Namibian elephant auction: A Potemkin conservation model

Mar 5, 2021 | Commentary

By John Grobler

A reply to Gail Thomson The Story Behind the Namibian Elephant Auction

Gail Thomson of Conservation Namibia’s article (“The story behind the elephant auction”) that seeks to justify the capture of the last free-roaming elephant herds outside the Namibian national parks’ boundaries raises far more questions than it provides answers on the real state of elephant conservation in Namibia.

The real elephant in the room here is the true number of elephants left in Namibia: the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism MEFT) claims there are 22 000 elephants in northern Namibia, most of this in communal areas.

This is not a figure supported in even the remotest way by the the presence of elephant herds numbering in their thousands as one would expect to see. It is also not supported by any drastic increase in reported human-elephant conflicts cases as one would expect of a three-fold increase in both the human and elephant populations since1995.

The estimate of 22 000 elephants is a downward revision of a higher 2018 estimate of 24 000 – 25 000 elephants, a figure that MEFT director of wildlife and parks Colgar Sikopo wrote was based on an estimated 1995 base population of 7 000 elephants that increased at a steady 3.3 percent per annum to 16 000 elephants by 2004 and exceeded 24 000 by end of 2018.

This did not include any trans-frontier herds, Mr Sikopo stated. He however did admit in the same statement that in 2017, the Ministry had allowed professional hunters shoot elephant cows in order to recover trophy fees paid to communal conservancies in the Zambezi.

The reason, he conceded, was that the hunters could not find any mature bulls to hunt in a (claimed) population of over 19 000 elephants.

So how was this even possible?

Bad math, for one. A population of 7 000 elephants increasing at an uninterrupted (if zoologically implausible) exponential growth rate of 3.3 percent per annum mathematically amounted to only 16 282 elephants by 2021, as a correct recalculation of the MEFT statistics showed.

The Ministry has not responded to numerous emails and communications pointing out this error other than revise their estimate down to a still-improbable 22 000 elephants.

That leaves us totally in the dark with respect to the true size of Namibia’s elephant population, as Namibia was on the only one out of 18 elephant-range countries that refused to take part in the 2015-2016 Great Elephant Census.

The Ministry’s executive director Teofilus Nghitala claimed that the Great Elephant Census was “driven by emotion and not science.” Namibia was an African conservation success story, and criticism of Namibia’s conservation track record amounted to racist colonial attitudes, Mr Nghitala alleged.

Truth is, the SWAPO-led government sees elephants only as something that be turned into a source of cash: Pohamba Shifeta has repeatedly threatened to ignore CITES regulations and sell Namibia’s ivory stockpile on the open market.

This is also the rationale here: the communal farmers were suffering massive losses to the elephants and threats to their lives, and their numbers had to be reduced and those farmers compensated, Shifeta and his officials insisted.

The proceeds of this auction would thus be paid to the Game Products Trust Fund (GPTF) to compensate those who had suffered financial losses due to human-elephant conflict, Mr Shifeta said.

The GPTF has dispensed millions of dollars since its creation in 1999, but no recent financial statements have been published, with the first and last audit done in 2009 for the previous ten years.

It is however the Ministry’s biggest cash cow, receiving all proceeds from e.g. auctioning off hunts of specially protected game such as black rhinos. It is thus a key political tool at grass-roots level for dispensing patronage, as could be seen here as well.

In mid-December, the Ministry published an advert (but only in the state-owned New Era newspaper) calling for offers from interested parties to capture and remove four herds of elephant from the Omatjete area (30), Kamanjab commercial farming area (50), Grootfontein-Kavango Cattle Ranch area (60), and the Grootfontein-Tsumkwe area (30).

“Due to the drought and increase in elephant numbers coupled with Human-elephant conflict incidences, a need has been identified to reduce these populations,” the ad stated.

“Tenderers that wish to export must provide official proof that their respective conservation Authorities will permit them to export elephants to their countries (preliminary import permit will be required).”

