Friday, 19 June 2015

A tribute to Matui - the legendary Chris Eyre

I heard that Chris Eyre had seen his last sunset, and knew the end had come.

Chris Eyre on the night he recieved the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism's Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo: Tony Figueira

When I was a young ranger in the late 1980s, I had heard tales of this extraordinary man. Of how he had drawers full of unclaimed S and T (subsistance and travel) cheques. Of how guests were treated to tea - water boiled in an unwashed sausage pan, with a lump of jam added when the sugar ran out.

But mostly, I heard stories about the terrible rhino and elephant poaching, and how Chris and a handful of people were fighting the scourge. Not with bullets, but by sitting down with the farmers, communities and leaders who belonged on the land, listening and talking. This was unheard of at the time, and  a disapproving  Department of Nature Conservation Head Office banished him to far-off Keetmanshoop.

Chris Eyre and staff in the mid-80s, when tensions ran high during poaching investigations. Photo: Mitch Reardon, the Besieged Desert 

I heard too, that he said: “The day they allow women in the Ministry (of Environment and Tourism) is the day we should close it down. That will be the end.”

Fires, tea and dogs

I don’t remember when I first met him. But over the years, I came to look past Chris’s outwardly rugged appearance; his sometimes abrupt manner.  I found that inside was a great man, where honour, integrity, respect and a deep love for nature lived. A man who learnt life’s lessons through listening, watching and understanding. Through gazing into a fire, deep in thought, armed with a cup of tea, his pipe and his dogs. He didn’t need more.

No-frills campsite during the 1980s - Chris Eyre (right) with  Mitch Reardon, Elias Hambo, Johan le Roux, Fergie the dog and Garth Owen-Smith. Photo: from The Besieged Desert

And I found, a deep love for this man and all he stood for. A love I am sure those who met him share, one that observes his purity of intentions and spirit.

One day, he rang me from Ondangwa. “Linda”, he said. He always spoke loudly, and often twice. “Linda, I have to tell you. I have six posts for information officers. And you know, I am going to put women in all of them.” And he did.

Many years later, I reminded him of his early statements the impending doom of allowing women in the MET. He smoked his pipe thoughtfully, then grinned his toothy grin and chuckled. “I did say that. Yes, I did say that.”

I don't know what changed his mind. But, I think that, in true Chris style, he looked for what was needed, and cast aside any preconceived ideas he may have formed.  

The Last Sunsets

Chris at the Gift to the Earth Ceremony 1998.
I hope, in his final days, while watching his last sunsets, his heart rested easily. Knowing that he had left behind a great legacy, one in which people talk through their differences, united through a common love of the land, its creatures and its future.

I hope he remembered the solid foundations he laid through those long meetings, of how he bridged the rift between farmers and the officials through trust and respect.

I hope he reflected on the many people he had met and the lives he touched. How he nurtured young conservationists who are today among our great leaders. How he planted within all of us who met him, the seed of hope, respect for each other and caring.

And I hope, as he watched his final sunset, he knew that we will not forget him or his sacrifices. But that in each of us, his legacy will endure.

Life's true riches

If I have learnt a lesson from Chris, it is this:

Reward is not in riches, possessions and status. It is in the quiet satisfaction that our lives are in harmony - with nature, with others and with ourselves. Chris was one of those rare people who lived this. He was, perhaps, the richest of us all.

I salute you, Matui*. Go well on your journey. Goodbye. 

*Matui is the affectionate name given to him by the ovaHimba. It refers to his large ears.

Chris receives the MET's Lifetime Achievement Award from Hon Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah in 2008. Photo: Tony Figueira
Here's the citation I wrote for Chris for the MET Awards. I spent weeks digging around in the old brown files, tracking down his details, and checking them with his old friends, Piet Mostert, Garth Owen-Smith and Ben Beytell:

MET Lifetime Achievement Award 2008

Winner Chris Eyre, retired Control Warden, Ondangwa
Nominated by: Evarista Nghilai, Ongwediva
Written by Linda Baker

The legendary Chris Eyre has dedicated his life to conservation, first to the Department of Nature Conservation (DoNC) and later to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and still continues with conservation work after retirement. While campfire stories of Chris Eyre’s hard work, dedication - and idiosyncrasies - abound, all agree that he is a leading figure in Namibia’s conservation history books.

