In Africa we say, "God gave the white man a watch and gave the black man time." (Laughter) I think, how is it possible for a man with so much time to tell his story in 18 minutes? I think it will be quite a challenge for me.
Most African stories these days, they talk about famine, HIV and AIDS, poverty or war. But my story that I would like to share with you today is the one about success. It is about a country in the southwest of Africa called Namibia. Namibia has got 2.1 million people, but it is only twice the size of California.
I come from a region in the remote northwest part of the country. It's called Kunene region. And in the center of Kunene region is the village of Sesfontein. This is where I was born. This is where I'm coming from. Most people that are following the story of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt will know where Namibia is. They love Namibia for its beautiful dunes, that are even taller than the Empire State Building. Wind and time have twisted our landscape into very strange shapes, and these shapes are speckled with wildlife that has become so adapted to this harsh and strange land.
I'm a Himba. You might wonder, why are you wearing these Western clothes? I'm a Himba and Namibian. A Himba is one of the 29 ethnic groups in Namibia. We live a very traditional lifestyle. I grew up herding, looking after our livestock — goats, sheep and cattle. And one day, my father actually took me into the bush. He said, "John, I want you to become a good herder. Boy, if you are looking after our livestock and you see a cheetah eating our goat — cheetah is very nervous — just walk up to it. Walk up to it and smack it on the backside." (Laughter) "And he will let go of the goat and run off." But then he said, "Boy, if you run into a lion, don't move. Don't move. Stand your ground. Puff up and just look it in the eye and it may not want to fight you." (Laughter) But then, he said, "If you see a leopard, boy, you better run like hell." (Laughter) "Imagine you run faster than those goats you are looking after." In this way — (Laughter) In this way, I actually started to learn about nature.
In addition to being an ordinary Namibian and in addition to being a Himba I'm also a trained conservationist. And it is very important if you are in the field to know what to confront and what to run from. I was born in 1971. We lived under apartheid regime. The whites could farm, graze and hunt as they wished, but we black, we were not regarded as responsible to use wildlife. Whenever we tried to hunt, we were called poachers. And as a result, we were fined and locked up in jail.
Between 1966 and 1990, the U.S. and Soviet interests fought for control over my country. And you know, during war time, there are militaries, armies, that are moving around. And the army hunted for valuable rhino horns and tusks. They could sell these things for anything between $5,000 a kilo. During the same year almost every Himba had a rifle. Because it was wartime, the British .303 rifle was just all over the whole country.
Then in the same time, around 1980, we had a very big drought. It killed almost everything that was left. Our livestock was almost at the brink of extinction, protected as well. We were hungry. I remember a night when a hungry leopard went into the house of one of our neighbors and took a sleeping child out of the bed. It's a very sad story. But even today, that memory is still in people's minds. They can pinpoint the exact location where this all happened. And then, in the same year, we almost lost everything. And my father said, "Why don't you just go to school?" And they sent me off to school, just to get busy somewhere there.
And the year I went to school, my father actually got a job with a non-governmental organization called IRDNC, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation. They actually spend a lot of time a year in the communities. They were trusted by the local communities like our leader, Joshua Kangombe. Joshua Kangombe saw what was happening: wildlife disappearing, poaching was skyrocketing, and the situation seemed very hopeless. Death and despair surrounded Joshua and our entire communities.
But then, the people from IRDNC proposed to Joshua: What if we pay people that you trust to look after wildlife? Do you have anybody in your communities, or people, that know the bush very well and that know wildlife very well? The headman said: "Yes. Our poachers." "Eh? The poachers?" "Yes. Our poachers." And that was my father. My father has been a poacher for quite a long time. Instead of shooting poachers dead like they were doing elsewhere in Africa, IRDNC has helped men reclaim their abilities to manage their peoples and their rights to own and manage wildlife. And thus, as people started feeling ownership over wildlife, wildlife numbers started coming back, and that's actually becoming a foundation for conservation in Namibia. With independence, the whole approach of community getting involved was embraced by our new government.
