Wildlife management in Namibia – Conservation at scale – the next major frontier

Tribute to the Namibia Nature Foundation – The NNF’s growing contribution to conservation
July 15, 2012
14TH annual cheetah gala strides to success
July 16, 2012
Tribute to the Namibia Nature Foundation – The NNF’s growing contribution to conservation
July 15, 2012
14TH annual cheetah gala strides to success
July 16, 2012

by Chris Brown, Namibia Institute for Sustainable Development


When people in Africa think about land, they invariably think about agriculture. Yet Africa has no comparative advantage when it comes to farming. Soils are moderate to poor; almost 70% of the continent is dry and sub-humid to semi-arid and hyper-arid; rainfall is unpredictable; and there are many endemic diseases.

The Namibia Nature Foundation has been a lead player in promoting landscape co-management in Namibia. To date five co-managed landscapes have been established: at the Fish River Canyon, Sossusvlei-Namib, Waterberg, Khaudum North in Kavango, and Mudumu in Caprivi. Four of these sites have been taken on, together with a fifth site around Windhoek, by a new project under the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, through UNDP and funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). This will add impetus to the work already initiated; draw lessons from these pilot sites for expansion to the many dozens of other suitable landscapes in Namibia that would benefit from co-management; and place Namibia once again at the forefront of international conservation.

Industrialised markets are far away, infrastructure and transport are under-developed, there are no or few subsidies to help farmers compete on global markets, and human skills and capacity are extremely limited for global competitiveness. Cultures and ways of doing business are different in Africa compared to industrialised countries with potential markets. Market protection, often under the guise of health or environment, and other regulatory restrictions, create barriers to the industrialised markets that are difficult to overcome. At the same time, subsidised agricultural surpluses are dumped on Africa, under-mining local markets. Africa is thus at a huge global disadvantage when it comes to farming. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

So why do politicians and technocrats continue to promote farming as the salvation to poverty? Two main reasons are usually cited: food security and employment. There are also a number of other supporting arguments. Subsistence farming provides a social safety net; there are local markets; and perhaps, with luck and perseverance, we could break into global markets more successfully in future. The real reason is rarely given – that there are no really viable alternatives – or none that come readily to the minds of politicians and traditionalist technocrats.

On a global scale, farming is the greatest cause of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation on the planet, through land transformation, water abstraction, herbicide and pesticide use, and carbon-based energy use. So, any form of land use that could out-compete farming in terms of job creation, food security, income generation and foreign-exchange earnings, and that at the same time protects biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes, would be of incalculable benefit to human development and sustainable life-support systems.

Africa’s potential wildlife value

Africa has an alternative land use – its wildlife, its indigenous biodiversity. This is Africa’s global comparative and competitive advantage. It would out-compete farming on 70% and more of the African continent. No other continent has anything approaching the potential wildlife value of Africa. Wildlife can be used to drive a tourism industry; to produce meat at higher levels of sustainable production than domestic stock; to support a trophy and sport-hunting industry; and to create a lucrative trade in live animals and animal products. With the right policy conditions this would have a positive impact on biodiversity and landscape conservation, and on ecosystem functioning and ecosystem services.

Why then is it not embraced widely across Africa? There are many reasons, the most important perhaps being that:

Wildlife is still seen by many politicians and decision-makers in Africa as a holiday interest of people from Europe and North America, not as a serious national natural resource with huge production potential for economic development;

The production systems around wildlife are different from traditional production systems that are well established in the farming sector, and most countries in Africa have simply not come to grips with these markets and mechanisms; and

A set of preconditions is required for a wildlife industry to prosper.

The most important of these preconditions are security of tenure and devolving rights to the owners and custodians of the land on which the wildlife resides; an open market economy; a reasonably efficient and corruption-free governance system; and peace and national security.

Only three countries in Africa have these conditions partly right and are currently achieving any significant success with wildlife as a national economic asset for local land owners and custodians, namely Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, with the last having regressed because of the current difficulties facing that country.

