Namibia can be described almost exclusively in superlatives: largest, oldest, driest, richest, most. Are you looking for an African safari adventure in a land of stunning landscapes and growing wildlife populations with a culture of conservation?

Consider Namibia, the second least densely populated sovereign country in the world. With a population of 2.6 million people living in an area about twice the size of California, the country has vast areas dominated by deserts and bushland. Only Mongolia and Denmark-administered Greenland are more sparsely populated.

Namibia’s Incredible Natural Landscapes

One of the most striking features of Namibia is the Namib desert, the oldest desert in the world, estimated to have existed for well over 55 million years. The Namib is a coastal desert; some of the largest sand dunes in the world stretch along Namibia’s western coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. They are the source of Namibia’s name: the word namib means “the place where there is nothing” or “vast place.”

Due to their naturally shifting patterns, dune measurement is notoriously inaccurate. However, at 1257 feet (383 meters), Dune 7 near Walvis Bay is the highest in Namibia and one of the highest in the world. At 1066 feet (325 meters), the Big Daddy sand dune in Sossusvlei is smaller but far more famous and regularly climbed by tourists.

The Namib desert is also home to uniquely adapted plants and animals, such as the welwitschia, with only two long, strap-like leaves, which can live for over 1000 years. The outer Namib desert is largely barren of vegetation; lichens and succulents are found in coastal areas, while grasses and shrubs grow on slopes and cliffs. Several types of trees, including multiple varieties of acacia, are able to survive the extremely arid climate.

On Nat Hab’s Wild Namibia Photo Safari, guests visit the private 90,000-acre Kulala Wilderness Reserve at the edge of Namibia’s great sand sea. Wildlife is sparsely distributed in this austere landscape, but you’ll have a chance to capture photos of desert species, including oryx, ostrich, springbok, spotted and brown hyena, aardwolf and bat-eared fox. The rare dune lark’s entire range is confined to this habitat. Explore the desert on short walks, safari drives, or an early-morning hot air balloon flight over the Namib desert dunes.

Beyond the desert, the superlatives continue: Fish River Canyon is 160 kilometers long, up to 27 kilometers wide and 550 kilometers (1804 feet) deep; it is Africa’s longest canyon and, after the Grand Canyon in the United States, the second largest in the world. The canyon offers breathtaking views and hiking opportunities for adventurous travelers.

Namibia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Twyfelfontein, has one of the largest known concentrations of rock engravings in Africa. Over 5,000 individual figures between 2,000 and 6,000 years old have been recorded there. Most of these well-preserved engravings represent rhinoceros, elephant, ostrich and giraffe, as well as human and animal footprints and motifs of human figures in red ochre. Objects excavated date from the Late Stone Age. The site forms an extensive, high-quality record of ritual practices relating to hunter-gatherer communities in this part of southern Africa over at least 2,000 years, and clearly illustrates the connection between the ritual and economic practices of hunter-gatherers.

Namibia’s landscapes also feature record-breaking water and wealth. Namibia is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa and depends largely on groundwater. With an average rainfall of about 14 inches (350 millimeters)  per year, the highest rainfall occurs in the Caprivi in the northeast (about 600 millimeters or 24 inches per year) and decreases in a westerly and southwesterly direction to as little as 2 inches (50 millimeters) and less per year at the coast.

Earth’s largest (non-subglacial) underground lake is hidden beneath the Kalahari Desert in Dragon’s Breath Cave in Namibia. The lake is located at least 330 feet (100 meters) below the surface. Superlatives continue underground, as Namibia also boasts the richest deposits of marine diamonds in the world. The Namibian coastal deserts are the largest source of diamonds on earth, making Namibia the world’s largest producer of diamonds.

Wildlife in Namibia

Namibia is a paradise for wildlife and the superlatives continue: Namibia is home to the largest free-roaming population of black rhinoceros in Africa and the largest cheetah population in the world. Many endangered animal species can be found in Namibia: the African Wild Dog, the Black and White Rhino, the Oribi and the much smaller Puku.

Namibia is home to a striking array of wildlife, from the big five game mammals (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo) to ostriches and zebras roaming the gravel plains to penguins and seals chilling in Atlantic currents.

The Namib-Naukluft National Park, the largest game park in Africa, supports populations of African bush elephants, mountain zebras, and other large mammals, including oryx, a graceful antelope that can survive without water for long periods.

Namibia’s plankton-rich coastal waters support an extraordinary array of marine life, including an increasing number of southern right whales. Cape Cross Seal Reserve in Namibia is the world’s largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals. During the breeding season in November and December, up to 210,000 seals can be found there.

Wildlife Conservation in Namibia

The story of Namibia’s wildlife is remarkably hopeful. During the 1970s and 80s, a dramatic increase in poaching caused an equally dramatic decline in wildlife numbers. Drought and military occupation meant the prospects were bleak for the country’s human inhabitants, too. Conservation and conservation travel are driving contributors to the increased success of both human and wildlife populations in Namibia.

Before independence, in the mid-1980s, a Namibian NGO and local leaders introduced an innovative community game guard system to curb poaching in northwest Namibia. The first community game guards were appointed by local headmen to help reverse wildlife declines. The early game guard system was based on re-empowering local headmen who said they did not want to see wildlife disappear under the threats of drought and poaching.

John Kasaona’s father was a farmer and poacher who became a game guard. He tells the story in Pride of Namibia: The Greatest Conservation Story Ever Told.

When Namibia achieved independence in 1990, it was the first country in Africa and one of only a few in the world that incorporated environmental protection into its constitution.

Nearly 20% of the country is protected by national parks such as Etosha, but Namibia’s approach to conservation is unique. At the core of the Namibian approach to wildlife conservation is a focus on local populations as stewards or managers of their own livelihoods and natural resources.

