At dawn, three weeks before the winter solstice, the last tendrils of fog curled gray against the pinking sky over a sand dune on the eastern edge of the Namib Desert. A jackal trotted west toward a stand of camel thorn trees. An oryx cruised doggedly toward a water hole at a nearby tourist camp. A tenebrionid beetle scuttled shiny black on the red sand, leaving perfect beetle tracks in its wake. Next to me was Rudolph !Naibab,* a safari guide who grew up on recalcitrant earth in the Kunene region, roughly 300 miles north of this spot in the NamibRand Nature Reserve, raising sheep, goats, and donkeys on his grandmother's farm. (*The ! before Naibab is one of the notations for click sounds in the local languages.)
!Naibab is 30, but he has a much older man's acumen, something he attributes to being raised in the desert. "This land makes you consider life and death every day," he said. "And war. I was raised during war. That can also make you wise in a hurry."
Namibia's civil war started in 1966 and lasted 22 years. In 1990, when Namibia at last gained independence from South Africa, it was one of the first countries in the world to write protection of the environment into its constitution. It was as if Namibians recognized that having fought for the land beneath their feet, they were now profoundly responsible for it.
"I think there were many reasons that Namibia's ecomovement was born at independence," !Naibab said. "During the war, in the mid-1980s, there was also a drought, and farmers were getting desperate. Their sheep died, so they started to kill game. It was easy for Namibians to see how close to dying we can get unless we protect and respect the resources we have."
Until 20 or so years ago all this land, and the land next door, and the land beyond that, was fenced and stocked with sheep. I tried to imagine those sheep farmers with their backs to the wind, buried under oxide red sand, waiting years for rain. "Yes, I am sure those sheep farmers had mixed feelings about this place," !Naibab agreed. "On the one hand, no water. On the other hand, how can you not be in awe of this place? How could you not feel a responsibility to guard it?"
I had come to Namibia because in late 2008 the government had proclaimed 5.4 million acres of its southwest coastline as Sperrgebiet National Park. With this, officials could say that nearly half the country's landmass was given over to national parks, communal conservancies, and private wilderness reserves. With the creation of Dorob National Park in December 2010, the coastline from the Kunene River on the Angolan border to the Orange River on the South African border was an almost solid barrier of parks. All the pieces were in place for what may eventually be designated Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park—a single coastal megapark. Namibia seemed a rare, almost impossibly hopeful story of a young African democracy determined to be a leading example of land stewardship.
This optimism seemed well-founded on my second day in the country, when I arrived in the Kulala Wilderness, a 91,400-acre refuge adjacent to the NamibRand Nature Reserve. It was the very day of the scheduled release of two cheetahs by one of Namibia's most celebrated conservationists, Marlice van Vuuren, and her husband, Rudie. Raised among Bushmen in the Omaheke region of Namibia, Marlice can speak their language fluently, one of the few non-Bushmen able to do so. Now in her early 30s, she runs N/a'an Ku Sê, a game sanctuary 25 miles east of Windhoek, where with the help of Bushmen trackers she rehabilitates orphaned and injured wildlife, relocating the animals from areas where there is conflict with humans to areas where humans, in the form of tourists, are likely to pay good money to see them.
The repair and restocking of wild lands is not easy or free. "It takes a massive amount of planning and effort to reestablish balance in a habitat to the point you can bring cheetahs back," Marlice said. "Everything has to be in place. Is there sufficient prey? Is there water? Is this sustainable? If the answers to those questions are yes, that's half the battle. And then we just have to wait and see if the cheetahs like where we put them." The two cheetahs snarled and refused to get out of their trailer. The male bit Rudie on the foot. So we backed away and waited. An unremarkable shrub on the gravel plain moved and resolved into an ostrich. We waited some more. The wind did its best to blow right through us.
People who live in and near the Namib Desert speak of two winds: the east wind that blows in from the Kalahari, gaining strength as it loses altitude until it hits this desert at 60 miles an hour and raises temperatures to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more. And the life-sustaining southwesterly wind from the cold Atlantic that blows fog as much as 40 miles inland, providing almost all the moisture needed to sustain the shape-shifting wildlife here. It is not an extravagant living, this fog-fed existence, for snakes and lizards, beetles and spiders, but it's an impressively specialized one.
It is also a fragile living, so much so that some Namibians I spoke to worried that the slightest shift of climate could send the whole delicate system into collapse. "It's hard not to imagine that a few degrees warmer would be catastrophic. This is a climate and an ecosystem already so extreme," said Conrad Brain, a wildlife veterinarian who had come to keep an eye on the cheetahs' release. Brain, who is also a pilot, flies frequently up and down the Namibian coast and keeps a careful, if somewhat anecdotal, eye on climate trends. "We've seen jellyfish swarms, shark swarms, leatherback turtles coming too far south—those are all indications to me that the sea is warming," he said. "It's easy to feel a bit alarmed. That's why this—releasing these cheetahs—gives you a feeling of possibility and hope." We stopped talking and went back to watching the trailer. Time did what it does in the desert: It expanded with the heat.