Opinion piece By Heiko Denker
In the cool morning breeze a lion strolls towards the crest of the dune, slowly, majestically, like a king. At the top he pauses, the first rays of sunlight fall onto the golden mane, his eyes reflect the endless space of the Namib desert.
This could be the start of a legend, and maybe this is all that will be left of the desert lions in a few decades -legends and maybe fairytales, nothing else.
At present, the lions still roam the Namib desert. If one was lucky enough, one could see the above mentioned moment with one’s own eyes…
That, which is rare, is deemed precious in human perception.
Very quickly, interested groups materialize. Groups which attempt to transform the value into money, which make a living from the precious objects. These are called stakeholders. They are those that have the most to loose if the precious objects disappear from the face of the earth. So called main players crystallize.
These are people that fully understand the value of the object and attempt to position themselves in such a way that everything must run via them. They want to gain power, have influence and naturally make a comfortable living from it.
In principle there is nothing wrong with this, that’s how life is and one can say: “God helps those who help themselves.”
Around the desert lions there are many stakeholders. From the local communities to the relevant ministries, the tourist companies and lodge operators and of course various NGO’s who always surface where development funds are dished out and donations need to be controlled.
Under the stakeholders there are those who have power due to their position and those who fight for the power in the economic race, they want to become main players.
In the midst of these groups there is one man who goes about his daily business; who – with extreme dedication and perseverance, with focused and proficient work – has established an extraordinary reputation.
He is a main player, not because of strategic power plays or lucky positioning, but by sheer determination and unwavering commitment. Through knowledge acquired under sweat and deprivations, adversity and staunch dedication in the middle of the desert lions. His name is Dr. Philip Stander, known as Flip. A man who works alone in the unforgiving Namib desert.
Who then is this enigmatic person,around whom many legends exist? It is rumoured for example, that a potential sponsor who wanted to donate bottled water to the project, was told: “Flip doesn’t need that, he rather drinks from the same streams and waterholes as the lions.”
Flip, who was born in Namibia, had since early childhood formed a close bond with the African bush. That’s where he felt most at home. This is the same for many Namibians, however they do not all scurry bare-footed behind dangerous lions through the desert.
Flip spent much of his youth on the farm of an uncle, who was involved with the capture of wild animals. This is where he sharpened his knowledge on the behaviour of wild animals.
As a young man he gained employ at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and thus began his unusual career in nature conservation.
Flip, who did not have the benefit of a tertiary education, showed keen interest in the methods of scientific research. With the help from colleagues and by keeping his eyes and ears open and soaking in as much knowledge as possible, he taught himself to work scientifically and was soon able to present and publish papers of high quality.
In fact, the papers were of such high standard, that they measured up to papers normally submitted for a doctoral thesis. This emphasizes the talent of Flip; however in the academic world one must hold a bachelor degree with a master finish to be considered for the Dr. title. Thus Flip needed to embark on the usual academic path before consideration could be given to anything else.
MET promised to keep a position available for Flip, however he had to finance his study by other means. The academic road brought Flip to the Cornell University in the USA and later Cambridge-University in England, where he completed his PhD for which he was awarded the T.H. Huxley award.
Back in Namibia, Flip continued his work at MET, steadily climbing the career ladder. He held the position of Chief Scientist at MET when he resigned in 2004 to embark on a career as an independent researcher, mainly dedicated to the Desert Lion project.
The main aim of the work is the collection of data about the lions, so that sound human-lion conflict management plans can be implemented. Currently the human-lion conflict is one of the biggest challenges in assuring the survival of the lion population. The work is done in collaboration with government, local communities and NGOs.
How then can one imagine the nature of this work , and, how can someone make his living from that work?
It is a life under extreme conditions, but it seems that Flip is made for such a life. He once received a new bed-roll from well meaning friends. This bed-roll soon ended up as a comfortably cushioned support for anaesthetized lions, while he continued sleeping on his thin roll and old pillow next to the fire.
When on assignment with Flip, it could happen that he would suddenly slam on the brakes, jump out of the vehicle and start walking around in a crouched position, whilst perusing the ground.
The average person would most likely see nothing and wonder what was going on. Should one have the nerve to ask Flip what he might be doing, one would possibly be told that a troop of lions cornered a giraffe at this spot. He would point at something in the sand and explain that this was the print of the right paw of a male lion.
Dumbfounded, one would think that one was in the presence of a bushman tracker! This is actually not far from the truth as Flip had lived amongst the Ju/’Hoansi bushmen in bushman land for a few years. He became proficient in their language and picked up a lot from them about nature. That’s why, just like the bushmen, Flip is able to read “Natures Morning News”. In addition, he has gained the “know-how” about the “bush pharmacy”. Should he ever fall ill, he usually is back on his feet in no time due to some herbal concoctions picked from the bush.
As there are no repair workshops in the Namib desert, Flip has quickly learned to repair just about anything. To be able to help himself he makes sure that all new equipment is delivered with an instruction manual. He has also kept up with the ever changing world of technology and is able to maintain the project website with daily updates, even if that means that he has to climb a mountain to get an internet signal.
Should one be so lucky to be present when Flip has anaesthetized a lion, one could be in for a surprise.
After the completed examination, when all the data is recorded and the lion is back on its feet, strolling away healthy and no worse for wear. It could happen that in his joy and relief Flip somehow produces crystal glasses out of nowhere, opens a bottle of first class champagne with a skillful hit of his dagger and proposes a toast. This in the middle of nowhere! As quickly as the glasses have materialized, they are gone again and one is left with a feeling of something surreal; did this really happen?
Unfortunately most scientific work is badly paid and hence the research depends on donations. A few years ago a deliberate and concerted effort was made to decline offers from large International funding organizations, and to search for local support instead.
The amount of available local funding is substantially less than the large potential donations from abroad, but support from local businesses and individuals has an important benefit in that they become involved in the local conservations issues. All Namibians should see themselves as stakeholders. Because if we don’t, then the disappearance of the desert lions is most likely a predestination.
The human being is the most powerful inhabitant of our earth. There is something that is known as the decree of the strongest. When a lion appears at a waterhole the other animals give way. The lion is given the respect of the stronger, it has nothing to do with inequality or the like.
In a similar way the human race has laid claim to the rights of the stronger. Mankind just takes what he wants and the rest of the inhabitants of the earth must just give way. But, where the lion is bound by the laws of nature, and hence does not carry any responsibility for his actions, man has outgrown nature.
His rights must be balanced by a responsibility in order for the planet to survive. Unfortunately human consciousness has not grown into this responsibility. Man just claims the rights like an animal and doesn’t understand that his power comes with a major responsibility. The time has come that every human being becomes conscious of his responsibility, that he does something so that his rights are balanced by a responsibility towards the planet and its weaker living creatures. When this balance is not created, it might soon be too late to still charter that course, and what then?
Every human being should presently build a case for the preservation of natural areas and support projects that work towards that goal, even if the input might only be small.
After a short pause, the lion makes his way down the sunlit side of the dune. He is occupying his stake in the desert. He is oblivious to the fight, which is fought behind the curtain that divides nature and civilization. He cannot influence it, he is reliant on our help. What help are you prepared to give?