Conserving the Nyae Nyae

EP. 9 / Namibia

Conserving the Nyae Nyae

When Namibia gained its independence from South Africa they created ‘Conservancies’ – vast tracts of land that gave Indigenous peoples control over their homelands.

To conserve their wildlife and natural resources, the Ju/’hoansi San people established the first Conservancy. Now they want to build a fence to protect their grasslands and culture from the outside world.

Since the first steps of man, Native peoples have shared a spiritual connection with mother earth, a belief that sustains us, shapes our cultures and gives us faith.

My name is Simon Baker and after a grueling 36 hour trip from Vancouver, I’ve arrived in Namibia, formerly a part of South Africa but as of 1990, one of Africa’s youngest independent countries. The capital city of Windhoek is a multicultural mix of Indigenous African peoples and the descendants of colonial settlers, most notably German. In this city of stark economic and cultural contrasts, Namibia’s Indigenous peoples co-exist blending their past with the present in this modern urban landscape.

Outside of Windhoek, in the arid bush lands that dominate Namibia, conservation areas called ‘Conservancy’s’ have been established to enable this countries Indigenous people to manage their homelands, culture and wildlife resources. I’m leaving Windhoek and making my way to the visit the very first Conservancy established in the remote Nyae Nyae region of northern Namibia. A ten-hour drive north from Windhoek, the Nyae Nyae lies within the Kalahari Desert, a vast arid part of southern Africa that comprises parts of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.

Centered around the town of Tsumkwe, the Nyae Nyae is home to the Ju/’hoansi San people who continue to live communally and sustain their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The most recent and comprehensive DNA study of African peoples confirms the San people have survived longer than any other human population on earth. The San are sometimes referred to by their colonial name, the ‘Bushmen of the Kalahari’ however; this is a term that is now considered inappropriate and disrespectful.

The Nyae Nyae Conservancy, meaning ‘place without mountains, but rocky’ was the first and remains one of the largest conservancy’s established in Namibia.

As the principal economic hub for the Nyae Nyae, the Conservancy manages all visitors, tourism activities and hunting concessions. They also administer the Tsumkwe Tucsin Lodge, the only lodging available in the Nyae Nyae and my home for the next few weeks. Leon Tsamkgao is a lead guide at the Lodge and the first person I’m to meet upon my arrival in Tsumkwe.

My host and Guide, Leon Tsamkgao

As a lifelong resident of the Nyae Nyae and a community leader, Leon has extensive knowledge of this region, its wildlife and natural resources. The Conservancy has appointed him and his protégé Wesley Kaqace G/aqo to watch over our crew and keep us safe during our time here.

Leon’s assistant, Wesley Kaqace G/aqo

With his father presiding as the current Chief of the Ju/’hoansi San people and his English language fluency, Leon has become a spokesman for the community and a leading advocate for the preservation of their grassland and big game. Recently, neighboring Indigenous groups have been illegally encroaching on the Nyae Nyae and it’s grown to become one of this community’s biggest problems.

We the San community, our life is game, bush food, and roots. If we’re bringing in lots and lots of cattle the whole place will be overgrazed and we will no longer see the bush foods that are our life.

The Nyae Nyae Conservancy is a legally registered conservation area that comprises roughly 9000 sq. km’s. The Conservancy has a population of approximately 3000 Ju/’hoansi San people.

Nyae Nyae Conservancy Office

To better understand why restricting access to their Conservancy and cattle overgrazing is such a concern to the Ju/’hoansi San people, I’ve asked Leon and Wesley to introduce me to the managers of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy. While the Conservancy is a community based organization, the Ju/’hoansi San elect its leaders to derive benefits for its people through the sustainable use of their wildlife resource.

Khaudum National Park

Conservation of their big game and bush foods is the primary objective of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy. It is a precious natural resource that sustains the Ju/’hoansi San diet and attracts the tourists that come to experience San culture, this landscape and big game animals. But tourism is not the only source of revenue for the Conservancy. The hunting concessions they sell to big game hunters provide meat and much needed revenue to the community. I’ve asked Wesley to take me to a protected wildlife area an hours drive from Tsumkwe where Leon says we may be able to see herds of elephants and other big game.