EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2019, Frank McGee, in his role as Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Area Wildlife Manager in Colorado Springs, hosted Louretha Tsuseb, head of wildlife law enforcement in Windhoek, Namibia, as part of a U.S.-Africa wildlife officer exchange program. For two weeks, Frank and Louretha toured Colorado as he showed her how Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages wildlife in Colorado. The worldwide Covid pandemic erupted before Frank could complete the exchange. Three years later, in November, he finally visited the nation on Africa’s far southwest coast. Here are his observations
Article By Frank McGee, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Law Enforcement Training Manager
WINDHOEK, Namibia – For two days, as airplanes carried me the 9,000 miles between Colorado and Namibia, I had plenty of time to think about what I might expect when I landed in Windhoek and began my two-week immersion in Namibia’s wildlife conservation practices.
I wondered how different the work would be in Namibia compared to what I’ve experienced in my nearly 20-year career as a Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer on the West Slope, an Area Wildlife Manager on the urban Front Range corridor, and now as manager of law enforcement training for the entire agency.
After all, we at Colorado Parks and Wildlife manage quite a wide variety of animals – more than 930 species ranging from endangered black-footed ferrets and threatened greenback cutthroat trout to the nation’s largest herd of elk, moose, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, raptors, and apex predators including black bears, mountain lions and, soon, Gray wolves.
It wouldn’t take long for me to learn that wildlife professionals in Namibia face different challenges starting with the classes of wildlife they manage including hippos, Nile crocodiles, giraffes, elephants, African Buffalo, impalas and endangered species including wild dogs and black rhinos.
Then there’s the fact that in Colorado, my colleagues and I benefit from 125 years of experience and biological research amassed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and its predecessor agencies. We have a dedicated and relatively secure funding source, and access to cutting-edge tools, technology, and training. My counterparts in Namibia don’t enjoy many of these same advantages.
When my two-week visit was over, I more fully appreciated the fact they face far different challenges than I had imagined, especially when it comes to poaching, illegal wildlife trade, and trafficking. Our poaching is largely individuals taking a few animals, sometimes for meat and other times for trophies in their rec rooms. Namibia poachers are feeding crime syndicates that are making huge sums of money shipping animal parts around the globe in commercial operations.
And I now realize why participation by U.S. wildlife conservation agencies is so important. The U.S. is one of the primary consumers of illegal wildlife products. We, in the United States, need to find ways to stop the market for African animals, disrupt the trade channels and help Namibia and other African nations put a stop to wildlife poaching.
My education began not long after we landed and I met my Namibian host, Louretha Tsuseb.
Louretha and I first crossed paths in 2016, when we were both participants in wildlife law enforcement leadership academies that overlapped at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, W.Va. We then worked more closely when she flew to Colorado in November of 2019.
Louretha’s visit was part of the U.S. State Department’s Wildlife Officials Exchange program, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Interior. The program is designed to establish global connections and broaden the understanding of wildlife trade and trafficking, both among African wildlife officials and their U.S. counterparts.
The participants for this first Wildlife Officials Exchange program came from the African nations of Botswana, Kenya, Malawi and Namibia. The U.S. participants came from California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland and Missouri. The program was administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s International Technical Assistance Program and was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s International Law Enforcement Assistance Program.
I remember being immediately impressed with Louretha, who was then the head of wildlife law enforcement in Windhoek, Namibia and who was the first Black woman police officer commissioned in Namibia at a time when Apartheid was still the law of the land.
During her visit in 2019, Louretha joined my team in an elk poaching investigation in Teller County. Then we checked deer and pheasant hunters, participated in dim-light shooting training, staffed hunting checkpoints in Grand Junction, patrolled the Grand Mesa on an all-terrain vehicle and patrolled the Colorado River to the Utah line on a CPW jet boat to observe the opening day of waterfowl hunting and Desert bighorn sheep season.
As part of her itinerary, I introduced her to CPW digital forensics specialists in Denver and we attended the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting in Wray.
