Grand ideas for a greener world

Environmentalism is often an expendable cause to a majority that fears economic oppression by a minority with delusions of saving the earth. But we need not take sides. From corporations striving to harness massive wind power along the Atlantic Coast, to the Herculean trash collectors of the Pacific; from a cross-country initiative to save the vibrant Mekong river basin, to modern China embarking on another, greener Great Wall, five exciting and ambitious projects show how all of us have an incentive to shape the future rather than fight it
Bioscope
DUST IN THE WIND: China has had various afforestation drives since the mid-1970s, largely in an effort to beat back the menace  of Gobi Desert dust (Photo: GETTY)
RELIEF AND RESCUE: China has persisted with its seeding missions, though they have produced unexpected—even counterproductive—results (Photo: REUTERS)
WITHERING LIFELINE: The Mekong has been at its lowest levelin decades, making things increasingly difficult for fishermen and farmers living along the river (Photo: GETTY)
Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an ocean-current-formed vortex that collects trash generated by humans (Photo: AP)
Dried up banks of the Mekong river in Thailand (Photo: GETTY)

JOLLY GREEN DRAGON

Aiming for 42 per cent forest cover by 2050, China tries to go green without sacrificing economic growth

Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall of China is not visible from space. Neil Armstrong could not spot the 7,200-km-long man-made wonder even from a lower orbit. Unfazed, the Chinese started on an even greater wall within a decade of the lunar conquest. Scheduled for completion by 2050, China’s Three-North Shelterbelt Development Program or the ‘Great Green Wall’ may well be noticeable from the moon. After all, it aims to regenerate nearly 90,000 sq km of forest (about the size of Bihar).

While the Chinese have always had a thing for projects of extraordinary scale, what prompted the massive greening initiative were the frequent and blinding sandstorms from the north. Thanks to rampant deforestation, done to boost industry and agriculture in Mao’s China after World War II, the Gobi desert was advancing menacingly, blowing dust as far as Seoul.

Pollution is not a recent phenomenon in China. Its ‘yellow river’ turned yellow some two millennia ago, when its banks were denuded of trees and soil erosion started muddying its water. Some studies claim that desertification in northwest China dates back 2.6 million years. By the 1970s, the Gobi had become a threat in need of an urgent response. The dust—dubbed ‘the yellow dragon’—was taking over more than 1,500 sq km of grassland every year, suffocating life, threatening agriculture and sweeping through Beijing and other major cities. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, China tried to undo the damage by creating 4,500 km of green walls in the northwest, north and northeast—hence the name ‘Three-North’.

Now roughly midway, the world’s largest ever eco- logical restoration project has been turning heads.

According to a 2011 UN report, State of the World’s Forests, China increased its forest cover by 20,000 sq km per year in the 1990s and has achieved an average of 30,000 sq km per year since 2000. In contrast, India recorded an annual rate of just 3,000 sq km in that period. The report lauds China’s plan to reforest 50,000 sq km (an area the size of Punjab) by 2020, noting that it may hit this target five years ahead of time.

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Unlike India, which has kept its land-to-forest ratio constant on paper since Independence by camouflaging its rapid loss of ancient forests with tea or coffee estates and even the proliferation of exotic weeds, China has always focused plainly on plantation drives.

China has, of course, had setbacks. Its attempt during the 1980s and 1990s to regain lost green cover by sowing a million seedlings and scattering a billion exotic seeds from the sky backfired. The fast-growing exotic trees that could rapidly strike root and form canopies flourished as long they could tap water stored deep under the soil in semi-arid regions that were used to supporting grassland. But once the soil moisture was exhausted, they quickly died and nearly 85 per cent of the plantation effort failed. The result was a double whammy. By the time the exotics eventually died, they had already wiped out the shallow-rooting undergrowth, having deprived it of sun and water. The soil was further exposed to erosion, and the yellow dragon blew with even more fury. Aquifer levels, too, fell drastically in many areas.

