Our first week in Namibia was spent at the Heja Game Lodge, only a handful of kilometers outside of Windhoek and nestled securely below the Bismarck Mountain range in the scrubby plains. We can see wildebeest, ostrich, and other exotic wildlife from the back patio. Right outside the camp gate is the promise of seeing kudu, springbok and more. Many of us have been stepping out of our comfort zones and eating game for our meals. This is an experience unique to Africa, and has not become so easily attainable without struggle. Namibia is a country full of beautiful fauna, but it has not always been this way.
Before Namibia gained its independence in 1990, most wildlife populations vary widely year to year, with no real “owner” to manage or prioritize them. However, since then the Namibian government, and surrounding countries, have made a push toward privately-owned commercial wildlife ranches. Before, there was no real benefit for ranchers to manage wildlife because they had no way to profit from these animals. Now that they have an incentive to take care of them, some ranches have seen much success in the rehabilitation of endangered species, while increasing populations of other animals. This act of private conservation has boosted the wildlife tourism industry, to the point that 20% of all private ranches have a managed wildlife aspect. Also, this movement has boosted wildlife numbers by 80% on private lands in Namibia. Managing wildlife has other benefits for the environment, such as reducing soil erosion, chemicals used for feed products, and allowing feed resources to be allocated elsewhere. Game animals are usually native, so they thrive much better than beef cattle in arid climates with sparse vegetation.
A study on the benefits of wildlife-based ranching found there is a positive correlation between employment and income from ecotourism, primarily driven by the wildlife. Photographers like ourselves come worldwide to see these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat, not behind bars at the zoo. Also, this study found that while most beef is exported, greater than 95% of the deer and antelope meat harvested in Namibia is retained within the country. To Namibians, this means much more food security, especially since game animals thrive here. Another finding was that compared to wildlife reserves such as Etosha, 22-31 times more wildlife live within private ranches.
The Heja Lodge is a private ranch that thrives on tourists’ income and photography lovers who come to see their animals. They provide game drives, horse rides through the ranch, and you can even get married in a beautiful chapel in the middle of Namibian wildlife. Heja Lodge has been an amazing example of the success that private wildlife ranching can bring, and I am so glad I experienced it first-hand.