Across Africa, more than 20,000 elephants are being killed illegally every year. That equates to 55 per day. It is killing for a commodity highly prized in Asia, where growing demand has seen ivory prices triple over the past four years. Today, the tusks from a single elephant can fetch upwards of $45,000 (£30,000) on the black market.
In this context, regulated trophy hunting of Africa’s elephants and other charismatic megafauna has come under increased scrutiny. The recent deaths of high-profile animals in Zimbabwe, such as the hunting of ‘Cecil’ the lion by a Minnesota dentist, and last month’s killing of one of Africa’s biggest bull elephants by a German hunter have increased opposition to the industry. The US and European Union have adopted measures to restrict trade in wildlife trophies, and numerous international airlines have announced embargoes on their transportation.
Perhaps most significantly of all, Botswana – home to a third of southern Africa’s elephants – decided to ban trophy hunting last year. This has ramped up the pressure on those nations still utilising big game hunting as a conservation tool. Countries including South Africa, Namibia and Tanzania are being urged by the anti-hunting lobby to follow Botswana’s lead. So far, they have resisted. But it begs the question: would the African elephant’s future be more secure if other countries banned hunting?
I have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in Namibia, a nation that has apportioned over 40 per cent of its total land area to wildlife conservation. In 2013 I was undertaking fieldwork in a communal conservancy called ‘Kwandu’, in the remote Zambezi Region. Home to around 4,300 people, Kwandu was one of the first of Namibia’s 82 communal conservancies gazetted under the country’s internationally acclaimed programme of ‘Community-Based Natural Resource Management’ (CBNRM). Since 1996, these local institutions have allowed black farmers and herders previously excluded from apartheid wildlife systems to manage and benefit from natural resources on their land.
Based on principles of ‘sustainable use’ written into the Convention on Biological Diversity, an integral component of Namibia’s CBNRM model is trophy hunting. The industry contributes $25million (£16.5million) to the nation’s GDP, but is even more important at the local level. The 13 conservancies in Zambezi Region earned around $850,000 (£563,000) from hunting various game species in 2013. In the same year, Kwandu’s Professional Hunter killed two out of four elephant bulls allocated by the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, generating over $13,000 (£8,600) for the Conservancy. The previous year Kwandu’s total income was $33,000 (£21,000), 76 per cent of which was derived from hunting big game, mainly elephants.
This money is vital to conservancies, particularly in their formative years, and is often used to employ the first Game Guards. After covering its operational costs, including staff salaries, the Conservancy also gives money to villages at the end of the year. In one of these villages, Mwazi, a local man told me how the Conservancy’s benefit distribution plan had helped his community: ‘We renovated our kuta (traditional council) which was too expensive for us as a community to donate. And because our youth are drinking too much local alcohol and doing nothing, we decided to buy a football and a sports uniform. Now they are busy at the ground; they are exercising. Without elephants we couldn’t get those things.’ For people living on less than one dollar per day, meat from hunted game also provides much-needed protein.
Crucially, trophy hunting revenue provides economic justification for converting land ordinarily used for agricultural settlement into space for wildlife. This is particularly important for the African elephant, a species requiring vast areas of land in which to forage, yet finding its habitat increasingly fragmented as human populations expand. For that reason, Kwandu finds itself at the geographical heart of plans to (re)connect elephant habitat in the world’s largest transboundary park – Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KaZa) – which protects the migratory routes of some 250,000 elephants. In the narrow strip of land constituting Namibia’s Zambezi Region there are around 16,000 elephants, and the number continues to grow.
Inevitably, this has caused increased human-elephant conflict in the region. Communal farmers trying to eke out a living from the land find their crops ravaged by pachyderms partial to maize, millet and sorghum. Thankfully, farmers in Kwandu are recompensed for crop losses and livestock predation with funds derived largely from hunting. These payments increase farmers’ tolerance of wildlife, ensuring they are no worse off living alongside destructive megafauna like elephants.