A win-win situation

Namibia is right at the forefront, having achieved more than any other country in Africa on both its freehold and its communal lands. No country on any other continent can compete in this sector. However, Namibia has not yet even closely realised its wildlife potential. To achieve this, the country needs to adopt a more aggressive economic approach to its wildlife and see it as a major comparative and competitive global advantage.

To achieve its full potential, Namibia needs to devolve more rights on wildlife and other natural resources at local level, reduce bureaucracy in its administration and regulation of the sector, and address some of the international restrictions on global trade in sustainably managed wildlife products. These actions would all have a highly positive impact on conservation and the sustainable management of wildlife resources, achieving an economic and conservation win-win situation.

Another important step in optimising wildlife production in Namibia is to increase the landscape scale of management. This involves creating a favourable environment for neighbouring landowners and custodians to work together at a strategic level to attain greater benefits for all, which cannot be achieved by everyone working in isolation. This approach is called ‘landscape co-management’.

Again, Namibia is at the forefront of this international movement. The excellent protected-area network of national and private parks; communal and freehold conservancies; and state and community forests creates the ideal- platform for Namibia to spearhead a landscape co-management initiative. Another vital factor is that, in semi-arid and arid areas, the most important adaptation of wildlife to aridity is mobility – the ability to move over large areas in response to patchy and unpredictable rainfall, grazing and other resources.

Co-management approaches

By fencing the countryside we are denying wildlife its most important evolutionary survival mechanism – space to move. By opening up landscapes and re-‘wilding’ parts of the country, particularly those areas where conventional farming is marginal, we are not only improving conditions for conservation, but also creating more income per hectare, more jobs and more foreign exchange.

Thus the main reasons for promoting co-management approaches across contiguous landscapes are:

• To promote more effective landscape and biodiversity conservation across a diversity of land ownership and custodianship by linking different habitats and vegetation types, and thereby enhancing sustainable land management;

• To promote economic development, improve livelihoods and combat rural poverty in sustainable ways. This requires integrated, diversified and holistic approaches, and by its nature is inclusive and partnership based;

• To help mitigate and prepare for the impacts of climate change. It is predicted that Namibia will be severely impacted, with farming being particularly harshly affected. The most effective forms of adaptation are to harness the economic potential of species already adapted to arid, unpredictable climatic conditions, such as wildlife, and to open up systems so that the wildlife and this form of production is as resilient as possible; and

• To create a critical mass of capacity by bringing together national and private parks, communities, the private sector and NGOs, and to create a common vision that directs people’s energy into productive and mutually rewarding outcomes.

There are vital principles of landscape co-management for the approach to be successful. The most important of these are:

Identifying the right strategic level of planning and co-management. Co-management does not imply that people will be managing other people’s areas or enterprise. Rather, it involves agreed higher-level consensus on developing an overall vision, objectives and targets that will be to the greater good of all stakeholders, and working to achieve these by means of an agreed Action Plan. This action plan should focus on things that require collaboration and partnership for actions to be effective and desired objectives to be achieved. It asks the fundamental question: what are the things we can do better by working together rather than by working in isolation? This typically involves aspects such as marketing, developing comprehensive tourism activity packages, wildlife and rangeland monitoring and research, wildlife reintroductions, opening up landscapes, wildlife protection, and advocacy on behalf of the greater landscape and its stakeholders.

Identifying the right geographic focus and realistic boundaries for the landscape. There must be enough contiguous landowners and custodians to bring sufficient land into the landscape to achieve the desired benefits, but it should not be too large an area, so as not too lose focus and become too general. The focus needs to be on a marketable component of the landscape, such as the Fish River Canyon, Sossusvlei, Waterberg and the surrounding stakeholders who feel that they can associate themselves with the respective feature. Thus it is not just the topographic feature, but also the holistic, integrated environmental and socioeconomic landscape. In this context, its biophysical characteristics (topography, landscapes, ecosystems, habitats, biodiversity and cultures) and its marketability come together as the core theme. By extending the area of involvement too wide, the core theme is diluted and stakeholders are so far away from one another that institutional interactions become limited and ineffectual.

This is a very exciting new era as we break through yet another frontier in Africa-led conservation thinking and practice.

This article appeared in the 2012 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.

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