During her visit, Louretha experienced some big “firsts” such as her first time seeing snow and conducting her first television news interviews. She had never piloted a boat before, either. In fact, the Colorado River offered quite a bit of water for someone from the driest country in Africa.
Of course, in April 2020, Covid hit and all travel was canceled, indefinitely postponing my own visit to Namibia to see how Louretha and her colleagues deal with African wildlife.
Better Late than Never
Finally, nearly three years later, I was able to complete the officer exchange by flying to Namibia. I was excited but somewhat concerned because so much had changed in the intervening years including the fact Louretha had retired.
But there she was at the airport to greet me on behalf of the Namibia Police, Protected Resources Division. She would serve as my host for an interesting look at Namibia’s wildlife management system.
And I wasn’t alone. Other U.S. wildlife officials had flown to Africa to conduct similar job-shadowing exchanges with other African agencies. It’s all part of the program’s goal of fighting wildlife crime by strengthening global law enforcement relationships.
In Africa, there is a philosophy called “Ubuntu” which asserts that: “I am because you are.” It’s their way of expressing the unity of different peoples. After working together in the U.S. and in Namibia, I understand “Ubuntu” and in terms of the similar challenges we face and the need to be united in solving them.
One similarity became obvious during a poaching investigation. Though the animals being poached are wildly different, the techniques for investigating the crimes shared many similarities. For example, investigators seem to universally study suspects the same way, watching body language, eye contact and scrutinizing every statement for signs of deception.
And one of the biggest challenges facing African and U.S. wildlife agencies is the growth in human-wildlife conflicts, as the administrator of one of Namibia’s remarkable Conservancy’s told me.
In Colorado, we deal with deer and elk eating farm crops, bears and mountain lions eating chickens and goats, deer adapting to city life and attracting predators like coyotes and mountain lions, or bears moving to urban areas and feasting on garbage.
In Namibia, she told me they deal with crop and fence damage caused by elephants and livestock depredation caused by African lions.
Another similarity between the wildlife conservation and law enforcement work in the U.S. and Namibia was the importance of relationships to the success of our work. Relationships are crucial to the success of many aspects of the work that we all do. Both sides find many issues can be resolved more quickly or efficiently by picking up the phone and reaching out to partner landowners and agencies.
Experience has taught all of us that we can’t arrest our way out of the issues that we face. Unless we’re able to effectively engage with a variety of partners and local communities we’ll struggle to make progress. How can we expect local communities to help protect elephants from poaching and ivory trafficking if we don’t build relationships with them and work to address the very real challenges these communities face from the damage to crops caused by the elephants? How can we expect the reintroduction of wolves in Colorado to succeed if we don’t engage with ranchers to understand the challenges caused by wolf depredation?
The animals pictured above were legally harvested. The photo is from a taxidermist shop in Namibia.
I also gained a new perspective and appreciation for the differences that exist as well. Being able to work with other agencies that work with different species, and also with different communities, cultures and laws has helped each of us to look at the people and problems that we deal with regularly in a new way.
A particularly impressive experience was a meeting I attended with the Save the Rhino Trust, (SRT), a non-governmental organization that works with private donors, wildlife conservancies, Namibia’s Police and Ministry of Environment and Tourism, local communities, and many others to protect Namibia’s wild black rhinos.
SRT provides rangers and game guards with equipment, training, technology, and incentives to protect rhinos from poaching. The agency also works with local communities to promote rhino-based tourism, literacy and the development of a conservation ethic. SRT’s efforts are so successful that the areas in which they operate have not had a single rhino poaching in more than a year, and the Namibian government is working with them to expand their operations into other parts of Namibia.
This exchange program was life-changing for me, both personally and professionally. I went to college and became a wildlife biologist and law enforcement officer because I am passionate about protecting and preserving the wildlife of Colorado.
It was heartening to know people halfway around the world in different cultures and in vastly different geographical and political landscapes share my passions. I appreciated the way they challenged me to think in new and creative ways about the work that we do, and also to reignite my passion for this work.