According to the Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism (MEFT), Namibia is home to an estimated 2,000 black rhinos, accounting for over one-third of the species’ total population worldwide and over 90% of the south-western subspecies. They further recently reported that poaching figures decreased from 32 in 2020 to 9 in 2021, a significant improvement in combatting rhino crimes. The black rhino population that ranges across the north-west Kunene and northern Erongo regions is one of the last truly wild populations of rhino and the largest single rhino population in the world that survives on formally unprotected lands. Thus, the MEFT and partners prioritize engaging and empowering local communities in rhino conservation.
What exactly is SMART Technology?
The establishment and growth of the community-based Conservancy Rhino Ranger program in North-West Namibia since 2012 has dramatically increased the amount of patrol information being collected by field teams. In order to maximize the usefulness of this wealth of informationSave The Rhino Trust Namibia (SRT), in 2014 began exploring how technology might assist. Later that year, SRT staff discovered a relatively new software and data management tool called SMART, an abbreviation for Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool. SMART was designed for law enforcement-based patrolling but could be adapted to suit many applications including individual-based wildlife monitoring. SRT quickly saw the utility and adopted SMART in 2015. While SRT’s initial focus was on establishing a desktop database, a custom SMART Mobile app has recently been released to further improve data collection in the field by frontline rangers. With this exciting advance, our collective efforts in the region have shifted towards the provision of new ‘SMART’ devices (ruggedized SMART phones) and train rangers in the use of the Mobile app within communal conservancies in the Kunene South and Erongo region.
The way forward…
SMART is a user-friendly, interactive software that can read and analyze patrol data to monitor trends in threats and the movement of wildlife. This in return allows Conservancy Rhino Rangers to keep track of their Rhinos and to safeguard them from poachers. Together with the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF), Save The Rhino Trust Namibia (SRT) is busy rolling out a new SMART Mobile training course with Rhino Rangers to enable them to collect and capture data in the field using SMART devices. The Namibia Association of CBNRM Support Organisation, Natural Resource Working Group (NACSO-NRWG) will also pilot the use of SMART in conservancies in North-Eastern Namibia to collect fixed-route patrol data by game guards.
Equipping communal conservancies with the necessary technology to track wildlife species builds critical capacity amongst the conservancy staff. The introduction of SMART aligns with MEFT CBNRM strategies in equipping community members with the necessary knowledge and technology to better manage the wildlife within their conservancies.
About the Communal Rhino Custodian Support Program
The Communal Rhino Custodian Support Program aims to assist the Ministry of Environmental, Forestry, and Tourism (MEFT) and Communal Rhino Custodians (Conservancies) by providing new incentives to ensure more effective rhino patrols are conducted. The program is implemented by a support group (CRCSG) currently comprised of senior staff within Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), Integrated Rural Developmentand Nature Conservation (IRDNC), Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF). The idea is to build a foundation of community involvement, community pride and sustainable development around rhino conservation.
” I was the only female on board and that in itself just shows that we are capable of doing it all”
Being at sea is an extraordinary experience, there are many tales about being at sea, but nobody knows until they have a first-hand experience. I have been at sea several times before on research vessels, however, this was my first time working on a commercial fishing vessel. Here, it’s all about getting the job done- “man at work” as they would put it. A crew of 26 including my colleague Titus Shaanika who was showing me the ropes of being an ATF instructor. I was the only female on board and that in itself just shows that we are capable of doing it all.
We boarded the vessel on Sunday (11-07-2021) at around 20h00 CAT and we were welcomed by individual crew members as we boarded. Titus, introduced me to the captain and officers, he is well known for his work on this particular fishing vessel, this was his 3rd trip with F/V Harvest Nicola. The captain gave me seasickness medications and immune boosters. As the ship sailed, a mayday drill was called for all of us on board at the muster station. Having completed sea safety training two weeks ago, I understood the value of drills.
