Windhoek, Namibia – Sitting in the neat Sorris-Sorris conservancy office, where an elephant the previous night ripped up the water facility serving the local community, David Eiseb, the manager, explains how hard it is to coexist with large, wild animals in Namibia’s semi-desert regions.
“We know the elephants need water, but we also need water to survive here,” he shrugged. “To replace the pipes and fix the tank will cost money we just don’t have at the moment.”
Rainfall here averages at about 150mm a year, making access to water critical for the survival of man and animals during the nine-month-long dry season, he explains.
And when the elephant threatens your very physical survival, people tend to take a more a utilitarian view of game – which is why they recently had a young elephant shot for meat, Eiseb says.
A ruggedly beautiful, semi-arid region located 800km northwest of the capital Windhoek, the Kunene region and its ephemeral riverbeds are home to about 388 elephants, a smaller group of which have adapted to near-desert conditions.
It is also home to the world’s last free-roaming and critically endangered black rhino, whose exact numbers are a closely guarded secret after being nursed back from as few as nine animals in the late 1980s.
Of late, the increasing competition for resources has been taking a higher toll on the wildlife. Herds of antelope numbering in the thousands have simply disappeared even as wildlife management was supposedly improving.
This was most noticeable in areas under local conservancy management where the animals bolted at the sight of any approaching vehicle.
More seriously perhaps is that after two decades of not losing any black rhinos, 11 have been poached since late last year, including three in the Palmwag Concession area north of Sorris-Sorris. Two months ago, three Chinese men were arrested at the local international airport with 14 rhino horns and cheetah skins in their suitcases.
The Chinese, however, had local help in obtaining those horns. Fingers are being pointed at a businessman with a string of liquor outlets in the Kunene region. An employee of the businessman was arrested late last year and his case was being transferred to the Windhoek High Court for a hearing next year, the Office of the Prosecutor-General said.
The businessman and his Chinese partner have not been seen in the area since the last poaching incident two months ago, people in the Palmwag Concession area said.
tank will cost money we just don’t have at the moment.”]
A full statement implicating the businessman was allegedly made by the employee. “The old man [the suspect] told us he was promised lots of money by his boss,” said Joas Mupeu, a community game guard at Warmquelle, about 200km north of Sorris-Sorris, who had helped track and arrest the suspect.
At a subsequent community meeting, it emerged that the businessman had promised several of the local chiefs more benefits than what tourism could offer, Mupeu said. “There was talk of jobs at the mine he and the Chinese want to open. People always need money.”
Apart from tourism, there were no other jobs in the region. As one of 15 so-called conservancies in this region – an innovative conservation model whereby the local community takes custodianship of all tourism and wildlife resources in their area – Sorris-Sorris, like several others, was struggling to make ends meet, Eiseb admitted.
Unlike the neighbouring Tsiseb Conservancy around the Brandberg Mountain and its famous White Lady rock paintings that brought a steady stream of income from visiting foreign tourists, Sorris-Sorris lacked any natural attractions.
“Hunting is our only source of income,” he said. While professional hunts bring in the most money, they were also allowed to “shoot and sell, that is, have game hunted for meat to sell. The shooting was done by a contracted professional hunter under the conservancy model, and was appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) officials.
This model, referred to commonly as Community-Based Resource Management, has been heavily backed by the World Wildlife Fund for the past 15 years.
Namibia is internationally hailed as a rare African conservation success story because of the way it allowed local communities to benefit directly from managing natural resources like game, according to the Integrated Rural Development and Conservation, which pioneered this approach in Namibia.
But of late, the signs were that this model was in trouble, often because of conflicts of interests within the rural communities themselves, explains Willem Odendaal of the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), a public-interest law NGO based in Windhoek.
The LAC, acting on behalf of the Palmwag Concession holders – where 60 percent of the black rhino live – were seeking to legally eject a group of semi-nomadic Himba people and their livestock who had recently moved into the area, Odendaal said.
‘Growing political battle’
“There is a growing political battle developing over resources and grazing rights [in Palmwag],” and the local officials appeared to be conflicted in their application of the law to maintain it as a pure conservation area, he said.
Although the local chiefs had ordered the new group out of the area, they seemed to enjoy the protection of the local government game warden Jan Awiseb, who had also taken up farming in addition to his official duties.
Awiseb, who could not be reached for comment, was cited as a third respondent in the injunction the LAC obtained from the Namibian High Court.
The timing might have been coincidental, but this group’s arrival preceded the first cases of rhino poaching, said Fritz Schenk, who operates the Palmwag tourist lodge on behalf of the so-called “Big Three” group of local conservancies.
Had the government game wardens like Awiseb done their duty and maintained patrolling standards, the loss of the three rhinos in Palmwag could have been avoided, Schenk said.
The court order obtained by the LAC also cited, as the 12th respondent, the Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), an NGO credited with bringing the black rhino back from the edge of extinction in the late 1980s.
But, as with their official counterparts in the MET, the SRT’s anti-poaching patrols have all but ceased of late, said Waylon Zandberg, whose family operated the Khowarib Lodge west of Palmwag.
The SRT, however, also appeared conflicted: Its CEO, Marcia Fargnolli, recently resigned over a dispute with its trustees, who favour a pro-hunting attitude, she confirmed.
“It’s the tragedy of the commons,” said Johannes Haasbroek, whose NGO, the Elephant Human Relations Aid, seeks to alleviate conflict over water resources by building protective walls around local communities’ water installations for them.
“As long as everyone seeks to make money out of a disappearing resource, it won’t stop until it is all gone.”