We’ve just returned from Namibia and a four-day tour of northwest Namibia with World Wildlife Fund of the United States (WWF). What we witnessed is what may be the largest conservation-related hunting development in the world. It is the Namibia Conservancy Program that has been receiving support from the USAID-funded LIFE Project for the past 13 years. WWF, as the implementing agent of the LIFE Project, is working with a wide range of Namibia NGO and governmental partners to support the development of what will eventually be 80 or more communal conservancies, many of which are located in wild and pristine areas of Namibia that have never been hunted by tourist hunters. In total, the conservancies are expected to eventually encompass 40 million acres of land before the program matures. Approximately one-third of that will be new tourist hunting destinations. It is wild Africa in Southern Africa.
Forget the stereotype safari settings of ranch or farm hunting in Southern Africa. These new hunting destinations are enormous in size, pristine, wild and amazingly beautiful.
The hunting quotas are being very carefully monitored by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). Where game populations are lacking MET is assisting conservancies to reintroduce appropriate indigenous game species including black rhino, cheetah and black-faced impala. It is getting better and better and is the largest program of its kind in the world. It promises to be a natural extension of Conservation Force’s initiatives to save “endangered” listed black rhino, black-faced impala and cheetah; moreover WWF and the Namibia conservancy program are perfect conservation partners for those efforts. For example, the cheetah observations (live sightings, spoor, and animal conflict) from survey information have increased 13 fold in the past five years. Cheetah observations in the Kunene Communal Conservancies increased from 31 in 2002 to 241 in 2003, 359 in 2004 and 604 in 2005. Leopard observations in that region went from 73 in 2002 to 127 in 2003, 190 in 2004 and 381 in 2005. Hyena increased from 51 in 2002 to 565 in 2005 while the lion population in this area has increased from an estimated 35 in 1995 to more than 150 in 2006. Northwest Namibia also boasts the world’s largest free-roaming population of black rhino, while game in conservancies such as the Nyae Nyae Conservancy had increased six fold from 1994-2005.
Since its inception in 1993, USAID has provided more than $31 million in support to the LIFE Project, while an additional $3 million of funds will be provided towards its final two years. It began as “LIFE” which means “Living in a finite environment.” At its second point of USAID funding it was called “LIFE Phase TWO,” and now in its third stage of funding it is called “LIFE Plus”. The conservancy program in Namibia is supported by national legislation that gives communities the right to benefit from natural resource utilization if they form a conservancy, which entails electing a representative conservancy committee, defining and approving the conservancy’s boundaries, adopting a constitution, and developing and implementing a wildlife management plan (the Natural Conservation Act of 1996). The local communities are not just beneficiaries, they are participants in the process which in itself gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility. The first four conservancies were legally recognized in 1998. By 2004 there were 31. Today there are 50 and roughly 30 more are expected within the next two years. Today’s tally of 50 conservancies covers 118,704 km and encompasses 210,000 people, which is the equivalent of 14 percent of the land surface and 11.6 percent of the Namibian population. Conservancy-generated income and benefits for 2006 is expected to be up 25 percent and should approach US$4 million. The diverse community-based natural resource program had created 742 full time and 5,153 part time jobs as of 2005 – all linked to sustainable management of the conservancy natural resources.
Namibia has less than 2 million people, yet it is twice the size of Texas. The conservancies are expected to eventually benefit up to 14 percent of the country’s total human population. While that is a significant percent of the overall population, it is insignificant when compared to the enormity of 40 million acres. Many of these conservancies are largely uninhabited, untouched and, until recently, unhunted.
This is the thirteenth year of U.S. AID support to Namibia’s Communal Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) Programme, yet it is little known in U.S. hunting circles. Unlike CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe, there is no funding provided for public relations and communications. The CAMPFIRE Program in Zimbabwe was allocated nearly two million U.S. Dollars for public outreach. Second, German hunters still dominate the Namibian market, although that is quickly changing. All due respect to our German friends, but the secret is out. One hunting operator operating on millions of acres of pristine conservancy land reports having taken 36 elephant bulls weighing more than 60 pounds per side with a number in the 80 to 90 pound range and two 100-pounders, making his area one of the best elephant hunting destinations in the world today. In 2006 the tusks were 93/66, 73/66, 67/65, 66/62, and 54/50 (Kai-Uwe Denker, African Hunting Safaris, firstname.lastname@example.org). (Although yours truly filed the suit that established the U.S. import of elephant trophies from Namibia, the elephant there have been downlisted to Appendix II of CITES, so they no longer require a trophy import permit from the USF&WS’s International Office, Division of Management Authority.)
The growth in these conservancies is sufficient reason in itself for Namibia to become one of the foremost hunting destinations in the world. There are potentially other reasons as well. Whenever Conservation Force is successful with its import permitting initiatives, Namibia and its wild conservancy lands will be a “have-to-go destination” for all U.S. big game hunters. There is no other destination where you can possibly take cheetah, black-faced impala and black rhino, certainly not cheetah and black-faced impala. The remote and sparsely inhabited Northwest of Namibia is the last stronghold of Africa’s free-roaming black rhino. Though residing in unfenced areas these rhino are secure because of their growing value to the local people. The successful recovery of Namibia’s black rhino population has generated unique biological challenges as there are actually too many aging black rhino bulls, which is reducing breeding and growth rates to sub-optimal levels. Two bulls are reported to have recently died while Namibia awaits U.S. approval of black rhino trophy imports. What a waste and shame!
Another shame is the import status of black-faced impala, though we have those import denials on appeal before the USF&WS. In one conservancy where black-faced impala have been reintroduced, their population has increased from 31 to 45, in another from 45 to 100, and still another from 25 to 80. The most startling news is that approximately 1,000 heretofore unknown black-faced impala have been discovered in one of the most northerly emerging conservancy areas.
One senior wildlife officer in MET expressed concern to me about U.S. import practices. He said, “We are reintroducing these species into the conservancies. It is costing time and resources. We might as well be washing them down the drain if the local people don’t value them. If U.S. hunters can’t bring them home they will not be valued.” In fact, I witnessed a conservancy committee meeting where the members placed cheetah on par with baboon – “eliminate them all” – and were reluctant to devote any of their income and energy to reintroduction of black-faced impala because their U.S.-based hunting operator could not market the cheetah or impala to his clients. Shame, shame on U.S. policy.
Much of the habitat in these conservancies is truly remote, thinly inhabited and wild. Some of it, like the Kaokoveld, used to be “forbidden land” completely closed to outsiders for more than half a century. Some of the million-plus acre conservancies have only a few hundred people. The habitat varies from the breathtakingly beautiful coastal mountains of the Northwest to mopane forests to savanna woodlands of the eastern conservancies to riverine floodplains in the Caprivi.
The most prevalent species are not those at risk: the oryx or gemsbuck, kudu, Hartmann’s mountain Zebra, springbuck, duiker, steenbok, and the usual assortment of species including lion and leopard. Where populations are down or nonexistent, they are being reintroduced but only if they are indigenous species to the area.
One new concept that is being developed is Premium Hunting. This is just beginning to develop, but certainly should have an appeal to some. Though it is tourist hunting, it is the opposite of trophy hunting. In fact, the tourist hunter can’t remove the horns, skin, meat or any part of the animals he takes. The hunter pays a greatly reduced price (discounted), experiences the hunt, native guides, some of the most remote and wildest of habitats on the face of the earth, but must leave everything behind. You can take pictures, make friends and hunt, hunt, hunt and hunt for itself and those that you will be feeding. It is hunting for others for management and food, but within strictly prescribed quotas.