Learning how rural Namibian livestock farmers coexist with wildlife.
On Sunday 13 October, Elina Karutjaiva, a subsistence livestock farmer from Namibia who had never travelled outside of her country, boarded her flight at Windhoek International Airport. Five days later she stood in front of a Norwegian audience in Oslo, thousands of kilometres away from her home in the arid north west of Namibia, explaining how she and her community successfully live with wild animals.
Elina, from Sesfontein Conservancy, was participating in a WWF-Norway seminar on wildlife management experiences in Namibia and Norway. The aim of the seminar was to explore similarities and differences between the two countries and to see if there were lessons from Namibia which could be applied to the farmer-wolf conflict in Norway. Elina was accompanied by Jantjie Rhyn, a livestock farmer from Torra Conservancy, and John Kasaona, Executive Director of the IRDNC, a Namibian NGO which has supported rural communities in managing their natural resources for more than twenty years.
Choosing to live with dangerous wildlife
The Namibians explained to the audience how rural Namibians have chosen to live with and sustain wildlife: They have chosen this despite the great challenges they face, such as losing their livestock to the predators. Over the past few weeks, three of Jantjie’s cattle have been killed by predators. This is a significant loss when there is little state compensation or other social safety security nets, which is usually present in wealthier countries. And yet, for Jantjie, Elina and others in their communities, living with wildlife brings more benefits than costs, so they continue to choose to live with wildlife.
As explained by the Namibians, under the previous colonial administrations rural communities were moved from their indigenous lands to make way for white settlers. The rural communities and their livestock had to compete with wildlife for grazing and land. They were no longer able to use wildlife as they had for centuries – if they killed wild animals to eat they were arrested as “poachers”. Yet government officials and the resident army were able to hunt for food, sport and profit.
Drought and trade were driving forces behind poaching
A drought in the early 1980s exacerbated the problems faced by communities living with wildlife, and communities began to rely on wildlife more heavily to survive as they lost their livestock to the drought. At the same time the increasing ivory and rhino horn trade was affecting elephant and rhino populations. Wildlife numbers plummeted.
During this time, pioneering conservationist Garth Owen-Smith began discussions with the traditional leaders of the very people accused of poaching, about how wildlife could be sustained in these areas. The communities did want wildlife to survive, but under the circumstances, they weren’t sure how it could be possible. Together they came up with a revolutionary idea: having community members manage wildlife, patrol for poachers, and deal with the poachers in their own way rather than reporting them to the government.
Improved livelihoods and increasing wildlife populations
By the time Namibian independence came in 1990, poaching had been reduced significantly in the areas where communities had taken it upon themselves to control it. The new government agreed to hand over the rights over wildlife, under certain conditions, to rural communities who wanted these rights and formalised this approach through legislation.
John, Elina and Jantjie explained how this innovative decision resulted in significant conservation successes: an additional 140,000 km2 land in Namibia is now available for wildlife; elephant numbers have increased from approximately 15,000 in 1995 to over 20,000 today; predators such as lion, cheetah, and leopard have expanded in both range and numbers. Lions in the north west of the country numbered around 20 in 1995, today there are approximately 150 and no longer confined only to state protected areas.
More than 240,000 people are involved in this approach; one in five rural Namibians benefit from these rights over natural resources. Communities decide collectively how to use the income and other benefits they obtain from hunting and tourism concessions. Examples include: donations to schools, bursaries for students, food distribution to pensioners, diesel to pump water for livestock and wildlife, and repairs to infrastructure damaged by elephants. Tourism, hunting and small scale enterprises, such as plant harvesting, have generated over US$ 36m in benefits to community members since 1998 and more than 2000 jobs have been created.
But as Jantjie pointed out, allowing wildlife on their land is not just about receiving economic benefits from wildlife. He feels he has a moral responsibility to his children because wildlife is part of their heritage. One of the greatest benefits he experiences from the community conservation programme is not money, or the meat the community gets from hunted animals, but rather that now he and his children and grandchildren have the opportunity to see wildlife in their own areas – they don’t have to go to a national park to do so.
Lessons for Norway?
During the seminar, the Namibian delegation invited Norwegians to visit Namibia. They invited Norwegian farmers to meet with Namibian farmers, and Norwegian politicians to meet with Namibian politicians – so they can see for themselves how communities manage and live with wildlife in Namibia.
Norway and Namibia are different in many ways: demographically, climatically and in terms of wealth. But there are also many similarities, and this includes the challenges faced by rural farmers living with wildlife where in Norway, as in Namibia, carnivores kill farmers’ livestock. No one says the Namibia experience of wildlife management has the answer for the Norwegian farmer-wolf situation, but the Namibia approach shows that space can be found for both wildlife and people to successfully coexist.
While there are still challenges in Namibia, there is a coalition of people and organisations, from rural communities, governments and NGOs, who are working together to find the solutions. Namibians were prepared to take a leap of faith – by putting power back in the hands of the rural communities – to find an equitable solution that benefitted both people and nature. And it’s working.