Eco-tourism - the future of Conservation

AUTHOR: Kina Indongo Communications Specialist @ RDJ Publishing

Around the world natural environments are shifting, shrinking and even disappearing entirely. Additionally, wildlife are experiencingnew and intensified threats to their natural habitats. Is Eco-tourism the Future of Conservation? RDJ Publishing explores the Okonjima Nature Reserve’s eco-tourism as a shining light of conservation. Eco- tourism is defined as responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education. The formation of the Okonjima Nature Reserve was only possible as the result of tourism. Unlike other private reserves, 80% of investment into the Okonjima Nature Reserve has come from Okonjima Lodges rather than external investors. As such, Okonjima is an example of how tourism can contribute to conservation and, as the tourists are coming to experience the Reserve, howconservation is supporting tourism. The AfriCat Foundation and the Okonjima guides facilitate that link; research coordinated by the Foundation, including data collection by the guides, improves the management of the Reserve and provides information to share with the tourists, via the guides. Thanks to the information and analysis generated by AfriCat, Okonjima guides are able to tell the unique life stories of the animals in the Reserve. “Okonjima guests are not just looking at an animal in a tree. Our guides here see the animals on a daily basis and recognize them as individuals. They are able to inform the guests about what we are learning from our research to give our visitors a better understanding of conservation.” Ms. Codling. To complete the cycle, the majority of AfriCat funding comes from Okonjima guests either through direct donations or via fees for Okonjima trails and activities in the Reserve. As the CEO of Okonjima, Mr. Hanssen has been able to compare the economics of a variety of land uses.

Assuming an average farm size of 5,000 hectares, he quotes figures that he compiled some years ago – average turnover of a cattle farm, cattle & hunting farm, specialist hunting farm and guest farm was $300, $750, $1750 and$3,000/hectare respectively. Additionally, the number of employees was greater for each type of land use and the turnover of guest farms can be significantly greater because the number of guests is almost unlimited. Of course, investment is needed in guest farms in terms of building the lodge and creating an ‘activity’ for guests to do. Okonjima’s experience is that tourism is the most lucrative form of land use and has the advantage of utilising wildlife, and indeed the environment, non-consumptively, so directly contributing to its conservation.


The Okonjima/AfriCat story is one of learning and change; both have grown and developed symbiotically, learnt from experience and responded to change and new opportunities. Plans for the future therefore include learning from the ravages of Covid and mitigating climate change. Experts estimate that as a result of climate change, the mean annual temperature in Namibia will increase 2.7 degrees Celsius in the next two decades, and that annual precipitation will decrease by 7%. This would cause more frequent and longer droughts, more heat waves, and even increased flooding as rain patterns change in some parts of the country. Mr. Hanssen feels Okonjima may already be seeing these impacts; he has lived on Okonjima for more than 50 years but the driest and the wettest years have both occurred in the last five years. It then becomes more imperative that wildlife and habitat protection includes climate mitigation and adaptation. Climate solutions must promote conservation, while conservation efforts must work to counter climate change. “What we know for sure is entering into a new era in our climate and it’s up to us to act now to build resilience so we can better handle floods and dry periods.” Mr. Hanssen. At the same time, the collapse of tourism as a result of Covid highlighted the need for contingency planning. Mr. Hanssen’s strategy is to improve operational efficiency, build up a nest egg and enable Okonjima to be self-reliant. Lodge operations have already been more efficient; while pre-Covid Okonjima required 62% occupancy to breakeven, it now requires only 40%. This greater profitability enables a nest egg to be built up. All homes and operations are switching over to solar to be self-reliant on power and Okonjima’s vegetable garden is being redesigned to enhance food self-reliance. There are also plans to further develop the Reserve including, land improvement through debushing and use of the cut bush for the production of charcoal for local use, and production of biochar and wood vinegar to plough back into the soil to replenish nutrients. Dams and water sources will be beautified, road design is being adapted to reduce run-off and fire-breaks are being expanded for climate change mitigation. The ultimate objective is to ensure the long-term protection of the Okonjima Nature Reserve, including its contribution to conservation, and as the home of Okonjima Lodges, the AfriCat Foundation and the Hanssen family. Mr. Hanssen urges visitors of the Okonjima Game Reserve “To find the time to be still in the natural environment and feel the pulse of nature and take that feeling and spread the importance of that feeling of that natural pulse to everyone you know. There is an Indian saying that ‘when all the animals die all the humans will die from a loneliness of spirit.” -Mr. Hanssen