Poachers turned gamekeepers

Tom Minney

A unique policy encouraging locals to help manage and conserve wildlife has produced good results, leading to increased animal numbers and greater revenues for communities.

When an upset cow elephant comes storming into the camp, everyone jumps for cover behind the bar. The elephant charges off again into the night with no harm done but, as we settle our nerves, the tense darkness reflects the potential for conflict as humans and wild animals learn to share territory.

Such chance encounters are becoming more frequent in Namibia: wildlife numbers have increased since independence and key species, such as rhino and elephant, are flourishing outside the game parks and regaining parts of their original ranges. Commercial farmers and subsistence herders are learning to share the habitat through a revolutionary policy of handing over control of wildlife and conservation to the local people. 

Conservation has been part of Namibia since its birth in 1990. Article 95 of the independence constitution speaks of using the living natural resources on a sustainable basis, while the 1996 Nature Conservation Amendment Act allows groups of community members to form so-called ‘conservancies’ – both for the purpose of conserving and using wildlife sustainably and as a means of earning revenues. “Conservancies are an effective way of addressing poverty in rural areas. Through them, community members have rights and duties with regard to the consumptive and non-consumptive use and sustainable management of game in conservancies,” explains Dr Kalumbi Shangula, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. “Through income generated from tourism [game watching], trophy hunting and selling of game meat, communities are in a position to distribute these benefits among themselves.”

By 2011, there were 65 registered conservancies reportedly covering 17 percent of the country, with another 15 applications pending. Donors like the World Wildlife Fund and USAID have supported the conservancies over 20 years and some are now self-sustaining. 

The movement stems from the passion of pioneers like Garth Owen-Smith, who came to the arid Kunene region (then known as the Kaokoveld) in the 1970s, when local populations and wildlife were under stress as a result of South African occupation and the ongoing liberation war. Indigenous Namibians were driven off commercial farming areas and on to marginal lands that could not support them. Hunting trips by white officials and poaching by soldiers, farmers and disenfranchised locals all combined to push many species towards extinction across the north-west. 

Owen-Smith then established Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), which consulted local headmen. It turned out that communities did not want to be paid not to poach; they wanted to win back ownership of a valuable resource. In the turbulent situation, the headmen and IRDNC established de facto ownership, with traditional leaders appointing game guards who could move over hundreds of kilometres of territory and knew the ground well. 

The conservancy system is part of a government supported, nationwide conservation effort. Shangula cites some of the successes as the distribution of benefits among conservancy members and the increased numbers of game. In the 1980s, black rhinos had been hunted almost to extinction but now there are more than 1,400 of them. From about 7,500 elephants in 1995, there are now at least 16,000, while cheetah numbers have doubled to 4,000.

A key challenge is building management skills, especially financial, among the rural population. “Efforts have been made to arrange skills training. Notwithstanding the challenges, most of the conservancies are performing very well,” said Shangula. Not all are yet viable, however, as some do not attract enough wildlife or tourism.

Conservancies can benefit communities by providing meat, incomes and partial compensation for wildlife damage, such as when cheetahs eat goats or elephants destroy water pipes. They also help make it easier to share space, by placing water points for elephants further from homes. Local people train for jobs in tourist resorts – as guides or making and selling traditional handicrafts – enabling them to stay in their rural areas. Conservancies also enhance skills and the enjoyment of nature, with many locals preferring to work as trackers or in conservation rather than moving to the cities.


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