Namibia has designated about 20 percent of its area as 82 communal conservancies run by local communities. Of these, about two-thirds have hunting rights. They retain a portion of their allocated quota to hunt for food for the local community, and sell a portion to professional hunters, who in turn bring in trophy hunters.In theory, it’s a win-win: income and development opportunities for impoverished local people that give them a reason to preserve their wildlife, while using hunting as a tool to keep the species in balance.A visit to the system’s first and most successful conservancy, Nyae Nyae in remote northeastern Namibia, raises questions about how well the system is currently working for either the local San community or their wildlife. TSUMKWE, Namibia — Just south of Tsumkwe, an isolated San settlement in northeastern Namibia, a sun-shredded sign indicated the Nyae Nyae cultural activity center was 10 kilometers (6 miles) away along a potholed track leading into pristine African bush. Welcome to what was once mythologized as the original African Eden or “Bushman’s Paradise,” a nearly 9,000-square-kilometer (3,475-square-mile) communal conservation area close to the Botswana border and the Okavango Delta, run by “the first people,” as the San refer to themselves. The oldest of Namibia’s 82 registered communal conservancies, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy is named after the pans located at the northernmost tip of the Kalahari Desert, which fill up with rainwater at the end of summer and attract large numbers of animals, from elephants to apex predators and many species of antelope. It is also the only place left in the world where the San are still allowed to hunt with their traditional bow and poisoned arrows. But while some still use traditional snares and traps for smaller game, most hunting is done with rifles from the comfort of a pickup truck, of which the conservancy owns several. “Can you please explain to us what it is that keeps bringing people from the outside here?” the old San hunter known by everyone as Kiewiet had asked earlier that week. Map shows the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia. Image courtesy of UNEP-WCMC and IUCN (2019), Protected Planet: The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) On-line, Feb. 2019, Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC and IUCN. Available at: www.protectedplanet.net. The other most pressing question he and all the other old-timers I met during a week in Nyae Nyae had was: where was the meat from the eland and giraffe that were hunted that week? By the end of October, at the close of the six-month-long hunting season, all they’d received was elephant meat, unpalatable for older folks. “An elephant is too big an animal for me to eat,” Kiewiet said. “The meat is very tough, you have to cook it at least three times.” There was no sign of any activity at the cultural activity center, a foreign aid-funded cluster of four incomplete, roofless buildings of red-clay brick. A fence surrounded the center, along with litter left behind by the contractors after the money ran out in 2014 and they just disappeared. Who were the contractors? Some people from Otjiwarongo, the regional capital, some people from Tsumkwe, maybe Chief Bobo knew, said Dunny Coma, a community game guard the conservancy office had assigned to help me find Kiewiet and the other old hunters. No one really understood why it was built in the first place. The galvanized roof sheets, prized in an area where the nearest hardware store is five hours’ drive away by gravel road in the town of Grootfontein, had also disappeared. The traditional San grass lean-to huts are still common here, and a zinc-sheet house is something of a status symbol, Coma explained. The roofing was not the only thing that seemed to be missing. Apart from harlequin quails (Coturnix delegorguei) and sand grouse (family Pteroclidae) drinking from the rain-filled potholes and the odd duiker (genus Sylvicapra) diving away into the bush at the sound of a car, there was no other sign of wildlife. The only spoor to be seen were tracks of cattle. Around the dried-up pans, too, the only droppings were from cattle, nothing else. Under the conservancy rules that divide Nyae Nyae into land-use zones, this area was designated as a core conservation area, where livestock, farming, hunting and other activities were prohibited to avoid disturbing the game. An ancient baobab tree in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy. Image by John Grobler for Mongabay. But getting the owners to remove their cattle was a political problem, said Coma. They live in Tsumkwe in the middle of the conservancy, where the core-area rules don’t apply, and claimed to have no control over their cattle’s grazing habits. Some of them had established cattle posts close to the core conservation area, including a group of 12 well-connected individuals who had illegally fenced off large tracts of land. With only the one government game warden, who was himself farming cattle on the side, no one seemed willing to act against them or their cattle crowding out the indigenous animals. A court order obtained by the conservancy evicting seven of them had gone unheeded. And where there were people, there was illegal hunting. And yet, for the past 20 years the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) has given Nyae Nyae the single biggest hunting quota of all Namibia’s communal conservancies, about two-thirds of which have hunting rights. In 2018, the conservancy was entitled to harvest more than 1,300 animals and birds, including nine elephants, nine buffalos, seven elands, four roan antelopes, three leopards, two spotted hyenas, one giraffe and a host of smaller species. This, together with Nyae Nyae’s sheer size and pristine wilderness, makes it the largest hunting area and the richest prize among Namibia’s hunting fraternity. Nyae Nyae, for example, is famed as the best elephant hunting area in the world, according to its contracted hunter, Stephan Jacobs. Under the conservancy model, the local communities are entitled to sell most of their allocated quota to professional hunters in advance for cash. A portion is set aside for the conservancy and the local traditional authority to hunt for food to be distributed among conservancy members. The professional hunting outfitters in turn sell individual trophy hunts to well-heeled foreigners who typically spend two weeks in their tented camps or nearby lodges. Nyae Nyae has other sources of income as well: the subsidized production and sale of ostrich-egg beaded jewelry and the harvesting of Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens and H. zeyheri) tubers for the herbal medicinal trade. Its earnings allow it to maintain an office, pay its 27 permanent staff members each a small salary, maintain water infrastructure and pay for other basic social services such as school uniforms for the children. San children, hamming it up for the camera at one of the villages. Image by John Grobler for Mongabay. But it’s trophy hunting that floats the boat, accounting for 86 percent of total returns in 2017 of roughly $430,000. It’s trophy hunting that enables Nyae Nyae to distribute profits (around $120) annually among its 1,500 members, the only conservancy in Namibia that can afford to do so, according to Lara Diez, director of the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation (NNDF) in Windhoek, which provides technical support to various communal conservancies. In theory, it’s a win-win: income and development opportunities for impoverished local people that give them a reason to preserve their wildlife, while using hunting as a tool to keep the species in balance. This is the African conservation success story held up globally by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the MET and others as proof that trophy hunting is key to conservation and development. So why are people in Nyae Nyae still as poor and hungry as ever? And where is all the game that the ministry claims has trebled in number since it implemented the Community-based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) policy in the mid-1990s? A three-year drought and a recently suspended policy known as “shoot and sell” that allowed conservancies to invite meat hunters to shoot out entire herds of game for quick cash has reportedly left some other hunting-based conservancies with scant game. Here in Nyae Nyae, though, shoot and sell is still allowed. What was the secret of its success?