Danene van der Westhuyzen
Danene van der Westhuyzen grew up in Namibia and began hunting with her father at an early age, and one of the lessons that she remembers most about those early days in the field is her father’s respect for wildlife. Danene learned as a child that hunting and a love of nature and animals was congruous, and that hunting was a very effective form of wildlife conservation.Now, years later, Danene has become one of the strongest and loudest voices for hunterbased conservation efforts, both in her home country and abroad. Even though she is a certified optometrist, she has devoted much of her life to hunting. For more than a decade she has worked as a professional hunter, and in 2012 she obtained her dangerous game hunting license—the first woman in Namibia to do so. Today, she operates Aru Safaris in Namibia and serves as the president of the Namibian Association of Professional Hunters (NAPHA). She also serves on the Namibian Conservation Board, the Dallas Safari Club’s Conservation Advisory Board and on the Board of Directors of Conservation Force while serving as the CEO of the Operators and Professional Hunting Associations of Africa.
Danene van der Westhuyzen's Annual Address to the Namibia Professional Hunting Association
Many people would ask me why I hunt, or how I came to be a hunter. And usually I would tell of how I was brought up in Namibia, where hunting is second nature and part of our existence and our way of life. But to be honest, the answer is actually very simple. My dad loves hunting, and I love my dad.
You see, my father didn’t hunt only for the pursuit of wildlife or to pit himself against their territory. He hunted because he didn’t have a reason not to go; with an open mind, in other words. And I found that he was repaired and restored by the experiences; the medicine of such a wild wilderness seemed endless. “The secret to life, I learned it there,” he said once. “Which was?” I wanted to know. My father sat for a long time before shaking his head and looking at me amused. He replied and said: Danene – you already know that answer.
I hunted, also because I didn’t have a reason not to go. I immersed myself with literature, which vividly retold beautiful stories on the beauty and experiences the veld has to offer. Of close encounters and long, slow nights around small fires and paraffin lamps. Having grown up in this setting, I felt already an environmentalist. But as my hunting expanded, I found a new and compelling narrative about conservation and its relationship with hunting. I am sure it is a narrative with which many hunters can associate with.
Some of the common representations will sound familiar: hunters are the original conservationists and the driving force of the conservation movement; hunters contribute the bulk of funding to conservation coffers; and that hunters are the “true” conservationists, the ones who care more about wildlife than anyone else.
These narratives were inspiring to me as I found a place in a new community and felt pride in a set of collective values and achievements. They provided a source of inspiration to me, and many others, and contain some important elements that should unify us in humble pride for our contributions.
But it’s incomplete
It’s not that I disagree that hunters were there at the beginning, put in the hard work and are dedicated conservationists who contribute substantially and care deeply about wildlife. I think we miss a more important aspect of hunters’ involvement in conservation, and this other aspect should be a source of even greater pride for our community.
I think one of the most important defining features of the hunting community is our capacity for cooperation with other groups to safeguard wildlife and wild places.
It is not contentious to say that hunting both sprouted from and has been watered by a deep capacity for cooperation. Hunting with friends, family and that favorite, dependable hunting companion is part of what draws many of us to the veld. Cooperation is, literally and figuratively, in our DNA as human hunters and it is an intrinsic part of the social fabric of hunting cultures.
A capacity for cooperation is the evolutionarily embedded quality that allows us to develop close, organized, supportive communities.
Rather than evolving as hunters, we evolve into hunters. Being able to organise ourselves and work together toward a shared goal that, ultimately, has a substantial benefit in what has defined our history as successful hunting cultures.
That we are able to come together, in person today, from different cities and even countries, provides meaningful reason to celebrate this. Never again should we take this simple gift of in-person camaraderie for granted!
The last two years will always be remembered as the time the world changed, and precious little of it was for the better. The Covid pandemic has left a trail of lost lives, and devastated industries in its wake.
At first it was easy as hunters to focus merely on lost opportunities for adventure, yet a far more dangerous threat began stalking the world’s wildlife and our now hobbled community as surely as a lioness closing in on her prey.
Our international hunting industry, due to crippling travel restrictions, changed overnight. Added to this is the continuous onslaught on our basic human rights, our heritage and our way of life. It is understandable that hunting, any kind of hunting, is not acceptable to many, probably to most, urban people.
People living in the big cities of the world are out of touch with all things natural. So, how can they possibly know what hunting is all about?
Have they ever sat silently for a long time, thinking, – sat as people had for thousands of years, around a fire that lit a very small place in a very great dark?
Everyone who goes on safari feels like they never want it to end. It’s an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people. They see and do things they’ve never dreamed of, and think they’re living on the edge of danger and excitement.
But someone else has set it up, invested in it greatly, is there to keep them safe and make sure they’re comfortable. Someone else has made the dream into a reality for a short time. I’ve never come across a tourist who could put up with the real grind of it all.
There’s more in Africa than a man can ever see with his eyes, a lot more than he can ever hope to understand.
Which means that “behind the scenes” there are people trying to make a living, and usually under very tough conditions, which unfortunately also brings about alternative use that everyone enjoying nature would not always agree with. The point is — the pressure is on…
Dissipation and the decay of values happen during oppression or the lack of visibility or respect. We are currently living in an unnatural situation, we are in a place where we are not heard or seen, we debate about the present and the future, but who listens? Not those who rule. We feel we are in the shadows.
But despite the seemingly overwhelming difficulties our community, our exco and our office have faced, our shared goal, and our ability to work together towards this goal, have gathered us all here yet again.
NAPHA is about the higher purpose, it is about our heritage, and our future. It is about ensuring that hunting will be around for another 1000 years as a force for the better of conservation. I believe in unity. I do not believe in individuality, I believe in a singular collective purpose. I believe in a community where ethics and morality still means something. Where resources are utilized to the benefit of the many, the destitute and the discouraged, instead of the few. And that is why I am here, and I know that is the same reason why all of you are here today – our community, values and culture.
Community is the fact that we work towards the same goal, that we accept our respective roles in order to reach it.
Values are the fact that we trust each other. That we love each other.
And culture – culture is a tricky one. To me culture is as much about what we encourage as what we actually permit. Most people don’t do what we tell them to. They do what we let them get away with.
They say that a person’s personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn’t true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we’d never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.
In Africa, when the sun clips the top of the trees to the west, we usually start to light the paraffin lamps. Then all of a sudden, the light drops, the way it does in southern Africa, everything turns magenta, orange, a riot of violet and pink, and then just as suddenly dark. There’s no gentle dusk, no nautical twilight, no soft evening. You’re either ready for it, or not. One moment the sky is suffused with a vivid pulsing sunset, it looks as if it’ll go on forever; and the next moment it’s a black and moonless sky, sword-pierced with stars.
Nothing prepares you for the sudden darkness of a southern African night, even if you’ve never known anything else. It’s always as if the light had been smothered rather than gently slid behind the horizon. But it prepares you for certain endings, such a leap from painted skies to night. By which I mean definite endings. With the influence of international decision makers on Africa, the sun sets slowly on Africa.
Sometimes it feels as if the people of Namibia love the fact that the climate is so inhospitable, because not everyone can handle it, and that reminds me of our own strength and resilience as hunters. May we light those paraffin lamps soon enough…