Trophy hunting elephants: New study highlights tensions in commodifying wildlife for community-based conservation in Namibia

Apr 8, 2021 | Commentary

By Dr Adam Cruise

Commodifying elephants under the banner of ‘consumptive sustainable use’ may hinder rather than help rural communities in Namibia’s community-based conservancies.

The equity of financial benefits for impoverished rural communities from Namibia’s Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) program has been explored in a new study.

Elephants (Loxodonta africana) in Namibia’s communal-area conservancies may be ear-marked for trophy hunting in order to generate revenue and mitigate the economic cost of elephant crop-raiding behaviours through compensation payments to local farmers. However, qualitative research by Lee Hewitson and Sian Sullivan, published in the Journal of Political Ecology, demonstrates that these processes can entrench existing inequality, and that compensation paid from elephant hunting is often not enough to replace productive opportunities lost through elephant activities such as crop-raiding.

Economically-valued elephants

The hunting of big game species such as elephants is a lucrative business in Namibia. In Kwandu Conservancy, in Namibia’s north-eastern Zambezi Region (where the evidence-based study was conducted), anyone wishing to hunt a trophy elephant pays upwards of US$50,000 to do so. As the conservancy’s treasurer put it: “The most valuable animal is the elephant, because they give a lot of income to the conservancy.” The program overall is hailed as a success story and trophy hunting of elephants in conservancies such as Kwandu are one route through which an income may be provided to subsistence farming communities living within a conservancy.

“Trophy hunting is often framed as a temporary ‘necessary evil’, required in order to make nature’s economic value visible so that wildlife populations and habitats can be conserved,” says co-author, Lee Hewitson. “This, we are told, is the best we can do within the confines of our current economic reality. Nature must be profitable, and stakeholders at all scales (whether local communities or international safari operators) must see returns on their investments if species such as elephants are to stay.”

Soon after independence in 1990, the Namibian government extended rights to legal and regulated wildlife use to rural communities who formed management units called ‘conservancies’. These rights include the consumptive use and sustainable management of wildlife in order to enable community members to derive benefits and mitigate or ‘offset’ the costs of living alongside wildlife populations such as elephants with a tendency to raid the crops of conservancy residents. The original intention was to both conserve wildlife and to rectify the unequal status of Namibia’s marginalised rural poor, given that at independence white settler farmers on freehold land could already profit from wildlife on their land.

There are now eighty-six communal area conservancies covering just over 20% of Namibia’s land area and encompassing almost 223,000 people. International donors including USAID, World Bank and WWF have contributed millions of US dollars to the program’s development and maintenance. The program is now central to the country’s conservation and development goals and is generally recognised as having contributed to a strong recovery in wildlife numbers.

Namibia is thus committed to capitalising on its wildlife through private sector enterprise in both ecotourism and consumptive use, with the latter including trophy hunting. Namibia’s government has rebranded ‘trophy hunting’ as ‘conservation hunting’ due to the global stigma attached to sport-hunting practices emphasising the collection of exotic trophies by foreign hunters.

Counting elephants and setting hunting quotas

In Kwandu Conservancy, elephants regularly eat crops planted by subsistence farmers who otherwise have few alternative livelihood options. With over 100 incidences annually, Kwandu Conservancy often has the highest human-elephant conflict figures in the country. The CBNRM program functions by identifying ‘surplus’ elephants that may then be trophy hunted by international clients (mainly from the USA) as a means to mitigate conflict and recover financial losses from destroyed crops.

The Namibian government maintains there has been a steady increase in elephant numbers in the Zambezi Region over the past decade. This then strengthens the case for continued consumptive utilisation of elephants through trophy hunting. In order to demonstrate the number of these ‘surplus’ elephants, game guards must conduct daily foot patrols to count elephants within the conservancies as well as record crop-raiding incidents in ‘event books’ and claim forms. With the assistance of NGOs and other CBNRM stakeholders, this information is then collated and in collaboration with government is used to set elephant hunting quotas for sale to hunting safari businesses.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has commended Namibia as part of “the largest road count monitoring system in the world.” Namibia’s government has calculated that 0.5% of an area’s total elephant population can be hunted for trophies (usually males over 30 years old) without negatively affecting overall numbers. Consequently, Namibia has agreed a national trophy quota of 90 elephants each year since 2012. This quota must then be distributed amongst the country’s hunting concessions.

Kwandu’s wildlife management plan stipulates keeping its 250 ‘resident’ elephants at current levels. The conservancy has tended to receive five elephants for its annual offtake quota, putting this quota out to tender to commercial safari hunting operators who submit proposals to the conservancy. Recent figures indicate that the hunting operator currently holding the rights to hunt in Kwandu’s concession pays the conservancy US$12,376 for each trophy elephant hunted carrying a tusk weight above 40lbs (18.1kg), or US$8,415 for those with tusks weighing less than that. Overseas clients wishing to hunt trophy elephants in Kwandu pay the operator a US$24,000 trophy fee, as well as a minimum of US$25,900 in daily rates for fourteen days spent on the elephant trail. Whereas the daily rates mostly cover the hunting company’s operational costs including accommodation upkeep and staff salaries, the trophy fee is shared with the conservancy. Accordingly, Kwandu receives just over 50% of the trophy fee paid by the client to the hunting company.

