The threatened breeding areas of the Damara tern, Sterna balaenarum, on the coastal dune belt between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay have been a conservation concern for many years. Rod Braby, Chief Warden of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) based in Swakopmund, elaborates on the conservation measures being taken to protect their breeding areas.
In our shrinking wilderness areas, especially in the Namib Desert, we hate to have our freedom restricted in any way. When Namibians and other wilderness-seeking adventurers visit these areas, they like to take as many gadgets along as possible to enhance the experience. Unfortunately, although many ‘ecotourism’-friendly magazines advertise microlights, jet skis, quad bikes, fancy 4×4 vehicles and in most cases their responsible use, it only takes a few irresponsible off-road-vehicle (ORV) enthusiasts to spoil the wilderness appeal.
Many attempts have been made down different avenues to educate ORV enthusiasts in the desert. For various reasons they have all largely failed. In Travel News Namibia’s 2001 Conservation issue, we reported on the conservation initiatives backed by the Danish government during the implementation of the Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project for the Erongo Region. The project failed to progress past phase one, as Namibia did not decentralise at the agreed rate. However, it regained momentum when the initiative to protect extremely sensitive areas within the National West Coast Tourist Recreation Area and the dune belt and coastline between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay became more effective.
Four years down the line we can report on the success of this venture. Thanks to the enormous support of Rössing Uranium, Namib Film, Coca Cola, the Commercial Bank of Namibia and many other organisations, the entire breeding area of the Damara tern just south of Swakopmund (Caution Reef and Horse Graves) is being protected by cable barriers and strategically placed information signs. In total the enclosed area will make up only 4% of the dune belt, where mainly gravel plains, barchan and small linear and crescent dunes move towards the Swakop River. In the past, an information sign without a barrier proved useless to deter people from driving across a pristine and sensitive ecological area.
The volume of tourists and off-road traffic has increased considerably, especially now that off-road driving has been banned on the beaches in South Africa. The local environments around the coastal towns where ORV enthusiasts abound are taking a severe knock. Ignorant drivers have progressively degraded Damara tern breeding areas with the resultant recruitment failure. Thanks to intensive monitoring, the successive ORV-induced failures have been recorded. The outcome of the work was published in the journal Marine Ornithology 29: 81 – 84 published in 2001. The report documents the successful conservation measures for Damara terns in Namibia, describing the barrier and information signs coming into effect in November 2000 and the immediate increase in breeding success.
The Damara tern is an endangered, endemic, seabird species, specially protected by Namibian law. Its most important breeding area is on the doorstep of Swakopmund. At great expense barriers have been erected to protect the breeding areas and at the same time provide a safe place for other seabirds and shorebirds to roost without being constantly disturbed by ORVs. The beach between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay is one of Namibia’s 21 Internationally Important Bird Areas, hosting up to 770 birds per kilometre of shoreline during the summer months (BirdLife International – Important Bird Areas in Africa and Associated Islands: Priority sites for Conservation, edited by Fishpool and Evans, 2001).
Although it is the MET’s responsibility to conserve biological diversity and to ensure sustainable use of the country’s resources, there is always a need to justify actions to the local communities. In the case of the breeding area of the Damara tern, research has shown that immediate action was necessary and although numerous press releases were made and public meetings held, some people resisted. The barrier was intentionally and severely damaged on December 20, 2003 after a motocross event at Long Beach, Walvis Bay. The repair costs were N$20 000.
The archaeological site comprising the old horse graves from the First World War is now also protected by the barrier. Many of the scattered graves have been vandalised, and the weathered bones and pieces of leather removed. Vehicle tracks criss-cross the sites and several deep ruts have formed due to years of ORV abuse. It is hoped that these sites will also slowly recover under protection.
Generally speaking, the protective barriers have been an exercise in conservation-action acceptability among the local communities of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay and, with the exception of a few individuals, have been accepted. The implementation and the results of the measures have therefore been a success. The tracks made by thousands of off-road vehicles are gradually recovering and the aesthetic appeal of the dunes and gravel plains next to the road between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay is improving.
In June 2003 the Walvis Bay Council approved a proposal by a private firm to manage the dune area on its behalf. This has not taken place yet, due to legal difficulties. However, the present situation of reduced environmental management is having an increased impact on the area outside of the barriers. Clear guidelines for environmental management of the area have not yet been implemented, as all the authorities await the outcome of the legal aspects.
The authorities would like the ‘free’ ORV activities to take place around Dune 7 closer to Walvis Bay, although accommodation is made for ORV activity around Long Beach and Swakopmund. The area around Swakopmund is the most difficult area to manage, as it has the most tourists and also the most sensitive areas. To manage the array of different recreational activities that have developed over the past ten years, as well as the increase in the numbers of people using the dunes, has become a major challenge. Eventually the entire dune area may have to be fenced off, with a few access points where permits will be issued to control irresponsible and unsafe tourist practices.
This article appeared in the 2004/5 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.