping when it comes to making environmentally-friendly decisions, we are best placed in many ways to do it right the first time around and also to learn from the overwhelming examples and adopt systems and technologies of the developed countries proving to be good examples. Namibia has an advantage of having vast tracts of land available as well as an enabling legislation. The challenge we face is inclusive broad consultation on land use plans and prioritization of key sectors with a view to sustainability. Development of the Eco-tourism sector can lead to significant spin-offs that can stimulate a domino effect that will address socio-economic needs in rural areas where it is needed most. In our approach of development in this sector we should adopt a “Design for positive impact and sustainability approach”

Lessons and Recommendations….
•    In comparison to other countries Namibia has a conservation success story to tell of notable magnitude.
•    The importance of stakeholders’ relationships and the role that each play cannot be overemphasized.
•    It is vital for Namibia to be involved and affiliate at international level in conservation and eco-tourism sector
•    There is a need for more involvement and engagement of private sector in policy formation especially regarding tourism concessions
•    There is a need to actively engage academic institutions for both a refined documentation and thorough scrutiny of the conservation success stories and tourism operations in conservancies.
•    Donor’s continue to play a major role in the promotion and creation of needed synergies between key stakeholders for the benefit of sustainable conservation activities
•    There is a need to establish at ground level international mutually beneficial relationships with communities (conservancies), conservancy associations, local councils and regional government; such as signing twinning agreements at this level. E.g {game guard exchanges, committee exchanges and leadership mentorship etc}
List of Delegates:
Ms Aisha Nakibuule (Acting Director), Namibia Development Trust
Ms Hilda Namwnyo (Manager), Sheya shUushona Conservancy
Ms Selma Nangolo (Grants Manager-Tourism), Millenium Challenge Account-Namibia
Mr Usiel Ndjavera (Tourism Business Advisor), WWF
Ms Martha Mulokoshi (Project Officer), WWF
Mr Dusty Rodgers (Investor-Tourism Ventures)
Ms Fabiola Katamila (Chief Warden, Concession Unit), Ministry of Environment and Tourism
Mr Pepe Giampietro Olivetto (Entrepreneur-Eco Lodges building and investments)
Mr Gustaph Tjiundukamba (Chairman), Omatendeka Conservancy
Mr Rector Mbeha Kawana (Assistant Director) Namibian Association of Community Based CBNRM Support Organisations
Mr Jermain Ketji (Community Liaison Manager) Wilderness Safaris Namibia
Mr Cebens Munanzi (Manager-Tourism and Conservancy Support) Wuparo Conservancy
Mr Alex Ndango (Chairman) Muduva Nyangana Conservancy
Mr Bennet Kahuure (Manager-Tourism and Conservancy Support) Millennium Challenge Account Namibia

Itinerary
Day 1, Sept 6: Montana, Billings: Visit Montana Zoo
Day 2, Sept 7: Billings: Visit Crow Agency
Day 3, Sept 8: Red Lodge, Cooke City
Day 4, Sept 9: Cooke City, Yellowstone National Park
Day 5, Sept 10: The Tetons/ Jackson Lake
Day 6, Sept 11: Jackson Lake/ Grassy Island
Day 7, Sept 12: Yellowstone/ Upper Geyser Basin
Day 8, Sept 13: Lower Geyser Basin/ West Yellowstone/320 Guests Ranch
Day 9, Sept 14: Gallatin Canyon/ Ouzel Falls /Big Sky
Day 10, Sept 15: Bozeman/ MSU Campus
Day 11-16, Sept 16-20: Monterey, TIES Conference
Day 17-18, Sept 21-23 Traveling Back

Acknowledgements and thank you’s
•    Millennium Challenge Account Namibia
•     WWF Namibia
•    Austin-Lehman Adventures
•    NACSO
Ministry of Environment and Tourism

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