Namibia´s Father Of Integrated Conservation: Garth Owen-smith

5 May 2020

Dirk Heinrich

In 1993, they were awarded the Goldman Environment Prize and in 1994, they received the Global 500 Roll of Honour Award. In 2015 Garth Owen-Smith was presented the Prince William Lifetime Conservation Award for spending more than 40 years pioneering community-based conservation in the northwest and northeast of the country. 

Owen-Smith was born in Pinetown in South Africa on the 22nd February 1944. After spending his childhood and teenage years here, he matriculated at Pinetown High School and came to Southwest Africa (today Namibia), in the 1960s where he worked at the Tsumeb mine. A friend took him to the Kunene, where he fell in love with the area, its wildlife and its people. He bought a bicycle and cycled from Tsumeb through Botswana to Salisbury (today Harare) in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where his mother was working at the time.  

When he came back to Namibia, Garth Owen-Smith started working as an agricultural officer in the Kunene region, where he “developed a deep affinity with the Himba, Herero and Damara people”. In 1970, a few years after the start of the Liberation War and after a lot of poaching had taken place in the area, he was transferred out of the area allegedly posing a security risk.  

He then spent a year in Australia and afterwards came back to Namibia to complete an ethno-botanical study for the National Museum. He then was appointed to direct the first conservation diploma course for black students in South Africa. However, due to Apartheid restrictions he resigned and started an environmental education project aimed at Zulu students and teachers for the Wildlife Society”. Two years of cattle ranching in Zimbabwe followed, where he worked under the guidance of the internationally renowned ecologist Allan Savory. 

In 1974 his son Tuareg was born and in 1975 he got married to June whom he had met in Windhoek. His second son Kyle was born in 1976. 

In 1978 he returned to Namibia to join the Department of Nature Conservation. He was stationed in Keetmanshoop and was responsible for the Diamond Area 1. Later he was transferred to the Etosha National Park where his wife June was employed as a nurse. 

This is also where I met Garth for the first time. We were darting a big male lion close to Okondeka with Dr Hu Berry (†) and Dr Theyns van Wyk (†) and Garth was one of the nature conservation officials helping to measure and weigh the huge predator. A short while later in 1982, Garth left the department of nature conservation and returned to the Kunene region to find “that its rich wildlife, including black rhino and desert-adapted elephant, had been devastated by illegal hunting”. He “spent the last 27 years working to reverse this, starting a non-governmental organization with his partner, Dr Margaret Jacobsohn, and pioneering one of the most successful community-based conservation programmes in Africa”. 

Garth was a humble and quiet man, a man who would listen to others and only give his advice when asked. He was always friendly and had a wealthy knowledge of the environment and the needs of the people living so closely to the natural world. He enjoyed a campfire, a good “koppie koffie” or tea, and his pipe. A lot of us who had the privilege of knowing Garth, learnt a lot from him and thousands of Namibians in rural areas, are today directly benefiting from the work him and Margie initiated with IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation). 

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