Lessons in Conservation – Namibia at the forefront in Africa

Kuiseb River – The lifeline of coastal Namibia
July 9, 2012
Namib-Naukluft Park: Ten million years – one hundredth anniversary
July 12, 2012
Kuiseb River – The lifeline of coastal Namibia
July 9, 2012
Namib-Naukluft Park: Ten million years – one hundredth anniversary
July 12, 2012

By Garth Owen-Smith, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation

Contrary to what many people believe, Europeans were not the first to set areas aside for the protection of wildlife in Africa. In the early nineteenth century, for example, Zulu kings (amakhosi) stopped all hunting between the Black and White Umfolozi rivers. In the 1870s the Lozi king (litunga) banned hunting on the Liuwa Plains in western Zambia due to the threat posed to wild animals by an influx of firearms sold to their people by white traders. One of them was my own great, great-grandfather, John Owen Smith, who arrived in the Eastern Cape as a teenager in 1820. Twenty years later he was a wealthy man – largely from the profits of gunrunning and ivory trading.

Many other groups also placed restrictions on the killing of valuable species. For example, in Eastern Caprivi only chiefs could authorise the hunting of elephant, hippo and eland. A variety of social and religious taboos regarding the use of wildlife also applied. But most importantly, before there was a commercial incentive for the large-scale slaughter of big game, rural people hunted only what they needed. To do otherwise was seen as wasteful and risked censure by the tribal leaders.

First wildlife sanctuaries

These rules did not apply to the white hunters who ventured into the continent’s interior during the 1800s. Their motive was not subsistence but ‘sport’ and/or profit. By the 1890s their activities, together with those of local people employed to hunt for them, had wiped out the larger wild animals over most of South Africa. This led to the creation of the Sabi Game Reserve (later to become the Kruger National Park) and the Umfolozi Game Reserve, just before the turn of the century.

In most other European colonies in Africa wildlife was also hunted on an unprecedented scale, causing alarm in scientific circles that many species could soon become extinct. The result was that the colonising countries signed a Convention for the Preservation of Animals, Birds and Fish in Africa in 1900 – the first international conservation treaty. But it did not apply to all wild animals, only those not dangerous to man or which were of some value to him. It also gave complete protection to only a few species. To ensure the survival of predators and common game, the solution was to set aside areas where no hunting whatsoever could take place.

The first wildlife sanctuary, Yellowstone National Park, had been established in 1878 in the USA, where the bison population of many millions had been reduced to under a thousand. A major reason for their being killed was to deprive the plains Indians of their main source of food and force them into reservations. In most cases only the hides and hooves were taken for leather and to make glue, the rest of the carcass being left on the prairie to rot. In response to this wasteful slaughter, the Cheyenne had taken up arms against the white colonists – the first and only time that people are known to have gone to war for a conservation cause.

Accommodating original inhabitants

Today, like most countries, Namibia has a broad spectrum of protected areas, created by the German colonial administration, the Odendaal Commission and, in the case of the Mamili and Mudumu national parks, by the South African administrator-general just before independence. Some were previously freehold farms bought out by the government, but most were on communally owned land from which the residents or users were removed and excluded. Only in the West Caprivi Game Park and Namib-Naukluft Park have the original inhabitants been allowed to continue living within them.

As no form of compensation was paid to the displaced people, they and their descendants have remained hostile towards these protected areas and the wildlife within them. This was exacerbated by elephants and predators coming out of them and raiding fields or killing livestock, for which there was also no compensation. The result was that most of our protected areas had  ‘hard’ borders, along which a low-intensity war prevailed. Animals leaving them had little chance of surviving, while trespassing people were arrested on sight. Both sides were losers.

Of course, our wildlife sanctuaries provide recreational areas for the country’s citizens and attract international tourists – with all the obvious economic spin-offs. But lacking vehicles and financial resources, few if any of the neighbouring people have ever visited them. And apart from a few jobs in the park, they have received no direct benefits from the growing tourism industry – further fuelling the widespread belief that parks and game reserves were established by the white elite, for the white elite.

