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Ex Africa semper aliquid novi
(Out of Africa, always something new) Pliny the Elder, 23-79 AD
By Peter Cunningham
With an impressive 219 038 square kilometres of Namibian land either nationally protected or protected within the conservancy movement, there is a strong need for Namibians trained in ecology and conservation to manage these vast, diverse spaces. The Department of Nature Conservation at the Polytechnic of Namibia plays a vital role in training Namibians for this challenge.
Established in 1988, the initial aim of the Polytechnic’s Department of Nature Conservation was to train rangers and wardens to work in the various parks and reserves run by the Ministry of Environment & Tourism (MET). The first curriculum was modelled on that of the Pretoria Technicon in South Africa, as it was perceived to be more closely aligned to the local expectations of terrestrial ecology management. Since then the curriculum and syllabi have become entirely Namibianised to include relevant local examples and case studies.
When referring to fauna and flora in the curriculum, indigenous species are used to indicate certain adaptations (for example the counter-current cooling system used by gemsbok) and/or relevant issues (for example the elephant/anthrax link in Etosha National Park). The local endemic species and the uniqueness of certain species and habitats are emphasised throughout all the courses. Local case studies include issues relevant to Namibia, for example indicating the strengths and weaknesses of the commercial and communal conservancies. All these localised examples make the course more relevant and applicable to the local situation and prepare the students for the job, as well as focus on academic theory. Furthermore, the overall aim of the course has changed from the original purely wildlife-oriented focus to an integrated human-involvement approach.
Originally a full-time, three-year Diploma, followed by a two-year Bachelor’s of Technology Degree in Nature Conservation, was offered. To ensure acceptable internationally recognised academic standards, moderation duties as peer review are conducted by UNISA for BTech subjects, while local experts moderate all final-year Diploma subjects externally. Today the Department of Nature Conservation offers or accredits the following courses:
• One-year Certificate in Nature Conservation (Techniques) aimed at training conservators at rangers’ level. This is a practical course focusing on practical needs such as basic plant and habitat identification, computer usage, water installations, fencing, welding and shooting.
• One-year Post Graduate Certificate in CBNRM (Community Based Natural Resource Management) aimed at CBNRM practitioners. This programme has credit-bearing subjects, enabling students to enroll for the advanced BTech degree programme.
• One-year Certificate in Environmental Education aimed mainly at training environmental educationists and teachers.
These certificates are all credit-bearing – that is students who want to enroll for the Diploma or BTech, are given credit for courses already passed. The above-mentioned certificates are the result of training needs identified by the industry so as to ensure practical training in the different fields.
Not only have new courses been implemented. A continuous re-evaluation of course contents has resulted in ‘critical thinking’ being incorporated into all the current subjects on offer. Students are taught to think critically – that is they are actively taught the specific knowledge and skills to develop higher order and critical thinking skills. This approach is followed by ‘enquiry learning’, so as to equip students to deal with relevant tasks and research projects better.
Students have to conduct basic research projects investigating and researching various environmental topics under guidance of the academic staff. Such research projects include the first fieldwork on the little-known and endemic black mongoose found in the Erongo Region, problem-animal issues and human perceptions regarding elephant, lion and other predators. Also included is the movement and diet of the highly endangered Wattled Crane found seasonally in the Tsumkwe area in north-eastern Namibia.
In many cases, this pioneer research has been upgraded to post-graduate studies by local and visiting researchers. Several of these research projects have resulted in popular and scientific publications creating a research climate in the Department. It is envisaged that this approach will ensure the popularisation and realise the practicality of applied scientific research. This ability to apply basic conceptual knowledge requires self-confidence, which in turn implies empowerment, linked directly to self-image. These are all aspects that are encouraged within the Department.
To date, almost 200 students have graduated in the various programmes, contributing immensely to conservation efforts locally. Many of these graduates are employed with the MET at various levels in parks and reserves throughout Namibia. Today ex-students manage state-owned parks such as Etosha, Namib-Naukluft, Khaudum and Daan Viljoen. The Ministry of Fisheries & Marine Resources has also recently taken in graduates, who now serve as research assistants and manage the aquarium in Swakopmund.
NGOs such as the WWF, NNF, IRDNC, DRFN and RISE employ post-graduates with a fair number of these graduates currently studying towards their Bachelor’s degree in Nature Conservation. Namib-Rand, the largest private nature reserve in Namibia, Gocheganas, the upmarket wellness centre south of Windhoek, and various other hunting and guest farms employ ex-students. A number of professional hunters and hunter’s guides have passed through the Department as well. Many other graduates are employed in the growing tourism industry, where they act as tour operators and freelance guides or even have their own tour companies.
International relations have been cemented during the past few years, with agreements with various prestigious organisations and institutions to ensure quality training for local conservators. These organisations assist in the practical training of our students, giving them international exposure. The Department of Nature Conservation has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the late 1980s. Today it is a diversified and regionally re-cognised training institution.
To ensure that future Nature Conservators appreciate the value and sensitivity of our wetlands, the Polytechnic of Namibia has included a course on Aquatic Ecosystem Management in the Nature Conservation diploma. Each year several students choose wetland-related topics for their research projects. The IRBM project specifically makes provision for student interns to do their projects on the Okavango River Basin, and Kevin Roberts of the Department of Water Affairs regularly supervises students doing wetland projects.
This article appeared in the 2006/7 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.