Communal conservancies: Namibia's gift to the earth

NACSO Director Maxi Louis with GttE poster
NACSO Director Maxi Louis with GttE poster

Africa is plagued with stories of failed conservation and bad news. Rhino and elephant populations are being decimated by unprecedented scales of poaching, while pristine wildlife habitat and forests continue to fragment in the face of rampant development and the race for natural resources. The conservation of Africa’s vast treasure of biodiversity and charismatic wildlife is facing a losing battle in the trade-offs between short-term exploitation and long-term protection.  

Yet, in the wake of this depressing news, Namibia – a relatively young country in southern Africa – has received the prestigious WWF Gift to the Earth Award in recognition of the impressive nature conservation achievements of its communal conservancy movement over the past two decades. So why has conservation gained in Namibia – and what has Namibia done differently?

Conservation in Namibia is essentially premised upon the wise and sustainable use of its natural resources, whether such use is through responsible tourism or the harvesting of forest and natural plant products.

In fact, Namibia was the first country in Africa to link the welfare of its environment to sustainable development in its country constitution, with Article 95(1) providing that “the State shall actively promote and maintain the welfare of the people by adopting, inter alia, policies aimed at the (…) maintenance of ecosystems, essential ecological processes and biological diversity of Namibia and utilization of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and future (…)”.

A further underpinning principle is the Government’s belief that communities and land-owners are a key part of the conservation equation, particularly regarding wildlife conservation.

Namibia believes the people living with wildlife should be empowered as responsible stewards and benefactors of the wildlife and its habitat. The Namibian Government translated this principle to legislation in 1996 – amending its conservation laws to give communities which form communal conservancies, or community wildlife management units, the rights to directly manage wildlife and tourism resources. Such legal recognition has turned communities into relevant and recognised stakeholders in conservation efforts.

Namibia’s Government builds upon this participatory principle by applying an incentive-based approach to wildlife management. In order to secure the rights to wildlife or tourism resources, if they wish to do so, communities must form and register as a communal conservancy. This is a voluntary commitment towards conservation, and one which is closely linked to management and performance incentives. Good management leads to rebounding wildlife populations and associated increased benefits – so that people living with the wildlife have both the incentive and the responsibility to manage it well.

Finally, Namibia has also been adept at applying smart partnerships in supporting conservation efforts. Non-governmental organizations like WWF provide complementary support to the Government in conservation efforts, while the private sector plays a critical role in harnessing the value of markets across the world. Communities receive the technical support that allows conservancies to engage with businesses on equal terms, and as empowered managers and benefactors of their natural resources. 

Namibia’s principles and incentive-based approaches have resulted in widespread engagement of its citizens in conservation practices. A heightened sense of community ownership and participation has made poaching of wildlife socially undesirable, leading to impressive recoveries of wildlife population in conservancies and even the re-establishment of some historic wildlife migration corridors. Rebounding populations of oryx, springbok, kudu, giraffe, and zebra have in turn provided opportunity for recovery of a range of iconic predators, including lion, cheetah, and leopard. Elephant and rhino have also increased in numbers and range, with communal conservancies hosting the largest free-roaming populations of rhino in the world.

Increased wildlife populations have translated therefore into increased financial and economic benefits – through lodges, hunting operations, and more than 200 spin-off community owned enterprises – as responsible tourists travel to experience Namibia’s nature.

Wildlife is creating jobs, enhancing livelihoods, increasing a sense of pride and ownership, and contributing to rural development, with community secured benefits being valued at close to US$7 million in 2012. 

In addition, conservancies with their game guards have created a new-found sense of local ownership and appreciation for wildlife – placing thousands of eyes and ears on-the-ground to counter the onslaught of the poaching that feeds the lucrative rhino horn and ivory trades.

Communal conservancies have grown from four in 1998 to 79 today, with approximately one out of every five rural Namibians being part of a conservancy. Covering almost 20% of Namibia’s land area, conservancies create a strong synergy between protected areas and other forms of recognised conservation land use. Cumulatively, Namibia can boast of having 43% of its land being under some form of recognized conservation status – a rare feat indeed.   

To witness Namibia’s wildlife in all its rich and beautiful abundance, roaming free across the endless peaceful plains, as I have been lucky enough to do, is one of the most moving and inspiring sights in today’s world – and a precious and lasting gift for anyone privileged to see it.

And I have met with the communities on the ground. The local people have a pride and dignity in their success and ability to live side by side with wildlife, and will do everything they can to counter poaching.

I encourage other governments to recognise the importance of empowering their communities as legitimate and incentivised conservation allies, as Namibia does – ultimately helping more people and nature thrive in harmony with each other. That is the future I want to see.


Chief Emeka Anyaoku is former President of WWF International and served as the third Commonwealth Secretary General.

Chief Anyaoku
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