Nevertheless, who can deny that our parks and game reserves have performed a vitally important function – both ensuring that a full range of indigenous wildlife survived the commercial hunting onslaught a century ago, and again in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as securing reasonably intact representative natural ecosystems. But without wildlife sanctuaries, the communal areas of Namibia did not fare so well. In fact, at independence all but Damaraland and Kaokoland (now the Kunene Region) had lost virtually all their big game – a potentially valuable resource for the residents of remote rural areas.

So why was the north west the exception? Firstly, it did have exclusive wildlife areas – not parks proclaimed by the central government, but tourism concessions created by the second-tier Damara Representative Authority in which settlement was discouraged. Secondly, through their traditional leaders, the local people were actively involved in the protection of their wildlife by the appointment of community game guards. This unorthodox model proved very successful and led to the new SWAPO government’s pioneering communal area conservancy legislation in 1996, which re-established wildlife as a valuable economic resource in the minds of remote rural dwellers, and promoted the recovery of big game populations on state land outside parks.

What lessons have been learnt?

In a more densely populated Namibia the removal of people to create further protected areas would now generate considerable hostility and be politically unacceptable to a democratic government. But with communal area conservancies having been given the responsibility to manage their own wildlife, as well as getting the rights over tourism, many have created their own exclusive wildlife and tourism zones. Although they are mostly in uninhabited areas, future settlement has been prohibited, and in at least one case, people were moved by the conservancy committee acting together with the local traditional leader.

A major focus of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism is the upgrading of the West Caprivi Game Reserve into a national park, which includes proclaiming the critical ‘golden triangle’ along the Kwando River. Although uninhabited while SADF forces occupied the area, in the past communities on the east bank lived there and they also laid claims to it. The dispute was resolved by giving the two neighbouring conservancies, Mayuni and Kwando, tourism rights inside the future Bwabwata National Park.

Negotiating with local inhabitants

A bigger issue will be reconciling conservation priorities with the livelihood needs of the 5 000 plus people living in the West Caprivi. In 2006 the MET started negotiating with the Karamacan Association, the elected body representing the park residents. A good start has been made by granting them 50% of the N$2.4 million trophy hunting income earned in West Caprivi that year. However, this alone will not enable 5 000 people and their descendants to have a prosperous future in independent Namibia. Negotiations are continuing.

And herein lies the key: Negotiation – something that was not done when the Namibia’s present protected areas were proclaimed.

For negotiations to be successful, both parties need to gain something. It must be a win-win situation. Giving benefits from protected areas to neighbouring communities (firewood, thatching grass and even shared revenue) has been done in other countries, but usually the park authorities alone decided what they were to be. In some cases the local people were first consulted, but ‘consultation’ implies that the authorities retain the superior position, even though by giving up their land, the local people had, in fact, made the greatest contribution to the creation of the park.

Giving concessions legal status

Another challenge presently facing the MET is giving the tourism concessions created by the former Damara Representative Authority some form of legal conservation status. Negotiations have started with all the stakeholders: the adjoining conservancies, traditional leaders, lodge operators and local NGOs. Although there was initially much resistance to the MET’s proposal, their willingness to put everything on the table and negotiate as an equal partner has removed suspicion and built confidence among the participants that a win-win-win outcome can be found – one that benefits the local communities, the private sector and conservation.

If the Government’s endeavours succeed in Bwabwata National Park and the former Damaraland concessions it will not only increase the size of the country’s wildlife estate, but also create a democratic model for rectifying past injustices and for the establishment of new protected areas. Under the innovative leadership of Minis-ter Konjore and Permanent Secretary Lindeque, the MET has shown that lessons have been learned from the past, and that in the future anything is possible. It has also kept Namibia at the forefront of conservation policy in Africa.

This article appeared in the 2007/8 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.


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