“For export purposes, the buyer must ensure that  CITES requirements are met by both exporting and importing States for the trade to be authorized,” the ad stated, adding in bold red that “Companies wholly or partially owned by Previous Disadvantaged Namibians will be given preferential treatment.”

Five bids were received by 29 January, but the Ministry has so far stone-walled all requests to disclose who the successful bidders were, in clear violation of national procurement policy in this regard.

There was just one major problem with the “too many elephants = too many human-elephant conflict incidences in 2020” theory: last year, only one case of human-elephant conflict was officially recorded, according to statistics released by Mr Shifeta in announcing a new anti-poaching strategy for his Ministry in early February.

Elephants had caused crop damage to 3 346 hectares of communal farm land in 2020. Asked to explain how just one reported case of human-elephant conflict caused so much crop damage – was that one farm, one incident? – Mr Shifeta angrily retorted that such questions would get one beaten up.

Which brings us to Mrs Thomson’s effort to rationalise this controversial decision in support of the Ministry by invoking the same political polemic and justification that there were too many elephants causing too much damage – but without providing any real evidence other than the liberal use of clearly old photographs without explaining their true context.

In doing so, she sketched the past as “[t]he remaining elephants in the more remote northern regions were killed in high numbers by the South African military, colonisers, and local people in the mid- to late-1900’s.” (sic)

She clearly meant the late 1980s, but less easy to understand is the fact that she seemed unaware that elephant poaching in that last decade of the Namibian liberation war was mostly happening in Angola’s Cuando Cubango Province.

She then proceeded to blur the distinction between the two environmentally vastly  different conditions of the semi-arid Erongo and Kunene and the high-rainfall Kavango East and a claimed 180 farms affected by elephants to arrive at vastly inflated projections of R9 million in water infrastructure damage and R2 million in crop damage per annum.

The official 2020 HWC data showed that of about 824 cases of human-wildlife conflict reported, 813 cases (98.6 percent) were predator-related, a sure sign of over-hunting of plans game in communal areas.

A total of R5 046 801 was paid out from the Game Products Trust Fund to mostly communal farmers for livestock and crop losses, injuries to people and loss of life to wild animals.

Elephants didn’t feature much. “One person was injured by a baboon, six by buffaloes, one by an elephant, one by a hippo, three by leopards and two by lions,” with two people killed by crocodiles last year, according to Mr Shifeta.

As pointed out already, Mr Shifeta would or could not explain how one case of human-elephant conflict reported would result in 3 346 hectares of crops lost, or where this occurred.

Mrs Thomson does not provide any real proof either in citing unspecified damages to water infrastructure and crops in four conflict spots: Kamanjab-Otjikondo, Ugab-Omatjete in western Kunene and Erongo Regions, and the Kavango West-Manketti Cattle ranch and Eden-Na≠Jacna Conservancy located west of the Khaudom National Park.

Firstly, the damage to water installations in in the Omatjete communal area she referred occurred in 2019 already.  In that incident, two younger bulls from the Kamanjab herd had caused about R30 000 damage, but the Ministry used the incident to have the patriarchal bull known as Voortrekker hunted as a problem elephant. 

Secondly, almost all communal water points in the north-west have been elephant-proofed by a local volun-tourism organisation by building protective walls around the water points over the past 15 years. There is no evidence that 180 windmills were destroyed in any past year, never mind every year as she postulated.

Her claim that the Omatjete herd would not include any of the Ugab elephant herd should also be treated with caution, as the Omatjete herd’s range includes the Otjihorongoro River, an upper tributary of the Ugab River. Voortrekker, the long-dominant bull of the Ugab herd, was after all shot for the sins committed by the Omatjete herd.

The major water infrastructure damage such as windmills that she referenced for commercial game farming areas in the Kamanjab district, as far as could be established, occurred as result of the continuing drought and on farms of often-absent owners.