Meanwhile, China’s much-touted eco-compensation programme—the Conversion of Croplands to Forests and Grasslands—converted nearly 15,000 sq km of sloping cropland to forests to prevent soil erosion that clogged the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. Under that scheme, the State compensated farmers who switched to an alternative livelihood and allowed forest plantation or natural vegetation on their land, with money and rice.

In 2009, anxiety over food security tempted China to suspend the project. Lu Xinshe, deputy minister of land and resources, told Reuters that the country was struggling to maintain its 120,000 sq km ‘red line’, considered the least area needed for food self-sufficiency, and had no plans for a large-scale project to return farmland to its natural state. But the programme, sponsored by the World Bank, survived—partially because the Chinese leadership did not want to risk its fast-depleting water table any further. Besides, China needed plantations for timber, imports of which have tripled in the past decade.

Such monocultural thrusts to boost local industries (paper and rubber are other examples) have compounded the problem created by the promotion of exotic species. While single-species plantations do store carbon and serve as wind-breakers, they do little for ecological security or biodiversity conservation. The obvious way to counter such ‘green deserts’ was to go native.

Thankfully, a number of Chinese experts flagged the issue, seeking a course correction. Some, such as ecologist Jiang Gaoming of Chinese Institute of Science, claimed that degraded ecosystems could recover if their abuse were simply stopped. In Inner Mongolia’s Hunshandake sandyland, Gaoming’s research showed that grasslands restored themselves in as little as two years.

In southwest China, Conservation International and China’s Center for Nature and Society have together restored 12,000 acres using native species in a 259,000-sq- km landscape that hosts a range of ecosystems—from coniferous and broadleaf forests, to grasslands, wetlands and bamboo groves. Even China’s government seems to have learnt its lessons. The State Forestry Administration is collaborating with Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) on several projects aimed at restoring native species. One of the projects in a giant panda habitat in Sichuan province seeks to reforest more than 10,000 acres of degraded forestland with China cedar and local varieties of fir, spruce and poplar, among others.

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There have been major landmarks along the way. The world’s first greening project registered under the Clean Development Mechanism of UNFCCC, the Pearl river basin initiative revived 3,000 hectares with mostly native species in the Guangxi region and became China’s first reforestation project to earn carbon credits. Similarly, communities in Tengchong of Yunnan Province are earning handsome sums for looking after depleted forests since their reforestation project became the world’s first to meet the Climate, Community and Biodiversity gold standard. But even after increasing its forest cover from 12 to 18 per cent in just two decades, China’s per capita forest area of 0.12 hectare still ranks very low globally.

For a country that seems to believe in miracles, China’s next big test is to revive its many threatened species in the natural forests it has regenerated. The world is watching.

OCEAN OF OPPORTUNITY

A 560-km transmission line under the Atlantic seabed to bring home 7,000 megawatts of offshore wind power

Imagine generating enough power from the high wind blowing over the sea to meet the demands of both Mumbai and Bangalore. And laying a transmission line under the seabed long enough to cover the distance between Delhi and Manali. That is the scale of the Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC) project, which hopes to harness Atlantic winds for the US.

On paper, wind has always been a dream solution to our clean energy needs. Once installed, wind turbines generate power free. Yes, those giant contraptions are noisy, their blades are known to kill birds and bats, and a horizon dotted by rows of crowned towers can be an eyesore, but most environmentalists are sold on wind power in the era of climate change because wind energy is an option with no greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, for many, it’s a pipedream. Critics of wind power say that windmills take up too much real estate to turn out too little power, that there just isn’t enough land available for it to make a real difference. Their bigger objection, however, has to do with the fickle nature of the resource itself. Wind, they argue, is too unreliable a solution to the global energy crisis. It is true that wind does not blow—or blow hard enough—all the time. And it is usually strongest at night when demand for power typically ebbs. Its unpredictability means that a windmill farm operates at an average 35 per cent of its capacity, against 80 per cent for a coal-fired or 50 per cent for a hydel plant. So a grid that uses wind power requires back-up that must come from fossil fuel-based plants.

