From Poachers To Protectors: How Tourism Is Inspiring Community-Based Conservation In Namibia

"We Will Live With Wildlife."

These five words, adopted extensively across Namibia's vast and beautiful rural landscapes, have instigated one of the greatest conservation stories ever told, happening right now in this quiet corner of Southern Africa. Namibia is in the midst of a conservation revolution, exchanging generations of wildlife conflict, poaching and unsustainable land-use practices for unparalleled levels of habitat protection, wildlife conservation and sustainable development.

"Before Damaraland Camp, before the conservancy, I was a goat herder," explains Lena Florry, a jovial woman who beams when she tells her transformational story. "For the first half of my life, I never slept in a bed and I never wore any shoes. I am one of nine children. My family did not have the money to afford these luxuries. We were bare-footed goat herders, and that's what I was destined to be."

That is, until she got her lucky break. Seventeen years ago, a safari camp was built near Lena's village, and she applied for a job as a waitress. Within a year, she was an assistant manager, and a year later, she became the first black lodge manager in all of Namibia.

Tourism has transformed Lena and thousands of other Namibians into passionate conservationists. Thanks to innovative partnerships between government, local communities and the travel industry, unique management structures have been created that allow rural Namibians to benefit significantly from tourism in their region by way of skills training, jobs and direct financial contributions. As a result, people in these communities have tangible reason to support wildlife conservation. This progressive form of community-integrated tourism is changing lives, protecting animals and establishing Namibia as a leader in sustainable tourism.

At the heart of Namibia's conservation revolution are communal conservancies, management units of neighboring communities who have been awarded rights to oversee wildlife and natural resources on their communal land. Thanks to innovative legislation, the Namibian government has granted these rights to the conservancies with the understanding that rural communities will use natural resources in a sustainable manner if these resources have sufficient value and benefit.

Enter safari tourism, a revenue-generating activity that relies entirely on wildlife protection and responsible environmental management. Historically, the tourism sector has been guilty of limiting benefits (and profits) to host communities, but the Namibian conservancy model has empowered local communities to take control over tourism investment on their land.

With the help of local and international NGOs, the communal conservancies are forging innovative joint-venture partnerships with tourism investors and management companies, creating high-quality tourism lodges and experiences that have direct financial benefits to the conservancies and individual communities. These joint ventures range from simple land lease payments to fully community-owned lodges. In addition to employment opportunities created, revenue earned as part of these ventures is paid to a community fund that supports local projects such as education, water access and health care.

To date, there are 71 communal conservancies in Namibia. Combined with existing private reserves and national parks, a staggering 42% of Namibia's land is now under conservation management. Since 1998, when the first conservancies were established, income in rural areas has risen from close to nothing to over $6 million annually, the majority of which is generated from tourism activities.

Thanks to the conservancy movement, wildlife became valuable and poaching unacceptable, resulting in an unprecedented recovery in wildlife numbers: since 1995, Namibia's desert-adapted lion population has quadrupled, the elephant population has more than doubled and the endangered black rhino populations are healthy enough to be moved out of national parks and into communal conservancies.

Of course, the growth of wildlife populations and safari tourism in Namibia brings its own set of challenges. With much healthier numbers of game come more frequent human-wildlife conflict -- such as elephants trampling crops and lions eating cattle -- and compensation mechanisms for unlucky farmers and herders are still under dispute. Historically, any animal causing damage would be killed, but thanks to conservancy-tourism partnerships, these same farmers and herders understand the benefits of keeping animals alive for the good of their communities.

Today, wildlife is the basis of a new rural economy that is creating jobs and providing direct benefits to communities that have chosen to live in harmony with it. Damaraland Camp, the first joint-venture lodge in Namibia, is now owned 40% by Lena's conservancy. Lena has risen to the regional manager position, overseeing operations of three safari camps in her conservancy, leading a team of 200 of her fellow community members also employed there. And because of collective efforts across the conservancy, poaching has been almost entirely eliminated.

Thanks to the communal conservancy system, Lena and her peers have realized the commitment "We will live with wildlife" is not a sacrifice to be made, but a choice that ensures prosperity for the community and the country as a whole.

Steve Felton
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