Eyre joined the DoNC in 1971 in Etosha National Park. He worked at the von Bach Dam, at Ganab in the Namib-Naukluft Park and at Otjovasandu in Etosha National Park before being appointed as a Principal Nature Conservator at Khorixas in November 1980. 

Devastating drought, poaching

He worked in the north west of the country during a time when poaching was rife, a devastating drought led to a crash in wildlife populations and the desert rhino was close to extinction. At this time he worked closely along with Lucas Mbomporo (DoNC) and long time friend Garth Owen-Smith [now of Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC)]. Together they contained poaching by working closely with traditional leaders and pioneered the community game guard system.

Uukwaluudhi Conservancy
In April 1984 he was transferred to Keetmanshoop and in September 1986 he moved to Opuwo, where he continued to work closely with local communities. In December 1992 he was promoted to Chief Conservation Officer (Chief Warden) in Ondangwa after receiving an outstanding achievement bonus. During this time he worked on the establishment of the Uukwaluudhi Conservancy – work that involved the establishment of a fenced core wildlife area. The Conservancy was gazetted in 2003. He was acknowledged for his work by becoming a joint winner of the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF) - Go Green Environmental Award with King Josea Taapopi in 2004.
He was transferred to Namutoni in Etosha National Park in 1995 and retired from the MET in August 2003. He has since worked for WWF and IRDNC – in the field, of course.

Veld knowledge - from a butterfly to an elephant

Director of Parks and Wildlife Management, Ben Beytell, says of Eyre: ”He has the ability to get along with anyone and is extremely resourceful. He also has tremendous knowledge of the veld and knows about everything from a butterfly to an elephant.”
Eyre, affectionately known to the Himba as Matui (referring to his large ears) always has a pipe in hand and a terrier at his side.

Donkeys, cement mixers and make-shift pipes

Writes Mitch Reardon in ‘The Besieged Desert’: “Chris is highly respected for his bushcraft and skilled in maintaining a very effective operation in utterly isolated wild places. At a previous station in the desolate central Namib [Ganab] he had learnt to make do. In lieu of a washing machine he had laundered his clothes in a cement mixer. In an emergency a cheap ball point pen with the filler removed substituted for a broken pipe stem. His only companion was a donkey that shared his two roomed cottage at night. 

"But his idiosyncrasies are only amusing asides to an otherwise hard-working, inventive and wholly dedicated personality who pours everything he has into wildlife conservation. Wherever necessary, which is more often than not, he works himself and his team long hours, seven days a week, contemptuous of the nine-to-five mentality that is creeping in as game management becomes bureaucratized.”

Although written more than 20 years ago, these words paint a picture of the man who is the winner of this year’s MET Lifetime Achievement Award.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

4 Best Online Resources for the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit 

Camping at its best - N//Goabaca Campsite along the banks of the okavango river.
Photo: Linda Baker 

Swakopmund is abuzz as hundreds of adventure tour operators attend the 2013 ATWS

It's all systems go as attendees prepare to embark on tours to some of Namibia's hottest destinations. 

Here are five online resources that provide useful tips on planning a trip to Namibia. 
Find out how ordinary Namibians are conserving 'the big and hairies' - from lion to cheetah and rhino. Stay at a community-run facility and meet the locals! 
This award-winning site has  an interactive map featuring campsites and lodges. It lists what to do, where to go, what to pack and gives a background on Namibia's Community-based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) Programme

In the business for 20 years, TNN features some of the finest articles on travel, tourism and conservation in Namibia. It is packed with info on attractions, activities, essential info and conservation news.  

Designed for tour operators, TourBrief is bursting at the seams with expert, well-written snippets on every area of Namibia, along with some of its most interesting creatures and attractions. It lists activities, accommodation, air and car rental, and quick references. TourBrief recently added an index of tour operators.

4. Ministry of Environment and Tourism

The MET, as it is known, pretty much does what its name implies. There is a wealth of info here - from park brochures and fact sheets to comprehensive publications, info on various directorates and updates on events and activities. 

Namibian journalists take a lazy boat trip along the Kwando River - Photo: Linda Baker

Let the adventure begin!

PS Share your favourite links and post comments below!

