The battle to save Namibia's coastline

The Namibian Dolphin Project is a research and conservation project working in Walvis Bay and Lüderitz. With unemployment high and industrialisation increasingly likely, the race is on to save Namibia's coastlines.

By Susan Miller

Namibia is home to some of the world's most beautiful and wildest coastlines. But they are under pressure. While coastal tourism and the fishing industry are vital to Namib, persistent structural unemployment (as a result of South Africa's 75-year-long occupation from 1915 to 1990) is a major issue and jobs need to be created.

One project, approved in principle by government, is Gecko Group's Vision Industrial Park, described as a 'once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity' for Namibia. The economic and political pressures for such projects are considerable.

I recently spoke to Simon Elwen, the Principal Investigator of the Namibian Dolphin Project, a research and conservation project in Walvis Bay and Luderitz, about his work and the battle to balance the need for jobs against the need to protect a sensitive coastal ecology.

Founded by Simon (and Ruth Leeney) in 2008, the Namibian Dolphin Project's core focus is carrying out research on coastal dolphins and whales in Namibian waters.

When did the project start?
Dr Ruth Leeney and I ran the first pilot study in Walvis Bay in the winter of 2008.

How is it linked to the University of Pretoria (UP)?
I secured a post-doctoral fellowship at UP and managed to upgrade that to a Research Fellowship, investigating the conservation ecology of coastal dolphins in Southern Africa with my main focus being on the Benguela ecosystem on the west coast. Dr Tess Gridley who runs our acoustic research and is leading our surveys of the Namibian Islands Marine Protected has been awarded a Vice-Chancellors post-doctoral fellowship through UP as well. UP pays the two of us to run this research, but our research funding is from small conservation-oriented grants and through our internship programme, which we run through Oceans Research during our core field seasons.

How did you get involved?
When I initially thought of this project I was doing fieldwork on bottlenose dolphins on the west coast of Scotland. I missed working in Africa and realised if I came back there was potential for me to start my own research project and make a difference in collecting valuable data. After five years I feel that I've made significant progress.

How important are conservation issues in Namibia?
Very. Namibia is a conservation- and tourism-focused country and won the prestigious 2012 Markhor Award for Outstanding Conservation Performance.
A huge amount of its land (and almost the entire coastline) is protected as nature reserves or conservancies. However, there is vast unemployment and job creation through industrialisation is seen as one of the elixirs that will solve this. Obviously there is a great potential for conflict between these two approaches.

What's new in this conflict?
One very contentious example is the recent announcement that a massive highly industrialised complex is being planned, just north of Swakopmund, in the middle of the Dorob National Park. Another big issue is the proposed mining (dredging) of phosphates off the seabed here.

Are there ways mining and conservation can complement each other?
It is very difficult as the goals of mining and conservation are entirely different. Some mining companies provide money to conservation efforts (E.g. Foundation Total, the Rossing Foundation), and sometimes areas around mines end up being wildlife havens, such as the Sperregebiet protected diamond mining area in southern Namibia. In the last few years there has been an oil boom off Namibia with exploration going on. This is mainly done through seismic surveys, which involve loud 'bangs' and using the echoes to map the geology below the seabed. Loud sounds can have quite drastic effects on marine mammals.

What are your hopes for the project?
We're trying to consolidate our findings, catch up with the backlog of data and publish more to get ourselves on the international research map. We now have a five-year data series from Walvis Bay which allows us to start looking at long-term patterns in dolphin behaviour, but it takes a lot of effort to maintain and we have to find the balance between building on what we've got so far and starting new projects, such as our work in offshore waters and budding work with turtles in Namibia.

What are some of the most amazing memories you have of working with the dolphins and whales?
To be honest, you often get so distracted making sure you have the photo or recording that you forget to just stop and enjoy it. I value taking people out to sea for the first time and being reminded how impressively large a whale really is.

The population of Bottlenose Dolphins is decreasing rapidly, what can be done to increase their numbers?
Remove whatever threats are reducing it and hope they do the rest themselves. As very coastal animals they come into close contact with many human activities. This population of common bottlenose dolphins numbers about 100 individuals and is unique along the coast of Namibia and South Africa. If they are driven extinct they will be gone. Two major issues in conservation that are of relevance here are 1) the tragedy of the commons - no one will take responsibility for a 'common resource' and 2) a need to recognise that human threats do not act in isolation, but are cumulative.

Given that man is their biggest predator is it not surprising that many of the dolphins still seem so friendly?
Our work in Namibia has shown a decrease in the number of bottlenose dolphins using Walvis Bay, mostly the mothers with calves which tend to hang out together, while with Heaviside's dolphins we have picked up a pattern of boat avoidance in the more marked/scarred animals, which are presumably older, suggesting that their behaviour may modify.

What is your take on southern Africa's conservation efforts?
There is a large and passionate community of scientists, conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts working the area and I just hope that our combined voices manage to balance the very loud voice of 'development'.

Are there regional efforts?
There are many regional and international collaborations in our field.

What kind of co-operation is there between South Africa and Namibia?
I'm personally involved in data collection in SA as part of the work we're doing in Namibia (it's all one ecosystem) and I have students working in Mossel Bay and Gansbaai.

What can people do to safeguard dolphins and whales in their waters?
Get involved! Go to talks, learn, volunteer, and most importantly play an active role in the environmental impact assessment process.


Image: Getty

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