The people of Ward 10, Grootberg, decided that if their new Conservancy was to truly manage wildlife on communal lands, they needed a broader approach to resource management. The enabling legislation providing for communal-area conservancies came from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and was designed to help mitigate the conflicts between wildlife and residents competing for shared resources. The Conservancy Committee believed that stewardship of these resources on lands owned by the government but occupied by subsistence farmers went beyond anti-poaching and wildlife management activities to encompass water infrastructure, grazing rights, cultural sites, traditional forms of land tenure, and the free movement of people after years of apartheid restrictions.
This was a tall order. Ward 10 was formerly part of the Damaraland ethnic homeland, but there were significant populations of people from other tribal backgrounds living there since Independence and the traditional leadership franchise of Damara headmen was no longer absolute. In addition, separate government ministries had jurisdiction over overlapping parts of the resource base. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) worked well with the Ministry of Agriculture, Water Affairs and Rural Development (MAWRD), but if an elephant destroyed a community water point there was no single entity with the responsibility to come up with a solution. The Ministry of Lands and Resettlement and the Ministry of Mines and Energy, on the other hand, had very different and sometimes conflicting mandates from MET and MARWD. North of Grootberg in the Kaokoveld, the interests of community-based conservation and cultural survival came in direct conflict with a proposed hydro-electric scheme supported by the government at the same time it was also promoting conservancy formation in the region.
Grootberg's ≠Khoadi ||Hôas Conservancy decided that it needed to take an integrated approach to natural resource management, designating some areas for mixed use and some for wildlife conservation and related activities. This meant that the Conservancy's community game guards would have enhanced responsibilities. The concept of community-game guards was pioneered in the 1980s to help reduce poaching on communal lands, but in ≠Khoadi ||Hôas they are called ≠Namibeb Gure-aogu, or "Environmental Shepherds" and they do more than track game.
An environmental shepherd in ≠Khoadi ||Hôas is the primary point of contact between the 160 scattered homesteads within the 900,000 acre (364,000 hectare) conservancy. They come from the community and have relationships there, but they also respond to the needs of farmers and report damaged infrastructure, identify stock and wildlife diseases, and carry news and information between the conservancy leadership and the beneficiaries of the conservancy. They also have responsibility for monitoring wildlife, grazing conditions, interactions with visitors and tourists, investigating claims of elephant damage and anti-poaching activities.
Viv and I trained the first 8 Environmental Shepherds. They were the best candidates from among the 35 who applied for the positions. Among them were gray-bearded Joseph Naobeb, a member of the Grootberg Farmers Union and the man who suggested the name for the Conservancy. 49 year old Joseph drove a team of 4 donkeys to visit the posts on his monitoring route. Also signing on was Landine "Landos" !Guim, a young woman who had been like a sister to us and became the very first female game guard in Namibia. Our great friend Bernadus "Bob" !Guibeb became their coordinator even before there was a contract to pay him a salary, and 10 years later he still leads the Environmental Shepherds.
These people knew more about their region and about wildlife than we could ever teach them, though there were additional skills that others could and did provide, including Ju|'hoan trackers at ||Noaq!'ae (Nyae Nyae) Conservancy who we introduced them to on an exposure trip to the former Bushman homeland where Viv had been a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1990-1992. Viv and I personally trained the Environmental Shepherds to work independently and as part of a team, to identify potential challenges and solve difficult problems in the field. An environmental shepherd might be called upon to respond to a poaching incident involving a family member or a higher power person and needed the skills to assess the situation and respond appropriately and safely. Conflict resolution skills that would be effective in their culture were the focus of the training we provided.
We did role play in three languages. We did many of the team building exercises familiar to those who have done outdoor education or been on corporate retreats but completely new to our Namibian friends and colleagues. It was powerful and empowering stuff and at the end of the three day training they were ready to assume their duties. We handed out new T shirts and hats with the ≠Khoadi ||Hôas logo and the Environmental Shepherds decided they were better off walking their routes in pairs. The first poaching incident happened just a couple of days later.
Viv and I had decided to hike out into the veld and camp above the dry pools of the river. We found a dead Kuku cow at the base of the cliff by the pool called ||Gurub ||Gams, driven to its death by a poacher with dogs. As we were backtracking to report our find, two of the Environmental Shepherds came up the dry riverbed and the four of us waited in the rocks to see if the hunter would come to claim his meat. Sure enough, we saw a man and three dogs came walking from the direction of the nearest settlement and came close enough for our colleagues to identify him before he saw he was being observed and sidled away. We sent for reinforcements and soon there were 4 environmental shepherds, their coordination and two members of the Conservancy leadership to collect evidence at the scene. We found a homemade assegai or spear and that the kudu had been eviscerated and had been pregnant. We loaded up the carcass and the traditional leaders of the region were called upon to confront and pass judgment on the illicit hunter of bush meat.
This early success gave great confidence to the Environmental Shepherds. They remain a critical part of the success of the Conservancy and we are very, very proud of them.