Building from the community game guard experience, after enshrining environmental protection into the constitution in 1996, Namibia’s government passed a law enabling communities to set up conservancies—areas with defined borders and governance and management structures outside of parks—giving local communities the right to manage and benefit from their own natural resources, including wildlife. This led to the creation of a unique system of community-based natural resource management conservancies to drive both sustainable resource management and empower historically marginalized communities.

Communal conservancies are democratically governed by community members who elect their own management committees. Committees are responsible for managing the conservancy’s natural resources, including wildlife, rangelands, and forests. When communal and freehold conservancies are included, 46.8% of Namibia is under some form of formal conservation management.

This progressive approach both safeguards the country’s rich biodiversity and empowers communities economically and socially. Putting communities in control of their environment has transformed the outlook for people and wildlife in one of Africa’s newest countries. Historically, Namibia is home to some of the world’s richest wildlife and poorest communities. By helping people benefit from their natural resources, African safaris like Nat Hab’s Epic Botswana & Namibia Safari can help both to thrive. Conservation travel plays a significant part in that.

Conservation Success for Wildlife and Local Communities

Namibia’s communal conservancies are successful for both humans and wildlife: lions, cheetahs, black rhinos, zebras and other native wildlife have increased. Through initiatives such as ecotourism and conservation travel, restoration has generated sustainable income for their communities.

The communal conservancy program has shown extraordinary results, demonstrating that integrating local community concerns and the capability to manage natural resources in conservation interventions can lead to positive outcomes for both people and nature.

So far, 235,000 people across Namibia have joined together to create some 59  special conservation areas, which protect 132,000 sq miles of vital wildlife habitat—one-sixth of Namibia’s land area. More than 30 more are in the planning stages. In just over two decades, Namibia doubled the amount of protected space – and wildlife is thriving.

The communal conservancy program in Namibia has been successful in restoring wildlife populations, particularly large animals such as elephants and predators like cheetahs. In Kunene, elephant numbers have tripled; giraffes have increased fivefold. Black rhinos, once near extinction, have rebounded, and free-roaming desert lions—reduced to less than 25 by the mid-1990s—now number over 150 and cover vast expanses of northwest Namibia. In 1982, Kunene was home to as few as 400 oryx, 600 springboks and 450 zebras. Now, there are around 29,000 oryx, 175,000 springboks and 18,800 zebras. Their recovery has led to big increases in the number of predators, including lions, leopards and cheetahs.

Local people benefit as a result. As WWF Director Chris Weaver shared, “Tourism is fundamental to that process.”

Conservation areas bring in more than 5.5 million US dollars per year and the communities that manage the land benefit from jobs ranging from ecotourism to gathering ingredients for upmarket perfumes. And because everyone benefits from preserving the region’s animals, poachers are no longer welcome.

To foster a growing ecotourism economy within conservancies, WWF helps find investors and offers business training to conservancy members. Joint venture lodges and campsites provide the largest overall source of benefits to conservancies. Tourism creates employment and fosters a variety of other sources of revenue, such as craft markets.

As a result, efforts to increase the economic livelihood and inclusion for women are also a focus of Namibia. Namibian women were historically excluded from natural resource management. Women now make up 35% of conservancy committee members, including three committee chairs and the majority of conservancy treasurers. As a result, women are receiving a larger share of benefits and exerting a growing influence over resource management and community development. Unsurprisingly, one study in Namibia found that households in conservancies had higher incomes and better access to basic services such as healthcare and education than households outside conservancies.

See Namibia and Support a Conservation Role Model

Namibia is a role model in involving local communities in natural resource management and conservation efforts. The country’s approach to conservation is based on human rights and inclusion, with respect for the role of communities as stewards of their own land and waters.

In WWF’s webinar, Conservation Across Borders, Dr. Robin Naidoo Senior Conservation and Lead Wildlife Scientist, “It’s absolutely fundamental that local communities who live in these areas are key parts of the decision making… that they see benefits from conservation interventions … and that they … feel that like they have a role to play in conservation of natural resources particularly with regards to improving their livelihoods. Namibia… has really been a model for the world to follow in terms of how to make sure that local communities are really benefiting from wildlife conservation so there’s what’s called Namibia’s natural resource management program which has been instrumental in evolving user rights to local resources back to natural community.”

Since 1998, Namibia has created 86 communal conservancies, covering more than 20% of the country (64,162 mi2), and encompassing approximately 227,802 community members (9% of Namibia’s population). Formed and run by local people, these conservancies offer protected space for wildlife outside of official protected areas and generate more than $10 million a year in cash income and in-kind benefits for local people. The money goes directly back to communities to support anti-poaching operations, wildlife management, and education and health initiatives.

The Namibian conservation model can be adapted in other countries by incorporating the protection of the environment into their constitutions and enabling communities to manage and benefit from their own natural resources. Namibia’s communal conservancies illustrate that if we can integrate local community concerns and the ability to manage natural resources in conservation interventions, the outcomes for both people and nature are superb. Namibia provides a model that can be adapted in other countries.

Across Namibia and globally, communal conservancies have become a recognized conservation success story. While challenges remain, conservancies have contributed to strengthening communities’ rights, voice and stewardship of the wildlife on which they depend for their livelihoods and cultures.

Namibia is a country of contrasts and diversity, where you can experience different cultures. From the ancient rock art of the San people to the colorful dresses of local Herero women, from German colonial architecture to the modern skyscrapers, from traditional music and dance to contemporary art and literature, to witnessing conservation successes and groundbreaking communal leadership, Namibia has something for everyone.