Integrated Park Management – Improving conservation and reducing povertyJuly 15, 2012
Strategic Environmental Assessment in Namibia – To ensure well-balanced participationJuly 15, 2012
by Simson !Uri-≠Khob (SRT); Jeff Muntifering (SRT & Minnesota Zoo); Pierre du Preez (MET); Piet Beytell (MET); Kenneth /Uiseb (MET); and Rudi Loutit (SRT)
Circa 1985. Africa’s majestic rhinos were under siege. Rampant rhino poaching was sweeping across Africa, fueled by the illegal demand for rhino horn used in traditional Chinese medicine. In less than two decades, poaching had claimed over 95% of Africa’s rhino population, one of the most catastrophic declines of any species ever documented. In Namibia, then referred to as South West Africa, in the remote north-western Kunene Region, rhino conservation required crisis management. The Nature Conservation Department, today the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), decided to translocate all the black rhino they could find into the Etosha National Park to improve security. After this massive operation, it was estimated that fewer than 50 rhino remained in the north-west, where they were kept alive by the remote and rugged nature of their desert refuge and the dedicated efforts of a few individuals who united Government, local conservation organisations and the local Traditional Authorities. During the peak poaching years, strict law enforcement with a local game-guard patrolling system deterred would-be poachers and became the crux of the critical work done by Save the Rhino Trust (SRT). Nearly three decades later, an innovative Rhino Custodianship Programme spearheaded by the MET is once again uniting Government, communities and local conservation organisations in the region to usher in a new era in rhino conservation. And the spark that ignited this rhino renaissance was the promise of community-based tourism.
Rhino Custodianship Programme
Aligned with Namibia’s incentive-based conservation paradigm, the MET’s Rhino Custodianship Programme was established in 1993 to facilitate the recovery of Namibia’s rhino population while allowing landowners who agreed to become custodians over state-owned rhinos the right to benefit through ecotourism. Although originally intended for private landowners, Namibia’s CBNRM movement established key legislation that would also enable communal land residents, following the formation of a conservancy, to obtain governance and utilisation rights over resources within their lands. This included the freedom to enter into contractual- agreements with private tourism enterprises for both hunting and non-hunting safari tourism. With this, a new incentive for black-rhino recovery, fueled by Namibia’s nature-based tourism boom, took root in communal areas in the Kunene Region, a historical rhino rangeland. To support this unique opportunity for rhino conservation, the SRT, under the direction of the late Mike Hearn, developed a novel science-based programme that applied research on the region’s recovering rhino population, the main objective being to address key management issues.
Mike, with support from Simson !Uri-≠Khob, Michael Sibalatani, and Jeff Muntifering, amongst others, tackled questions such as where community support was greatest for rhino recovery, where the most suitable rhino habitat was and where it could be restored, and whether rhino-based tourism could indeed be a feasible mechanism to secure the habitat that rhinos would need to survive. The study not only established a sound framework for identifying suitable areas- for regional rhino recovery but also indicated that linking rhino conservation with tourism in the Kunene Region was viable. This finding was supported by a comprehensive economic analysis by Anna Spenceley and Jon Barnes to examine the potential for rhino-based tourism and revenue generation in the north-west. Rhino tracking with trained local experts, which virtually guaranteed rhino sightings, added information to the conservationists’ arsenal, and protocols were established that minimised rhino disturbance yet maintained high tourist satisfaction. At a multi-stakeholder workshop in 2005, these findings laid the foundation for rhinos to be returned to their historical range and provided additional leverage for the Rhino Custodianship Programme to extend into communal lands.
Promises and pitfalls
Since 2006, 20 black rhino that were entered into custodianship agreements with the MET have been translocated into seven communal conservancies in the north-western Kunene Region. The rhinos’ range has increased by roughly 10%, making a small yet significant contribution to our goal of re-establishing a connected network of black-rhino refugia in Kunene that can support economies as an alternative, viable land-use strategy. In addition, more than 50 new rhino scouts, trained by the SRT’s new rhino-monitoring training programme across six communal conservancies, are responsible for monitoring the rhinos placed on their respective conservancies. Measuring the success and sustainability of the strategy will be a long-term endeavour, but there are already very promising trends. When the key elements of suitable rhino habitat, community support and compatible land-use zonations, and well-trained community game guards come together, rhinos have settled in their new homes. This has also allowed rhino-based tourism to flourish. A case in point is the site of the initial rhino translocation, the Klip River Valley in the ≠Khoadi //Hôas Conservancy, and the community-owned Grootberg Lodge. Prioritised as one of the best areas to sustain a translocated rhino population, the ≠Khoadi //Hôas Conservancy zoned over 40 000 hectares (approximately 13% of the conservancy) as a wildlife core area with only low-impact rhino-based tourism conducted from the lodge. Almost four years after their translocation, all the rhinos are still in the area. Two females have successfully given birth, and three more rhinos from elsewhere have settled in the area. The dedicated efforts of the lodge and conservancy trackers have produced a steady stream of rhino-monitoring data for the SRT. The vital information has been collated into the SRT’s regional black-rhino database, currently the longest-running and largest black-rhino population database in the world. Such data is a vital source of information for conservancy and conservation decision-support. Grootberg Lodge management recently stated: “These rhino are our lifelines. Without them, our tourism venture would suffer tremendously.” The dual success of the camp and rhino conservation has dramatically improved the community’s attitude and perceptions towards rhinos, as documented by Kenneth /Uiseb, Deputy Director of the Directorate of Scientific Services at the MET.
Desert Rhino Camp, a joint venture between Wilderness Safaris and the SRT in the Palmwag Concession, supports rhino conservation and local tourism development while providing a sustainable financing option for rhino- monitoring. Thus a science-based rhino–viewing protocol that has dramatically reduced human-induced rhino disturbances has been implemented from the camp, and a tourism impact study to monitor and minimise rhino movement shifts in relation to tourism pressure has been done. Amongst the successes, there are still lessons to be learned. In the open and resource-limited system of the Kunene Region, unanticipated human land-use pressure and/or high-volume tourism has caused rhinos to leave areas into which they were translocated, illustrating the important land-use ‘trade-off’ that custodians must consider, should they genuinely wish to sustain and utilise rhinos on their lands. Learning to cope with other uncertainties, such as climate change, will also be vital. Yet for the rhino custodianship programme and rhino conservation to work on communal lands, communities must be involved. Community-based tourism has tremendous potential to become a viable mechanism for securing the future of free-ranging black rhino on Namibia’s communal lands. A healthy balance and understanding need to be struck between the inherited responsibility and accountability of managing rhino and the benefits that may accrue. By uniting efforts around a common goal of rhino conservation and rural development, the Rhino Custodianship Programme is strengthening the delicate links between the social, economic and ecological systems that will establish and maintain this crucial balance. In ≠Khoadi //Hôas, they are definitely on the right track.
This article appeared in the 2010/11 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.