Wildlife winning in Namibia's Conservancies

Wildlife numbers are booming in Namibia’s communal conservancy areas, especially in the Caprivi region, where surveys indicate that elephant numbers have increased 300% in the past five years.

Since 1995, Namibia has pioneered the most progressive Community-based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) program on the African continent.

Legislation entitles people living on communal ‘common’ land to organize themselves as Communal Conservancies and to benefit financially from the natural resources within their conservancy boundaries.

Namibia’s blessed with large, undeveloped tracts of wilderness, many of which provide refuge for valuable wildlife species such as elephant, rhino, lion and many species of antelope.

Having registered as a conservancy, local people are entitled to manage the wildlife for their benefit, primarily through tourism and trophy hunting.

And financial incentive-driven wildlife conservation is certainly having a beneficial effect on animal populations.
The Caprivi region in the North-East of Namibia borders Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana and is distinctly different to the rest of the country in that it is blessed with rivers and wetlands.

Three major river systems flow through the region: the Okavango, Kwandu-Linyanti and Zamezi-Chobe, and times of peak flow, large areas are flooded creating a rich environment for a wide range of biodiversity.

However, it hasn’t always been a haven for wildlife. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the area was the epicenter of a war between South Africa (who occupied Namibia after the Second World War and who only submitted to Independence in 1995) and Angola.

Most of the region’s wildlife was slaughtered and is only now recovering. However, the favorable CBNRM environment is enabling a rapid recovery for many species.

A 2009 survey of Caprivi’s wetlands found 3,450 elephant, a 400% increase from the 2004 survey, plus 9,633 buffalo, a 200% increase, as well dramatic increases in antelope species including impala, waterbuck and zebra.

The survey also found 24 lion, up from just 4 in 2004, an increase of 500%, which, whilst fantastic from a wildlife conservation perspective, raises concerns about the long-term sustainability of the CBNRM program.

With rapidly increasing wildlife numbers, local people will experience greater human-wildlife conflict.

More lions mean more livestock killed; more elephants and buffalo means more people loosing their maize crops and struggling to feed their families.

And here lies the fundamental problem with CBNRM and the biggest challenge to the long-term sustainability of the program.
The conservancies benefit as institutions from the wildlife in the form of income from a tourism venture or a quota of elephants to be shot by trophy hunters.

However, its individuals who suffer as a result of increased wildlife numbers and they are rarely compensated.
Conservancy income may be used to build a school or health clinic for example, and in some cases, small cash payments may be made to each member.

However, if a family looses its entire maize crop to a herd of elephants and perhaps even has a family member injured trying to defend that crop, then they may become disenfranchised, despite the overall benefits to the conservancy.

And not all of Caprivi’s residents are part of a conservancy. There are ten in total and several more undergoing registration, but that doesn’t cover everyone and those outside the system get no benefits whatsoever from the wildlife.

So in 2009, it’s definitely the wildlife that’s winning in Namibia’s Communal Conservancies.

Only time will tell if enough benefits can be generated by the wildlife to compensate local people for the costs of living with more and more wild animals.

WWF is one of the primary funders of the Namibian’s CBNRM program – support their work by becoming a member today