Since discovering the wonderful world of birds and butterflies when growing up on a farm, Rod Braby has always believed in conservation. Taking his inspiration from a video with the message that it wouldn’t help to look after the environment in the future; it was crucial to start immediately, Rod felt compelled to become proactive and joined the Department of Nature Conservation and Tourism in a full-time capacity.
Many years later he is still pursuing his love of birds, playing a major role in making the Damara Tern a household name in Namibia and creating awareness about the destruction caused in the desert by off-road driving. He insists, though, that conservation is not about individuals. “There is always a group of people involved, at times even your partner and children.”
Starting his career in Namibia in the Skeleton Coast Park, where he was stationed at Möwe Bay for eight years, Rod was privileged to work with some of the country’s best-known conservationists. With Steven and Louise Braine, Rudi and Blythe Loutit, Jacquie and Peter Tarr and John Paterson, he not only did a lot of work on rhino and desert elephant conservation during the military presence in the 1980s, but also shared an interest in birds.
Doing monthly patrols by vehicle and from the air for game and bird counts, among other duties, he gained a thorough knowledge of the park and of the extreme sensitivity of the desert to human impact. “The animals always used specific paths to cross lichen fields and didn’t leave a mess, as opposed to the vehicle tracks four-wheel drivers left everywhere.”
When he was posted to the office in Swakopmund and became chief warden for Erongo, he was again confronted with the problem of thousands of tracks across the central Namib. “We started looking to set aside sacrifice areas for off-road activities, and at the same time had to find a charismatic or indicator species to discourage people from driving all over the place.”
In the absence of a big, cuddly animal, the endemic Damara Tern was the obvious choice. The choice received further support in 1991 when a survey of the entire coastline revealed that the area between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund was the world’s most important breeding area for the species, with up to 200 nests being built in one season.
Huge progress was made to protect this area when the first low fence to keep off-road drivers out of the area was put up in 2000. Since then all breeding areas just south of Swakopmund have been fenced off with the help of donor money. This has resulted in an increase from 50–80 per cent in the breeding success rate.
This does not mean the fight is over. As the popularity of quad-biking is ever increasing, it remains a challenge to keep the public informed and educated. “People seem to have lost their feel for the environment. They see it as a foreign and hostile place that needs to be tamed and are apparently driven to leave their mark on pristine landscapes.”
Rod will never forget the day in 1991 whenhe came across a flock of over 5 000 Damara Terns on the Skeleton Coast, at a time when the world population was estimated to be 4 000. “It was an almost religious experience.”
As technical advisor of the Namib Coast Conservation and Management Project (NACOMA), this is what keeps him going. “If Namibia is serious about its environment, we really, really need to keep the area between Long Beach and the Swakop River mouth un-developed and pristine.”
This article appeared in the 2007/8 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.