By Hu Berry
In human terms, a century is the difference between ambling ox-wagons and orbiting astronauts. To the Galapagos tortoises, it spans only half of their lifetime. To mice and sunbirds, it witnesses 100 generations of brief life. And to the inanimate and living complex system we name Etosha, it is a mere flicker of a phase in perpetuity.
Consider that a little more than 150 years ago, two explorers recorded the existence of ‘…an immense hollow, called Etosha, covered with saline incrustations, and having wooded and well-defined borders …such places are in Africa designated salt pans.’ What transpired since then has changed this natural system more than in the past 65 million years when a huge meteorite collided with earth, wiping out at least 70% of all existing species, including dinosaurs.
The Etosha we witness today is not remotely like the wilderness of 1851; it is not even akin to the starting date of 1907 we celebrate. The human footprint, heavily weighted by technology, has changed the face of ‘the great white place’ beyond anything that the stern, uniformed Governor of German South West Africa could imagine when he penned the proclamation of Game Reserve No 2 on 22 March 1907. Since then this country has changed names three times, the world has gone to war twice, and the clink of mounted cavalry across the plains has given way to the purr of turbo-driven, air-conditioned, four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Present-day Etosha lies in the Owambo Basin, which in turn forms a small northern segment of the immense Kalahari Basin. It is geologically peaceful, without the millenniums of turmoil that witnessed its creation. Nevertheless, birth scars were left by melting glaciers that slid across its surface as they moved and melted to form vast inland lakes. Lake Etosha was one of these, measuring 71 000 km2 (the size of Lake Victoria in East Africa). The Etosha Pan was born from a dying lake that filled with water-borne sediment and whose modern features are formed by the scouring action of wind erosion. Wind is the pan’s creative force, boosted by the absence of protective vegetation. During most of the year the bare, dehydrated surface is eroded by blustering wind gusts, developing it into a ‘deflation basin’ typical of arid regions. The area is monotonously flat, underlain by the so-called Kalahari beds of limestone-rich sand and gravel. Alkalinity and salinity permeate the soils and rocks throughout.
These technicalities were unknown to the original human inhabitants of this region, the Hai||om and !Kung people, whom we now call the San. For 100 000 years, their hunter-gatherer way of life had little influence on the environment. More rapid changes to the landscape started 300 years ago when Owambo pastoralists emigrated from Angola. Their livestock, agriculture and iron-smelting technology domesticated the area. Moreover, they deliberately set fire to the veld, changing the vegetation; and they used trees to build their houses, palisade fences and firewood. It was especially the past 100 years of western culture that wrought changes. European missionaries introduced different religions; political boundaries divided ecological and cultural units; road construction cut across drainage lines; warfare caused havoc; and labour migration and a cash economy catapulted what was once known as Greater Damaraland into the 20th century.
The discoverer of Etosha, Charles John Andersson, would have spent a humble life in Sweden had he not, by sheer chance, met Sir Francis Galton in London. Galton was on the point of departing on an expedition to Southern Africa. He was a gentleman of leisure, fond of shooting and the open-air life. Thus the adventurous but almost destitute Swede teamed up with the wealthy Englishman. He later wrote, ‘In the afternoon of the 29th of May  we reached Omutjamatunda, [now Namutoni], the first cattle post belonging to the Ovambo …it swarmed with people as well as cattle …there is a most copious fountain, situated on some rising ground, and commanding a splendid prospect of the surrounding country …the extensive plain encircling the base of the hill; frequented as it was, not only by vast herds of domesticated cattle but with the lively springbok and troops of striped zebras.’
Others followed, some leaving their legends written in blood. One of them was the illustrious hunter Frederick Green, who hunted in South West Africa in that period. He claimed to have shot more than 1 000 elephants and ‘rhinoceri, hippo-potami, giraffes and other animals innumerable’ during his 25 years in Africa.
Twenty-five years after its discovery by Europeans, Etosha was a spectator to the agonies of the Dorstland (Thirstland) Trekkers, of whom many succumbed to hunger, disease and predators. Still later it witnessed the ravages of the rinderpest viral disease that swept through Africa, leaving countless cattle carcasses strewn across the veld. Then came men replete with high-collared, buttoned uniforms and broad-brimmed hats, claiming this land in the name of a distant Kaiser.
In 1915, a mere eight years after this proclamation, military uniforms again made their appearance when General Botha stationed South African troops at Namutoni after the ceremonial surrender by the Germans at the start of World War I. He sent a message to General Brits, the commanding officer. In it, Botha expressed regret at having to station a brigade in this remote area for an unknown period. He received the following famous reply: ‘I have captured ten thousand bottles of rum. My men have as much wild beast flesh as they can eat. We are content.’
Etosha lay fallow for 10 years until, in 1925, it became the focus of international interest. Seeking the ‘Cradle of Humanity’, the Denver African Expedition returned to the USA claiming triumphantly that they had ‘found the Missing Link’ in the Hai||om people. Marketing this image, the American press sensationalised their ‘discovery’. A leading American newspaper’s editorial stated that ‘…the Garden of Eden was wrongly located in Mesopotamia; the true site is between South West Africa and Bechuanaland [now Botswana]’.
