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Community conservation in Namibia requires balance and understanding (commentary)

  • In a recent article, John Grobler recounted his experiences from a one-week visit to Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia. Mr. Grobler’s report, based on brief experiences in Nyae Nyae and a cursory study of the Namibian conservancy system, leaves much to be desired.
  • Grobler implies that the Namibian conservancy program has been less successful in terms of conserving wildlife and providing benefits to local people than the government and supporting NGOs claim. In order to judge the Namibian conservancies, one needs to first place them within the broader African conservation context.
  • This context allows us to examine a more central question about conservancies, one that has been incorrectly answered by many. What exactly are Namibian conservancies, and what is their purpose?
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

This commentary is a response to an article by John Grobler published by Mongabay on February 26, 2019: “It pays, but does it stay? Hunting in Namibia’s community conservation system.”

In a recent article, John Grobler recounted his experiences from a one-week visit to Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia. Mr. Grobler’s report, based on brief experiences in Nyae Nyae and a cursory study of the Namibian conservancy system, leaves much to be desired.

As with many things in life, the more you know about an issue the more you come to realize that it is much more complicated than it first appears. In all fairness, it would be unrealistic to expect anyone wishing to write about a subject to become an expert before they put pen to paper, and that is especially true of Namibia’s conservancy program. That would mean that reporting on the status of any given conservancy would require at least a year of being immersed in the local culture, studying the historical and ecological context, and attending conservancy meetings. Alternatively, you can talk to the experts – the people who have spent most of their careers working with individual conservancies or supporting the conservancy program at a national level.

I was privileged to work with five conservancies in Namibia’s Kunene Region for two years. Working with conservancy committees and employees, along with attending community meetings, gave me insights into the conservancy system that I could not have obtained just by reading about it. During this time, I made a point of spending time with some of the experts on the conservancy system. These include people who were involved with the conservancy system from the very beginning and those who have carried the torch since then.

Garth Owen-Smith was one of the pioneers of Namibia’s conservancy system. The author was privileged to spend some time learning from him during her work in the Kunene Region. © Gail C. Potgieter.

The combined knowledge of my friendly experts could fill volumes, but I would like to share just a few salient points to provide the necessary context and balance required to understand Namibia’s conservancy system. These are in response to Grobler’s article, which contains a number of problems that I have placed in three broader categories: 1) Neglecting the broader African context in which Namibian conservancies operate; 2) Misunderstanding the purpose of communal conservancies; 3) Misrepresenting how hunting operations in the conservancies work.

Namibian communal conservancies in context

In his brief history of Nyae Nyae and the Namibian conservancy program, Grobler provides some context to his topic. He then implies that the Namibian program has been less successful in terms of conserving wildlife and providing benefits to local people than the government and supporting non-governmental organizations claim. In order to judge the Namibian conservancies, one needs to first place them within the broader African conservation context. Without going into too much detail, here are a few interesting facts:

• From 1993 to 2014, lion numbers in 11 unfenced national parks in Africa declined by 62 percent, whereas lion numbers in the unfenced Kunene Region communal conservancies (which are not national parks) increased from approximately 25 in 1995 to an estimated 120 to 150 in 2017 (a 380-500 percent increase).

• The IUCN’s African Elephant Status Report in 2016 states that while elephant numbers appear to have declined in several southern African countries, the Namibian population is increasing — particularly in the Kavango and Zambezi Regions.

• Namibia is the only country in Africa where endangered black rhinos were translocated from a protected area into a communal livestock farming area — this would not have been possible if conservancies were not established. The number of rhinos in the country cannot be released for security reasons, but Namibia’s communal conservancies host the only free-roaming population of black rhinos in the world.

• From 1998 to 2017, the cash and in-kind (e.g. value of meat) returns generated for conservancies increased from less than N$1 million to N$132 million (US$9.98 million). In 2017 the conservancy program contributed N$804 million to Namibia’s net national income. In the process, conservancies generated more than 5,000 jobs in remote rural areas where other job options are almost non-existent. No other country in Africa can boast these returns to rural people from wildlife-related enterprises.

Lions have benefited from the conservancy program, particularly in the arid Kunene Region. © Gail C. Potgieter.

These facts and figures give some indication why the Namibian conservancy program is hailed as a success story, but statistics aren’t everything. To truly understand the conservancy success story, one needs to grasp the social context of conservancies. These are much harder to measure, and therefore frequently overlooked. Grobler’s interviewee, Kiewiet, touched on this when he mentioned the “independence” and “pride” he and his community felt when establishing Nyae Nyae Conservancy.

