By Adam Cruise and Izzy Sasada
Namibia is often presented as a country with exemplary elephant and wildlife conservation management, where wildlife thrives and rural communities living among and alongside Namibia’s elephants and other wildlife reportedly benefit socially and economically.
Namibia ostensibly allows rural communities the opportunity to manage and benefit from their natural resources through the creation of communal conservancies through a process known as Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM). These conservancies – together with central and regional government, non-profit organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and other entities – have purportedly restored and, in many cases, increased populations of elephants and other wildlife species in the country. Through initiatives such as trophy hunting, trade in wildlife and wildlife products, and ecotourism, this wildlife restoration has, it is claimed, generated meaningful economic income for rural communities and indigenous peoples previously disadvantaged through decades of South African apartheid rule prior to independence in 1990.
However, a comprehensive two-month field-investigation (May/June 2021) into the efficacy of Namibia’s wildlife conservation management policies and programs, particularly as they relate to African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana), revealed that the perceived success of income generating activities (both consumptive and non-consumptive) involving the use of wildlife and concomitant economic benefits for disadvantaged rural communities in Namibia is found to be predominantly a fabrication rather than a fact.
- In the dry CBNRM-dominated Kunene Region of the country, wildlife populations of many species are in sharp decline and have been for several years. Elephant, oryx, Hartmann’s mountain zebra and lion numbers are the large mammals most negatively affected.
- This region also faces the spectre of the capture, auction and possible export of live elephants, which poses a threat to the future existence of this isolated and uniquely desert-adapted elephant population.
- Throughout the entire north of the country, and especially within the twenty-nine CBNRM conservancies in three regions visited during this investigation, human communities remain impoverished, and do not appear to be benefitting significantly from the CBNRM programme.
- Many CBNRM communities, most of which are dominated by minority ethnic groups, appear to be oppressed and exploited by central government. Larger ethnic groups, such as the Ovambo and Herero have, in recent years, moved into CBNRM areas traditionally occupied by minority groups (San, Himba, Kavango, Caprivian, Damara) in pursuit of commercial capitalisation of the natural resources.
- The exploitation of rural communities and indigenous peoples and the removal of natural resources is taking place in the form of land invasion and expropriation, wildlife over-utilisation, mining, oil drilling, logging and other natural resource appropriation. The research conducted suggests that it remains very uncertain whether any of the local communities affected benefit to any significant degree from such exploitation.
- Corruption, favouritism and nepotism at a national, local and Traditional Authority level would appear to be rife.
Far from being a success-story, Namibia’s much-touted wildlife conservation model, and its adherence to consumptive utilisation of wildlife through community-based management mantra has achieved the opposite of what was intended and is commonly presented. Overall, wildlife numbers are declining, and elephant and other wildlife populations in the Kunene Region are collapsing. Meanwhile, rural communities within all the CBNRMs assessed as part of this research remain as impoverished as ever and, in some cases, more so.