The Etosha Pan caught the imagination not only of explorers and hunters but also of engineers. One such person was so inspired by the giant basin that he submitted a bold plan to the South African government. This was in 1918, and his ambitious scheme involved diverting the mighty Kunene River into the pan, predicting that the ensuing flood would create an overflow into the Omuramba Owambo at Namutoni. From there, the engineer reasoned, the floodwaters would feed the Omatako River, supplementing the Okavango River. This, in turn, would strengthen the Okavango Delta’s flow to the extent that it would eventually drain into Lake Ngami in Botswana, thence into the Botetle River and the Makarikari and Soa (Sua) Pan to the Molopo, ultimately supplementing the Orange River. The reasoning behind his plan was to effect a climatic change in this semi-arid region, increasing rainfall and making irrigation possible. This ill-conceived, irrational scheme never materialised because the engineer was unaware that some of the drainage systems flowed in the opposite direction!
Encompassing a vast expanse of approximately 80 000 km2 when it was proclaimed, early Etosha stretched from the Kunene and Hoarusib River mouths on the Skeleton Coast eastwards to Namutoni. It was the largest game reserve in the world. In 1958 its name was changed to Etosha Game Park and in 1967, by an Act of Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, it was granted the status of National Park. By then its size had been decreased to about 55 000 km2 and the boundaries had shifted southwards to the Hoanib and Ugab River mouths.
The infamous Odendaal plan
A vital blow to Etosha’s ecological integrity was struck in 1963 when the now infamous Odendaal Commission demarcated the present perimeter. According to reports, the Commission completed its ground surveys swiftly, resorting to the drawing board where lines were drawn by ruler, effectively sandwiching Etosha between the homelands of Ovamboland to the north, Kaokoland to the west, Damaraland to the south-west and European farming land to the south and east. Despite evidence to the contrary by well-known ecologist Ken Tinley, who presented a scientific report entitled The Case for Saving Etosha, the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development issued a bureaucratically worded statement. It was directed to the President of the South African Wildlife Society, who had pleaded for the retention of Etosha’s borders. It reads as follows: ‘Your recommendations cannot be accepted with a view to the drastic deviating nature thereof and also viewed against the background of all the relevant considerations and Government decisions which emanated from the report of the Odendaal Commission. Conservation of fauna and flora will be maintained (sic). The Natives will be guided to act similarly and to establish game parks in the course of time.’
Known as the Odendaal Plan for South West Africa, it reduced the park to 22 912 km2 by de-proclaiming 72% of its former area. This action created a furore among conservationists, both nationally and internationally. Tinley resigned his post as Etosha’s ecologist and the Director of Nature Conservation, Ber-nabé de la Bat, remarked famously, “After Odendaal, Etosha resembled a plucked fowl.” The scars of Odendaal have left Etosha with a legacy of boundaries that are ecologically unsound and management problems that will persist as long as the park’s present shape is maintained.
Initially, the definition of Etosha’s boundaries made little impact on the movements of wild animals, except for the legal nicety that after crossing a mapped line they were not protected. Physically the boundaries consisted of surveyed points and, later, fire-breaks were cleared next to them. Migratory herds were therefore unrestrained in their movements along traditional routes. The first farm fences to be erected by white farmers on the southern boundary of Etosha between 1950 and 1960 were of minor consequence because they were discontinuous and easily broken.
Some of this land, which now forms part of the prestigious Ongava Private Game Reserve bordering Etosha on the Okaukuejo side, was purchased at the incredible price of five shillings (equivalent to the present 50 Namibian cents) per hectare. When an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease occurred in northern South West Africa during 1961, it sparked the construction of a ‘game-proof’ fence as a veterinary measure along the eastern and southern borders of Etosha. The structure was daunting to migratory game. With a height of 2.6 metres, it supported 17 strands of smooth wire, reinforced by 1.5 metres wire mesh embedded in the ground. A fence of 860 kilometres completely enclosed the park in 1973. Nevertheless, it proved inadequate for warthog, lion and elephant and ‘elephant-proof’ cable was added subsequently to fortify 130 kilometres of fence, while electric fencing strengthened other strategic sections.
Shrinking game numbers
Have Etosha’s animal numbers changed significantly over the past century? The earliest estimates, although anecdotal and far removed from modern statistical sampling techniques, enumerated as many as 30 000 wildebeest and zebras in the vicinity. That many no longer frequent Etosha’s savannahs, but elephants have risen to the occasion presented by the sanctuary of the park. In 1881 the last herd of these pachyderms was ruthlessly exterminated after being driven into a marshy area. They now flourish in the presence of numerous, permanent waterholes and the absence of human hunters to the point where more than 2 000 elephants are changing the face of the tree line.
Lions were also virtually eradicated 100 years ago. Their reverberating grunts were first heard again at Namutoni in 1912. These prolific cats are capable of astounding reproduction, linking their numbers to the rise and fall of their preferred prey. Lions can justifiably be described as having a ‘boom-and-bust’ demography. Recent research has documented their population in Etosha topping 500 and then tumbling to 180 in the space of one lion generation, which is seven years.
The old Hai||om, by name Katison Khomob (the man with eyes as sharp as a thorn), stands next to me. It is sunset at Okaukuejo’s world-famous waterhole and hundreds of tourists are watching an elephant herd at the water. Like me, Katison is now retired. He gave 42 years of selfless service in Etosha, and over the years we became friends. Unlike the trained scientists who dictate the course of management for the park, he has no written credentials behind his name. Born ‘wild’ near the Rietfontein waterhole, he grew up in the park, his life as a hunter-gatherer subsequently merging into one of a uniformed employee of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. I am privileged to have academic training, but my career in conservation spans only half of Katison’s lifetime experience in Etosha.
Neither of us speaks – I feel wholly inadequate against this man’s inherent knowledge of ‘the great white place of dry water’, his description of mirages mirroring the sky over the great pan. Perhaps the separate, but the collective knowledge we have gained can serve Etosha during the coming century, which will pass as quickly as the present one.
This article appeared in the 2007/8 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications’ most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.