On Thursday, 5 October, a fire started behind the Wereldsend workshop. Sparks from an angle-grinder set the dead, but standing sedge alight. Because of the extended drought that has been hammering Kunene for the past few years, the sedge and trees surrounding it quickly ignited. In a matter of minutes IRDNC’s old office and a storage building were engulfed. Only the quick thinking and action of the staff on-site saved Garth Owen-Smith and Margie Jacobsohn’s house from also being destroyed. Most importantly, no injuries were sustained.
The old IRDNC office did contain many of Owen-Smith’s and Jacobsohn’s old field reports, publications, and notes from more than thirty years of working in Kunene. In this way the Wereldsend fire was something of a tragedy. Quite a bit of the Region’s conservation history was blown away as ash. It is worth reflecting on all the parts that came to be aligned for these documents, buildings, and, in a way, this history to be destroyed. The environmental factors are not limited to the drought; Wereldsend Base Camp is so situated because it was a farm turned over to the Nature Conservation authorities by the South African apartheid government. Had the Region not been under-developed during apartheid, there may never have been the need for a research camp. The Region, due to its remoteness and lack of development, necessitates a fully functioning research camp, complete with workshop for vehicle and infrastructure maintenance. Wereldsend is an important place to conservation in Kunene: its remoteness is at times an asset and a liability. As a space where important conservation work is taking place it is also a place where history is enacted, written, and sometimes, stored. In the fire we remember that the historical record is influenced not just through primary and secondary sources available, but also in regards to what is no longer accessible. Unfortunately some of our knowledge of Kunene conservation and history disappeared in the fire.
Because of the Region’s size and the challenge of working at the nexus of conservation and development, IRDNC operates on something of a shoe-string budget. The good news is that conservationists, local authorities, and tour operators (among many others) in the Region work together to ensure each other’s progress. Without the help of the Bergsig Police, Torra Conservancy, and the Palmwag Lodge in controlling the fire, it could have easily reignited and spread.