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Game Preserves

December 8, 2010
by Glen Martin
an elephant

One African country has an unusual take on economic incentives to wildlife conservation.

I’m driving through the Caprivi Strip with Greenwell Matongo, the World Wildlife Fund’s community liaison for Namibia. At my insistence, he is regaling me with stories. During his years as chief warden for the country’s Ministry of Tourism and Environment, much of his work involved settling problems between tribal community members and obstreperous wild animals: lions, leopards, and cheetahs killing livestock; elephants raiding maize fields; or Cape buffalo stomping cattle herders. A disconcerting number of his yarns conclude with “… and then we were all yelling, ‘Shoot! Shoot!'”

One particular tale, however, ends differently. A leopard had been killing goats near a farming hamlet, and Matongo received a call on his cell phone from a village elder. “He told me there had just been a kill, and they were going to track the leopard and take care of it on their own,” Matongo says. “I told him to not do that, to wait until we got there.”

But the elder didn’t wait. By the time Matongo and his squad of scouts arrived and followed tracks to the scene, both the elder and the leopard were dead and the villagers were covered in blood. The elder, it seemed, had looked down a hole and the leopard boiled up, teeth and claws bared, mauling all three people before it was finally killed by a well-aimed spear thrust.

Matongo shakes his head—not because the story was unusual for Namibia, but because his good advice had been spurned. “They should have waited,” he says. “And you never, ever look down a hole if you think there could be a leopard in there.” I file that away for future reference.

Caprivi is a beautiful region, a long panhandle of savanna, hardwood forest, and wetlands wedged against the Zambian, Angolan, and Botswanan borders, and transected by the Zambezi and Okavango Rivers. Caprivi aside, the country is arid, far better suited to ranging livestock than intensive agriculture. Every market offers lavish arrays of beef, mutton, goat, fresh pork, sausages, and hams—even cuts from game such as springbok, oryx, zebra, and kudu. These are not halcyon times for African wildlife; in general, game populations are plummeting across the continent, including in countries iconic for wild animals, such as Kenya and Tanzania. But Namibia is the exception.

Wildlife is not merely holding its own here—it is thriving, with expanding populations of most of the charismatic mammalian species. Oryx have jumped from a few hundred in the early 1980s to more than 40,000 today. Springbok have gone from under a thousand to 50,000; mountain zebra, from a few hundred to 13,000. Sable, the beautiful, big-horned antelope that are rare elsewhere in Africa, are plentiful here. Kudu, as well—you ignore kudu-crossing signs on the highways at your peril, given that collisions with these elk-size ungulates invariably end poorly for both animal and motorist. Elephant and Cape buffalo are abundant. And Namibia is the stronghold for the world’s cheetah population, supporting almost 3,000 of the lithe feline predators. Even lions, which are undergoing relentless extermination across the rest of Africa, are doing relatively well in Namibia, increasing from 30 in 1995 to more than 150 today.

What is particularly intriguing is that Namibia’s conservation success is based on contrarian policies. In most of sub-Saharan Africa, conservation is synonymous with “nonconsumption.” In Kenya, a full hunting ban is in effect for all mammals. Even in countries where hunting is allowed (Tanzania and Botswana, for example), it is an ancillary activity, secondary to ecotourism. In Namibia, however, conservation is predicated on the private utilization of wildlife. Tribal members and farmers own the game that inhabit their lands. Subject to quotas established by the central government, landowners may sell trophy animals to sport hunters, pursue subsistence hunting, or crop particularly abundant species for a certified meat market. Virtually every species is subjected to a sustainable hunting quota—even those that are emblems of endangered wildlife.

The theory driving this policy is that wildlife is preserved when people can derive money or food from it.

After attaining independence from South Africa, Namibia instituted widespread land reform, breaking up sprawling Boer holdings and distributing the lands to the tribes that had occupied them prior to European settlement. These homelands are now held in common by community members. Economic activities typically have focused on livestock—a logical pursuit, given Namibia’s abundance of rangeland. But rangeland in southwest Africa is also prime wildlife habitat. In 1996, the government established the legal framework for community conservancy, with the aim of providing an ancillary means of income for tribal members. Today there are more than 50 such conservancies, covering 15 percent of the nation. Within the next few years, says Matongo, about 30 more will be incorporated.

“It’s a two-pronged strategy,” says Matongo. “First, we wanted to expand the economic base for rural residents. Livestock alone is a chancy business model.” Second, says Matongo, was a simple commitment to conservation.