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Etosha: Full Moon Rising - and Some Quirky Facts

One August evening, I found myself alone in the middle of Etosha Pan.

We had organised a special adventure for Namibians to mark the centenary of one of Africa’s best-known national parks. Strict park rules forbidding people out of vehicles, or even out of the main camps such as Okaukuejo, were bent for the first time in 100 years. 

A group of seasoned trackers, led by the legendary Jan Tsumeb, accompanied 20 nature lovers on a moonlit walk across the pan.

My job was to keep the fire beacon alight. This was about six kilometres away from where I dropped off the adventure seekers

The Milky Way lay scattered overhead. A full moon flooded the pan. The distinctive scent of burning mopane filled the air. A hyena cackled. Then a lion yawned its roar.

It was then that it struck me. I was alone in a national park where animals reign supreme at night. Ones with teeth and claws. This was not your average Etosha safari holiday. It was another day at work. And I loved it.

Copyright: Linda Baker
This is how most people see Etosha! From a bench at Okaukuejo Waterhole. I like to do things differently.

Etosha in Numbers

Here are a few random facts from the history books.
  • 1881 - The last heard of elephant in the area is driven into a marsh near Mamutoni and killed.
  • 90 000 km2 - Size of  Game Reserve Number 2, later known as Etosha National Park,  when it was proclaimed in 1907.
  • 22 270 km - current size.
  • 5 - Current number of tourist camps -Okaukuejo. Namutoni, Halali, Onkoshi and Dolomite camps.
  • 31 - Etosha's full staff contingent in 1955. 
  • 20 000 - Number of flamingo chicks rescued in 1969 when the pan dried up. Staff caught chicks and released them at Fischer's Pan near Namutoni. Several more rescues have taken place since then. 
Namibian National Archives
Some of the flamingo chicks rescued  in 1969 when Etosha Pan dried up. Apart from the hats, I don't think the staff outfits changed for about 35 years! Photo: Namibia National Archives

  • 114 – Number of mammal species in the park. A lot of these are bats!
  • 23 -Number of black rhino poached in Etosha during 1989. Authorities later dehorned rhinos to deter poachers.
  • 0 - Number of lion, elephant or rhino in the park when it was proclaimed.Populations have steadily increased! 
  • 0 - Current number of African wild dog, hippo, buffalo and vervet monkeys in Etosha. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Rhino diaries: The legendary Mad Max

Namibian poster urging the public to report suspicious activities to the authorities. Photo of rhino by Tony Heald. 

 "Rhino coming! Rhino coming!" shouts the helicopter pilot into his radio while circling above the dusty Ugab River valley

My camera is ready for action. As I focus, I am unceremoniously hoisted by the shoulders onto the back of a bakkie. The seasoned rhino trackers have probably saved my life, as seconds later, Mad Max, terror of southern Damaraland (now Kunene River) crashes towards us. 

It is 1991. As the Ministry of Environment and Tourism's Information Officer, I am capturing images of Namibia's second rhino dehorning operation.

Years of drought and poaching have decimated animal numbers in the country's North West regions. Rhino and elephant are among the casualties.

Two years’ previously, as Namibia's war for Independence ground to a conclusive end, poachers seized the chance to track and kill the few black rhino scattered across northern Namibia.

Twenty-three rhino were lost in Etosha National Park in 1989. The last rhino tracks were seen in Caprivi (now Zambezi) Region that same year. Rhino carcasses were not uncommon among the rust-coloured rocks in the dry North West.  

Desperate times called for desperate – and drastic - measures. If poachers killed rhinos for their horns, reasoned authorities - why not remove the horns?

So a series of ‘dehorningstook place in various pockets of the country.

Rhino dehorning in Waterberg Plateau Park 1994. At first, saws were used to remove horns. Later, chainsaws helped to speed up the operation and reduce the down time of animals. 

To catch a rhino

So here I am. We are tracking a rhino called Mad Max. He is the stuff of legend, known principally for his bad temper. Trackers across the region exchange fireside stories about how he lies in wait for them behind spiky Euphorbia damarana bushes.

From the helicopter, a tranquiliser is fired into the rump of the irate creature below.