The situation is much different for villagers in neighbouring Botswana. Back in 2013 WWF’s director in Namibia, Chris Weaver, told me Botswana’s impending hunting ban was a ‘huge mistake’ which would ‘create a lot of resentment within communities because you have increasing elephant populations, increasing human-wildlife conflict and no benefits from them.’ It seems he has been proved correct; a recent article in The New York Times reporting that villagers in areas unsuited to photographic tourism are calling for the return of trophy hunting. It is a familiar story. Research shows that hunting bans in other African countries have accelerated wildlife losses by removing incentives to conserve. Most recently, Zambia has recommenced hunting after a two-year ban which only exacerbated human-wildlife conflict and rural poverty.
Deforestation caused by Botswana’s burgeoning elephant population has also worsened since the ban. ‘You can stand on the Namibian side of the river and look across to Botswana, and you will see that Chobe National Park looks like a wasteland’, one hunter told me. Aside from soil erosion and biodiversity losses, deforestation on this scale can cause local elephant extinctions when they cannot move away from mass destruction sites. For now, they can, and do, move into Namibia. But where to from there? Elephant densities in Zambezi are now around 1/km², double the level at which more than 50 per cent of the tree canopy can be retained. To ban hunting in this context risks impoverishing communities and the biodiversity upon which they depend. Yet, widespread Euro-American attacks on Africa’s hunting industry continue.
This is both disappointing and surprising given recent trends in conservation biology. In modern conservation theory essentialist understandings of a ‘nature’ in balance are being superseded by ideas such as non-equilibrium ecology, complexity, and – perhaps most significantly of all – rewilding. Increasingly common in North America and Western Europe, rewilding projects involve reintroducing top predators and large herbivores in order to restore the trophic function of what are, to be clear, impoverished ecosystems. These ‘keystone species’ create ecological niches for other life to prosper in resilient landscapes.
I make the point because Namibia has been doing this for two decades. In Zambezi and elsewhere, land devoid of wildlife after the country’s bitter independence war has since been repopulated with megafauna. The country has the largest population of free-ranging black rhino. Elephant numbers are up. Lions – decimated elsewhere in Africa – are thriving in Namibia. This success prompted Rewilding Europe to visit Namibia earlier this year to learn from CBNRM, specifically the way it has incentivised people to co-exist with dangerous wildlife.
Trophy hunting has played a crucial role in that process. Of course it is controversial, but that is often the case in conservation. Just this week I read about plans to cull 1,000 bison – the American buffalo – in Yellowstone National Park. It happens every year, in a constructed ‘wilderness’ from which indigenous people were evicted over 140 years ago. The model served as a template for oppressive policies across Africa in the colonial period, elements of which are espoused in some countries to this day.
Through CBNRM, the post-independence government in Namibia has chosen a different track. Devolving wildlife rights to marginalised communities, it has adopted what Paul Jepson might refer to as ‘political rewilding’. More than this, in tracking, hunting, and watching their wildlife, communities have re-engaged with nature on an emotional level. A conversation with a man called Raphael in Kwandu Conservancy is testament to this. ‘Elephants are our friends, because whenever they are nearby the loneliness is not there’, he tells me. ‘Some people watch what it is doing; some people run away from it. It is doing its job there.’ For me, these words are a potent microcosm of CBNRM’s success. Rural communities in Namibia have been encouraged to use, benefit from, and live alongside wildlife. In turn, their lives have been re-wilded.
In a country where rural communities balk at the idea of living alongside beavers and lynx, I think we could learn a lot from Namibia. We should certainly think twice before moralising on how to manage their elephants. It is a country that can inspire us to seek more adventurous and emotional interactions with the natural world, to replace lacklustre landscapes with enchanting spaces that help cure our ecological boredom. More than this, conservation debate can move beyond dominant paradigms of ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ once we acknowledge that CBNRM is ‘rewilding’ – not just of landscapes, but of hearts and minds. This, I believe, is a much more positive framing of conservation than is currently on offer, giving us increased hope for the future of wildlife in Africa and beyond.