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A glimmer of hope after meeting Namibian Ombudsman
by Pete Bethune
“If Namibia continues with the seal cull”, I say to the Namibian Ombudsman earnestly, “then you will pay a heavy price.” I pause for a few seconds letting the words sink in. “Your tourism industry will be targeted. All those German and Swedish tourists that backpack around your country…well they got lots of other places they can visit that don’t club seals. There is talk of trade bans on Namibian products. And some have even called for a ban on De Beers’ diamonds, with the cull happening on their land. Up until now, Namibia has been able to keep its seal cull under the radar…well that is all about to change.”
A slight smile emerges on his face. “In actual fact Mister Bethune, it is not my job to consider what price we will pay. That is for the government to consider. My job is simply to determine if the seal cull is legal under Namibian law.”
“And if you do determine it to be illegal…what then?”
“Then I will shut it down.” His bluntness surprises me.
He is perhaps what you’d expect of an Ombudsman - An older gentleman with a rather distinguished look about him. He used to be a lawyer, then a prosecutor, then a judge, and now he holds one of the most powerful positions in Namibia.
A few months back a legal opinion from Francois Hugo claimed the seal clubbing industry contravenes Namibian law, and it started this current investigation. In many ways this is the best chance conservationists have in getting the industry closed down. An opinion from the Ombudsman is final - it cannot be appealed to a higher court.
An announcement comes over the airport intercom system. Mr Choo Hin Lee is holding up his plane from leaving for Maputo. His bags are about to be offloaded if he doesn’t show up shortly. I imagine in my mind twenty brothers all scurrying through a plane fuselage looking for Mr Lees’ bags.
I pose my next question. “What aspects of the cull do you consider likely to be illegal…the cruelty perhaps?”
Mr Walters shifts a little in his seat. “Well that is certainly one area that I am investigating.”
“Well I’ve seen the recent video of seals clubbed in Namiba and it is a bloody disgrace. Some were clubbed three times before they died. One small one was clubbed, thrown in a pile of dead carcasses, and then it was flicked from the pile and wandered off before collapsing. I find it hard to believe that this can be considered anything other than excessive cruelty…” My voice trails off.
“The challenge Mister Bethune is for many people in Africa, this is perfectly acceptable. We do not have a long history of conservation and activism. And for many Namibians, the seals are just a smelly eyesore.” He shifts again in his seat before continuing with a new line. “The Ministry of Fisheries argues strongly that if we do not control the seal population, then it will explode and destroy our fishing industry.”
I hold my hand up stopping him. “Look there was once twenty countries all conducting seal culls. Eighteen of them have since stopped, and none of them experienced the apocalyptic seal explosion your Minster Esau keeps talking about. Seals are just part of a healthy ecosystem. They are a key predator that helps to maintain the genetic strength of species they predate upon. Sure they eat fish. That’s is what seals do. But that all serves a purpose.”
Mr Walters has a considered look on his face. I am not sure he agrees with me, but he’s not arguing with me either. “The problem with Namibia is you got too greedy with your fishery, and now the Minister is blaming the drop in fish stocks on seals. Your fish catch has doubled while your seal population has halved. And yet the Minster has the gall to blame the fishery problems on seals.”
The Ombudsman sighs and looks out at the window where a plane is being pushed away from the terminal. “This is not an easy situation for us”, he says finally. “We are a small country with many unemployed. We are trying our best to be successful. And at the moment the seal industry employs a lot of people.”
“Well apparently it employs 85 people part time”, I reply quickly. “You will lose a lot more than 85 jobs if you continue with the cull. You are one of only two countries still culling seals. And this year, for the first time ever, you will kill more than double what Canada does. You guys are about to become the Taiji of Africa”
He signs again. “Well as I explained, my job is determine if the cull is legal or not, rather than to consider the consequences of a continuation of the cull.”
A little Asian man has arrived at gate 30 where the Maputo plane just departed. He is arguing with the staff. He’s probably late because he had to finish his bowl of Shark fin soup, I think to myself.
“That’ll be Mr Choo Hin Lee”, I suggest to the Ombudsman. He chuckles.
We continue talking for another hour. The Ombudsman impresses me. He is articulate, considered, highly intelligent, and of an open mind. It is a shame his job is simply to look at legal considerations, but I still believe he remains the best hope in getting the Namibian Seal cull stopped.
I finally get up to leave. I shake his hand and he gives me a warm smile. “Give me the facts”, he says slowly. “Prove to me that the cull is illegal. Give me information I can work with, and I give you my word I will give it full consideration.
I walk off to Gate 25 for my flight to Windhoek. Tomorrow I meet with Namibian Government Officials. The Ombudsman may be able to ignore dropping tourist numbers in his evaluation, but I suspect the Minster of Tourism won’t be able to.
Photo: Mindy McAdams (macloo on flickr) - Cape Cross Namibia 2010