Namibia's enthralling desert landscapes may exude an unmerciful harshness, but they are rich in wildlife and now shelter growing or stable populations of Africa's most iconic safari species. Given numbers of these vulnerable or endangered animals – elephants, cheetahs, black and white rhinoceros and lions – are plummeting elsewhere on the continent, this is an even greater achievement.
Conservation is ingrained in Namibia, so much so that it was the first country on the continent (and one of a few in the world) to include protection of its environment within its constitution. The country has also ensured local and indigenous communities receive an equitable distribution of the tourism proceeds relating to wildlife, and in doing so it has empowered them to contribute to conservation efforts. This has resulted in almost an eighth of Namibians taking part, and registered conservancies now cover more than 18% of the country. An additional 19% of Namibia's landmass is also protected within national parks and reserves.
Visitors to this strikingly beautiful country have the chance to spot some of Namibia's most characteristic wildlife and witness the country's innovative conservation measures first hand.
In Namibia's far northwest Kunene region (also known as Kaokoland) black rhinos were almost extinct thirty years ago. Today, Kunene has the largest number of free-roaming black rhino in the world – the only rhino worldwide living on communally and traditionally-owned land without formal conservation status. Namibia created a culture of good human-wildlife interactions by involving communities, employing locals in anti-poaching patrols and generating income from rhino-related tourism. Lodges like Palmwag Lodge and Serra Cafema offer varying degrees of luxury as well as trips to see the desert rhino by vehicle or on guided walks.
Inhabiting the mountains, coastal regions and ephemeral rivers of the Kunene region, notably between the Kunene River and the lower Kuiseb River, are rare desert-adapted lions. As their range is predominantly outside officially protected areas, local communities have been living with these populations for decades and have borne the economic brunt of livestock losses. However, over the past decade the Kunene Lion Project NGO has been successfully reducing the human-lion conflict, increasing tourism income for these communities, and ensuring the species long term survival by studying the lions' movements, densities and demographics. Lions are also a key species in Etosha National Park and it's not uncommon to see them hunting herds of zebra and gemsbok around the park's waterholes.
With its long horns, bay-coloured coat outlined in charcoal and elegant gait, the gemsbok is a striking national symbol. Able to live on little water and partial to wild desert melons, it is ideally suited to Namibia's desert landscapes (the country is 44% desert or semi-desert). Though numbers fell during the Namibian War of Independence (1966 to1988) and throughout the severe droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, the population has since rebounded strongly. There are currently more than 200,000 gemsbok, with the largest proportion living on privately-owned farming land managed for conservation by communities (although it is possible to spot herds almost anywhere outside of Namibia's urban areas). To photograph gemsbok against a spectacular desert dune backdrop, head to the Sossusvlei region of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, in the country's southwest.
The world's fastest land animal thrives in Namibia. The country is estimated to have about a quarter of the world's total cheetah population, the majority of which live on privately-owned land conservancies. Public and private conservation bodies have been working for two decades on rehabilitation and capture-and-release programs, to re-integrate injured animals into the wild and help build populations. One of the best places to spot cheetahs is on the Waterberg Plateau, near Otjiwarongo in Namibia's north. Here cheetah, leopard, buffalo, roan and sable antelope and other endangered species roam in more than 400sqkm of the Waterberg National Park and adjacent private conservation land. Close to the park is the headquarters of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, where you can visit their education centre and get up close to cheetahs that have not reintegrated into the wild.
Desert-adapted elephants roam throughout the Kunene region, digging into seemingly dry riverbeds to extract water from subterranean flows. However, Etosha National Park, the most famous of the country's eleven national parks, is the best place to see them. Covering 22,750 sq km, Etosha encompasses a vast, shallow pan that attracts thousands of flamingos after heavy rains. There is also a network of perennial waterholes that draw large herds of game from the arid savannah grassland and thorn scrub. Etosha is home to 114 mammal species – several of which are rare and endangered – and 380 species of birds. The abundance of elephant at Etosha (about 2300) means sightings here are almost guaranteed; the best place to spot them is at the permanent watering hole close to the Okaukuejo rest camp. The rare black-faced impala is often viewed here too, as are herds of gemsbok, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe and rhino. Some species have become so abundant that Etosha now re-locates animals to other parts of Namibia.
African wild dog
African wild dogs are Namibia's most endangered mammal species. Distinctive for their mottled coats and large ears, these pack-living canines are elusive and fast moving, ranging over an area of up to 3000 sq km, and sometimes moving 50km in one day. The isolated northeast of the country is home to an estimated 300 to 600 wild dogs, but only five percent of that area is protected. Though sparsely populated, this part of Namibia is also home to pastoralists of Namibia's Herero tribe, resulting in negative human-wildlife interaction as the dogs may attack livestock. NGO- and government-run loss mitigation and educational programs are working intensively in this area to protect the wild dog. New communal conservancies in the Otjozondjupa and Omaheke regions on Namibia's north eastern border with Botswana, and also remote Khaudom National Park on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, may become one of the last strongholds of African wild dog – and judging by the success of the country's national park- and community-based conservation efforts, the endangered wild dog may be coming back from the brink – in Namibia at least.
This article was first published in March 2012 and was refreshed in October 2014. Additional research by Matt Phillips