The next day, as the fishermen deployed their fishing gear, Titus, explained what I needed to do, the list included how to record seabird bycatch and mitigation data and the safety measures. “Let’s identify birds”, He said. There were plenty of birds, even though I had participated in coastal birds count before, I knew the characteristics of birds. However, these were different birds, I looked out and all I could see was a load of black birds and white birds – funny right? and though I had a guidebook it was still found this exercise challenging. Titus, described the birds one by one, pointing out their unique characteristics and life history, it was incredibly helpful. My favorite bird was the Shy Albatross. It is so graceful as if it puts effort into how it looks before setting off for foraging.
As the 1st hauling started, I was familiar with what to do, but it was, nevertheless, a lot to take in. During the 4th haul of the day, there appeared a lot of small birds, “oh! I think we’re going to have bad weather soon”, Titus said in a concerned tone. I asked how he would possibly know that, he then proceeded and said “you see those small birds they are called Wilson’s storm petrels they often appear when it’s about to get rough”. We then headed to the mess room for data entry, before we headed to bed around 21h00 CAT as we started feeling the effect of rough seas.
We had bad weather for 3 consecutive days (12th-14th, 07.2021). Limited work was done as it was too risky. On every vessel, safety always comes first and it was thus difficult for anyone to stay on their feet and work as the vessel rocked and rolled. The food was great, but the biliousness negatively affected my appetite. The immune boosters and seasick pills were indispensable, but homesickness set in quickly.
On day 5 (15-07-2021), the bad weather eventually ended, and we could resume our ATF responsibilities. Mini rainbows where forming over splashes from the vessels wake, it was a beautiful sight, we tried to capture them, as Titus showed me a few tricks of photographing birds, he emphasized the importance of taking quality pictures, as it helps with record-keeping and reporting. On day six (16-07-2021), the routine was standard, and the work went smoothly. The pleasant weather, meant staying up on the stern for much longer to familiarize myself with the birds, sun basking and enjoying the fresh air. Something you get to appreciate more on a relatively small fishing vessel as the hallways below deck are concentrated with a strong smell of fish and kitchen steams, a smell that takes some time to get used to.
The crew often enjoy free time on the front deck between sets. We take advantage of this and talk to them about Tori lines and ATF work. Talking to them is always informative and hilarious at the same time, I learned a lot from them besides seabird bycatch.
On Monday morning 19-07-2021, we were all excited to be headed home after a good drag. We reached Walvis Bay at 21H00 after sailing for 8-hours from the fishing grounds just west of Walvis Bay. Having had such an enriching experience, I am glad to be ready to undertake my many solo seabird bycatch mitigation missions.
In October 2020, more than a dozen civil society organisations and scientists issued a statement opposing a “Transcontinental Biomass Partnership Namibia – Hamburg”, which investigates the feasibility of using Namibian bush biomass to power biomass plants in Hamburg as part of Hamburg’s coal exit strategy. This was followed up by an open letter of opposition towards the bush biomass project addressed to the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Dr Gerd Müller.
Based on these statements, we would like to provide further information and insight into the Namibian environmental context – which is vastly different from European ecosystems by highlighting the problem of bush encroachment and underlining the complexity of global concerns. Our statement will discuss the issue of bush encroachment from a Namibian perspective instead of the perspective of the Global North.
What is evident from the opposition letter is the lack of understanding of Namibia’s semi-arid ecosystems and the issue of bush encroachment, which substantially differs from known impacts of biomass resources use in European countries. Between 45 and 60 million hectares of land in Namibia is considered bush encroached with densities of up to 6000 bushes per hectare. A mosaic of bush thickets within an open grassland savanna can have positive impacts by providing habitat for wildlife, improving soil fertility and infiltration and sequestering carbon. However, the extent of bush thickening in Namibia has considerable adverse impacts on biodiversity, soils, the livelihoods of people and quite critically for an arid country, water availability.
These negative impacts of bush encroachment largely outweigh potential environmental and economic benefits. As a result, bush encroachment has become an indicator of land degradation in Namibia’s Land Degradation Neutrality Target Setting. A key target of the Namibian government is the reduction of bush encroachment on 18 880km2 (1.9 million hectares) by 20404, to contribute to enhanced biodiversity and landscape rehabilitation. Bush thinning (not bush clearing) is an effort to bring back a sustainable balance between grass and woody plants and is key for the achievement of Namibia’s Land Degradation Neutrality targets. It is also expected to substantially contribute to increasing resilience to climate change particularly in rural areas, and therefore achieving key adaptation goals which developed countries tend to significantly underfinance.
The sustainable use of resources is entrenched in the Namibian Constitution and the government of Namibia is committed to ensure that appropriate, sustainable bush harvesting practices are implemented to maximize the environmental benefits of bush harvesting. For this purpose, the Namibian government is currently revising its main forestry legislation and developing a strategy on the sustainable management of bush resources, which includes suitable harvesting technologies and appropriate post-harvest treatments to minimise environmental damage and maximise socio-economic benefits. In addition, the three Namibian Agricultural Farmers’ Unions together with the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform developed a National Strategy to Revive the Namibian Livestock Industry that includes improved rangeland management practices, bush thinning as well as landscape rehydration. Addressing the balance between bush and grass is vital to combat and mitigate the impacts of climate change whilst increasing the production, profitability and building the resilience of the livestock and wildlife value chains in Namibia.
Thinning the bush is an important means to reduce biodiversity loss, adapt to the impacts of climate change and ensure food security in a country, where most of the population rely on natural resources and agriculture. The densification of bush was encouraged by the mismanagement of land in the past9, which includes partitioning by fences and Eurocentric farming practices. In large areas, land that had a 15% woody vegetation cover in the early 1900s now has 90% woody vegetation cover – specifically as a result of inappropriate farming and rangeland management practices. Farmers have physically removed or chemically controlled the bush on their land for decades to restore their rangeland and improve the productivity of the land. In Germany and much of Europe, meadows (which are often manmade landscapes) have also been maintained for decades preventing natural reforestation. Although bush thinning has not always been done in a sustainable way in the past, the key aim is to rehabilitate the landscape to a natural savanna ecosystem with both woody species and grasses. The focus is on re-establishing balanced, natural habitats and biodiversity and not reducing natural woodlands. Bush value chains emerged as a solution for an otherwise discarded side product of rehabilitation efforts.
The Namibian biomass sector is still in its infancy and domestic demand at this stage is far from sufficient to absorb the amount of bush that would need to be removed to restore the land to a savanna with thickets of bush and grass to achieve land degradation and biodiversity targets. The development of bush-based industries in Namibia is vital to drive rehabilitation efforts, as the only way to sustainably finance bush thinning for restoration. Currently, harvested biomass is mainly used for charcoal production.
The development of new value chains with strong safeguards and sustainability standards – as required by European markets – is an invaluable opportunity to lead the sector towards positive environmental outcomes. Notwithstanding the amount of jobs it could create in a country where the national unemployment rate was recorded at 33.4% in 201814. NamPower, Namibia’s main energy supplier, is planning to construct a biomass power plant in the next 5 years. However, their bush offtake is only a tiny fraction of the bush that should be thinned to achieve other environmental targets. Partnerships and markets for bush products are required to grow the biomass energy sector in Namibia through knowledge and technology transfer and establishing infrastructure that can be used to drive future Namibian biomass businesses and activities. A partnership with the City of Hamburg would drive the development of Namibia’s own biomass sector and is in no way perceived as a form of neo-colonialism. Namibia has a sought-after resource in abundance that is a side product of environmental rehabilitation efforts and is thus driving the partnership and research agenda for the sustainable use of bush resources in the country.
