Africa’s Super Park

In 1990 newly independent Namibia became one of the world’s first nations to write environmental protection into its constitution.

This story appears in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.

At dawn, three weeks before the winter solstice, the last tendrils of fog curled gray against the pinking sky over a sand dune on the eastern edge of the Namib Desert. A jackal trotted west toward a stand of camel thorn trees. An oryx cruised doggedly toward a water hole at a nearby tourist camp. A tenebrionid beetle scuttled shiny black on the red sand, leaving perfect beetle tracks in its wake. Next to me was Rudolph !Naibab,* a safari guide who grew up on recalcitrant earth in the Kunene region, roughly 300 miles north of this spot in the NamibRand Nature Reserve, raising sheep, goats, and donkeys on his grandmother's farm. (*The ! before Naibab is one of the notations for click sounds in the local languages.)

!Naibab is 30, but he has a much older man's acumen, something he attributes to being raised in the desert. "This land makes you consider life and death every day," he said. "And war. I was raised during war. That can also make you wise in a hurry."

Namibia's civil war started in 1966 and lasted 22 years. In 1990, when Namibia at last gained independence from South Africa, it was one of the first countries in the world to write protection of the environment into its constitution. It was as if Namibians recognized that having fought for the land beneath their feet, they were now profoundly responsible for it.

"I think there were many reasons that Namibia's ecomovement was born at independence," !Naibab said. "During the war, in the mid-1980s, there was also a drought, and farmers were getting desperate. Their sheep died, so they started to kill game. It was easy for Namibians to see how close to dying we can get unless we protect and respect the resources we have."

Until 20 or so years ago all this land, and the land next door, and the land beyond that, was fenced and stocked with sheep. I tried to imagine those sheep farmers with their backs to the wind, buried under oxide red sand, waiting years for rain. "Yes, I am sure those sheep farmers had mixed feelings about this place," !Naibab agreed. "On the one hand, no water. On the other hand, how can you not be in awe of this place? How could you not feel a responsibility to guard it?"

I had come to Namibia because in late 2008 the government had proclaimed 5.4 million acres of its southwest coastline as Sperrgebiet National Park. With this, officials could say that nearly half the country's landmass was given over to national parks, communal conservancies, and private wilderness reserves. With the creation of Dorob National Park in December 2010, the coastline from the Kunene River on the Angolan border to the Orange River on the South African border was an almost solid barrier of parks. All the pieces were in place for what may eventually be designated Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park—a single coastal megapark. Namibia seemed a rare, almost impossibly hopeful story of a young African democracy determined to be a leading example of land stewardship.

This optimism seemed well-founded on my second day in the country, when I arrived in the Kulala Wilderness, a 91,400-acre refuge adjacent to the NamibRand Nature Reserve. It was the very day of the scheduled release of two cheetahs by one of Namibia's most celebrated conservationists, Marlice van Vuuren, and her husband, Rudie. Raised among Bushmen in the Omaheke region of Namibia, Marlice can speak their language fluently, one of the few non-Bushmen able to do so. Now in her early 30s, she runs N/a'an Ku Sê, a game sanctuary 25 miles east of Windhoek, where with the help of Bushmen trackers she rehabilitates orphaned and injured wildlife, relocating the animals from areas where there is conflict with humans to areas where humans, in the form of tourists, are likely to pay good money to see them.

The repair and restocking of wild lands is not easy or free. "It takes a massive amount of planning and effort to reestablish balance in a habitat to the point you can bring cheetahs back," Marlice said. "Everything has to be in place. Is there sufficient prey? Is there water? Is this sustainable? If the answers to those questions are yes, that's half the battle. And then we just have to wait and see if the cheetahs like where we put them." The two cheetahs snarled and refused to get out of their trailer. The male bit Rudie on the foot. So we backed away and waited. An unremarkable shrub on the gravel plain moved and resolved into an ostrich. We waited some more. The wind did its best to blow right through us.

People who live in and near the Namib Desert speak of two winds: the east wind that blows in from the Kalahari, gaining strength as it loses altitude until it hits this desert at 60 miles an hour and raises temperatures to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more. And the life-sustaining southwesterly wind from the cold Atlantic that blows fog as much as 40 miles inland, providing almost all the moisture needed to sustain the shape-shifting wildlife here. It is not an extravagant living, this fog-fed existence, for snakes and lizards, beetles and spiders, but it's an impressively specialized one.

It is also a fragile living, so much so that some Namibians I spoke to worried that the slightest shift of climate could send the whole delicate system into collapse. "It's hard not to imagine that a few degrees warmer would be catastrophic. This is a climate and an ecosystem already so extreme," said Conrad Brain, a wildlife veterinarian who had come to keep an eye on the cheetahs' release. Brain, who is also a pilot, flies frequently up and down the Namibian coast and keeps a careful, if somewhat anecdotal, eye on climate trends. "We've seen jellyfish swarms, shark swarms, leatherback turtles coming too far south—those are all indications to me that the sea is warming," he said. "It's easy to feel a bit alarmed. That's why this—releasing these cheetahs—gives you a feeling of possibility and hope." We stopped talking and went back to watching the trailer. Time did what it does in the desert: It expanded with the heat.