All these are valid objections. But wind power has attracted interest and investment ever since 1887, when James Blyth, a maths professor, designed and built a wind turbine that lit up his Glasgow home. In the 1970s, even NASA started exploring the commercial potential of wind energy. Then, in 1991, the world’s first offshore wind turbine came up in Denmark and promised to answer the difficult questions often asked of wind power.

Offshore turbines have caught on in recent years. Not only is wind velocity across an open ocean much higher, offshore plants also relieve the pressure on real estate onshore. Offshore wind is usually more grid-friendly as well, picking up in the afternoon when demand for power starts to peak. It is also more consistent and helps an offshore turbine achieve 40 per cent or more of its capacity; Norway’s Hywind demo project has achieved 50 per cent.

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Wind has the disadvantage of not being a transferable source, unlike fossil fuel. Nor is it storable, like dam water. Still, a well-designed project can overcome those handicaps. Studies show that if three offshore wind sites are connected, only 2 per cent of the time would they have no power to offer at all—a baseline reliability figure thrice as high as that for fossil fuel plants.

Around 5,000 MW of offshore capacity has already been installed across the world, mainly in north Europe. While this is still only around 2 per cent of the installed capacity of wind power, a 2012 study by University of Delaware and Stanford University has estimated the global potential for offshore wind power, with 4 million turbines, as 7.5 TW (1 terawatt = 1 million megawatt), which would be over half the world’s demand in 2030.

In Asia, China, Japan and Korea have invested heavily in offshore projects. But much of the action is on the other side of the Pacific. In 2008, the US Department of Energy (DOE) released a roadmap for achieving 54 GW (1 gigawatt = 1,000 MW), a fifth of its electric energy supply, from wind by 2030. President Barack Obama has been keen on clean energy, and this has boosted US efforts. In 2010, the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that the US could generate over 4,150 GW of power offshore, more than four times what it had managed so far. This suits the US because offshore wind power is closer to its major electric load centres: 28 of its coastal states use more than 79 per cent of the nation’s electricity.

Last year has been the most ambitious so far, with wind energy generation in the US growing by a record 17 per cent, backed by $25 billion in private investment. A number of offshore projects are coming up in Massachussetts, Rhode Island, Maryland and Virginia, and even along the Pacific coast, where much deeper waters pose a critical technological challenge, for which floating foundations are being shipped from Europe.

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These strides notwithstanding, it is the Atlantic coast that could be the Holy Grail here. This swathe alone could produce enough clean electricity to power at least one-third of the entire US or its East Coast from Maine to Florida. To that end, with sponsors such as Google and Japan’s Marubeni Corp, a consortium of companies has set up the ambitious Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC) project.

This January, the AWC selected New Jersey for the first phase of its mega project, which proposes to lay a 560-km-long high-voltage transmission line six feet under the seabed about 20-22 km off America’s east coast, stretching from New Jersey to Virginia. The transmission corridor will only be around 200 feet wide, thus skirting seabed obstacles and environmentally sensitive areas. The first phase is expected to produce 3,000 MW from offshore wind turbines.

If all goes according to plan, by 2026 the AWC will produce 7,000 MW of offshore wind energy for the East Coast, enough for 1.9 million households. That will be a significant leap over the 630 MW of the world’s largest offshore wind farm right now, which is the London Array in the outer Thames estuary.

The future of offshore wind power may be even more promising than these figures suggest. By the end of 2020, total global installed capacity is projected to reach 75-80 GW, with the UK, Germany, China and the US leading the way. The industry is busy paring costs and improving efficiency. It may not be long before the ambitious AWC project is dwarfed by others. The 9,000 MW Dogger Bank project in the North Sea, 125 km off the UK coast, has already rolled in.

India’s installed wind power capacity of 19,052 MW is the fifth largest in the world. But the country is yet to tap the vast offshore wind potential along its 7,500 km coastline. The Centre for Wind Energy Technology says the southern coast of Tamil Nadu alone could generate up to 1 GW.