Drought as a driver of human-elephant conflict further does not apply to the two other hotspots in north-eastern Namibia. The Manketti Cattle Ranch in Kavango West and the Eden-Na≠Jacna conservancy, located south-east of the Khaudom National Park, both received copious rains since early December.

Seen together and against the background of the larger political context, these two alleged elephant-human conflict hotspots provide some clues to the real motivation for the decision in the convergence between political and financial interests at play.

The Grootfontein-Kavango Cattle Ranch area, as the ministry referred to the area in their December newspaper advert, covers a much larger area than what Mrs Thomson’s representation of the Manketti Cattle Ranch hot-spot would suggest.

It covers all commercial and communal land, including the former ancestral !Kung lands of what formerly was known as Bushmanland West, now part of the Otjozondjupa Region.

Since 2015, when SWAPO with great pomp appointed 18-year-old Glony Arnold, daughter of late John Arnold, as !Kung chief and gave her a job as a captain in the Namibia Defence Force, this area has been heavily settled by senior officers of the army, police and prison services and turned into weekend farms held under freehold title to keep their cattle.

The Na≠Jaqna-Eden conservancy as the fourth hotspot extends this right area onto the border of the Nyae-Nyae conservancy to the east and the south-eastern corner of the Khaudom National Park, estimated to be home to an estimated 3 500 elephants.

It is also a strange inclusion and partnership: Unlike Nyae-Nyae, Namibia’s oldest and largest hunting conservancy, Na≠Jaqna does not have game or hunting rights, but Eden is a Swedish-owned commercial hunting safari company.

Where all these interests converge is in the why of money, cattle and political interests, It should be noted that this tender to capture 170 elephants was issued barely two weeks after the ruling SWAPO suffered heavy losses in regional and local elections of November 2020, losing two-thirds of their previous vote and political control over Windhoek and most other major towns and local councils.

They however retained their seats in the rural areas – and it is this constituency that  SWAPO now intended courting by opening up more areas to cattle farming by removing the elephants – and also finance them from the proceeds, as Mrs Thomson’s article argued.

“Several farmers suggested that the government supports private elephant ownership, which at the moment is limited to only a handful of farms. This would give farmers greater freedom in terms of managing their elephant populations through hunting, culling, or live sales to other farmers,” she wrote.

“Freehold farmers could then access similar elephant-related benefits to communal conservancies, which would help to offset the costs incurred from living with them.”

That this would amount to an illegal, permanent transfer of public goods into private hands under the table does not appear to occur to Mrs Thomson.

This leaves us with little left to address except the biggest elephant in the room: how many elephants are left in Namibia?

If 170 elephants amounted to half of all elephants in those four HEC hotspots, and those hotspots amounted to 31 percent of the total free-roaming Namibian elephant population as the article claimed, that implies there are about 1 000 – 1 100 free-roaming elephants left in the communal areas of Erongo, Kunene, Omusati and   Okavango Region and Tsumkwe district.

This is though more plausible figure, amounts to only a quarter to one third of the official estimates as supplied by Mr Sikopo in December 2018. 

By his estimate, there were 3 129 to 4 129 free-roaming elephants in Namibia, excluding the huge claimed Zambezi elephant herds that most likely are part of the trans-frontier populations.

Their figures were based on counts conducted by air and foot during the dry season and verified by independent NGOs such as the IRDNC, NNF and WWF. Total tallies were arrived at by extrapolating physical counts to estimated population densities for the given areas, Mr Sikopo explained. 

There was one glaring problem with this estimate: there simply is no sign of massive elephant herds anywhere in Namibia of the size as MEFT’s figures would suggest, nor was there a steady increase in HEC over the years as such a huge, free-roaming elephant would suggest. HEC has in fact declined to a mere trickle since the early 1990s.

The MEFT’s response was that “just because you can’t see them, it does not mean they’re not there.”

However, if one does not see any such huge herds or any sign of their presence anywhere on the ground, the most obvious conclusion is they simply do not exist.

John Grobler is a Windhoek-based veteran investigative journalist with a special interest in organised environmental crime and winner of several international media awards.