Just as I'd put my notebook away, the cheetahs suddenly left the trailer. First the female decanted onto the ground. Then the male poured after her. Within seconds they were gone from our sight, even if we were not gone from theirs.

The successful relocation of these two cheetahs represents a trend in Namibia. Wildlife numbers are increasing, especially in conservancies and private reserves beyond national park boundaries. In the 1980s there were at most 10,000 springbok in the north; now there are an estimated 160,000. By 1990 black rhinos had been hunted to the brink of extinction in Namibia; now there are more than 1,400. Twenty years ago some 800 cheetahs were shot every year by farmers; now approximately 150 are killed by ranchers and farmers, and trophy hunters are permitted to shoot 150.

To reach Sperrgebiet, I flew almost the entire extent of the Namib Desert at its broadest point (from the NamibRand Nature Reserve to Walvis Bay), and then a fairly decent chunk of its length (from Walvis Bay to Lüderitz). The journey to and through the park was at least as striking for the contradictions it exposed as for its demonstration of remote, wind-scoured beauty. Although the landscape manifested itself mostly as pure topography—dunes and the glittering quartz in Witberg mountain—the scars of human activity from a century ago were still evident: abandoned diamond camps holding out against the wind, sun, and sand. (Closer to Walvis Bay, the desert bore a new imprint—the mindless doodles of thousands of all-terrain vehicles, which had churned the fragile encrusted surface.)

For the most part Westerners had ignored Namibia and its forbiddingly arid conditions—"the land God made in anger," as some called it. But this did not exempt Namibia from the frenzied exploitation going on in the rest of Africa. The islands offshore (now proclaimed a marine sanctuary as part of the overall protection of the coast) were raked for nitrogen-rich guano, used in the manufacture of gunpowder and fertilizer, and the cold, nutrient-rich Atlantic waters were scoured for whales. By the early 1900s guano deposits tens of feet deep had been scraped to bare rock, and southern right whales had been hunted almost out of existence.

In 1908 the first diamond was spotted in the south. Within months the German government, which held South-West Africa—present-day Namibia—as a protectorate, designated the 5.4 million acres surrounding that discovery as the Sperrgebiet ("forbidden area"), accessible only to the diamond company and its miners. To overcome the shortage of workers created by the German colonists' cataclysmic war against southern peoples (the Herero, Nama, and Damara), laborers were conscripted from remote northern tribes (the Ovambo and Kavango) who had not been involved in the war. To this day, mounds resembling children's graves can be seen all across the Sperrgebiet, an inadvertent memorial to the labor of those men who crawled across the desert sifting the gravel and picking out diamonds stone by stone.

Diamond mining continues along the shore in the southern part of the new park, and from the air the excavations show up as massive trenches. Although the mining areas are strictly off-limits to unauthorized visitors, fear of illegal mining and thieving means that the whole of the Sperrgebiet still feels forbidden—not so much protected as jealously guarded. Only a few tourists may enter the park at a time, with a pre-approved guide, and roadside cameras monitor traffic entering and leaving the park. The prevailing atmosphere of paranoia is perhaps best illustrated by the rusting and sunbaked vehicles and equipment abandoned within the park when no longer useful—an attempt to prevent mine workers from stashing diamonds in machinery to be retrieved later in some junkyard.

Namibia is now the fourth largest exporter of nonfuel minerals in Africa and the world's fourth largest producer of uranium. That mineral wealth doesn't trickle down in any real sense—Namibia has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world—and the pursuit of it occurs not only on private land but also in and around areas that have been set aside as national parks. Two mines, one of which is within Namib-Naukluft Park, are now producing uranium; output is expected to rise from 12 million pounds of yellowcake to around 40 million pounds by 2015. It's a striking irony that to extract its plentiful uranium, Namibia must use quantities of a very scarce resource: water. Figures are not easy to come by, but one mine uses 106 million cubic feet of water a year. At the time of my visit the water was taken from aquifers—fossil water that is not adequately replenished by Namibia's scant rainfall—although a massive new desalination plant was being built on the coast near Swakopmund.

In theory, mining is supposed to occur in concert with resource protection and economic development. "We're a developing nation," explained Midori Paxton, who then worked for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism in Windhoek. "It's not realistic to exclude mining from our protected areas, but we work hard to minimize the impact of the mining," she said, showing me a map of biodiversity hot spots identified by the ministry. "We work closely with the mining companies to identify and protect these very sensitive areas." She indicated an area now in Dorob National Park that is one of the most important lichen fields in the country.

Lichen fields—blooms of orange and gray over red sand and crusts of blackish gypsum—keep the soil stable and are a critical source of food for invertebrates. They're the desert's building blocks for larger communities of plants and animals. In recognition of their vulnerability, the lichen fields have been marked off on maps and with fences. But the lichen field Paxton had pointed out on the map was between the sea and a uranium mine, and when I went there, it had recently been torn up. Prospecting trenches crossed the field not far from where the desalination plant was going up. Tracks from heavy trucks and four-by-fours tore deep into the ground, a carelessness that could take hundreds of years for the desert's slow systems to repair.

In the end it will be here, on the ancient surface of its protected lands—not in the tourist literature or official mining guidelines—that the strength and sincerity of Namibia's environmental intentions will be written.