LET APOCALYPSE WAIT

A string of countries along the Mekong river come together to preserve its ecosystem and protect lives

Remember Martin Sheen’s boat journey through the cloudy mist in Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic 1979 film Apocalypse Now? That was shot in the Philippines and not in Vietnam, but its mythical Nung river was suggestive of the mystique of the Mekong. Grand in sweep and throbbing with life, it originates on the Tibetan Plateau and flows through six countries before joining the South China Sea in Vietnam.

The Mekong basin is second only to the Amazon in biodiversity. As the world’s largest inland fishery, it alone provides one-fourth of the world’s freshwater catch—worth up to $7 billion annually—and nourishes the earth’s most fertile alluvial fields that support at least 60 million people. Despite population growth, parts of the Greater Mekong region remain one of the world’s last biological treasure troves. Last year alone, researchers recorded 126 new species there.

But the Mekong’s bounty is also proving to be its undoing. Rising demand for farmland, mainly for rubber and rice, is fast stripping this landscape of its lush forests. Swathes of mangroves have been converted into shrimp farms, and the timber mafia has thrived on illegal felling. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar lost 22-24 per cent of their forests between 1973 and 2009, while 43 per cent of woodland was cleared in Thailand and Vietnam.

In the 1990s, the Chinese government began to build a series of large dams on the Upper Mekong. In the mid-2000s, Laos and Cambodia also announced 11 large hydropower projects on the main channel of the Lower Mekong, with plans to sell most of the electricity to Thailand and Vietnam. More than 100 smaller projects are also proposed on the Lower Mekong. The commercial potential of the Mekong basin has long been recognised. In the 1950s, the UN formed the Mekong Committee and launched its largest development programme. Four decades later, four lower basin countries—Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam —signed the Mekong Agreement, creating the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in 1995 to take charge of their own destiny and shift the focus somewhat from mega development to sustainable management of resources. In 2002, China agreed to share hydrological information on the Lancang (upper Mekong) river with the MRC to help flood forecasting downstream.

The efforts to protect the Mekong got a boost in 2009 when the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) was launched in Phuket by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The goal was to manage this vibrant ecosystem, its rich natural resources and its people, as an interdependent whole by enhancing cooperation not just in conservation, but also education, migration and infrastructure development. In a political breakthrough, Myanmar too joined the initiative last year.

In 2011, The Friends of the Lower Mekong (FLM), a group of stakeholders, was set up to complement the LMI and collaborate on efforts among regional and donor countries such as Australia, Japan and the US, as well as the Asian Development Bank and World Bank.

Last year, Clinton launched the LMI 2020 and pledged to invest $50 million over three years in addition to the bilateral assistance the US provides to member countries. The LMI also set up a two-track structure: one for aid agencies and NGOs and the other for senior officials and ministers.

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The going has been tough, though. In 2010, a joint environmental assessment warned that the 11 proposed dams on the Lower Mekong would cause stagnation in more than half the lower river and block fish migration. This would reduce the Mekong’s fish species by 26-42 per cent, resulting in annual losses of $500 million. The LMI estimated that at least 100 species would face extinction, 1,000 people risk displacement, and the food security of over two million would be threatened.

China’s upstream dams already threaten to reduce the flow of sediments in the Mekong by an estimated 50 per cent. This would be halved again if the 11 dams came up, leaving just about a quarter of the original levels. The result would be the destabilisation of coastlines and flood plains of the Mekong delta, and a loss of Vietnam’s rice fields. Already, thousands of Vietnamese families are struggling to cope with saltwater ingression in the Mekong delta, which has started retreating after expanding for some 5,000 years.

Of the 11 proposed dams, the $3.8 billion Xayaburi hydroelectric project in Laos has been the main bone of contention. Laos hopes the dam will make it ‘the battery of Southeast Asia’ and that its sputtering economy will gain by selling surplus electricity to Thailand. But Cambodia and Vietnam have reason to complain the dam will destroy their fishing and farming industries.