Still, Namibians remain resolutely pragmatic when it comes to conservation, emphasizes Matongo as he drives the main road that bisects Caprivi, adroitly dodging with casual twists of the wheel the scores of chameleons crossing the macadam. “Basically, it isn’t about animal welfare,” he says. “It’s about human welfare. We conserve wildlife to benefit Namibians.”

I investigate firsthand such enlightened self-interest at Salambala Conservancy, a 230,000-acre property held by the Subia tribe. Salambala is rather small as Namibian conservancies go, but it is biologically rich. Its diverse habitats—hardwood upland forest, riverine jungle, marshland, and savanna—support an extraordinary abundance of wildlife. Matongo and I are here to attend a committee meeting, and we find members standing at a metal table outside the administrative offices. They are grimly contemplating some nondescript material on the table. It turns out to be the remains from an illegal kill: reeking scraps of hide and viscera from a blue wildebeest. Robert Simjambo, a tall, thin, middle-aged man of impeccable posture who is the committee chairman, is particularly upset.

This wildebeest, he explains, was community property, an asset belonging to every tribal member. With some exceptions, poaching is a relatively minor crime in the United States. In Namibia, though, it is tantamount to grand theft. Simjambo notes there are a mere eight wildebeest on Salambala’s annual quota. Now, only seven can be taken for the remainder of the year. Meat will go undistributed; funds from trophy fees will not be collected. By killing this wildebeest, Simjambo declares, the poacher stole from every Salambala resident.

“We have the evidence, and we know who did it,” says Simjambo. “It’s particularly bad because he is a community member. He is hiding from us, but we will find him. And he will pay.” That will certainly involve jail time, Matongo cheerfully tells me later—and perhaps even a spontaneous drubbing for the malefactor when he is captured.

During the meeting, conservancy manager Sydney Sakutuka shows me a quota list for every game species on Salambala. I am impressed by its comprehensiveness. All the charismatic species are included, of course, but the list also contains species not typically considered trophy game: hippo, crocodile, baboons, jackals, and hyenas. Why are they on the list? I’m told that there are a fair number of hunters who will pay to take even these atypical trophies. And the meat (from the hippos, at least) will be welcomed by community members.

The Subia are pursuing enterprises other than hunting here at Salambala. Cattle and other livestock remain central to their culture and economy. A small lodge is going up next to the administrative offices. Tribal members produce wood carvings that are sold at a gift shop on Caprivi’s main highway.

But Salambala is by no means a template for the entire system; each community conservancy reflects the unique goals of its members, and those goals vary from group to group.

This is made clear to me a few hundred kilometers west and south of Salambala. Nyae Nyae is a homeland of the San (formerly known as Bushmen; the term is now considered pejorative in southwest Africa). Nyae Nyae—which I’m told means “A Place Without Mountains, But Rocky” in the San language—is huge, encompassing 2.2 million acres of the acacia and broadleaf hardwood forest known as “bushveldt” in Namibia. Only about 2,000 San inhabit Nyae Nyae, most living in small encampments in the bush. Income for the community comes from hunting fees, a modest ecotourism trade, and the harvesting of devil’s claw, a wild tuber that is dried and sold to herbalists in Europe, where it is marketed as a weight-loss aid. The San herd no cattle, grow no crops, and are disinclined to expand their tourism base. Most of the revenues go for community needs: wells and other water projects, medical care, and basic staples such as tea and cornmeal.

Maximizing conservancy profits is not a priority for the San, explains Andries Alberts, a rugged young Boer who serves as the community’s chief warden. Traditionally, those who can provide and share food enjoy the most prestige in the tribe. The accumulation of wealth is considered somewhat disreputable. “They’re not interested in it,” says Alberts.

What are they interested in? Hunting, basically. The San are the only community in Namibia that has official sanction to hunt year-round, with no subsistence quota. They can kill as many animals as they can eat, but only traditional weapons are allowed: spears and small, frail bows with poisoned arrows. Matongo says the San possess almost supernatural tracking skills: “I’ve hired them, and they can follow animals all day over barren rock,” he reports. “I’ve worked with a lot of good trackers, but they can tell if a single grain of sand has been displaced. They can smell an animal from a long distance, and tell if it is relaxed or stressed.”