Although Kiewiet may be dissatisfied with the way the conservancy is being run currently, his statements provide a stark contrast to those of other San people living in neighbouring Botswana. The San people of southern Botswana who have experienced the continual erosion of their rights until the final nail in the coffin — the hunting ban of 2014 — have a painful story to tell: “Life in the village is not good. We are just waiting to die.”

San communities are among the most marginalized groups in southern Africa. The struggles they face to survive and protect their areas from encroachment by cattle-keeping people are real. The San people of Nyae Nyae have certainly encountered problems with cattle encroaching on their land, but the conservancy itself has proved their best defense. It successfully assisted in thwarting two attempted invasions from neighboring communities and recently won a court case against invading cattle owners. While the police have failed to enforce the court order, it is unlikely that fragmented San communities would have been able to counter these invasions without the legal structure of a conservancy.

If hunting were stopped in communal conservancies, the San people living in Nyae Nyae would be stripped of their rights to generate income or food from hunting. They would no longer have the resources to continue their ongoing battle with the cattle owners. If one really wants to help marginalized groups find their voice, then suggesting that they are stripped of the rights they already have is an odd way of going about it.

What is the main purpose of Namibian communal conservancies?

This context allows us to examine a more central question about conservancies, one that has been incorrectly answered by many. What exactly are Namibian conservancies, and what is their purpose? They are not national parks. They are large areas of land administered by the government on behalf of the people who live and farm there. Some of these people were relocated to these areas against their will by the apartheid government. For others, these are traditional homelands to which they have strong cultural connections.

Conservancies in Namibia are about people. Conservancies employ people in rural areas where jobs are extremely scarce. © NACSO.

Knowing what conservancies are helps reveal their actual purpose. They are not designed primarily to protect wildlife, which is the core function of national parks. Conservancies are not even about animals; they are about people. More specifically, they are about people’s rights to use their natural resources for their own purposes. The fact that recognizing these rights ultimately results in people conserving their plants and animals is merely a fortunate byproduct of the system.

The rights of freehold farmers to use wildlife on their properties (except for specially protected species) were granted by the apartheid government in 1975. In keeping with the racist policies of the time, similar rights were withheld from black people living in communal areas. That changed in 1996 when the independent Namibian government amended the law to grant people living in communal areas the same rights as those living on freehold farms. This change in legislation effectively gave birth to the conservancy system. To exercise their newly granted rights, people in communal areas must define ‘their area’ (henceforth, their conservancy) and draw up basic constitutions that provide a mechanism for sharing benefits and managing their resources. Having done this, a few local people are elected to run conservancy affairs and others are employed to implement their plans.

A Namibian communal conservancy is therefore more like a ‘mini-democracy’ than a business enterprise or civil organization. That realization helped me understand conservancies better. These mini-democracies can be a double-edged sword. People have a voice and a vote, which they exercise in conservancies by attending conservancy meetings and electing their management committees every few years. Nonetheless, as anyone reading this from a democratic country will know, our governments don’t always do what we want them to do. Varying levels of dissatisfaction (as shown in Kiewiet’s interview) are part of the democratic parcel. After all, “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” as Winston Churchill said.

How does the hunting system work on Namibian communal conservancies?

We now come to one of the hottest topics regarding the communal conservancy system. As mentioned above, the key to the conservancy system is granting people rights to use their resources. How they use those resources depends on the communities’ own decisions (e.g. a few choose ecotourism only) and the resources available in their area. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) guides the process, while non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a supporting role. This system ensures that the conservancies are linked with wildlife management experts and have access to data that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for them to obtain, such as aerial survey data.

The conservancies contribute crucial local knowledge of the area, provide manpower and finances for wildlife monitoring efforts, and ultimately decide if they wish to use their hunting quotas. Other conservancy roles include reducing poaching (mainly by informing authorities), monitoring the hunting offtake, and land-use zoning to minimize human-wildlife conflict and demarcate exclusive wildlife areas. The conservancy, the MET, and supporting NGOs are all involved in the process of selecting private-sector partners that have access to overseas clients and the financial capital required to set up tourism operations. The conservancies retain the ultimate right to decide which private sector partner to select, if any. These partners are either ecotourism companies or hunting operators who are given a contract for a finite period (usually renewable upon review of their performance) to operate in the conservancy.

Grobler misrepresents this hunting system in three ways. First, he suggests that data from moonlight waterhole counts are used to establish the hunting quota. This is incorrect, as aerial survey data are used as the primary data source, and records about the hunts from community game guards and the hunting operator are used as a secondary source. Different wildlife counting methods are used in different parts of Namibia, depending on their feasibility. The lack of roads in Nyae Nyae means that aerial surveys are the only practical way of counting large herbivores. Some detail is lost when one relies solely on aerial surveys, however, as they are not useful for monitoring carnivores or nocturnal animals, amongst other wildlife. Thus, supplementing the aerial survey data using point counts at waterholes is good practice to monitor biodiversity in general. Nonetheless, as these data are not used to set hunting quotas, the requirements for these counts (e.g. presence of the MET officers) are relatively relaxed.