Perpetual cycle of impoverishment

As the study reveals, however, relatively small amounts of money from hunted elephants reach the farmers in order to ‘offset’ losses caused by elephants. The bulk of the money goes towards conservancy running costs, including the work done by rangers and other staff to count and record elephant numbers, i.e. labour which facilitates the commodification of these animals and continued access by commercial elephant hunting operations. If after these outgoings the conservancy can afford to pay its farmers for crop losses this money is invariably used to plant more crops, attracting elephants which can then be counted, commodified (i.e. given a market price), and perhaps killed. And so the cycle continues.

Compensation for crop damage amounts to a small portion of the income those crops would otherwise generate. Many farmers have to undertake extra piecework in order to feed their families after losing crops, with one conservancy member describing living alongside elephants as like being “locked in prison.” The research found that ‘these economic, psychological, and hidden opportunity costs are generally borne by the most vulnerable in society, such as female-headed households, and often cannot be financially compensated.’ Importantly, those households that suffer the greatest economic and emotional burden of living alongside elephants do not necessarily benefit significantly from CBNRM’s economic opportunities.  

Yet ‘undesirable encounters’ such as crop raiding are managed and reframed by CBNRM practitioners as issues that can be overcome through increased commodification of the conservancy’s ‘natural assets’. In turn, questions of value are depoliticised and rendered as technical matters, households being encouraged to ‘buy-in’ to the perceived income generated from elephant hunting. Co-author Sian Sullivan observes that “conservancy residents are encouraged to become increasingly dependent on incomes linked with specific international commodity markets towards which both the ‘sustainable use’ of elephants (and other species) and their market value is directed. These circumstances mean that elephant trophy hunting as a form of conservation-by-sustainable-use arguably requires the sustenance of inequalities, which may ultimately threaten the sustenance of conservation.”

The study shows that unequal power relations between (inter)national elites and local people are necessary for the production of trophy elephant commodities in conservancies, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that these market-based approaches have struggled to address underlying inequalities. As the authors point out, trophy hunting reinforces ‘unequal social relations in which subsistence farmers must suffer the costs so that investors can continue to exploit their work and accumulate economic value from commodified elephants’. Ultimately, it can appear that communal area conservancies are positioned as somewhat under-paid ‘middle-men’ in a financial transaction between government and trophy-hunting businesses requiring the continuing poverty of small-holders whose crops attract elephants that become valued as trophies.

Ecological benefits for commodified elephants?

The commodification of elephants also may ignore elephant biology, herd behaviour and the role they play in the overall ecology of the landscape. Recent research published in Nature, for example, shows that old male bulls who are usually targeted as trophies are vital for the cohesiveness and balance of elephant herds. The assumption has generally been that old bulls are largely redundant in terms of the overall survival of the population, but researchers argue that in associating with older males, adolescent bulls could benefit from decades’ worth of experience in utilising their environment effectively while negotiating potential risks such as conflict with people.

Since only old bulls are selected for trophy hunters, this doesn’t cover the younger males and female elephants that also participate in eating crops. CBNRM, therefore, does little to mitigate elephant crop-raiding behaviour in the sense that all elephants are enticed by the crops, and the five elephants that form part of the quota will do little to alleviate it. This reinforces and encourages the cyclical nature of elephants eating crops and rural communities replacing the crops, becoming increasingly reliant on meagre proceeds from trophy hunting as they do so.

Toward a more equitable future

It is clear that the commodification of elephants for trophy hunting is a contested practice. Arguments over the ecological and economic benefits of trophy hunting aside, it must be acknowledged that the processes through which elephants are commodified for trophy hunting capitalise upon and arguably exacerbate existing inequalities between CBNRM ‘stakeholders’.

“Our research illuminates the contingent and fractious nature of market-based conservation on the ground,” says Hewitson. “These neoliberal configurations and their inherent value frames might be our current reality, seemingly unchangeable; but if we accept commodification and killing as the only option then we do a disservice to those (non)humans whose labour and ecologies are marginalised and unpaid so that ‘trophy’ elephants can be valued largely for the benefit of investors.” Hewitson states we must work towards more equitable, ethical, and ecologically healthy alternatives that do not necessitate the alienation of (non)humans – whether impoverished subsistence farmers or surplus ‘trophy’ elephants – although “it will require a willingness amongst conservation practitioners and policy-makers to engage more critically with the value relations inherent to capitalism.”

“We hope,” says Sullivan, “our paper might contribute to a more nuanced conversation around such conservation complexities and their implications.”


The field research for this study was carried out with permission from the then Ministry of Environment and Tourism and each of the six indunas (headmen) in Kwandu Conservancy. It took place before the COVID-19 pandemic which, as elsewhere, has had significant impacts on tourism and trophy-hunting possibilities in Namibia. For a survey regarding initial impacts of travel and other restrictions on communal area conservancies across Namibia see Lendelvo, S., Mechtilde, P. and Sullivan, S. 2020 A perfect storm? COVID-19 and community-based conservation in Namibia. Namibian Journal of Environment 4(B): 1-15, also reported in a Conservation Namibia blog here.

Adam Cruise is an investigative wildlife journalist and author with a PhD in Philosophy specialising in environmental and animal ethics from Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He is the author of ‘It’s Not About The Bats‘, a book about coronavirus and conservation and how we must re-set our relationship with nature.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This license allows re-users to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator.

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