WINDHOEK – Groundbreaking scientific research institutions such as the Namibian Dolphin Project (NDP) have proven invaluable, to ensure Namibia’s dolphins and whales flourish alongside the country’s shores through dedicated research, community teamwork and education. Partly funded by the Nedbank Go Green Fund (GGF), the NDP was started in 2008 as a non-profit research and conservation organisation, intent on filling the sprawling gaps in knowledge concerning dolphins and whales.
Dr Simon Elwen of the NDP described the GGF as providing core support that has helped uncover valuable information on marine animals along the coast.
Go Green funding has contributed to studies on the impacts of tourism on marine wildlife, assessments on the importance of the marine protection areas for marine mammals and analysis on large-scale construction activities in Walvis Bay.
Small but important
The first GGF grant in 2009 and 2010 helped scientists undertake the first abundance estimates on the two types of dolphins along the coast, the Heaviside dolphin and the bottlenose dolphins. The study looked at distribution, seasonality and the effects of human impacts on the marine mammal’s behaviours, notably the large marine tourism industry operations in the Bay.
The work confirmed the unique and very small population of bottlenose dolphins in Namibia, counting around 100 individuals. “They are among the smallest population of any mammal in the country,” Elwin said.
Their diminutive population size exposes the dolphins to a host of natural and man-made threats including interactions with fisheries, coastal degradation, marine tourism and harmful algal blooms. Not only are the bottlenose dolphins of Namibia the smallest population of any mammal in southern Africa, but also there is nowhere else on the southern African coast where this species of common bottlenose dolphins can be viewed from the shore, as they can from beaches near Walvis Bay and Swakopmund.
Over the past decade, the NDP has formed close ties with the local community, including the marine tourism industry, and has played a pivotal role in helping the sector implement eco-friendly practices.
“Some of our work involved looking at how dolphins use the environment and how they react to the presence of boats, which has allowed the industry to better self-regulate their behaviours to ensure minimum disturbance of the animals,” Elwen said.
Go Green Fund supported analyses of how dolphins use the bay, helped the NDP identify key resting areas along the Long Beach coastline, many of which are treated as sanctuary spaces where tourism activities are off-limits.
The NDP team hopes to have this more formally recognised in the future.
Scientific studies have benefitted the tourism industry by boosting knowledge and understanding of key wildlife and environmental attractions, adding value to the offering for tourists.
On the flip side, the tourism industry is better informed about conservation practices that not only protect the tourism industry’s primary resource, but also the environment and wildlife.
“Scientific research is essential to protect the resources that tourism and its associated jobs, rely on,” Elwen said.
The close relationship between the scientists and tour operators has been a win-win, with the NDP provided with regular reports and photographs of sightings in addition to frequently being able to “tag along on boat cruises to collect additional data or attend a stranding on the way to Sandwich Harbour”.
A green partnership
Since the first grant was extended in 2009, the Go Green Fund has extended two more grants, with total funding to the NDP project exceeding N$500 000 by last year. The second Nedbank Go Green Fund grant funded a cutting-edge piece of equipment – a towed-hydrophane array – which was used in a collaborative project with the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources to survey for dolphins and whales in the Namibian Islands Marine Protected Area (NIMPA) near Lüderitz.
The technology allowed the scientists to conduct both acoustic and visual surveys in an area renowned for its challenging climatic and oceanic conditions.
“The work revealed the high density of dolphins and a variety of whales living year-round in the NIMPA, highlighting the area’s biological importance at a regional scale,” Elwen said.
A third grant extended to the NDP by the Nedbank Go Green Fund for 2015 to 2017, allowed the project to build on the baseline data collected in 2008 to 2012, and to investigate the impacts of large-scale port expansion projects at Walvis Bay, on dolphins.
The study found that these environmental disturbances resulted in a “reduced use of parts of the bay by bottlenose dolphins, but that overall numbers in the population have remained constant”.
Answering important questions like these underlines the critical role entities like the Nedbank Go Green Fund play.
“Private sector support is an essential part of that financial support, as it is often very locally motivated and targeted and can be much more flexible than funding from international bodies, allowing for quick responses to issues of concern,” said Elwen.