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Inside Namibia's Rural Communal Conservancies


Wilderness is disappearing around the world and with it wild animals. We heard, yesterday, how the southern African nation of Namibia is trying a new approach to preserving its wildlife. Rural Namibians run local conservancies which control the animals and also profit from them. Today NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on a controversial element of the process – shooting the animals that Namibians have worked so hard to save.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: In the red desert of northwest Namibia, a thicket of green at the end of a dirt track means a spring. And where there's water, there's a bush camp.


JOYCE: Hunters in camouflage sit around a fire, drinking coffee from metal cups. Among them is Dirk Nesenberend. He owns a gun shop.

DIRK NESENBEREND: I grew up with shooting and hunting from early age.

JOYCE: Nesenberend came to shoot springbok, a small antelope. He was invited by one of Namibia's communal conservancies. Local people, mostly poor farmers with little cash income, run the conservancies. They protect the springbok, which are thriving. But now it's time to shoot some of them.

NESENBEREND: We normally go up to about 200 meters. I've got a 280 Remington that I use. We shoot for the brain.

JOYCE: The hunters use noise suppressors on their rifles. That way, the animals don't associate vehicles with being shot. Otherwise, they'd run from vehicles. And that's bad for tourism.

NESENBEREND: Tourists if they are going to come here and they're not going to see any animals, it's not going to be a very successful tourism industry.

JOYCE: The rural conservancies earn lots of money from tourists who come for the antelope, giraffe, the big cats, and rhinos. But the conservancies also promise their members free bush meat every year or two, usually enough to feed a family for weeks. The conservancies provide for animals, but for people too.

RICHARD FRYER: Settle down now.

JOYCE: So hunt leader Richard Fryer drives back roads, away from safari vans full of tourists. His bull terrier Jesse sits next to the gear shift. Jesse senses the hunt is on. The shooter stands back in the bed of the truck.

Fryer once was a soldier. Now he's a wildlife manager with the IRDNC, a coalition of Namibian conservation groups. He spots a herd of about 20 springbok. They're a bit smaller than deer, tan and white, with long curved horns.

The shooter unzips his rifle case. It's been a wet year. The springbok graze on tall green grass.

FRYER: 254.

JOYCE: Fryer reads off the distance to the target. Two shots, two springbok go down. We walk up a rocky hill to retrieve the animals. The quota for the season is 230 springbok for this conservancy, called Torra. The hunt not only provides meat, but keeps the herds from exceeding the land's carrying capacity - the maximum number of animals the land can sustain.

FRYER: This is still a young female, maybe 15 kilograms, once everything is taken out, the gut is taken out, skin off, everything.

JOYCE: Young men from the conservancy haul the two animals to the truck and load them in the back. Farmers who work for the conservancies have been counting wildlife since 2001. They've stabilized populations, and reduced poaching.

At a nearby farm, young men hang the day's kill from hooks and begin butchering them. Later, they'll deliver the meat to local farmers.

The conservancies, there are 64 of them now and they cover an area about the size of Louisiana, also allow trophy hunting for lions, cheetahs, elephants and other big animals. All of this hunting raises hackles, but not for Garth Owen-Smith. He's a South African who came to Namibia in the 1970s and is credited with starting the conservancy idea. He says conservationists can be naive.

GARTH OWEN-SMITH: A lot of conservationists are actually protectionists. They see wildlife as some elevated animal.

JOYCE: He says that goes for tourists as well.

OWEN-SMITH: The perception in the eyes of many tourists and usually urban people, is that wildlife is something sacred. We don't mind the cattle being killed, or sheep or goats being killed, but you can't kill wildlife, which is a nonsensical perception.

JOYCE: Owen-Smith, now in his late sixties, has retired to a desert oasis in northwest Namibia. It's a compound of stone bungalows with thatched roofs, called World's End. He says Namibia today is nothing like it was when he first arrived. In the 1970s, rural people lived hand to mouth. Namibians were at war with apartheid South Africa for their independence. Wildlife was a government asset, and poaching had nearly wiped out some species.

OWEN-SMITH: Black people were alienated, they thought nothing, you know, about wildlife, it was for the elite, for whites, not for us. It was almost a Robin Hood syndrome, that we are stealing what used to belong to us.

JOYCE: Owen-Smith knew he had to work with traditional leaders from the Himba and the Herero indigenous people to help them take back control of wildlife and hire their own game guards.

OWEN-SMITH: With traditional leaders in this area appointing their own game guards, who were living in the area all the time and knew how the poachers operated because some of them had been poachers, they were able to stop the poaching within a few years, you know.

JOYCE: Owen-Smith says wildlife, like antelope and zebra, rebounded. In 1996, after Namibia won its independence, the new government set up the communal conservancies to continue what the game guards had begun. Rural people organized committees to sign up members and manage wildlife. Margaret Sullivan is Owen-Smith's partner and an anthropologist who's lived in Namibia for 27 years.

MARGARET SULIVAN: There was a vision that one day wildlife would be our gold, would be more valuable to us alive than in cooking pots.

JOYCE: Numbers for many species, including the endangered black rhino, are now strong and holding steady. Lions are back too. Chris Weaver, who runs World Wildlife Fund Namibia, says in 1995 lions numbered fewer than 20 in northwest Namibia.

CHRIS WEAVER: Now what's happened, because conservancies have benefited from lions through tourism and through the hunting, that the population is closer to 125.

JOYCE: But wildlife numbers are not the only measure of success. That's what Maxi Louis argues. She's a director of NACSO, an organization of Namibian conservation groups.

MAXI LOUIS: You know, let me tell you my own experiences. When I looked at it first when it started, it was wildlife, but then I realized it's going beyond wildlife, it's creating joint ventures, there's income, and there's other things, there's skills transfer. And I think I just realized that no, it's more than just wildlife, it's actually addressing rural development.

JOYCE: Altogether hunting raises almost $2 million dollars a year. But the conservancies still need help. WWF contributes about three million dollars a year.

Louis acknowledges that rural Namibians still aren't running the tourist lodges and often don't know what to do with their new-found income. And she says, some conservancies probably won't survive. But she believes they've given the rural poor a rainbow to reach for. The evidence, she says, is the stream of people coming to the capital of Windhoek asking the government if they too can start their own conservancies.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.