The Etosha National Park, once the world’s largest game reserve and home to 114 different mammal species, celebrates its centenary this month as the jewel in Namibia’s crown.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists flock each year to Etosha in the north of the mainly desert nation of about two million people, making it a mainstay of the economy for a country that gained its independence only 17 years ago.
Apart from elephants, rhinos and big cats such as lion and cheetah, it is also home to 340 species of birds — including migratory pink flamingos — who find a breeding haven in the massive mineral pan that gives the park its name.
Etosha, literally “the great void”, refers to the shallow depression of about 5 000 square kilometres covering about a quarter of the park, which was once a lake but now only fills up with water during a good rainy season.
Each year about 300 000 tourists, mainly from Europe and the United States, visit the park, nearly half of Namibia’s annual tourism flow of 700 000.
“Etosha is the jewel in our tourism crown,” said Tobie Aupindi, managing director of Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR).
One of Africa’s oldest game parks, Etosha was once a massive 93 240 square kilometres until South Africa’s apartheid regime trimmed it to 22 270 square kilometres — half the size of Switzerland — in the 1970s to create homelands for different ethnic groups.
Namibia finally gained independence in 1990 but a lack of funds in the national budget has made the duties of nature conservation officers more difficult and the three tourism resorts of Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni within Etosha are in dire need of modernisation.
“The outdated style of the accommodation facilities dates back to the Sixties,” said Aupindi.
“We are renovating and modernising all tourism facilities at Etosha to world-class standard, as especially international tourists expect modern accommodation.”
Guided walks and night drives will now be offered to attract tourists, along with more modern facilities and attractions built with the 60-million Namibian dollars (US$8-million) set aside by government for renovations.
Proclaimed as a game reserve on March 22 1907 by then-colonial governor Friedrich von Lindequist of Imperial Germany, Etosha provides a large slice of the tourism industry in the country, the third largest economic sector after mining and fishing.
However the San bushmen, Southern Africa’s oldest people, are claiming ancestral land rights in Etosha.
Of the 30 000 San living in Namibia, the 9 000 Hai-kom are the largest group and they have lived in Etosha for centuries.
“We want Etosha back as our land,” says Naftali Soroseb, a Hai-kom and board member of the Working Group of Minorities in Southern Africa.
“We are landless and derive no benefit from tourism activities in Etosha,” Soroseb told Agence France-Presse. “We are also left out of the centenary celebrations.”
The government, heeding the call of the Hai-kom San, is negotiating with owners of farms bordering the park to buy them out.
“[This will] start tourism activities there engaging the Hai-kom so that they earn an income from tourism,” said Tourism Minister Willem Konjore at the recent centenary launch.
About 15% of Namibia’s 824 268 square kilometres are protected areas, either parks or conservancies, the latter being managed by rural communities, who obtain an income from tourism, controlled trophy hunting and from crafts they produce and sell.
Last year the Environment and Tourism Ministry received an US$8,2-million boost to manage its major parks, especially Etosha, from the United Nation’s Global Environment Facility.
The money will go towards the Span Project, (Strengthening the Protected Area Network), and will allow for a link of the Skeleton Coast Park to the western boundaries of Etosha to open ancient migratory routes of large species like elephants, antelopes and giraffe.
“This is the largest external funding we have received for our park-management efforts ever,” said Malan Lindeque, permanent secretary in the Tourism Ministry.
“Span will improve national policy planning for better park management for conservation, strengthening of the ministry’s institutional capacity and to drastically improve site-level management of the selected parks, the most important being Etosha.” — AFP