In 2011, the MRC countries agreed to conduct detailed studies on the impact of the proposed dams, but Laos unilaterally decided last year to go ahead with the Xayaburi Dam. This January, Cambodia and Vietnam confronted Laos for violating the MRC agreement and insisted that no dams be constructed until an independent study was completed. Xayaburi remains a key test for the LMI as it would set a precedent for other proposed hydel projects.

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Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, a key part of the LMI, warned last month that if the large-scale loss of forests in the Mekong basin continued at its present rate, it would wipe out or irreversibly fragment 34 per cent of the remaining woodlands of the region by 2030. It added that major threats emanate from Myanmar, which is expected to undergo rapid economic growth after the end of its junta rule, and the southern Mekong sections of Vietnam and Cambodia.

The sheer scale of the challenge, however, has not overwhelmed the Mekong initiative. Substantial investments have been made to protect the wetlands. A rigorous joint monitoring system to watch the river’s water levels and rainfall is already in place with Chinese participation. With sustainable hydro power in focus worldwide, Laos is being watched closely by the rest of the world. Myanmar has agreed to completely stop exporting timber from 1 April 2014 to save its forests.

Last year, the Mekong Initiative twinned the MRC with the Mississippi River Commission, which is grappling with the challenge of resuscitating another great river system after decades of abuse. “We made a lot of mistakes,” admitted Clinton at the 2012 LMI meeting in Phnom Penh. “Just to be very blunt about it, we started more than a hundred years ago, so we’ve learned some hard lessons about what happens when you make certain infrastructure decisions.” With the world lending a hand, the countries of the Mekong basin may yet change course and avoid the same mistakes

FORGET THE AUGEAN STABLES

A team of seafarers wants to clean up a huge patch of trash in the Pacific Ocean

Every year, the world produces over 300 million tonnes of plastic and around 35 million tonnes of plastic waste, of which only about 8 per cent is recycled. Much of the rest ends up in our oceans. In 1997, Captain Charles Moore of California stumbled upon a huge concentration of garbage in the Pacific Ocean south of San Francisco. It was held up by the media as a symbol of the global plastic pollution crisis.

It is easy to picture a massive island of floating debris in the middle of an ocean. One may also be able to estimate the clean-up cost, if the mess were amenable to such a calculation. Unfortunately, contrary to convenient media descriptions of a giant iceberg-like mass of garbage bobbing in the sea, the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch is hardly visible to the naked eye.

It does, however, exist. It lies deep in the North Pacific, around 1,600 km north of Hawaii. The result of a massive infusion of micro-plastics in sea water, it is about 100 metres deep, covers an area popularly believed to be the size of Texas, though nobody knows for sure, and changes shape and size depending on ocean currents.

It is not even a single dump. There is a western garbage patch towards Japan and a subtropical convergence zone of the two dumps in the north. The debris is gathered by gyres—massive ocean currents that spiral around a central point. There are five major subtropical oceanic gyres: the North and South Pacific Subtropical Gyres, the North and South Atlantic Subtropical Gyres, and the Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre.

The so-called Pacific Garbage Patch keeps moving within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which covers an estimated 18-23 million sq km, which is about thrice the area of the continental United States. And yes, there are similar garbage patches in the Atlantic, but even less is known about those.

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Given its dynamic nature, it is impossible to measure the Pacific Garbage Patch. Any chance of retrieving the trash is made doubly daunting by the fact that the floating plastic is mostly microscopic. While plastic does not biodegrade, it dries up under sunlight and disintegrates into tiny particles. Dredging it up from ocean water with a fine mesh is a Herculean task. In any case, such an attempt will also haul out tiny plankton, credited with half of all photosynthesis on earth.

Micro-plastic and plastic in different stages of photo-degradation pose a severe biological hazard, the real dimensions of which remain unknown. Fish and other marine species (including birds) are seen to eat plastic and other garbage, with effects that one can only guess at. It is estimated that at least half the individuals of certain marine reptile species are affected by plastic litter.

