By Helge Denker
After two weeks of intense activity in the Waterberg Plateau Park, the game capture team of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism has just completed another logistical feat.
In an extremely well-managed operation, over 100 wild animals were tranquilised and transported into holding bomas in the park.
MET's head of central parks Manie le Roux oversaw the operation and breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the capture. Targets had been achieved with minimal negative impact.
Waterberg is a conservation haven, a veritable ark. It is a large, classic inselberg jutting out of the vast, flat bushland of the Otjozondjupa region (inselberg comes from the German Insel for island and Berg for mountain).
As is typical for an island, the mountain supports unique fauna and flora that is not found in the surrounding sea of bushland. Amongst its most valuable game species are sable, roan and tsessebe antelope - and a substantial population of disease-free buffalo.
Capture operations of this scale are a financial and logistical burden and a great strain on the key people of the capture team, especially the MET veterinarians and the aircraft pilots.
At dawn, while most of the team stands in the chilly morning air waiting for action, targeted animals are located from a spotter plane. Once suitable individuals are found, a helicopter zeroes in on their location.
As the pilot manoeuvers above the fleeing animals, at times flying below treetop level, Mark Jago leans out of the chopper to shoot a tranquilising dart into the hindquarters of the target. Guided by the circling helicopter, the ground team quickly moves in with a Land Cruiser.
Carl-Heinz Moeller is in charge of the animal on the ground, assisted by a group of experienced MET staff. The Cruiser soon transports the tranquilised animal back to the nearest access track, where it is transferred onto a waiting truck and injected with an antidote.
The entire action, intense and efficient, is over within a few minutes, followed by a wait for the next suitable animal to be found. The lull gives the vets a chance to monitor the condition of the captured animals, and to prepare new darts and drug doses.
The Waterberg buffalo population is the only one found south of the Namibian 'Red Line'. All other buffalos were eradicated long ago from commercial farmland in the country.
The game-proof cordon fence, stretching across the breadth of northern Namibia, keep buffalos - as well as all other wildlife and livestock - out of the commercial farming areas of central Namibia. Buffalos are potential carriers of four serious diseases that may be transferred to livestock (foot-and-mouth, brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis and corridor disease), and are thus seen as a threat to the livestock industry.
Although private game reserves and hunting operators have for years attempted to legalise disease-free buffalo introductions on their land, hoping to re-establish former large mammal diversity and improve their tourism and hunting products, the cordon has remained closed.
The Waterberg buffalo population is certified disease-free, but not even these animals are allowed on private farmland in Namibia. The stringent controls are stipulated at least in part by European Union beef import regulations, to ensure that only 'clean beef' is imported into Europe.
In South Africa, things are different. While the country also has a 'Red Line' that encompasses the Kruger National Park and parts of the extreme east and north, disease-free buffalo populations can be re-established on private land in most other areas, in compliance with a variety of veterinary regulations.
A lucrative wildlife industry has been reintroducing the animals onto nature reserves, game and hunting farms in different parts of the country for almost two decades. This has vastly improved the economic viability of wildlife as a land use. Buffalo have great value as tourism attractions and hunting trophies, and as breeding stock for live sale to other areas. They are now found again in many parts of their former range across South Africa.
In Namibia, the isolated Waterberg buffalo herds occur in productive habitat without lion or spotted hyaena, the two main predators of the large bovines. Under these ideal conditions, the population grows rapidly. This means that buffalo can and must be harvested at intervals to maintain a balance for all wildlife in the park. Live capture and sale to South African buyers is currently the best way to maintain population numbers. The high prices paid by international clients justify the costly exercise.
Conservation must pay for itself. A capture operation must not only cover its costs, but should also generate additional returns that help fund other conservation activities and make wildlife a viable land use in a world with increasing pressure on all land - including national parks. Wildlife harvesting is a sensible option amongst a number of financing mechanisms, which also include controlled tourism and legal hunting. The cost of the capture, estimated to be more than one million Namibia dollars, as well as the value of the darted animals, puts incredible pressure on the capture team to maximise efficiency and minimise costs.
The ministry captured both buffalo and a small number of sable over the last two weeks. Sable antelopes are also extremely sought after, here in Namibia as well as in South Africa. All animals will be sold at auctions in a few weeks' time, once all veterinary checks have been completed.
They are in excellent condition and should fetch high prices. Sable have been sold for well over half a million Namibia dollars per animal here in Namibia, and disease-free buffalos are likely to fetch similar prices. Importantly, all profits will flow directly back into conservation via the Game Products Trust Fund - which is funding a range of activities, including anti-poaching initiatives. The Waterberg capture is another example of Namibia's proven conservation model, based on the active use of indigenous natural resources to generate funds that ensure their ongoing protection.