Namibia Animal Count Sees Noah's Ark-Full of Beasts

PHOTOAaron Price, World Wildlife Fund
A giraffe on the Namibian plains. A little-known fact about the animal: giraffes eat bones and swallow them whole to get extra nutrients.

Three random animal facts from Namibia:

1. If you get too close to a group of wild ostriches, they will stampede... and it's hilarious to watch.

2. Giraffes eat bones. For real. They pick up the bones of dead animals and swallow them whole. They do this to get extra nutrients.

Noahs New ArkPlay

3. Jackals are much cuter than their name implies. They look like a cross between a fox and a collie.

"Nightline" traveled to Namibia for what is described as the largest annual animal count on Earth. It's part of a revolutionary effort to transform a place that used to be running out of animals into one that is literally crawling with them.

We were the first reporters to cover the animal count, which involves more than 250 people fanning out in 60 vehicles. They count animals over about 15 million acres over three weeks. They literally count every animal they see.

There are spring bock, a kind of small antelope, and oryx, another antelope relative with huge horns. There are zebras and zebra babies.

The counters have some serious eagle eyes. They're able to spot critters incredibly far away, even if the animals are obscured by tall grass.

Ten years ago, when the animal count began, the numbers were much lower. Counters would drive for hours and hours and not see any animals at all.

"You wouldn't see one [animal]," said guide Raymond Peters. "After 10 years, you can see you have to stop every five minutes now to count animals. ... It is very satisfying.

Close Encounters With Pachyderms

On our trip, we saw enormous numbers of animals. Everything from baboons to -- and here things got a little dicey -- a herd of elephants.

"You can see that, all three cows with young ones," said Peters. "You can see the adolescent there has baby tusks."

Our guides told us that elephants with babies are especially aggressive. "Those cows, when they [have] young [are] very dangerous -- very dangerous, especially when they're young," said Peters.

We drove right in anyway, getting close enough to hear them chew.

But then one of our cars had to take a detour because the elephants got too close. They can knock a truck over if they want to. In the end, we got away unscathed.

Namibia has been called "the land God created in anger." It's a beautifully barren country that looks more like Utah or Afghanistan than Africa.

Over decades of civil war and grinding poverty, Namibians hunted down and ate many of the country's wild animals. Species included incredibly rare desert lions and desert elephants that literally slide down sand dunes on their bums. Locals killed animals, like lions, not only for food but because the predators would eat livestock.

"In the past if you saw a lion track, you rounded up all the people in the village, you got on your horses, you got your guns and you hunted that lion down and shot it," said Chris Weaver of the World Wildlife Fund, who joined the count.

But attitudes changed radically about 10 years ago, when the government gave Namibians the freedom to manage area animals.

Weaver said now that locals essentially own all the animals in their area, they are much less likely to kill them.

"When you own it, you're taking care of it, because otherwise, if you waste it, then you've lost it, everything," Weaver said. "Now it's a completely different situation where [if] I go poach something, I'm stealing from my neighbor and my neighbor's neighbor, and my neighbor doesn't like it when someone steals from him, so it's a different situation."

Weaver added, "There's huge peer pressure" now not to poach.

'People Are an Opportunity'

The locals know that the more animals they have, the more likely they are to get tourists. And more tourists means more money for them.

In this town, called Pura, there's now a five-star safari hotel where all the jobs are filled by locals. The extra money has paid for a new school and a new well.

The chief game warden in the area, Erwin Tjikuua, said the animal count is as much about protecting wildlife as alleviating poverty.

"I'm really proud of that, to be honest," said Tjikuua. He said conservation is less about managing animals than it is about managing people. "I think that's something that we as conservationists have learned a lot about in the last 20, 30 years. Traditionally we were biologists, we were managing animals, and the people were the problem. In Namibia, people are an opportunity. And that's revolutionary."

And that's where the animal count comes in. Every community needs to know how many animals they have. It's a high-stakes endeavor, because the people know that the more animals they have, they more money they can make.

Which is why when the numbers come in lower than expected at this community meeting, people are unhappy.

Overall, however, this program has worked incredibly well. Basically, the mountain zebra and lion populations have quadrupled and the elephant population has doubled. Oryx had almost been eliminated in 1982, but today number about 40,000.

At a time when most animal stories are about endangered species disappearing, this is a rare good news story -- from the only country in Africa where the number of animals is actually going up.