Plastic debris also accumulates pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which shoots the toxin concentration up to a million times the level in clean seawater. In 2001, PCBs were banned as coolant fluids internationally. It would be disastrous if these pollutants were to be consumed by scavenging organisms and passed on to humans through seafood products.

Given the risk to marine ecosystems and human health, several attempts are being made to tackle the mess. Many voluntary organisations, including the International Coastal Cleanup, have been trying to reduce the garbage that is dumped offshore.

But none of these initiatives has been nearly as ambitious as Project Kaisei (‘ocean planet’ in Japanese), which was launched in 2009 to clean the gigantic Pacific patch, or at least a good part of it. The project was started by Mary Crowley, a veteran sailor and an expert in oceanic arts and science; George Orbelian, an avid surfer and marine designer; and Doug Woodring, an expert in environmental technology. They had a simple plan to tackle the Pacific mess without having to scout for enormous landfill sites: gather as much garbage from the ocean as possible, treat it for toxicity and produce fuel through pyrolysis (breaking down through heat and chemicals) to run the campaign’s clean-up boats.

But most experts have been sceptical of the project’s chances of success. Given that scanning just 1 per cent of the northern Pacific will take 68 ships a year, they argue, attempting a clean-up of even the highest garbage concentration areas may end up burning more fossil fuel than would be offset by the clean-up. Besides, dredging billions of tiny plastic particles would be enormously expensive and time-consuming.

However, a range of passive collection techniques have been tested by Project Kaisei’s team to zero in on the least invasive and energy-consuming methods that could be used for a large-scale clean-up. It has also been trying to identify the most sustainable method for converting marine plastic debris into fuel and other marketable derivatives. In 2009, the UNEP hailed the project as a ‘Climate Hero’. It also won recognition as a Google Earth Hero for its work on a video blogging voyage tracking system. In 2010, it became part of the Clinton Global Initiative, and Doug Woodring launched the Ocean Recovery Alliance for greater synergy.

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All those accolades notwithstanding, the magnitude of the problem may yet get the best of Project Kaisei. Many have suggested lately that the scale of the mission has overwhelmed the project’s initial enthusiasm for cleaning up the Pacific. Though voyages have continued, much of its recent focus has been on prevention of garbage accumulation. Last August, Crowley reported that Project Kaisei found tsunami debris floating in from Japan to the Pacific vortex and recommended that fishermen be incentivised to collect trash along the coast before it escapes to the outer sea. “I don’t know if it’s possible to clean up all of it,” said Crowley, adding that her team was now collaborating with the US Coast Guard. She later sought government help to take a factory ship to the Pacific Gyre, armed with technology to recycle plastic into fuel. The project continues.

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The Good Shepherds

Namibia empowers its tribes to reclaim ownership of the bush and wildlife (1)

The conservation debate is often the classic man-animal conflict by another name. To save the tiger is to abandon the forest-dwelling tribal. To let leopards roam farmlands is to snatch farmers’ livestock. To save whales is to deprive the fishing industry. To protect forests is to stall national development.

Namibia, however, has pursued a different path ever since its independence in 1990. It chose to write environmental conservation into its constitution, and two decades on, 42 per cent of its area, land and water, is under some form of conservation management. That’s much more than what any other country has managed to achieve.

Tellingly, the Namibian coat-of-arms features a fish eagle, two oryxES, sand dunes and the wondrous desert fossil plant Weltwitschia. Located in southwest Africa, surrounded by South Africa, Botswana and Angola, Namibia has mountains, deserts and a sandy shoreline. With an extremely arid climate and sub-Saharan Africa’s lowest rainfall average, the country has little scope for agriculture (only about 5 per cent of its economy). Subsistence farming and livestock rearing is the way to go: as a local saying has it, ‘A Himba is nothing without his cattle.’

