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  • Helen Penn

Lament for Walvis Bay

Helen Penn is an education academic who has undertaken consultancies for a variety of international aid agencies. Whenever possible, she took time off to go birdwatching. This blog is drawn from her writing on Southern Africa. Helen is also Visiting Professor at the Institute of Education, UCL/ Professor Emerita, UEL.


I have been writing a memoir about birdwatching, which has turned into a requiem for birds and their conservation sites. Here I briefly describe two Ramsar sites in Namibia. A Ramsar site is a wetland site of international importance, with concentrated populations of bird species, as designated under the UNESCO Wetlands Convention of 1971. One of the Namibian sites is so commercialized that only the wealthy can gain access; and the other has almost disappeared because of industrial development.

I was working in Oshakati, in the North of Namibia.

Fig. 1Worldometer Map of Namibia

Oshakati is in the Cuvelai delta river basin, which is fed by a network of rivers and rivulets flowing from Angola highlands. The river basin is essentially an endorheic wetland area; that is the water has no outlet. It gradually dries out as it drains into the Etosha salt pan, a Ramsar site, which is part of the Etosha National Park. Etosha is a top tourist destination for wildlife and birding.

Most productive land in Namibia is still owned by Afrikaners, so about 33% of the Namibian population eke out a subsistence living on the common land in and around Oshakati. There is no coherent water storage. The water floods, and then dries out, from the wells and surface water pools in the region. Various reports have suggested that the land and the water without substantial intervention can no longer support the current numbers of people, but the population keeps on growing – and keeps on suffering – and not much appears to change.

Etosha Park was established in 1907 by the Germans for big game hunting, although it is smaller now than originally. Its blurb says, without irony,

Namibia is one of the places where animals still roam freely mostly unrestricted by human influence…. Etosha National Park is well equipped with restaurants, shops, curios, swimming pools and petrol stations.

Like many of the African wildlife parks it is owned by a safari company, a profitable organization masquerading as a wildlife philanthropic organization. These parks maintain a high standard of tourist accommodation, irrespective of local conditions. The company running Etosha is called Biggestleaf. Its owner is Robert Bernatzeder, a South African businessman. He describes himself on Linked-in as “an entrepreneur & innovator with a deep passion for growing business ideas. I focus mainly on tourism and tech businesses. I don’t just talk business, I live it. In fact, I see the world as my office and business is my favorite pastime!”

The entire park is fenced, and paying visitors enter through 24 hour manned gates. It is rigorously patrolled by armed guards and bristles with surveillance apparatus.

We wanted to see the birds, especially the flamingos who congregate on the salt pan, but the luxurious park accommodation was an unbearable contrast to the subsistence poverty of Oshakati. We spent one night there, limiting our birdwatching to the lilac breasted roller on the wires above our cabin, then drove through the Namib desert to Walvis Bay, one of the most important Ramsar sites in Africa. The bay is a vast shallow lagoon, where the desert sand dunes skirt the water. Over-wintering birds once gathered in their hundreds of thousands to feed and roost. Looking at the sky above the lagoon was like seeing a living demonstration of particle physics. There was wave after wave of movement, each wave composed of many thousands of individual birds flying in perfect unison and tension, as flocks shifted continuously in response to the tidal flow. The lagoon with the marvellous patterns of flight and light was, to put it fancifully, a place where Gaia herself might build a bird hide.

The long Atlantic coast of Namibia has shorebirds all along its length, but they are concentrated in Walvis Bay. This is due to its topography, a wide tidal lagoon, fed by sea currents. The erratic river Kuiseb also debouches into the bay. There is a nutrient pump welling up from the ocean floor further down the coast, and it is pushed by the strong Benguela current to the slightly shallower and warmer sea of Walvis Bay, which causes an abundance of plankton to bloom. It is this process that attracts and sustains the bird life. There were birds I knew like the flamingos (the lesser and the greater flamingo) bar-tailed godwits, knots, ruffs, avocets, turnstones, grey plovers, and many waders, but others that were new to me; the rare damara terns, thick-billed sandpipers, cape teals and blacknecked grebes.

