Hunters are conservationists. It's a statement that might surprise many outside of hunting circles. It's also a fact widely accepted by conservation organizations on the ground. As the farmer seeks to increase and improve his stock, some of which must go to market, the hunter needs to operate with growing and healthy wildlife populations.
Individual hunters maintain their presence on the land deters poaching, and thus contributes to the conservation of wildlife. In addition Namibian hunters and game ranchers are selective with the animals harvested in order to sustain a population balance and high trophy quality. But some of the strongest arguments in favour of trophy hunting in Namibia are those advanced by Namibia’s communal conservancies and the farmers who live in them.
Communal farmers are realists. During the apartheid and war years, people living on communal lands had virtually no rights over the land they lived on. Wildlife belonged to government. Elephants ate and trampled crops. Lions took cattle. Little wonder that villages shot wildlife on sight and poached whatever game they could. Coupled with the southern African drought in the early 1980s, the wildlife on Namibia’s communal lands was decimated.
However, when post-independence legislation empowered rural Namibians to form conservancies and to benefit financially from wildlife, attitudes began to change. Poor farmers living with wildlife saw that trophy hunters would bring income and tourism would provide jobs: provided the wildlife was there to shoot and photograph. Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) was born.
It is worth noting some figures. According to estimates, in Kunene's vast landscapes only 1,000 Hartmann's Mountain Zebra remained in 1982. Fast forward to 2012, the latest year for which estimates are available, and the figure rose to 27,000. Springbok: from 1,000 to 93,250. In the same period lions and desert adapted elephants increased their numbers six-fold.
It's a tale of conservation on a grand scale, and one in which trophy hunting has played an important part. So it's worthwhile looking back to see how wildlife recovery in Namibia began.
In 1982 poaching was widespread in the Kaokoveld, the name given to the area west of Etosha. As Joshua Kangombe, a traditional leader said: “It is hard for a man to put his firearm away if his children are hungry.” The story of how headmen like Kangombe were persuaded to put away their guns and to become gamekeepers rather than poachers is told eloquently in Garth Owen-Smith's book 'An Arid Eden'. Owen-Smith worked for Nature Conservation, which until that time had used its limited resources to prevent local people from poaching.
The new approach, discussed at the fireside by Owen-Smith, together with Kangombe and other traditional leaders, was to employ community members as game guards who would report suspicious spoor and poaching activity to Nature Conservation. Owen-Smith's vision was that when wildlife populations had recovered, the Directorate of Nature Conservation would issue hunting permits to locals.
At first the pay for game guards was minimal – just rations, but it was the beginning of a conservation movement that grew into NGOs such as IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation), which was later supported by USAID and WWF though the LIFE Programme (Living in a Finite Environment).
With the promulgation of the Nature Conservation Amendment Act in 1996, rural people were allowed to establish communal conservancies with rights over wildlife, realizing the vision that began around the fireside over a decade earlier. Twenty years on, many conservancies were to have joint venture agreements with tour operators running lodges and photographic tours, but it was trophy hunting that made the first conservancies viable and paved the way for tourism.
Namibia's first communal conservancy was Nyae Nyae in Otjizondjupa, followed by Salambala in Caprivi, and Torra and ≠Khoadi//-Hôas in Kunene, all in 1998. Without immediate income from trophy hunting, most of these conservancies would not have been able to pay game guards or establish offices. Even now, hunting remains the major source of income to conservancies (many of whom also host tourism enterprises), and the only source of income to many more.
Nyae Nyae may lack the dramatic landscapes of Kunene or Caprivi's wetlands and bird life, but it does have big game. Trophy hunting accounts for more than 80% of its income, and the meat from trophy hunted animals is highly valued by conservancy members. Joint venture tourism provides income to conservancies and jobs to conservancy members, but the investment required to build lodges and to market them takes years to develop. Torra Conservancy in Kunene now has equity in a highly successful joint venture lodge, but half of its income still derives from trophy hunting, shooting and selling game, and game meat distributed to members.
A major goal of the CBNRM Programme is to diversify income for communal farmers, and a mix of tourism and hunting does just that. So how do hunters and conservancies interact?
Professional hunters seeking concessions in conservancy areas are required to enter into legal agreements with conservancies. For both sides, long term contracts work best. The hunter knows the land where he operates and the conservancy management team, and the conservancy is confident the hunter will fulfil the quota and pay on time. It's a matter of trust, with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) as a guiding partner; it's the MET that sets hunting quotas.
The importance of trophy hunting to conservancies and in conservation was the theme of the keynote address to a Trophy Operator Workshop by Mr Colgar Sikopo, Director of Parks and Wildlife at the MET in early December, 2012.
The workshop was a practical meeting of minds between the MET, professional hunters, 49 conservancies and the Kymaracan Association, which operates like a conservancy in Bwabwata National Park. It was a chance to review past experiences and relationships between the stakeholders in the hunting and conservation spheres, and to make recommendations about approaches and strategies. While professional hunters need to operate in a certain environment, with quotas set well in advance, conservancies also want long-term relationships with hunters to bring a steady cash flow. Meetings like these, facilitated by NACSO (the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organizations), create a synergy between professional hunters and conservancies.
From the era of fireside chats, tremendous strides have been made. In the last six years hunting concessions have more than doubled on conservancy land, numbering 44 at present. In 2011 alone, benefits to conservancies from wildlife utilisation stood at N$ 21 million, almost 3.0 million US dollars (at the 2011 exchange rate). Looking back, the period 1998 to 2011 netted communal conservancies and their members almost N$100 million, or over US$13 million.
The benefits that have flowed to communities through CBNRM, including trophy hunting and the sustainable use of game meat, led to the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) honouring the MET and NACSO with the Markhor Award in 2012. The CIC noted a “paradigm shift in attitudes” and that benefits from the hunting of wildlife have improved the lives of community members, and created a value for wildlife, which local people, like hunters, now wish to conserve.