The first collection of Namibian species in the world – the legacy of Mike Griffin

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By Hugh Paxton, Freelance journalist

After 32 years working for conservation in this country, Mike Griffin, the resident expert on everything from golden moles to green frogs at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, is finally retiring and returning to his native California to remind his wife what he looks like and care for ‘the old folks’.

Mike’s legacy is the finest collection of Namibian species in the world.

“It was good when I arrived, but 30 years later it is much better. No other country comes close to it,” he says with justifiable pride.

The National Museum of Namibia now hosts over 40 000 mammology specimens, 750 000 entomology specimens, 100 000 arachnids (including Myriapods) and 14 000 lower vertebrates (fish, reptiles and amphibians). Ornithology is also extremely well represented with 14 000 anatomical specimens, skins and skeletons as well as 20 000 audio-visual recordings. Aquatic invertebrates, while unlikely to draw crowds, number roughly 23 000.

Mike’s second legacy is three IUCN Red Data books to be published later this year by Macmillan Namibia detailing and describing Namibia’s mammals, frogs and reptiles and providing information on their distribution and conservation status.

Namibia’s species count stands at an estimated 185 000 and while insects unsurprisingly dominate the country’s biodiversity, many endemic, it is the reptile species that really put us on the map, says Mike.

He has recorded 175 different snakes, tortoises and lizards, a figure he describes as extremely high.

Mike is a born collector. The son of a Hollywood comedy scriptwriter, he spent much of his childhood growing up in the Mojave Desert where he occupied himself by collecting zoological specimens. “From the very beginning I was interested in wildlife. I didn’t like killing things but I had a real museum mentality and the whole experience of growing up in the desert chasing horned toads stuck with me,” he says.

His first encounter with Namibia came courtesy of a collecting expedition. Mike had been working on small mammals in Nevada where the US government was conducting mile-deep underground nuclear tests when he was invited to join a Los Angeles county museum expedition to Namibia.

The magnitude of Namibia’s landscapes captivated him immediately, he recalls, and, given his background and upbringing, he had the desert and desert creatures in his blood. He elected to return and work for the State Museum in Windhoek.

A year and a half later he joined the Department of Nature Conservation (now the MET) as small-animal biologist. Despite working under four different governments, it is a post he still holds.

“There have been occasional changes in uniform but the office and the job has stayed the same,” he says.

It is a job that has taken him the length and breadth of the country – the Namib is his favourite area and he has fond memories of prowling the dunes by night in search of golden moles. It is also a job he will greatly miss but, after thirty-two years, Mike has no intentions of breaking links with Namibia. Gamsberg will be publishing his guide to dangerous reptiles later in the year. It is a book that will not only alert readers to real risks but dispel a lot of misconceptions and prevent harmless species from being targeted out of unjustified fear. “You’d be surprised how many people think chameleons are poisonous,” he says.

Also on the cards is a lizard-watching guide (a splendid idea) and in addition he is working on annotated mammology and herpetology bibliographies.

Mike feels that publishing the Red Data books neatly wraps up his work here. “It’s a culmination and I’m ready for the next great adventure,” he says.” That’s going to be returning to the Mojave.”

NOTE: The museum holds an open day once a year offering the public the chance to see the fruits of Mike’s efforts.

This article appeared in the 2008/9 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.


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