Emilia Haimbili: First field assistant of the Oryx Project.
I was very fortunate to have gotten a rare opportunity to become a field assistant and therefore become involved in the Oryx Project. When I first heard of it, the word Oryx stood out for me. I knew at once that it had something to do with Oryx. However when I was informed that it was taking place in Damaraland and the main focus of understanding survival in desert environments, I became interested right away. I was not only stirred to try out something absolutely new but the love for travelling and exploring different places also explained why I was so eager to get this position.
I was warned beforehand of the pressure behind the work and so I knew what I was getting myself into. I was more than ready to do it. I was prepared emotionally, physically and mentally to devote myself to it and do everything to the best of my abilities. I was excited mostly because I was going to learn something different. So my expectations were high as soon as I heard we were going to work with the people of the Torra community-based Conservancy in Damaraland. I was first expecting to know the depth of the project, its main objectives and wanted to fully understand every scientific aspect and significance of it. To me, it was also a mean to boast my field skills and experiences. I also expected to acquire knowledge of the livelihoods of the Damara people and to get to know their indigenous knowledge. Socially I wished to improve my personality as it meant I was going to work with people, as a team.
I am very glad that all my expectations, and even more, were met. I fully understood the objectives of the Oryx Project. We aim to understand how two large herbivores (springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) and oryx (Oryx g. gazella)) are able to coexist in a dry hot ecosystem; how these two ungulates, that differs in many aspects of their morphologies and behaviours, select their resources and habitats. In a way, the significance of this project came naturally to me: the knowledge gather on the feeding and spatial ecology of these two species, which are used in a sustainable effort by the community, would help to better manage them and thus contribute to their conservation. This opportunity has truly altered my perspective towards nature itself and the way I now perceive community involvement in managing natural resources.
Upon arriving in Damaraland, I was fascinated by so much beauty. Damaraland is the most astounding place I have ever seen in my life. A world completely different to mine, were people live in sync with nature and a world where time is not a constraint. The view was captivating as I gazed through the car window. I was completely overtaken by the moment. I have never seen so much beauty in my life. The mountains stand still in perfect view, the birds singing quietly and beautifully in the most amazing undisturbed ecosystem. Just being there in Damaraland I was inspired to dream. It brought my soul into perfect harmony.
The people there are the kindest, most amazing. Though they are from a culture significantly different to mine, I could almost relate to them. They live as though they do not have due dates and their simplicity impressed me. They seemed to know just how to be them. However the most profound thing I learned as a field assistant was the hard, continuous and exemplary training I received from my supervisor David Lehmann, the Oryx Project manager, a French PhD student working for the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research of Berlin in Germany, where the project came first to life. He presented it to me in both theory and in practice. It was easy for me to work with him as he has the most amazing personality, a people´s person, down to earth and result oriented individual. He presents everything in simplicity and I learned everything I had to do from him. It was exciting to work with him as his seriousness was contagious. Under his impulsion, I actually discovered that I was able to push myself very far, without having the feeling of tiredness, as adrenalin and extreme concentration were shooting both body and brain during our enormous daily work load. Despite his deep professionalism, he was also able to entertain us with his adventurous stories, that were mainly taking place into the wild or, but rarely, at some watering points, such as pub.
I learned how to take accurate and methodical measurements, which was one thing he really emphasized, always stating the vitality of it. I learned how to work under pressure as I took measurements of different attributes of both oryx and springbok such as length of horns, forelegs, hindlegs, neck, body etc... We also collected samples of blood, muscle, skin, faeces, hair and many others from every individual for stable isotope analyses that tells us about the diet and migration patterns of animals. Through the scientific papers that David “ordered” me to read, I learned how parasitism communities affect, and can even become a selective pressure, wildlife populations. I do now believe that parasitism acts in synergy with ecological and environmental constraints, as well as with competition and predation, upon the welfare and survival of free-ranging animal populations.
I was also glad to witness as the animals were being skinned by the local community people, some of which were of great help to me. Though there was a language barrier as most of them were Damara and could speak Afrikaans, I being an Oshiwambo and could hardly speaks both, nevertheless people could still communicate. I was also impressed by their involvement in the welfare of their community and how they were distributing the meat equally among themselves.
