Wildlife is big business in Namibia, with several complementary elements contributing to the economy and conservation. The active participation of the private sector is critical if wildlife is to thrive in Namibia, because almost half the country’s surface area is divided into 7 200 commercial farms. It is here that more than 80% of Namibia’s wildlife lives, and for wildlife to reclaim land from cattle, and be utilised by the farmer in a sustainable way, takes a great deal of patience and investment, reports Ginger Mauney, an independent film-maker based in the Etosha National Park.
An elephant stands majestic against the sunset, a plume of dust drifting over his massive body. A black-faced impala nibbles on fresh green leaves. Nearby a sable antelope throws its horns back as it runs through the bush. While there is aesthetic value in each of these images, on the open market there is also a price tag attached. An elephant may sell for over N$20 000, a black-faced impala for more than N$10 000 and a sable antelope for more than N$100 000.
While a buyer in the private sector may go directly to one of twelve registered game dealers in Namibia, the most popular way of buying and selling game is increasingly through auctions.
There are basically two types: those in which the animals have been captured beforehand and placed in enclosures so that potential buyers can view them before the bidding starts, and the catalogue auction introduced in Namibia by Dr HO Reuter in 2000. In these auctions animal species, their numbers and their origin are advertised at the auction and only those lots of animals that are sold are actually captured. Each type of auction has its merits and a place in Namibia’s wildlife scenario.
Auctions are open to all buyers, with several hundred registering to buy at single events. While some come from South Africa, the majority of the bidders are Namibian. During an auction, the greatest risk is financial. A single game auction can generate millions of dollars in sales, with the bulk of the money changing hands through the sale of a few rare species, such as roan and sable antelope and white rhino.
To complete the transaction, animals must be captured and delivered. This involves real physical risks to the animals, as well as to the game-capture teams. There are numerous capture teams in Namibia, including that of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). The best capture units not only understand the physical needs of moving big animals – large crates, big trucks and bomas – but also animal behaviour. This helps protect the
animals and the capture team when they come into close contact. Last year these teams captured, amongst others, five elephants, nine white rhinos, 480 giraffes and 12 693 springbok. Including other common and rare species, these teams moved a total of 30 276 animals in a single year.
Once delivered to the buyer, it can take years for the investment to pay off. This is the risk the game farmer takes. To protect his investment, active management is essential. First of all, a farmer must understand animal behaviour and what species will do well on a particular piece of land and in combination with which other animals. For example, how much grazing does an animal need or does it browse and if so, on which trees. If you were to add a new species, would there be intense competition for a certain resources on the farm? These questions should be asked and answered before bringing new species onto a farm. Fences and water points must be monitored, and an area’s carrying capacity should be established so that the off-take or adding of new species does not upset the natural balance.
However many of these questions cannot be answered due to lack of knowledge. This emphasises the importance of wildlife research. Indeed, the need to improve existing and generate new knowledge remains an important part of the sustainable development challenge facing all countries.
Over the last twenty years the investment in wildlife has paid off handsomely. In this time the economic value of wildlife has increased by seven per cent. Today many farmers make more money from the live sale of animals than from hunting. However, the two operations are mutually compatible and very often a successful game farm is also a successful hunting farm. Breeders want to buy female animals while hunters generally prefer to hunt males for their large trophies. A successful farmer will never sacrifice a prime breeding animal to a hunter, while old males, past their prime, are perfect candidates for hunting purposes.
Farming with wildlife has allowed farmers to diversify and move away from the monoculture of cattle. Game farming has also been good for conservation, opening up more land for wildlife in different parts of the country. In fact, there are more roan, sable and tsessebe antelope on private farms than in national parks, and successful breeding efforts for these rare animals are increasing.
Establishing new breeding populations is a primary goal of game capture and game farming. However, when an animal is solitary and endangered, the stakes increase dramatically.
To spread risks and increase breeding of one of Namibia’s most valuable species, the MET has launched a bold black-rhino custodianship programme. Every year for the past nine years several black rhino, forming a small breeding nucleus, have been captured in Etosha National Park and moved to qualified game farms in the country. Before being selected for the custodianship programme, farms are inspected to establish that there is ample food, water and protection in place for these rare animals to thrive. While ownership of the rhinos remains with the state, placing the animals strategically spreads the population and increases breeding of this rare species. Now in its ninth year and from 75 founder individuals, the custodianship population has increased to 92 animals.
Investing in wildlife has many obvious benefits. It helps conserve certain species, with the price tag attached to these animals being an indicator of their use and non-use values for the hunting and tourism sectors. As more farmers realise the value of investing in wildlife, less land will be set aside for damaging activities, especially those that cause soil salination, bush encroachment and desertification. Thus investment in wildlife, supported by a strong profit motive, makes biodiversity conservation the winner.
This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.