We understand that within the international context the removal of biomass is often associated with the negative impacts of land-use change and its considerable adverse impacts on global emissions budgets. Greenhouse Gas (GHG) studies have been conducted in Namibia indicating that the fast regrowth of bush minimizes the impact of bush harvesting on emissions budgets and that Namibia remains a net carbon sink even with a considerable expansion of bush thinning activities. National and international studies also suggest that the restored savanna ecosystem could have the same or even a slightly higher carbon sequestration potential, due to the higher soil organic carbon content in areas with rainfall >600mm, although further research is required.
Climate mitigation is an obligation of the developed nations, whilst climate adaptation is a necessity in developing nations, such as Namibia. Although Namibia is committed to meeting global targets for its own emissions, climate adaptation is critically important for this and other developing countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. We should therefore be sensitive about eco-imperialism and pushing the mitigation targets of developed countries onto developing countries, who are often the most affected by climate change and need to adapt to the consequences to ensure basic human wellbeing and food security. Bush encroached land in Namibia is less productive for livestock farming (a key agricultural industry), as it reduces the availability of palatable grasses for cattle. It also reduces biodiversity, as dense bush thickets are unsuitable for grazing herbivores and other savanna-adapted wildlife.
We appreciate the intention with which the statements were written and trust that these good intentions can be channelled towards making this a productive partnership and herewith invite critical organisations to share and discuss their reservations with us.
We do not suggest that bush thinning, and the potential use and export of biomass is a panacea. There are issues and challenges (especially around sustainable land management) that must be addressed, and we would hope that a citizen led process would be a means to stand in solidarity and address these in a well-structured process. These issues are already being openly discussed as part of the feasibility process towards establishing the partnership between Hamburg and Namibia, which includes discussions in various working groups including public, private and civil society organisations in both Germany and Namibia as well as exchange visits and public discussions. We encourage all interested parties to join the discussions, listen to affected parties in Namibia and work towards constructive solutions.
Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF) endorses sustainable development, the conservation of biological diversity and natural ecosystems as well as the wise and ethical use of natural resources for the benefit of all Namibians both present and future, and it is in this spirit that it engages conservation challenges not only on land but also across the marine environment, through working with various maritime stakeholders regarding marine conservation issues. NNF contributes to the conversation and supports initiatives on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), the Blue Economy and Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF). Among others, here is a story of NNF’s successful contribution to marine conservation through working with the fishing industry, by advocating for an EAF starting with conserving seabirds.
Albatrosses, petrels and gannets are a common site in Namibian fishing grounds. Birds travel long distances from islands in the southern African coast and sub-Antarctic islands as their foraging range overlaps with fishing grounds in the productive Benguela current. Namibia has an intensive fishing industry landing 500 000 tons of fish per year, the industry targets among others species such as tuna, horse mackerel, monk and hake, with the hake fishery being the most profitable fishery in Namibia bringing in over N$ 30 billion a year and, employs over 10 000 people. The TAC for the 2020/ 2021 fishing season was set at 160 000 MT. Fish are caught using two fishing gear types: longlines (vessels using baited hooks attached to a fishing line) and trawls (steel cables which drag nets through the water to catch fish). These vessels process their catch at sea which entails beheading and gutting the fish and throwing the off cuts back into the ocean.
When baited hooks on longline vessels are set, or when off cuts are thrown from trawl vessels, large flocks of seabirds are attracted to the free meal on offer. This includes the Cape Gannet, albatrosses and petrels, many of which are endangered. As the birds aggregate around the vessel, they can fall prey to being accidentally captured – either through being caught and drowned on the hooks as they try to snatch baits, or through collisions with the thick steel cables (warp cables) dragging the trawl nets through the water as they attempt to gobble up fish heads and guts. The Albatross Task Force (ATF), an international team of seabird bycatch conservationists estimated in 2010 that around 30 000 seabirds were being killed this way in Namibian waters every year, making the hake fishery the world’s deadliest for seabirds at the time. The ATF is found in five countries namely, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Namibia and Brazil.
