Monika Shikongo - In the line of duty
Growing up surrounded by dogs and cattle in the remote village of Onendongo in northern Namibia where only African folktale brought her closer to knowing wildlife, Monika Shikongo soon took up a career path in nature conservation to ensure that what remains of wildlife is preserved for future generations.
Shikongo, 25, is probably the youngest Warden of a national park in the history of nature conservation in Namibia.
She is responsible for managing one of Namibia’s most rugged, challenging and tourist prone wildlife conservation areas, the eastern section of Bwabwata National Park in Caprivi Region where she heads a team of 15 officials and rangers.
“I grew up in an area where wildlife never existed, where children would only sit next to the fire and hear stories of how wildlife was once the main source of meat as well as how hunting trips were an integral part of African communities,” says Shikongo.
She is currently the only woman running and managing a national park in Namibia, something traditionally considered a man’s job.
Managing Bwabwata National Park requires commitment and courage as well as good communication skills because this park has been the heart of human-wildlife-conflict in Namibia.
“Human-wildlife-conflict is one of the main challenges facing the management especially during the planting season. However, recently with input from community members we have been able to work together in trying to find solutions to this challenge.”
Bwabwata is a very unique park in Namibia. Apart from the fact that it is home to around 5000 inhabitants, it is located at the heart of the emerging Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area with massive trans-boundary animal movements.
Shikongo speaks highly on the need to curb human wildlife conflicts most importantly with compensation packages provided by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to individuals whose fields and crops are destroyed by wildlife.
Being a woman has not deterred her from pursuing a career path in the mostly male dominated nature conservation industry in Namibia.
“I am a stern believer in the equal opportunities for both men and women and do not see anything wrong with me having to work in the jungle full of wild beasts. I think as women we should not underestimate our own capabilities, we have the potential to contribute significantly to the development of Namibia once we believe that what men can do, we can do,” she says.
She believes that nature conservation is a very crucial task that every Namibian should get involved in and ensure that the future generation will live in an environment which is rich in natural resources and be able to sustain itself.
“When I was growing up, I never saw a lion or a kudu in our village; we only heard stories about how our forefathers used to chase Wildebeests with dogs during the drought seasons and how it was a feast when a Wildebeest was killed.”
She argues that if people are not educated on how to promote nature conservation in their areas, the future generations will hold them accountable when wildlife becomes extinct.
Shikongo obtained a Diploma in Nature Conservation in 2007 at the Polytechnic of Namibia.
During her studies and in-service training, she was groomed by international award-winning conservationist Dr. Laurie Marker at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) where she was involved with educating farmers on Integrated Livestock and Predator Management and assisted with an anthrax project at the Etosha Ecological Institute at Okaukuejo.
Marker is the Founder and Executive Director of the CCF who has developed a permanent Conservation Research Centre for the wild cheetah.
After her stint at CCF and the completion of her Polytechnic studies, Shikongo was appointed as a ranger with Etosha National Park Anti-Poaching Unit in 2008.
Her anti-poaching efforts saw her being shortlisted as a finalist for the 2008 Young Conservationist of the Year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Commission on protected areas and the International Ranger Federation.
The award aims to recognise and raise awareness of the outstanding contributions made to the management of protected areas, and leadership shown, by young conservationists throughout the world.
It encourages young professionals and helps them develop networks by inviting winners to attend one of the global conservation events among other things.
She is still adamant that poaching has been rife in Namibia but the anti-poaching units in the national parks have managed to curb the illegal activity.
Not only is she a tough lady who has climbed mountain ranges around Spreetshoogte, she has excellent leadership qualities and has gained the respect of her seniors, traditional authorities and her male subordinates.
Recently, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism in Namibia awarded her the Springbok Award for 2010 for her outstanding performance and demonstration of great potential to succeed in the field of conservation, park management and special outreach services.
As if that was not enough, the ministry also awarded the Bwabwata National Park which she heads the “Incident Book Award.”
The “Incident Book Award” was introduced in 2008 by the ministry and is awarded to a park team which records the best data on daily park management activities such as wildlife mortalities, species sightings, tourists’ statistics, fire, rainfall and patrolling efforts.
The data provides basic information for reporting and adaptive management at local level and decision-making at headquarters.
Shikongo says the awards came as a surprise to her and her team, and will intensify the desire of the Bwabwata National park team to work even harder and promote nature conservation education among the surrounding communities.
Among some of the tasks that this young warden has to carry out is talking to the indunas (leaders) and community members on how best to promote nature conservation something which she say is quite a challenge given her inability to speak the local languages of the Caprivi region.
She describes the best part of her job as the time she has to patrol the park with her team and being in the wild, connected to the nature.
But the job can be rough; she recalls an incident in which she came face-to-face with a disturbed elephant during one of the rescue operations carried out within the community, describing it as the scariest day of her professional career.
“It was midnight when community members started beating drums and from our base we could tell something was wrong and had to go assist the community members drive away the elephants from their fields. It was so dark and the bush was thick. We were spreading out to locate the stray animals; I came face to face with a charging elephant. It was so close that I could see this giant animal looking right into my eyes preparing for a crushing attack on me. How I managed to escape I do not know, but I never got frightened in that way. I had looked the devil’s eyes but lived to tell the story.”
Shikongo remains defiant: “I would not wish for another job. Why should I be seated in an office glaring at the walls and office furniture at the expense of mother nature? Life in the park is quite exciting as one gets to interact with nature and see all these wild animals that you would normally only see on television or just as pictures. Some people travel thousands of kilometres just to see our animals.”
The Bwabwata National Park is home to wild animals such as Elephants, Buffalos, Kudus, Lions and Leopards, just to mention but a few.
Communities within and around the park are also engaged in conservation projects and have benefited from trophy hunting.
“A national park is about the people, hence it is important that the park management and surrounding communities work together to exploit the benefits of conservation in a sustainable way,” she adds.
Because of the nature of the Bwabwata National park on the trans-boundary frontier, the management is always in constant communication with park officials from adjacent Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
This is the only place in the world where four countries meet in a national park. Previously, Caprivi Game Reserve, Bwabwata is named after a village in the reserve and means, ‘the sound of bubbling water’.
“We often communicate on issues such as wildlife migration, poaching, diseases and water levels. If we see poachers on our side of the border and then they crossed to the other side of the border we alert our counterparts,” says the game warden.
Inspired by her mother Enata Lukas’ falktales, Shikongo retires to the wilderness, she calls home, after the interview. PF