By speaking with Erick Gewers, a community Game guard, I came to learn and understand how the Torra conservancy has improved the livelihood of the Damaraland people and how it has now become their lifestyle. I was impressed by his undeniable knowledge of conservation and wildlife management. He knows Damaraland in its entire dimension and upon learning about his responsibilities as a game guard which include patrolling and recording the number of games, I was truly inspired by his ideals. He shared with me his knowledge of the plants and animal in Damaraland and his deep passion for nature, how he spent most of his time in the field apart from working just taking long walks and admiring everything around him. His interest in the oryx project as well as his deep friendship with my supervisor David Lehmann was hard to believe. I was amazed how someone of his calibre fits in so well, so intelligent and open minded.
I personalised everything as though it was my project and so I began to really be interested in the project. Being in Damaraland was a once off experience. Everything I got to learn there is something that nobody will ever take away from me, something that will always remain with me; the training, the skill and the knowledge. I was also inspired to consider doing something similar in the future. I now believe you will never know how far you can go until you stretch your self out of your comfort zone. I was exposed to something new, exciting and worth doing and thus my opinion about being a researcher was altered. Being a researcher is not as bad as I thought. I actually think it is the most interesting thing that one can ever become.
On the day of departure, I felt like I was being separated from myself. I got to fall in love with Damaraland so much that it was really difficult for me to say goodbye. I knew beyond fact that I was going to really miss it, but who knows, I might just get an opportunity to go there again and if I do, I will make sure to grab that opportunity and use it to the best of my abilities.
Erick Gewers: Torra conservancy community game guard.
Interviewed by Emilia Haimbili.
How long have you been working for the Torra conservancy?
I have been working for the conservancy for four years now.
What is your position and what are your responsibilities?
I am a community game guard and I am responsible for recording of figures of game roaming around the community, road and field patrol and therefore make sure there is no poaching taking place.
Do you love your job?
Uhm, I love my job with a passion. Separating me from my job is like removing roots from a tree. My job is my life and it is because I have come to realize the prominent role I and other game guards’ plays in our community.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I mostly enjoy rhino tracking, I find it really fun and interesting and rhinos are the most well-mannered beautiful animals.
How was it in Damaraland before the conservancy was introduced?
Before the conservancy was introduced, poaching was intense, there was no rule, no form of order in the community, though attempt was made to prevent poaching by MET, it was not effective as people still continued poaching.
How the situation is now after the conservancy is introduced?
There is a tremendous improvement and great deal of awareness in terms of conservation. People are not only aware of the importance of conservation but they also understand the concept of a conservancy and the benefits they derive from managing wildlife.
Do you find your work very easy?
The fact that I really love my job makes it easy for me, otherwise the community is a real challenge for me as working with people is not always easy and some do not appreciate my work.
How did you get to work for the conservancy?
It’s funny because I grew up in the environment where poaching was our daily activity, however I was never at peace with it, so to avoid becoming a poacher too, I went job hunting to the city and spent a certain period there, upon returning in the year 2000, I found the concept of conservancy newly introduced in the community and I was eager to know what it was really about. So I read the constitution and was inspired by the idea of conservation and understanding the fact that every species has a role in the ecosystem. I didn’t have to think twice, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do.
What have you learned from your job?
I have come to learn and understand the behaviours of the wildlife species in our community which is really helpful for me as I now know how to approach them. I have developed skills of effective patrolling through the area and I am everyday learning more about conservation.
You were born and raised in Damaraland, what is so fascinating about Damaraland?
One thing you will notice for the first time as you visit Damaraland is the scenery. It has the most beautiful mountain views, cliffs and vegetation structure. It has so much open space and games to view and thus ranked as a tourist attraction. Being in Damaraland is being in a peaceful environment, less pollution, no off-road driving and fewer disturbances.
Why are you so interested in the Oryx Project?
When I was introduced to David, the project manager, it was amazing how we got along so well and even became friends as I was the first person he was referred to when he came to the area. When he explained the significance of the project to me and mentioned that it will help us as a community in our conservation effort when we understand the ecology of our own wildlife. I knew it was just what we needed. So I became interested.
In your opinions, why do you think David gets along so well with the people and why is he so deeply accepted in the community?
First of all our friendship created the platform for people to know him as they saw him with me and since I am well known in the area, David being my friend was also accepted that way. However it was his good personality that did the miracle. The respect he shows to people and his generosity. He was involved in the community activities which was really what paved the way for him. That way he managed to win the people and now they trust him and regard him as a member of the community.