Birdlife South Africa, who already had an established Albatross Task Force (ATF) team since 2005, was concerned about the possibility of seabird bycatch mortality off Namibia, given that Namibia and South Africa share the Benguela current and have similar fisheries that overlap with the foraging range of seabirds. Thus, after several conclusive trials by ATF South Africa on trawl and longline vessels off Namibia, the seabird bycatch problem in Namibia was raised. In this light, Namibia Nature Foundation and together with Birdlife South Africa, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR), formed the ATF Namibia project. The NNF is recognized as Namibia’s leading conservation and sustainable development organization hence why it was fitting to host the project, providing financial management, qualified personnel and technical support, with the ultimate and collective goal of reducing the seabird bycatch mortality rate in the Hake fishery and improving the conservation status of seabirds.
To tackle this problem, the ATF Namibia team managed by the NNF worked with the fleet to test and demonstrate simple measures that can substantially reduce bycatch – most notably bird-scaring lines, which flap around behind vessels and keep birds away from the hooks and trawl cables. The ATF team then advocated for the widest possible uptake of these measures, such that in 2015, the government made the use of bird scaring lines mandatory for all hake vessels, a move welcomed across the stakeholder spectrum. This cooperation between the NNF and ATF and the fishing industry stakeholders, has supported and led to, two major successes:
Namibian hake fishery getting Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in November 2020 (https://fisheries.msc.org/en/fisheries/namibia-hake-trawl-and-longline-fishery/@@assessments), which means the hake fishery is: 1) sustainably managing its fish stocks, 2) minimising environmental impacts and 3) effectively managed. This altogether means that Namibian hake products have improved shelf visibility, access to new and secure markets worldwide, which ultimately protects livelihoods through improved sale prices and making Namibia the second fishery to get MSC certification in Africa.
The recent publication by the ATF, released in Elsevier’s biological conservation journal in December 2020, ‘Reduction in seabird mortality in Namibian fisheries following the introduction of bycatch regulation’, shows that the seabird mortality has been significantly reduced by 98% in the longline fleet. Which previously killed 22 000 seabirds a year, in comparison to the trawl vessels which previously were responsible for 8 000 seabird deaths, recorded 54% less deadly interaction, a commendable achievement but one that leaves room for improvement. For a country that is already internationally renowned for its terrestrial conservation successes. This publication puts Namibia in a strong position to become a trend setter in Marine conservation worldwide too.
The fishing industry represented by the Namibian Hake Association together with the ATF hosted a stakeholder workshop in November 2019, with the intention to further reduce seabird interactions with warp cables. During the workshop two potential solutions were discussed: discard management and the installation of extension arms on the trawl vessels. Discard management involves either stopping the discarding process just during the net setting process or packaging some of the discards for landing on shore, for consumption, bait or fishmeal, however discard management proved to be a challenging option. Thus the stakeholders agreed on the installation of extension arms on vessels that will enable setting of bird scaring lines with ease, currently trials are being carried out to see the effectiveness of these extension arm, due to COVID-19, the ATF team has not been able to access fishing vessels.
The Namibian team is currently led by Samantha Matjila, NNF’s Marine Coordinator; a women passionate about marine conservation issues and very proud to have been part of this great achievement. Alongside Samantha is Titus Shaanika, the ATF’s senior instructor, who feels a great sense of achievement having contributed to the conservation of seabirds, but even more so having contributed to the health of the world oceans. Since its introduction in Namibia in 2008, the team has seen several of hard working conservationist such as, John Patterson, Kasper Shimoshili, Clemens Naomab, Kondja Amutenya, Sarah Yates, Melody Lilongwe and the late Ismael Kavela, have all been involved in the project at different capacities over the years, have all greatly contributed to the current success of the ATF.
The next step is to make sure that the approaches developed by the ATF are hard-wired into the long-term management of the hake fishery, with the hope of having a spillover effect for other fisheries such as the monk, horse mackerel and pelagic longline. Albatrosses are long-lived birds (some species breed into their 60s), so conservation efforts need to be sustained over time, in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14: life below the water. The NNF will continue providing the necessary, technical and financial management support to the ATF.