Monday, July 1, 2013

Conservation through Innovation

Marlice van Vuuren, the dynamo behind N/a'ankuse was our guide today for "Behind the Scenes with Marlice".  Daughter of parents who moved from standard farming to wildlife conservation, she and her husband bought a huge tract of land outside Windhoek in Namibia, to run as a wildlife sanctuary.  As a well-known conservationist in Namibia, Marlice is often sought out when animals are wounded or abandoned.  

She and the rest of the team interact a lot with the farmers, who complain that these wild carnivores are a menace to their livestock.  We often hear of the dilemma of poor black farmers in Africa torn between conservation of these wild animals and the need to feed their families on their farms. However, Marlice points out that the problem is not with the poor black farmers, but with the rich white famers, of German extraction since this is Namibia.  The black farmers don't have problems, because they round up their herds at night and protect them inside thornbush-circled kraals that the predators can't penetrate. Moreover they don't dehorn cows at an early age and thus the mother cows can protect their calves.

Marlice and her team work hard to persuade the white farmers to adopt these practices.  But slaughterhouses deduct 15 cents a pound for cattle with horns (they can gore other cattle in tight quarters) and, with their fast jeeps and their guns, rich white farmers consider it easier to just chase and shoot the predators.  However, they've had many successes and have honed their approaches to win acceptance.

N/a'ankuse also has experimented with various tracking devices for animals in the wild, and particularly for those they have released.  Cheaper VHF transmitters require you to be within 8 Kim's, but the much better GPS trackers cost about 4,000 USD apiece.   Like so many other areas of technology, batteries are the problem; it's their weight that makes the trackers cumbersome for the animals.  

As another innovative approach to tracking, they have developed a software program into which you can feed a photograph of a footprint and have it identified.  They have also experimented with different ways of releasing animals they've saved back into the wild.  They have 100% success with q
'Hot release' of leopards.  Drive to the translocation place, push them out of the truck and out they go and survive.  Marlice says they are like cats, self-reliant, liking humans but not needing them.  Cheetahs need a different approach of slow release. They take them to the target release area and acclimatize them for up to 3 months in a wide range, getting the, ready to go.  They are really sweet, but very dumb, says Marlice, and much more like dogs in their dependence on humans.

It's experimentation like this that leads to their slogan of Conservation through Innovation.

N/a'an ku se is also distinguished by its treatment of workers.  In most camps we visited, workers stay for months at a time, followed by brief visits home to their families.  N/a'an ku se has a much more humane approach of families living there.  They have started a pre-school and kindergarten called Clever Cubs to prepare the Bushmen kids for school.  Their culture has made it difficult for them to flourish in white schools.  Not only do they get thrown into a foreign language, but things we consider important like counting have no equivalent in Bushman - there are no number words past 5.  

We enjoyed visiting the school and meeting kids of the staff we had got to know.  their teacher had them sing a song for us.

N/a'an ku se also supports a bus to take kids to school in Windhoek.  Marlice has a great appreciation and understanding of Bushman culture, and is one of a handful of white people fluent in the language.  I had read about the clicking sound that is part of the language and it was fascinating to hear her speak it.

The cute little school and playground were built by the Jolie-Pitt Foundation after their visit a few years ago.  Jolie and Marlice had met when Marlice was an animal consultant on a movie and she had to breed flies, and then place them carefully on Jolie's face.  Marlice herself is easily beautiful enough to be a movie star herself, and full of exuberance and expressiveness that makes her a completely energizing to be around. 

As we arrived a new batch of volunteers (up to 60 at any given time) had just arrived and were being given their intros to the place.  Some were heading out to check the kms of fencing to ensure the wire was still electrified and bearing shovels to fill in any holes beneath the fence.  Three joined us for a treat when we walked a caracal for about two hours.  I really like caracals.  Unbelievable that you could just walk along with these animals and then all return in the jeep.

Any animals who are in smaller enclosures are taken out daily for long walks, including 3 hour walks for the 52 baboons.

Marlice is on speaking terms with all the animals, calling out with high pitch and high spirits.  She grabs the baby baboons and swings them around in the air, just the way she had swung her own son earlier at the pre-school.  It's such a cliche, but she really is a force of nature.  And multi-faceted.  When I asked who was behind the design of the Lodge and guest villas, she said she was.  They are quite lovely.   Here's the dining room

And here are pics of a guest villa

Very unusual, natural and modern.

And, oh, the interactions with the animals.  I think that merits another post. . .  Coming soon.

No comments: