Conservancy movement takes off in Namibia

Posted: 11 October 2005

As human populations expand in Africa and natural habitats shrink, people and animals are increasingly coming into conflict over living space and food. The impacts are often huge with people losing their crops, livestock, property, and sometimes even their lives. The animals, many of which are already threatened or endangered, are often killed in retaliation. Namibia in southern Africa is no exception, but new experiments in managing land and wildlife there have shown that people and animals can live together. Jan Vertefeuille and Joanna Benn report.

African elephant family group running. Etosha National park, Namibia. © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
African elephant family group running. Etosha National park, Namibia. © WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
African elephant, Loxodonta africana, family group running. Etosha National park, Namibia© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey
Flying into Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, is like landing in a nature reserve. Located high on a central plateau, with the Auas Mountains serving as a backdrop, it is not uncommon to spot kudu and other antelope shortly upon arrival.

But although the country's red-tinted plains and rocky mountains are home to some of the world's richest biodiversity, they are also home to some of the poorest communities. Trying to tackle the complex human-wildlife relationship while reducing poverty has been a long-standing challenge for the government and environmental organisations alike.

Destroyed water pump because of African savanna elephant attack, Torr Conservancy, Kuene region, Namibia. © WWF-Canon / Jo Benn
Destroyed water pump because of African savanna elephant attack, Torr Conservancy, Kuene region, Namibia. © WWF-Canon / Jo Benn
Destroyed water pump because of African savanna elephant attack, Torr Conservancy, Kuene region, Namibia© WWF-Canon / Jo Benn
"There is great potential for Namibia to achieve a healthy environment and development of its people, said Chris Weaver, Director of WWF's LIFE programme. "A programme that assists local communities to manage their own land and decide which areas should be kept as wildlife areas, as well as designating zones for farming, tourism, and any other types of sustainable development. Such community-based initiatives are popularly known as conservancies, a progressive movement that is linking rural development with sustainable use of natural resources. "Large wildlife populations, attractive scenery, rich fishery resources, and expansive woodlands are the basis of a sustainable future", Weaver added. "The idea is for local communities to manage the land, wildlife, and natural resources so they are profitable, and ultimately, self-supporting." Camping in luxury

Pascoleno 'Lena' Florry, a one-time goat herder, rose through the ranks to become the first black woman in Namibia to manage a tourist lodge - no small accomplishment for a poor, rural Namibian woman. For the past eight years she has managed the Damaraland Camp, a luxury tented lodge located on the north face of the Haub River Valley, some 90km from Torra Bay on Namibia's Skeleton Coast. The brooding mass of the Brandberg Mountains lies just to the south. Until the start of a community wildlife conservancy in 1988, Damaraland was unprotected and open to poachers. But the local community soon put a stop to that. "People come here to see the desert elephants, the magnificent scenery and wildlife, the black rhino, and the local people," said Lena. "We have stopped poaching because people value wildlife and see what tourism can do."

Damaraland Camp lies within the 352,000ha-Torra Conservancy, one of the first conservancies of its kind. Today, Torra is financially independent and fully managed and staffed by conservancy residents. All income from the conservancy's activities, such as tour guide services, tourist facilities, or trophy hunting where quotas are set and monitored by the government, is distributed by the conservancy's members.

With the money brought in by its projects, the Torra Conservancy is starting a breeding station for goats, cows, and sheep that will be used to compensate farmers when a lion or other predator kills one of their livestock. Other funds have been used to invest in local schools or paid out as cash dividends to Torra's members, who in turn use it to pay school fees or cover other family costs. "Damaraland employs one person from each of the 20 families in the nearby village so that everyone benefits from the lodge," said Lena. "The thing about the conservancy is that we are all very positive and I think we can go very far in the future." The white lady South of Torra, in the Namib Desert, is the Tsiseb (pronounced See-seb) Conservancy, which has partnered with a private business to open the White Lady Lodge. The lodge is named after Namibia's most famous rock painting, which graces the side of a hill in the Brandberg Mountains. The lodge is privately owned and its agreement with the Tsiseb Conservancy requires that the owners pay NAD20,000 (US$3,170) a month to the community in rent. The Tsiseb area is blessed with mountains and rich mineral soil that yield gemstones, including amethyst and tourmalines. Before the conservancy was established, many community members supported themselves by digging the precious stones and selling them by the side of the road, often standing for hours in the blazing sun hoping a tourist would come along.

But now, thanks to the conservancy system, many are employed in the tourism industry. After a local mine closed in the early 1990s, a group of unemployed miners from the community organized a tour service to the culturally significant Brandberg Mountain after unescorted tourists were found defacing and stealing the ancient rock paintings. The Brandberg National Monument now requires tourists to hire one of the guides when venturing into the mountains.

The Tsiseb Conservancy has also used some of the income from its projects to purchase land and to build an impressive visitors centre, complete with coffee shop, internet cafe, and store that sells crafts made by conservancy members. "These are things to be proud of, but it is still a struggle," admits Eric Xaweb, the manager of the Tsiseb Conservancy. "We still have a long journey. There are still a lot of things that need to be done." Conservancy movement Namibia won its independence only in 1990, and within a relatively short period time has proved to be in many ways a success story. In particular, it has become a model for promoting the management of community-based natural resources.

"What our people want is to be involved in the decision-making process and to actively participate in decisions, which will ultimately affect them," Namibian President Sam Nujoma has said on more than one occasion. "They then will take ownership of these decisions and ensure that they are successfully implemented." In the 1970s and 1980s, it was predominantly white commercial farmers in Namibia who were benefiting from tourists and hunters visiting their private land. It wasn't until 1996 that Namibia's majority black population pushed the government to pass a law allowing for publicly managed conservancies to be run by local communities. "People were suffering," explained Bennie Roman, a member of the board of the Torra Conservancy. "We were seeing that people from outside were benefiting from the resources¡­tour operators and so forth¡­and we came to realise that maybe we could also benefit. Our main objective was to conserve these resources and by so doing, start something that could create jobs." There are now 31 registered conservancies managing some 78,000km of communal land in Namibia through eco-tourism and managed hunting. At these conservancies, wildlife is thriving and local communities are beginning to earn an income and see regular employment opportunities. Another 40 areas are emerging as conservancies, which will involve another additional 100,000 people across another 80,000km. It is estimated that in the future, one out of every nine Namibians will be a participant in the conservancy movement. To form a conservancy, a local community must define the area's boundaries, register its members, develop a constitution, and elect a governing committee. Once approved by the government, they are then recognized as a legal body with conditional ownership and rights over certain wildlife species and other natural resources.

Vitalus Florry outside conservancy office, Torra Conservancy, Kunene, Namibia. © WWF-Canon / Edward Parker
Vitalus Florry outside conservancy office, Torra Conservancy, Kunene, Namibia. © WWF-Canon / Edward Parker
Vitalus Florry outside conservancy office, Torra Conservancy, Kunene, Namibia© WWF-Canon / Edward Parker
"Before the conservancy, there were absolutely no jobs," says Vitalis Florry, manager of the Torra Conservancy's tour guides. "Now we see a small economy developing. Now we see some benefits." While leading a game drive in search of rare black rhinos - one of the conservancy's newest business ventures - Vitalis explains how the Torra Conservancy has diversified its business. As he stops at the camp of his crew of guides to pick up a staff member, he points to a newly fenced area in the distance.

"That's where we have just planted paprika and citrus fruits, which we hope will generate big income as a cash crop, that is, if our guides can keep the elephants and other crop raiders from devouring them first." Reducing conflict

Human-wildlife conflict is one of the main threats to the continued survival of many species, in addition to the continued problem of poaching - whether hunting elephant and rhinoceros for ivory, or antelope and zebra for bushmeat - which for many still offers a profitable income. "If solutions to conflicts are not adequate, local support for conservation also declines," said Chris Weaver. "That is why we are working hard to increase community awareness and knowledge of wildlife as an important natural resource worthy of saving." In the early 1980s, there were thought to be only 50 elephants, less than 1,000 zebra, and 50 rhinos surviving in north-west Namibia. A more recent count found approximately 500 elephants, 14,000 zebra and the world's largest population of free roaming black rhino. In addition, antelope sightings, such as gemsbok and springbok, are up significantly. "After years of heavy poaching, the springbok population has come back," said Bob Guibeb, Director of environmental services for the ÙKhoadi Hoas Conservancy. "There are still people who are poaching, but incidents have come down very low." As Rosalia Haraes, a wildlife guide from the Torra Conservancy, explained: "Everyone in the conservancy wants to look after wildlife. Everyone knows the importance wildlife holds for us, as well as tourists¡­it¡¯s ours now to look after." Jan Vertfeuille is a Senior Communications Officer at WWF-US. Joanna Benn is Communications Manager for the WWF Global Species Programme.