The main settlement of Walvis Bay has grown up over the last century inland from the lagoon, around the docks and the fish factories, at the deeper, North end of the bay. There is a new port terminal, built by the Chinese, for container ships. The lure of tourism has seduced the town council into reclaiming yet more land from the tidal flats, and constructing yet another aquifer and sewage processing plant. Whilst I was there watching the birds in the lagoon I saw two very bright squares, one red and one blue, moving rapidly around the water. I remembered one of the brochures I had seen “Pit yourself against nature: extreme sports in the wilderness.” Wind surfing was becoming popular, along with sandboarding and quad bikes on the desert dunes.

There was a paved walkway, planted with palm trees at regular intervals, alongside of the lagoon, used mainly by dog walkers and joggers. I watched as they walked and jogged past the dilapidated notice board by the edge of the walkway which explained that Walvis Bay was a Ramsar site. The board gave the date, 1995, that the Government had ratified the site, and listed what birds might be seen in the bay, and their (outdated) population numbers. No-one took any notice of it. The placing of this notice seemed to be the extent of any conservation effort.

The walkway ended at the salt mines. The salt pans were an iridescent pinkish-red, and the salt scum formed thick white crusts along the edges of each pan, forming a luridly coloured lunar landscape. Boneshaker lorries of the salt mining company drove on the road besides the walkway, back up to the town to unload at the docks.

We walked a little way into one of the salt pans, and we saw the chestnut banded plover (Chariadrus Pallidus). It was a tiny bird, not much larger than a child’s hand. This one had two chicks, the size of walnuts.

Fig. 2 Chestnut banded plover

Source: courtesy of Wigbert Vogeley,

The plover ran jerkily along the edge of the wavelets, pausing occasionally to hustle her chicks under her wing and warm them. The sun was bright and hot, but the wind off the Atlantic gusted and chilled. The survival of the chicks seemed unlikely. But the salt pans were, we discovered, a relatively protective environment. The birds were less likely to be disturbed here than in the main lagoon, and these tiny plovers were one of the unusual species of birds that thrived on the salt edges. Around 5000 birds, half the world’s population, can be found along this coast.

Beyond the salt mines, further south down the coast, the earth was being worked for diamonds and precious metals by the De Beer company. 26,000 km² of land, known as the Sperrgebiet, had been set aside in 1908 as buffer land to the mines. No-one was allowed in without a permit, and no-one got a permit if they presented any kind of security risk. The Sperrgebiet as a result has remained relatively pristine. There are now negotiations with Mr Bernatzeder amongst others for the creation of a new “eco-tourist” park, the Nauklaft National Park.

Walvis Bay is a destination for both Palearctic migrant waders as well as intra-African migrants. It is a feeding hub for thousands of long-distance migrant birds from as far as Russia and Eurasia. There are typically around 55 overwintering species. A third of the bird species using the bay are red-listed, that is their numbers are already endangered. Local birders have been intermittently keeping track and doing bird counts for 30 years. The ecological survey, cited below, used their data from 1995-2016, and estimated a 42% decrease in bird abundance over the period, 17% of which occurred when the Chinese enlarged the container port in 2015. Some birds, like the red knot, once numbering over 1000, have disappeared altogether.

The Chinese haven’t finished; they are working with the government to establish Walvis Bay as a major Atlantic hub, servicing Namibia and its neighbours. There is offshore drilling. The salt mines are expanding, and so is the industrial fishing. The Kuiseb river flow has decreased because of up-river water controls. Tourism, before Covid, was expanding, and there is currently a proposal for a new waterfront marina. The ecological survey commissioned for the marina notes that marina developments cannot but accelerate the present decline seen in wetland bird numbers using the lagoon.

Ramsar sites are voluntary and consensual; the designation does not include sanctions. But biodiversity legislation is growing stronger. An international panel of criminal and environmental lawyers has this year agreed a legal definition of ‘ecocide’. Perhaps the just-surviving bird wealth of Walvis Bay should be a test case.


Birds and Bats Unlimited (2020) Walvis Bay -Waterfront Development Potential Effects on Birds of the Ramsar Site.

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