The country’s traditional tribes and bush communities, splintered and pushed around by years of invasion and colonialism, are extremely poor. What Namibia once had a wealth of was wildlife: elephants, giraffes, zebras, rhinos, lions, leopards and cheetahs among others. But years of hunting by colonialists, poaching by natives and militants and military occupation all but wiped out this wealth. By the 1980s, there were just a few hundred of each species left. Its lions had more or less vanished. A drought in 1992 left many other species on the brink of extinction.

“Death and despair… surrounded our country,” said John Kasoana, who heads Namibia’s Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), in a rivetting TED Talk, part of a popular lecture series on ‘ideas worth spreading’.

The IRDNC, set up in the early 80s, began working informally with community leaders and wondered if they could depute somebody trustworthy to protect and monitor the country’s wildlife; somebody who knew the bush well, who knew the wildlife well. “Yes, our poachers,” replied a bright Himba tribe headman, Kasoana recalls. And so, poachers (“the best ones”, those with top reputations) were put in charge of catching outsiders and the less accomplished of their own ilk.

Intrinsic to that model was conservation of another kind—of the impoverished communities that wanted a better life in a land with few opportunities. What began as a community-driven game guard system (recall that ownership of land was largely restricted to Whites under the apartheid regime) eventually matured into conservancies within years of independence. Now communities get rights to their traditional land and the animals in it, much like freehold farmers.

With ownership comes pride and accountability and a tangible stake in conservation. Conservancies now tie up with business enterprises; in return, tourism ventures train and employ locals, offering youngsters new opportunities. From the days of colonial deputies peering into cooking pots to nail native poachers, Namibia has succeeded in marrying its rich heritage with modern ideas to catch up with a changing world.

After all, tracing rhinos through GPS and having helicopters fly them, says Kasoana, is easier than a headman summoning spirits from a sacred fire to guide them to the animal. And yet, he adds, “Our attitude is important. If we pretend to be concerned and helpful but still see the community next to a conservation area as a threat, conservation won’t work.”

The results validate that contention. Namibia is now home to the world’s largest population of free roaming cheetahs and black rhinos, and they flourish on community land. It is also the only country where the number of wild lions is increasing—a 600 per cent jump in two decades—even in non-protected areas. While the elephant population has more than doubled between 1995 and 2008 from 7,500 to over 16,000, the number of zebras has grown from 1,000 to 27,000 since 1982. It also has one of the largest seal colonies in the world.

The success has been miraculous in many ways. And some areas have already started to confront a problem of plenty. Increasing numbers of animals now pose a threat to farmers and herders. Most conservancies offer cash compensation or replace cattle lost to lions or cheetahs. Some are trying to place GPS tracking collars on predators to alert villagers of close movements.

When the community conservancies began in 1996, they had little income to show. Now, more than 70 conservancies earn in excess of $4.8 million, mostly from joint venture tourism. Trophy hunting, however, remains a big draw and the ‘sustainable use of wildlife’ gets the conservancies a substantial cash income. The money has gone into building schools, infrastructure, and, most importantly, the treatment of AIDS. Nearly 200,000 people in a population of 2.3 million suffer from AIDS, amid an overall life expectancy of just over 62 years.

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Namibia’s may be a picture perfect conservation model, but IT is frequently put to test. In 2011, an entire pride of desert lions was poisoned to death in the country’s Kunene region, where researchers earlier reported a loss of males in six of nine major prides due to selective trophy hunting. As late as last year, a spike in rhino poaching in South Africa threatened to cross the border into Namibia. On Christmas day, a herder spotted a poached female rhino, her calf wandering about in a canyon. It had been around four days since the mother’s killing and the dehydrated calf died too.

Such challenges will persist because Namibia is still poor and only one in eight Namibians benefits from conservation. The Christmas story, however, did not end there. The poacher who had expertly put a bullet to the rhino’s heart and sawn off its horn surrendered within 24 hours of the carcass being sighted. The community turned him in, a full confession was secured, and the man put behind bars. Change is never easy. But it is finding its way in Namibia.

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  (1) - This article was modified after it was published