Garth Owen-Smith, 1944-2020

Garth Owen-Smtih

On 11 April, 2020, Garth Owen-Smith, co-founder of Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), and the widely-regarded ‘father’ of Namibia conservation passed-away peacefully. Garth dedicated his life to advocating for Namibia’s wildlife and wild places. His commitment to community-based natural resource management (CBNRM), was on-display throughout a career spanning six decades, which he primarily spent in northwest Namibia. His loss is felt keenly by all who work to maintain wildlife conservation in Namibia.

Born in South Africa, Garth first came to northwest Namibia in the 1960s. In the late 1960s, while working for South Africa’s Bantu Administration and Development, Garth helped pioneer livestock inoculation campaigns with the Herero and Himba pastoralists of what was then known as Kaokoland. Both his time in the northwest and close working relationships with the people there transformed Owen-Smith’s life. Garth became convinced that local people understood their landscapes and, importantly, felt a deep and abiding love and affinity for the wildlife there. During the 1970s and 1980s, when the rest of the world was erecting fences to separate local people and wildlife, Garth and a committed group of conservationists, doubled-down on their trust in rural communities. Under-resourced and under-manned, Garth and his fellow conservationists knew they could not conserve dwindling wildlife populations alone. By building relationships of trust, transparency, and good-will with local traditional authorities, these teams transformed wildlife conservation in northwest Namibia, and began setting a new template for CBNRM worldwide. Throughout it all Garth was among the guiding lights of community-centered efforts to unite wildlife conservation and rural development. He would receive numerous international awards for his efforts.

When Namibia became independent in 1990, the CBNRM efforts pioneered in the northwest served as the template for the country’s communal conservancy system. Through the work of IRDNC, which Garth co-founded with his partner Dr. Margaret Jacobsohn, as well as other partnering NGOs and government, the communal conservancies became the standard by which community conservation and rural development in Namibia would take place. By the mid-2000s wildlife numbers across communal areas in Namibia had rebounded from historic lows. This not only ensured a future for wildlife and rural communities alongside one-another, but set Namibia apart as a place where wildlife conservation was taking-hold, attracting international tourists in large numbers. When Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn stepped-down as directors of IRDNC in 2010, CBNRM, and indeed all wildlife conservation Namibia, was considered among the country’s, even Africa’s, shining lights. The 2010s brought new challenges. Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn continued pioneering new efforts, including founding a conservancy-owned tourism company and helping innovate new approaches for rural communities to maintain ownership over wildlife.

Owen-Smith and his partner and IRDNC co-founder, Dr. Margaret Jacobsohn, at Wereldsend.

I first met Garth in 2005. In 2017 when I moved to northwest Namibia to begin my doctoral work and helped found the Lion Ranger program, I began spending extended time with him. I became blessed to call him my friend. Through trips into the field, suppers and innumerable cups of tea at Wereldsend, and nights spent sitting up waiting for hyenas to come into camp, he showed me and explained to me what CBNRM means. Whenever we were driving through communities he reminded me that one always stops to speak to people – it was the only way to really know what is happening with the wildlife. Not only that, Garth taught me that successful conservation is based on relationships. By investing, not just your time and resources, but your emotions and your care, into communities and the individuals within them, you enter into a world of friendship and fellowship. When you share the cares and concerns of others, they will adopt your cares and concerns as well. In this way your world is expanded, as is the world of the people you come into contact with. Each provides what he or she can, and together we all benefit. This is how wildlife conservation and rural development can occur: by opening our lives to others and working together towards unified goals.

Garth continued working towards unifying wildlife conservation and rural development until the final weeks of his life. His dedication was unmatched and the lessons he left behind irreplaceable. Garth will be missed. But he leaves behind a rising generation of conservationists dedicated to helping maintain the dreams he nurtured within us. His spirit, words, and most importantly, his actions live on.

Post by John Heydinger, PhD; University of Minnesota Lion Center

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