I talk to three San conservancy committee members—Dan Jackson, Gcao Clemens, and Cwi Cnassie—at Tsumkwe, a small aggregation of buildings that serves as Nyae Nyae’s only village. They are striking men: short, gracile, with high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. They speak Afrikaans through an interpreter. (English is the official language of Namibia, but few San know it, and the San language contains a variety of lingual pops and clicks that are almost impossible for outsiders to master.) The men answer my questions with great patience. As the interview proceeds, they seem bored, sinking lower and lower in their chairs.

But when the talk turns to hunting, they sit upright, smiling broadly, and their speech becomes animated. “For us, it’s everything,” says Jackson. “When I spend too much time in Tsumkwe, I have to get out and hunt. It’s the best life—you are free, alive. All of us feel the same way.”

Along with their obvious desire to be anywhere other than inside a small, stuffy, cinderblock building talking to an annoying foreigner, I notice something else: The San seem decidedly amused by my questions. They mutter to one another, and chuckle before catching themselves and attending to my questions gravely. I don’t feel mocked—merely that I’m a source of entertainment. I mention this to Matongo as we drive the 150 miles of dirt track from Tsumkwe back to the main highway. He nods slowly and looks at me sidelong. “The San,” he finally says, “are a humorous people. They like to laugh, they like jokes. A lot of things strike them as funny.”

I suddenly remember an episode of the television travel series No Reservations, hosted by Anthony Bourdain, celebrated bad-boy chef, author, and raconteur. The episode was set in Namibia and featured an interlude with the San that culminated in a feast consisting of a warthog cooked over an open fire. Bourdain, the guest of honor, was proffered the “choicest” part of the animal: its rectum, barely seared in the ashes. Not wishing to offend, Bourdain choked it down, while several San looked on opaquely, half-smiles on their faces. Bourdain turned visibly green. In later shows, he railed that it was the most nauseating, disgusting thing he had ever eaten. Could he have been the unwitting victim of a San prank, I wonder now. Matongo explodes in laughter, hits his thigh with his fist, and almost drives off the road.

“I’m sure of it,” he says. “That’s exactly the kind of thing the San would do—they would think that’s a very funny joke.” He pauses for a second, and laughs again. “I mean, I think it’s a good joke.”

Namibia is hardly a paradise. Per capita income is low, AIDS is a pressing health concern for the general population, and tensions are growing over the increase in Chinese small businesses, corporations, and immigrants. Nor are the country’s conservation strategies uniformly successful. Different species fare better in some parts of the country than they do in others. And like everywhere, growing human populations create conflict with wildlife populations.

As we drive out of Nyae Nyae through the thick bushveldt, Matongo and I occasionally see wildlife: kudu and other antelope, warthogs, flocks of guinea fowl. It’s not like the Serengeti, however—no tableaux of plains game in their tens of thousands, chewing their cud as lions patrol the perimeters seeking the infirm, the halt, and the old. The wild animals in Namibia’s community conservancies are truly wild. That’s because they are hunted to one degree or another, integrated into a larger landscape that includes human beings. Here at Nyae Nyae, the animals that spot us melt into the bush. Paradoxically, this somehow makes the conservancy seem more vital, more legitimate … more real. The various species of genus Homo have been Africa’s top predators for millions of years. So it is appropriate that we now protect Africa’s game—this is the 21st century and our hands are stained with manifold environmental sins. But it is also appropriate that the animals fear us and dislike us. It is safer for them if they do not love us, and it is the natural order of things.

As we drive, I am lulled by the straight track and endless bush. Then my attention is abruptly focused on an animal skulking across the road just ahead of us. Matongo stops the truck. There it is, standing broadside to us not 20 yards away: a feline that looks all the world like a hypertrophied tabby cat on a bad hair day. I realize I’m looking at an African wildcat, one of the continent’s most elusive predators. In most parts of their range, African wildcats have disappeared or hybridized with domestic cats. But here in Namibia, scores of miles from any habitation, this animal is likely true to the original genotype; it’s the real deal. Anyone can go to a national park in this part of the world and see a lion. To spot one of these secretive carnivores, however, is another matter entirely: serendipity that is unlikely to be repeated.

The cat is frozen in its posture, convinced we don’t see it. When it realizes otherwise, it disappears without seeming to twitch a muscle.

Glen Martin, a former environmental reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, is writing a book for the University of California Press on the conflict between animal rights advocates and conservationists in Africa. He divides his time between a suburban tract home in Santa Rosa and his wife’s farm in Camarines Sur, the Republic of the Philippines.

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