Last week, REI donated a container load of gear, valued at around $100K, to outfit Namibia’s Game Guards. Five hundred men tasked by their communities to keep track of Namibia’s rhinos, elephants, lions and other big game will now have REI sleeping bags, backpacks, Black Diamond headlamps, Gerber knives, Smartwool socks, Columbia sun hats and lip balm and tee shirts and water bottles thanks to REI.
Poaching is a massive problem in southern Africa. And Namibia has the lowest incidence of poaching in the region. That’s because the Namibia people are invested in keeping wildlife alive. Since its independence in 1990, Namibia has become the most successful example of community-based tourism and the most successful example of big game recovery in the world. Zebra, lion, elephants and rhinos are back from the brink of extinction, and Namibia has some of the lowest incidence of poaching of any of the countries that are home to the “Big Five,” elephant, buffalo, leopard, lion and rhino. Namibia now has the largest free-roaming population of black rhino, an expanding population of lions, and the biggest cheetah population in the world. Elephants are recovering and enlarging their range, while migration routes for many animals are being re-established. It is the only African country where wildlife truly roams free.
That’s because when Namibia gained independence in 1990, the government gave the country’s big game resources to the people along with the training and incentives for the people to manage those resources for tourism. World Wildlife Fund stepped in to provide the equivalent of grassroots business degrees to any interested villager, and to help communities hammer out the details and learn the business of tourism. Namibian communities set up safari lodges, and conservancies country wide that directly benefit the community. Proceeds pay for community infrastructure, schools, and training. Now, twenty-three years after independence, Namibia has 49 Namibian-owned joint venture lodges. In 1998, there were four conservancies registered in Namibia. Now there are 69 conservancies throughout Namibia, 19% of the country, including one conservancy that is part of a five-country park. And Namibia’s most wanted native poacher became a leader of the country’s 500 game guards. The game guards are at the heart of Namibia’s wildlife recovery success.
It’s these game guards that caught REI’s attention. They rotate through 25-day cycles in the bush tracking and monitoring animals, curtailing poaching however they can with little more than the clothes on their backs.
The Namibia Game Guards project is not the first time REI has made a big gear donation in a country where they host adventures. The company has invested in green energy projects in Nepal, has worked with the Nature Conservancy on reforestation efforts in North America, and runs voluntourism trips to Machu Picchu, Yosemite and other locations. But this donation is making REI rethink how they support the triple crown of community, environment and tourism.
“The stories we heard on the ground in Namibia reinforced over and over that tourism can change local people’s lives for the better,” said Cynthia Dunbar, General Manager of REI Adventures. “And it can help sustain cultures. The stories that I heard in Namibia personally and professionally inspired me to get involved, to get REI involved.”
If Namibia isn’t on your travel life list, add it. Not only is it a top destination for safari, but for active adventures including kite surfing and wind surfing—world speed records for sailing, kite surfing and wind surfing were all set in Namibia—with growing opportunities for climbing, hiking and road, touring and mountain biking. It’s safe, friendly, and easy to travel, whether you rent a car and “self drive” or hire a guide. People are friendly and helpful, and there is nothing like sleeping in a car roof-mounted tent, and feeling an elephant brush by in the middle of the night.