Collaborative game counting in conservancies – A key to sustainable use

Namibia’s Communal Conservancy Tourism Sector – Achieving community benefits at scale
July 15, 2012
Community Based Natural Resource Management – Why does the world take note?
July 15, 2012
Namibia’s Communal Conservancy Tourism Sector – Achieving community benefits at scale
July 15, 2012
Community Based Natural Resource Management – Why does the world take note?
July 15, 2012

by Helge Denker on behalf of the NACSO Natural Resource Working Group

Seven million hectares, seven thousand kilometres, three hundred people, twenty-seven conservancies, two weeks… The numbers may sound impressive, but what do they mean?

Namibia is vast and sparsely populated. The huge communal areas of the country were badly neglected prior to independence, receiving very little development. Now, two decades after independence, these areas are the showplace of what is becoming one of the great success stories of the African continent – Namibia’s communal conservancy programme.

It is in essence a rural development programme that also provides conservation benefits. Conservancies have the right to utilise wildlife to diversify livelihoods and generate income for community development. Conservancies are legally recognised and must work according to natural resource-management plans. Yet, unless you know what resources are there, you can’t decide how best to use them. Monitoring has thus been an integral part of conservancy management from the outset. It is a key to sustainable use.

Monitoring can only be effective if it is done systematically, and is only relevant if local people can use the gathered data. Namibia has been both innovative and successful in developing community-based monitoring systems. A prime example is the annual North-West Game Count. What began as a pilot project in 2000, has become the largest road-based game count in the world. The count is repeated religiously at the same time and with the same methodology each year. It provides useful population estimates, as well as trends over time, both for individual conservancies and for the entire area it covers. Wildlife numbers in individual conservancies may vary significantly from year to year due to large-scale game movements, triggered by the erratic rainfall in this open system. Yet regional populations of game such as springbok, gemsbok and zebra have shown remarkable popu-lation increases since the formation of conservancies in the late nineties.

To sit for six or more hours on the metal tray of an open four-wheel-drive vehicle bouncing along small, rough tracks under the scorching African sun shows a real commitment to the cause. The North-West Game Count teams do this day in and day out for the duration of the count. You start at sunrise and work until about midday – or as long as it takes to complete your fixed route, or transect. The transect may only be around 50 kilometres long, but because of the inaccessible terrain and the numbers of wildlife encountered, may take all morning to complete.

There are several counting teams working simultaneously in each conservancy, always consisting of a driver, a record keeper and two or more counters. The vehicle is stopped for each sighting of game to record all required information. The count is a truly Namibian conservation initiative of immense proportion and ambition. Staff and volunteers from the conservancies, from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), NGOs and the private sector all work together to make it happen.

Which leads us back to the impressive numbers. Between 250 and 300 people actively participate to count game in an area of some seven million hectares, covering a total distance of over 7 000 kilometres of transects. The count is done more or less simultaneously in 27 adjacent conservancies and three concession areas to avoid double counting of game. The entire operation takes only about two weeks. It is a superb example of positive collaboration between all the stakeholders.

Countrywide game counts

Of course, the conservancy programme is much bigger than just the north-west. Unfortunately, the north-west often gets all the attention. Things seem easier here. There are few people, and the spectacular landscapes are vast and open – and dotted with wildlife. Yet there are conservancies in most communal areas of Namibia. A total of 59 conservancies currently cover over 16% of the country, with more being formed. Most do some form of wildlife monitoring. Much of it is pretty impressive in its own way.

Take Caprivi, where game counts are done on foot, mostly following narrow tracks or cutlines through dense vegetation across flat terrain. When you come face to face with a herd of angry elephants out here, the choice between counting and running for your life is quickly made. And there are plenty of other dangers: herds of buffalo, the occasional lion, hippos and crocodiles along the rivers… not to mention snakes in the grass. The counters walk long distances in small groups and supplement sighting records with useful information such as animal tracks and droppings. It’s a tough job. So while the North-West Game Count lays claim to being the biggest in the world, the Caprivi count can lay claim to being one of the most arduous.

Then there’s Uukwaluudhi. In the early nineties, the area was still littered with landmines from the independence struggle. There was very little game around. Today the game has returned and while you count it along indistinct tracks out there, you really hope that all the mines have been cleared…

The southern conservancies are the forgotten ones. There are no lions or rhinos or elephants to attract attention. The landscape has a less accessible beauty. You need to spend time here to find the magic in the vast plains of stones and sparse grasses. But annual game counts are done here, too.

Once the counting has been completed in a conservancy, the data is consolidated into overall results and discussed at a feedback session. This might take place under a tree, with data sheets pasted to the side of a Land Cruiser. Community members provide a great deal of input. People discuss how the data fits in with the day-to-day monitoring done by the conservancy through the Event Book System. Communities understand the importance of monitoring and using- population numbers and trends to determine utilisation quotas. Back in Windhoek, all the information from the counts is turned into regional results posters, used by all stakeholders for information sharing, planning and management.

Perhaps the most important aspect that surveys and monitoring provide to communities is the ability to practise adaptive management. Conservancies can adapt their management strategies and usage activities based on a good understanding of what is out there. They work together with technical staff of the MET and NGOs to optimise all wildlife use. Through this, they can ensure that this African success story is a sustainable one.

This article appeared in the 2010/11 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.


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