Three things that actually help to build on this foundation: The very first one is honoring of tradition and being open to new ideas. Here is our tradition: At every Himba village, there is a sacred fire. And at this sacred fire, the spirit of our ancestors speak through the headman and advise us where to get water, where to get grazings, and where to go and hunt. And I think this is the best way of regulating ourselves on the environment. And here are the new ideas. Transporting rhinos using helicopters I think is much easier than talking through a spirit that you can't see, isn't it? And these things we were taught by outsiders. We learned these things from outsiders. We needed new boundaries to describe our traditional lands; we needed to learn more things like GPS just to see whether — can GPS really reflect the true reflection of the land or is this just a thing made somewhere in the West? And we then wanted to see whether we can match our ancestral maps with digital maps made somewhere in the world. And through this, we actually started realizing our dreams, and we maintained honoring our traditions but we were still open to new ideas.
The second element is that we wanted to have a life, a better life where we can benefit through many things. Most poachers, like my father, were people from our own community. They were not people from outside. These were our own people. And sometimes, once they were caught, they were treated with respect, brought back into the communities and they were made part of the bigger dreams. The best one, like my father — I'm not campaigning for my father — (Laughter) they were put in charge to stop others from poaching. And when this thing started going on, we started becoming one community, renewing our connection to nature. And that was a very strong thing in Namibia.
The last element that actually helped develop these things was the partnerships. Our government has given legal status over our traditional lands. The other partners that we have got is business communities. Business communities helped bring Namibia onto the world map and they have also helped make wildlife a very valuable land use like any other land uses such as agriculture. And most of my conservation colleagues today that you find in Namibia have been trained through the initiative, through the involvement of World Wildlife Fund in the most up-to-date conservation practices. They have also given funding for two decades to this whole program. And so far, with the support of World Wildlife Fund, we've been able to scale up the very small programs to national programs today. Namibia ... or Sesfontein was no more an isolated village somewhere, hidden away in Namibia. With these assets we are now part of the global village.
Thirty years have passed since my father's first job as a community game guard. It's very unfortunate that he passed away and he cannot see the success as I and my children see it today. When I finished school in 1995, there were only 20 lions in the entire Northwest — in our area. But today, there are more than 130 lions. (Applause) So please, if you go to Namibia, make sure that you stay in the tents. Don't walk out at night!
The black rhino — they were almost extinct in 1982. But today, Kunene has the largest concentration of black rhino — free-roaming black rhinos — in the world. This is outside the protected area.
The leopard — they are now in big numbers but they are now far away from our village, because the natural plain has multiplied, like zebras, springboks and everything. They stay very much far away because this other thing has multiplied from less than a thousand to tens of thousands of animals.
What started as very small, community rangers getting community involved, has now grown into something that we call conservancies. Conservancies are legally instituted institutions by the government, and these are run by the communities themselves, for their benefit. Today, we have got 60 conservancies that manage and protect over 13 million hectares of land in Namibia. We have already reshaped conservation in the entire country. Nowhere else in the world has community-adopted conservation at this scale.
In 2008, conservancy generated 5.7 million dollars. This is our new economy — an economy based on the respect of our natural resources. And we are able to use this money for many things: Very importantly, we put it in education. Secondly, we put it for infrastructure. Food. Very important as well — we invest this money in AIDS and HIV education. You know that Africa is being affected by these viruses. And this is the good news from Africa that we have to shout from the rooftops.
And now, what the world really needs is for you to help me and our partners take some of what we have learned in Namibia to other places with similar problems: places like Mongolia, or even in your own backyards, the Northern Great Plains, where buffalo and other animals have suffered and many communities are in decline. I like that one: Namibia serving as a model to Africa, and Africa serving as a model to the United States. (Applause) We were successful in Namibia because we dreamed of a future that was much more than just a healthy wildlife. We knew conservation would fail if it doesn't work to improve the lives of the local communities. So, come and talk to me about Namibia, and better yet, come to Namibia and see for yourself how we have done it. And please, do visit our website to learn more and see how you can help CBNRM in Africa and across the world. Thank you very much.