Creating a greener Namibia

The camelthorn tree plays an important role in Namibia: Not only does it provide shade, but also food to animals and livestock in an environment characterized by scorching heat and low food supply.

20 January 2019 | Environment

I'm between Windhoek and Swakopmund in the Khomas Hochland. The ground is mostly rocky and the closer you get to the Namib, the lower the shrubs and grasses are that line the roadside.

There's not much greenery here. Occasionally, I see a few trees on the horizon, but they quickly disappear into the seemingly endless space at the edge of the Namib.

This bit of greenery could soon get company after the animal welfare organisation ISAP (Intelligence Support Against Poaching) launched a tree planting campaign in the area. By the end of 2020 they hope to plant at least 300 camelthorn trees.



Challenges

Planting trees in Namibia is no easy task. This is something ISAP's managing director Fritz Kaufmann is very aware of. He hopes that their first saplings will have a learning effect that will help the project grow and become more successful in future. “We're doing it for the first time this year. We're going in blind and will have to wait and see what will happen to the newly planted trees,” he says.

The first 110 saplings came from the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, while ISAP is financing the project by reselling the saplings at N$500 per tree. In a nutshell, a buyer sponsors a sapling that ISAP will plant in the Khomas Hochland. The sapling will receive a small plaque with the buyer's name, who in turn will receive GPS data stating where his or her “godchild” is located.

The concept sounds simple. Nevertheless, ISAP faces various hurdles, but the first have already been bridged.

In addition to purchasing saplings, ISAP would like to cultivate saplings themselves. “At first, we could not get to the seeds, because they are surrounded by a very hard pod,” Kaufmann said. Thereafter they tried cooking, then soaking the pods overnight – without any success.



Solutions

In search of solutions, Danika Bader, a volunteer project assistant and student at Northwest University in Potchefstroom, South Africa, had to dig through manure. She gave cows the pods to eat, they digested the hard shell and left behind the plantable seeds. Since December, she has been collecting seeds in this way – a smile on her face throughout because the success compensates for the one rather unpleasant part of her job.

“We already have 60 small trees,” she says, although calling it a tree is perhaps an exaggeration: At the moment only green stems of between 30cm and 50cm stick out from the ground. Given the short growth period of a few weeks, this is quite considerable.

“The trees grow very quickly at first, but thereafter it will take years before they reach adulthood,” Kaufmann said.

Much energy also goes into the plant's root system, with a seedling of 10cm that may already have roots of over a meter long. In adult trees, they may grow down to a depth of 60m.



Hungry animals

The lack of rain has yet another major disadvantage for planting trees, as Kaufmann says. “Should it be too dry, there may not be enough food for the wildlife and then they may start eating at the young, newly planted trees.”

While it is difficult for ISAP to protect young plants from greedy animals, they have a couple of ideas, but the organisation cannot actually implement them, Kaufmann says.

In general, trees are a new issue for ISAP and experience in the correct handling of saplings is lacking at the moment.

The non-governmental organisation currently primarily fights against the poaching of protected game, especially rhinos. Another important area is the protection of the critically endangered pangolin.

However, ISAP now wants to expand its focus with the tree planting project that started in early December.

“We're not only working for rhinos and other animals. We are doing much more,” Kaufmann says referring to the deforestation taking place in the Kavango and Zambezi regions. “ISAP wants to counteract this, set a target and ensure a greener Namibia.”



True to Namibia

In the long run, however, the new trees could also help to protect the animals.

“Mature camelthorn trees are an extremely important source of shade. Also, they produce a lot of food for animals,” Bader said.

“That's why ISAP chose this tree species. And because they are so important to the country,” Kaufmann adds.

Camelthorns often grow where other trees don't. That is why they are mainly found in the desert and savannah-dominated areas of Namibia and Botswana. With successful planting, ISAP also promotes indigenous flora.

Despite a few initial teething problems, ISAP is happy with the results of their project so far. Of the 100 saplings they planned to sell this year, 53 have already been sold – and that in less than a week.

The proceeds are in support of further developing the project. Next year, ISAP not only wants to sell and plant 100 additional saplings, but also give away another 100. For example, interested farmers can plant a camelthorn tree on their land.

In May this year, the first saplings will be planted between Windhoek and Swakopmund. Unfortunately, the trees won't colonize the region from one day to the next. So there is a long road ahead.

Along with the planting, Kaufmann wants to host a special event – a bike ride to Swakopmund that remains true to the motto: Environmental protection can be fun.

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