Friday, 03 November 2017
Leading the race for survival of the cheetah
Harvesting native bush to produce an FSC-certified fuel log called Bushblok is a crucial leg in the race to save Namibia’s wild cheetah from extinction. At the same time, the operation encourages growth of a biomass industry with spin-offs that include more jobs and better income.
Bushblok is an innovation of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), a non-profit trust working for survival of the cheetah and its ecosystems. It is based near Otjiwarongo in central Namibia.
The cheetah is under grave threat. Worldwide, numbers have plummeted from 100,000 in 1900 to less than 7,500; a third live in Namibia, mostly on livestock farms. Just in the 1980s, Namibia’s cheetah population halved: farmers saw them as a threat to livestock during a severe drought, and rabies wiped out 60% of kudu, cheetahs’ main prey.
A huge problem, though, is “bush encroachment”, thickening of bush and trees. Cheetahs once thrived in the mixed woodland savannah of central Namibian. But human disturbance – overgrazing, fire suppression and removal of browsers like elephant and rhino – tilted the balance of grassland and trees. Thornbush choked the landscape, making it impossible for cheetahs to run or hunt.
Encroachment affects about 26 million hectares of Namibia’s total 82 million. It threatens survival of other wildlife and livelihoods of communities that rely on farming, which supports almost three-quarters of Namibians one way or another.
“We decided to do something about it,” CCF General Manager Dr Bruce Brewer says. “We wanted to come up with a process that shows we can utilize the bush while restoring the ecosystem, and decided that a wood fuel brick was the most economical product to get into.”
In 2001, CCF set up its Biomass Technology Demonstration Centre and began trials, drawing in researchers, engineers and donors. “Just in thinning the bush, we found we could get 10 tons per hectare; on CCF’s 46,000ha, we could get 460,000 tons,” Bruce explains.
Charcoal producers often harvest mature trees and leave small bushes, which does not open up the savannah. “We positioned ourselves as whole tree processors. But we were careful not to encourage clear-cutting.”
FSC certification of Bushblok, obtained in 2006, was a logical step. “Its criteria and oversight cause us to pay attention to the detail of what we are doing,” Bruce says.
CCF Senior Ecologist and Forest Steward Matti Tweshingilwa Nghikembua points to the natural fit with FSC principles: “We are trying to lead by example with a win-win that combines biodiversity conservation with improving livelihoods by restoring a productive savannah. We are linking economics, biodiversity and social aspects – and saving a species.”
Matti says FSC certification provides a platform for promotion of best practice. “We’re addressing consumer awareness of FSC and certification … We think that, through people like us, FSC can reach the grassroots.”
Spreading it out
One way that CCF is sharing its experience is through the Namibian Biomass Interest Group of major players, which it co-founded. “We have rabble roused for biomass power,” Bruce says. “As a region, we’re short of electricity generation capacity and have poor grid penetration. Yet biomass has not been utilized.” Namibia is sitting on 100 million tons of unwanted woody biomass, but current annual harvest is around 400,000 tons.
Then there is job creation in a region where unemployment is high. Bushblok employs 30 people, and as the industry grows, so will jobs. Harvesting alone could provide hundreds of jobs.
Bushblok has obtained a carbonizer kiln for value addition. “We experiment all the time,” Bruce says. The demonstration centre also evaluates other forms of renewable energy technologies, such as solar. And part of experimentation is working out how to get small power grids going in rural areas.
The Bushblok factory, situated in Otjiwarongo, produces around 500 tons each year. Most goes to vendors within Namibia, and some to a retailer in South Africa. Transport is expensive, but even if other markets become easier to access, Bushblok will remain a niche demonstration product centred on habitat restoration.
Consumers fall into the middle- to upper-income group, and they use the product for barbecuing and for heating in fireplaces.
Since harvesting began, Matti says CCF has seen animals and grass species coming back. He is convinced savannah restoration has contributed to improved tourism income: open areas are better for tourists who want to see animals. Around 10,000 visitors come through the CCF centre each year.
Springs have not been active in this arid landscape as bush thickened and high tree densities sucked up moisture. “We are working with a university, looking at soil moisture. We should have results soon to tell us what is happening,” Matti says.
And the cheetah? Numbers in Namibia have stabilized, and CCF says this is due to the “joint efforts of the Namibian government and communities in support of CCF’s work”. As CCF Director Laurie Marker says, it’s part of saving the world: to save the cheetah, we must save the world by considering those that share its habitat, humans included.