Just as I'd put my notebook away, the cheetahs suddenly left the trailer. First the female decanted onto the ground. Then the male poured after her. Within seconds they were gone from our sight, even if we were not gone from theirs.
The successful relocation of these two cheetahs represents a trend in Namibia. Wildlife numbers are increasing, especially in conservancies and private reserves beyond national park boundaries. In the 1980s there were at most 10,000 springbok in the north; now there are an estimated 160,000. By 1990 black rhinos had been hunted to the brink of extinction in Namibia; now there are more than 1,400. Twenty years ago some 800 cheetahs were shot every year by farmers; now approximately 150 are killed by ranchers and farmers, and trophy hunters are permitted to shoot 150.
To reach Sperrgebiet, I flew almost the entire extent of the Namib Desert at its broadest point (from the NamibRand Nature Reserve to Walvis Bay), and then a fairly decent chunk of its length (from Walvis Bay to Lüderitz). The journey to and through the park was at least as striking for the contradictions it exposed as for its demonstration of remote, wind-scoured beauty. Although the landscape manifested itself mostly as pure topography—dunes and the glittering quartz in Witberg mountain—the scars of human activity from a century ago were still evident: abandoned diamond camps holding out against the wind, sun, and sand. (Closer to Walvis Bay, the desert bore a new imprint—the mindless doodles of thousands of all-terrain vehicles, which had churned the fragile encrusted surface.)
For the most part Westerners had ignored Namibia and its forbiddingly arid conditions—"the land God made in anger," as some called it. But this did not exempt Namibia from the frenzied exploitation going on in the rest of Africa. The islands offshore (now proclaimed a marine sanctuary as part of the overall protection of the coast) were raked for nitrogen-rich guano, used in the manufacture of gunpowder and fertilizer, and the cold, nutrient-rich Atlantic waters were scoured for whales. By the early 1900s guano deposits tens of feet deep had been scraped to bare rock, and southern right whales had been hunted almost out of existence.
In 1908 the first diamond was spotted in the south. Within months the German government, which held South-West Africa—present-day Namibia—as a protectorate, designated the 5.4 million acres surrounding that discovery as the Sperrgebiet ("forbidden area"), accessible only to the diamond company and its miners. To overcome the shortage of workers created by the German colonists' cataclysmic war against southern peoples (the Herero, Nama, and Damara), laborers were conscripted from remote northern tribes (the Ovambo and Kavango) who had not been involved in the war. To this day, mounds resembling children's graves can be seen all across the Sperrgebiet, an inadvertent memorial to the labor of those men who crawled across the desert sifting the gravel and picking out diamonds stone by stone.
Diamond mining continues along the shore in the southern part of the new park, and from the air the excavations show up as massive trenches. Although the mining areas are strictly off-limits to unauthorized visitors, fear of illegal mining and thieving means that the whole of the Sperrgebiet still feels forbidden—not so much protected as jealously guarded. Only a few tourists may enter the park at a time, with a pre-approved guide, and roadside cameras monitor traffic entering and leaving the park. The prevailing atmosphere of paranoia is perhaps best illustrated by the rusting and sunbaked vehicles and equipment abandoned within the park when no longer useful—an attempt to prevent mine workers from stashing diamonds in machinery to be retrieved later in some junkyard.
Namibia is now the fourth largest exporter of nonfuel minerals in Africa and the world's fourth largest producer of uranium. That mineral wealth doesn't trickle down in any real sense—Namibia has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world—and the pursuit of it occurs not only on private land but also in and around areas that have been set aside as national parks. Two mines, one of which is within Namib-Naukluft Park, are now producing uranium; output is expected to rise from 12 million pounds of yellowcake to around 40 million pounds by 2015. It's a striking irony that to extract its plentiful uranium, Namibia must use quantities of a very scarce resource: water. Figures are not easy to come by, but one mine uses 106 million cubic feet of water a year. At the time of my visit the water was taken from aquifers—fossil water that is not adequately replenished by Namibia's scant rainfall—although a massive new desalination plant was being built on the coast near Swakopmund.
In theory, mining is supposed to occur in concert with resource protection and economic development. "We're a developing nation," explained Midori Paxton, who then worked for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism in Windhoek. "It's not realistic to exclude mining from our protected areas, but we work hard to minimize the impact of the mining," she said, showing me a map of biodiversity hot spots identified by the ministry. "We work closely with the mining companies to identify and protect these very sensitive areas." She indicated an area now in Dorob National Park that is one of the most important lichen fields in the country.
Lichen fields—blooms of orange and gray over red sand and crusts of blackish gypsum—keep the soil stable and are a critical source of food for invertebrates. They're the desert's building blocks for larger communities of plants and animals. In recognition of their vulnerability, the lichen fields have been marked off on maps and with fences. But the lichen field Paxton had pointed out on the map was between the sea and a uranium mine, and when I went there, it had recently been torn up. Prospecting trenches crossed the field not far from where the desalination plant was going up. Tracks from heavy trucks and four-by-fours tore deep into the ground, a carelessness that could take hundreds of years for the desert's slow systems to repair.
In the end it will be here, on the ancient surface of its protected lands—not in the tourist literature or official mining guidelines—that the strength and sincerity of Namibia's environmental intentions will be written.