By Dr Conrad Brain, Environmental scientist
Embedded within the mixed matrix of those who travel the world in pursuit of the most stunning sunsets, the highest mountains or an adventure adrenalin fix is the informed tourist, the one who strives not only to take back memories but also to leave a contribution. This breed within a breed, completely different to the rest, embodies a passion for the world that has its roots in an appreciation for the planet and a desire to improve, or at least conserve, what this fragile earth still holds.
They, like great migrating birds, travel the world and therein lies their true value to the planet: an untapped resource of experience, knowledge and in most cases a desire to become involved and contribute to conservation. At their means, the informed tourists have a global communications network and frequently carry a barrage of the best recording and documenting equipment. They are, in effect, international collaborators just waiting to be asked to participate in the ever-more urgent aspects of environmental conservation.
Namibia is blessed through its environment, culture, history and location, and its tourism marketing attracts mainly the discerning tourist. Such tourists are educated and informed. Their barometers sensitised by a wide range of global experiences, they inevitably compare their current locations with a comprehensive database. Subtle differences are noted, as are glaring dissimilarities between Namibia and the rest of the world in terms of service delivery, attention to detail, a smiling face, the condition of the wildlife and the commitment to conservation. The latter two are for the concerned tourist, rocketing up the priority list as they decide which destinations to explore.
Herein lies one of Namibia’s most important untapped sources for conservation development: to involve the vast body of experience and desire that these international tourists bring in a larger programme of conservation and environmental monitoring; and further to use the integrated system surrounding responsible tourism in a major conservation plan. The tourists, our international collaborators, embark on a life-changing experience and the supplier, as well as the country, benefits. It is a system that epitomises the win-win concept and redefines responsible tourism.
Not only do these tourists contribute significantly to the Namibian economy and to the growing success of conservancies; they help ensure that the real winner is the Namibian environment. Our international collaborators are helping us achieve our conservation goals by supporting our parks, by volunteering their time and talents to research and conservation projects, and by returning home to share their stories of Namibia’s environmental successes with other discriminating tourists, encouraging them to make our country their next destination of choice.
Furthermore, there are other, less orthodox methods through which our international collaborators are adding to our knowledge and ultimately to the value we place on Namibia’s environment. For example, Namibia’s wide-open spaces are best traversed by air, especially if time is an issue, which for most tourists it usually is. Many flights from a to b, or to be more colourful, say from Sossusvlei to Damaraland, are particularly spectacular, traversing desert dunes, the Benguela coast, the Messum Crater, linear desert oases and open plains. In a two-hour flight, multiple wildlife habitats are crossed. There is a lot to see, and to record. And if the flight is done many times each month and environmental data from each flight is documented and entered into a database, in a single year, invaluable information emerges.
Prior to each flight, our international collaborators are briefed not only on flight time and safety, but also on how their individual sightings will add to a greater whole. They are given a data-recording sheet and, as the plane’s wheels leave the gravel runway, eager observers are at work. It becomes more than just a flight – it becomes a contribution. This contribution is not restricted to these flights. The collaboration continues as the safari progresses. From game-viewing vehicles, on foot and from boats, a concerted and co-ordinated approach to wilderness conservation is taking place. It is a true form of international co-operation and one that puts a smile on the face of the participants each and every time.
So, while tourism is generally more associated with habitat disturbance and destruction, there is a very real alternative to be grasped. For operators to tap into the bene-fits of this alternative approach takes a very real commitment to the environment and an array of specialised skills to channel and guide the process. Once in place it demonstrates for that organisation a psychological leap and commitment towards the future, the future of wild, open spaces, the future of a planet and the sanity of humanity. With all frontiers now at stake and within reach of the international tourist, the possibilities abound. Namibia is, after all, particularly striking from outer space and those travellers who look down on the oldest desert on earth from beyond our sensitive atmosphere could well feel proud to have contributed to its conservation. Ideally, these space travellers would be in contact with us to add another perspective and data point to an ongoing programme of international conservation co-operation.
This article appeared in the 2008/9 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.