Game guard Kgwara Kaeste in Nyae Nyae Conservancy filling out an Event Book form. This system allows conservancies to monitor various aspects of wildlife management. © NACSO.
Data from aerial surveys show that the elephant population in the Khaudum-Tsumkwe area (considered one population, including the Nyae Nyae Conservancy) has grown steadily over time. The slope of the line fitted through the data gives us the rate of increase for this period — about 3% per annum. Source: Aerial survey of wildlife in Khaudum National Park and Neighbouring Conservancies. WWF. St C Gibson, D. & Craig, G.C. (2015).

The second misrepresentation is the role of trophy hunting and the hunting operator. Grobler states that one of the reasons for trophy hunting is “to keep the species in balance, for instance by increasing the quotas for overabundant species as needed.” This is not at all the role of trophy hunting, particularly not in large, open ecosystems such as Nyae Nyae. The purpose of trophy hunting is to generate income on a sustainable basis — i.e. to pay a premium for hunting a few animals from a population such that it remains stable or increases over time. On fenced private game farms, landowners may cull animals in order to maintain the ecological balance on their farms, but culling is not trophy hunting.

The final misrepresentation is the supposed decline of game in Nyae Nyae. The reader is led to believe that Nyae Nyae was once bursting with animals, which have since been hunted out. Nonetheless, a professional hunter who grew up in the area was quoted by Grobler as saying, “Nyae Nyae never had much plains game to begin with.” This is more accurate — the Kalahari ecosystem supports naturally low game densities due to low soil fertility and lack of permanent water. When the pans are full, herds of wildebeest and other game migrate into the area, but one would have to be in the right place at the right time to see them. Suggesting that over-hunting has resulted in current low game densities in Nyae Nyae is simply incorrect.

Conservancies may not be perfect, but they are worth fighting for

Besides the factual errors above and misrepresentations of conservancies in John Grobler’s article, some of the challenges he highlights for conservancies are real. Game numbers have declined and human-predator conflict has increased in many conservancies due to the severe drought. The social challenges relating to governance and equitable benefit sharing are key challenges, similar to those faced by democratic governments around the world. Finally, conservancies cannot solve all the socio-economic struggles experienced by rural African people — they are just one part of broader sustainable development strategies.

Conservancies are not perfect. None of the experts I know would even suggest that. But they are worth fighting for. When I think back on my time working with conservancies in southern Kunene, I remember the frustratingly long meetings, the inefficiency of grassroots democracy, and the few unsavoury characters vying for power by making dubious pre-election promises. The challenges of reducing poverty, educating conservancy members about their rights, and addressing governance issues appeared to be mountains of difficulty.

If I dwelt on these issues for too long, I may have given up on conservancies. But then I looked beyond these ‘warts’ to see: the community game guard who taught herself how to use a computer in the conservancy office; the conservancy manager who passionately declared that poachers are unwelcome because “these are OUR rhinos”; the natural resource manager (sadly passed away since) who taught me a great deal about how conservancies work; the energetic chairlady who went above and beyond the call of duty to lead her conservancy; and the old widow — an ordinary conservancy member — who quietly bred and raised some of the best livestock guarding dogs I ever encountered in Namibia.

These people do not have the opportunity to tell their stories on global media platforms, yet these are voices we need to hear. For my part, I count it a privilege to know them — I will stand up and fight for their rights against all comers.

The Ju/’hoansi traditional authority supports the Nyae Nyae Conservancy that falls under their jurisdiction. © NACSO.

Gail Potgieter (M.Sc.) is an independent researcher and science communicator who worked in Namibia for six years (2009-2014), focusing on human-wildlife conflict mitigation. During 2012-2014, she was contracted by Namibia Nature Foundation to implement a project funded by the Millennium Challenge Account in five conservancies in the Kunene Region. Since leaving Namibia, she has maintained contact with organisations associated with CBNRM and has worked with the Namibian Chamber of Environment and its members to communicate their scientific findings and conservation achievements to the general public.

Disclaimer: This commentary was not sponsored by these or any other parties, and the opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Gail Potgieter has an active financial relationship with The Namibian Chamber of Environment (NCE) but the NCE did not fund this particular piece, at the author’s request. Members of the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organisations (NACSO) viewed early drafts of the article to ensure accuracy and double-check the facts given here.

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