Mad Max sways drunkenly up the sides of a rocky ravine, snorting angrily. To prevent injury, someone graps hold of his tail and others join in.

Catch a rhino by its tail ... Mad Max is subdued in the Ugab River Valley - note the size of his horn.

Light is fading fast. At last, Mad Max is subdued and a team of some of the country’s most dedicated conservationists - from the Ministry and Save the Rhino Trust  - spring into action.

The sleeping behemoth’s vital statistics are monitored and his two horns are removed. Edges are smoothed and Stockholm Tar seals the stubs.

Once again, we scramble into vehicles as Mad Max shakes from an induced slumber. He rises unsteadily before stumbling into the silent darkness.

‘Five fives for rhinos’

It is hard to imagine that there were no rhinos living within Etosha National Park when it was proclaimed in 1907. Nowadays a visit to Okaukuejo Waterhole reveals up to seven rhino casually going about their business.

Today, communities live with and protect the growing black rhino populations in neighbouring Kunene Region, which boasts the world’s largest black rhino population outside a protected area.  Clearly, something changed.

There are many reasons for this. I will save that for another day.

Government knows that rhinos are their golden goose, attracting tourist and providing jobs.

In 2011, it launched a special hotline that  enables people to send anonymous messages to alert authorities about untoward activities. Posters spring up across the country, featuring a rhino squaring up to the camera to advertise the “55555” hotline. The campaign is soon dubbed ‘Five Fives for Rhinos’.

Five fives for rhino - Minister Nandi-Ndaitwah explains that 55555 is the sms hotline number that the public can use to report any suspicious activities relating to poaching. 

Unite against poachers

“Rhino poaching will steal from you and your family,” warned Minister Netumbo Nandi Ndaitwah at the launch of the hotline. Government, she said, has ‘zero tolerance for poaching’.

But with huge rewards offered for rhino horn by ruthless syndicates, it is difficult to predict if the tide will turn.

Since my encounter with Mad Max, much has been said about whether the dehorning operations worked. That is for you to decide.

But let’s hope that the situation never, ever returns to those drastic days. As World Rhino Day nears on 22 September, let’s unite to fight rhino poaching. Let your children one day go in search of the children and grandchildren of the legendary Mad Max.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Are you ready for the ultimate Namibian journey?

Vrede in Kunene Region during an exceptionally good rainy season. There is currently a devastating drought in Namibia. 

A journey begins with the first step. We know this. But where do we go? What do we pack? Which map do we use? Who do we travel with? What will we see? And what will we discover – about new places. And ourselves.

I don't know if I could have answered any of these questions when I hitchhiked across Namibia in 1987. But, after run-ins with snakes and elephants, working as a game ranger on the Skeleton Coast, organising national events such as the Etosha Centenary celebrations and meeting some of the nature’s guardians, I’m ready to help you as you journey  across 'the land God made in anger'.

Making a living from selling baobab fruits in eastern Caprivi. 

The only traffic in some areas is four-legged! 
Discover a desert wilderness
Frankly, I’m tired of reading the same old stuff about where to go and what to do in Namibia. I’m going to take you on the road less travelled, sharing local secrets as we meander through desert and wilderness, by air, 4 x 4, mokoro or on foot. We will meet some of the real ‘big and hairies’ - the old game rangers and local legends, along with nature's new custodians - community game guards, rangers, resource monitors, tour guides and craftfolk

Along the way, we’ll discover little known facts about the country and visit areas off the tourist maps. I’ll share which books to read and links to online resources.

Fasten your seatbelts and engage 4 x 4. We are going on the ultimate journey of discovery through this desert wonderland, Namibia.

Sand dune at Gobabeb Research Station along the Kuiseb River in Namib-Naukluft Park

Map of protected areas from MET website. Designed by Suzi Seha for SPAN Project. Parks are accurate but there are many more communal concervancies

Six quick facts about Namibia's parks

  • 42 % - amount of land under conservation stewardship (2013)
  • 20 formal state national parks and game reserves
  • 2007 year that Etosha National Park and sections of the Namib-Naukluft Park celebrated their centenaries
  • 4 tranfrontier parks
  • 80 % estimated amount of big game found outside of game reserves
  • blog you need to read to find out more. 
Want to find out more? Feel free to leave your ideas, suggestions and comments below!