Programme History

A small beginning

Early game guards
Early game guards

The earliest community-based conservation initiatives in Namibia, which have today developed into a national CBNRM programme, started before independence when the first community game guards were appointed by local headmen to help reverse wildlife declines. The early game guard system was based on re-empowering local headmen who said they did not want to see wildlife disappear under the threats of drought and poaching. In the early 1980s wild animals were often seen as a threat to crops, livestock, infrastructure and community safety, which did not bring any economic value to local livelihoods other than as meat to poach.

Past injustice – present reality

Rights over wildlife were denied to rural communities during the colonial period. However, recognised communities may now utilise wildlife and other natural resources, and benefit from rights over wildlife through tourism enterprises and conservation hunting. Although it is fully protected in most national parks, wildlife may be utilised sustainably under conservation management in communal conservancy areas.

A precious maize harvest – safe from elephants
A precious maize harvest – safe from elephants

Rural communities in Namibia still often live under difficult conditions. In communal areas, infrastructure is limited and economic opportunities are few. Livelihoods based on marginal agricultural potential are generally meagre. Some wild animals are an additional burden to farmers, posing a direct threat to the lives of people and the safety of their property.

A national CBNRM programme

Groundbreaking legislation passed in the mid-nineties laid the foundation for a new approach to natural resource use. By forming legally recognised community conservation organisations such as conservancies and community forests, people in communal areas can now actively manage natural resources and generate returns from them. This continues to encourage wildlife recoveries and environmental restoration.

Mr Niko Bessinger, Namibia's first Minister of Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism
Mr Niko Bessinger, Namibia's first Minister of Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism

The first conservancies were registered in 1998 and the first community forests in 2006. The Kyaramacan Association was founded in 2006 within Bwabwata National Park and is treated as a conservancy by the MEFT and NACSO. While community conservation organisations are resource management units and businesses, they are also defined by social ties uniting groups of people with the common goal of conservation.

From nature conservation to CBNRM

Some notes on the history of the programme

A comprehensive history of conservation in Namibia has yet to be recorded because it continues to be written by its actors: the conservancies, NGOs, the MET and many individual conservationists. Two books have started the process: ‘An Arid Eden’ by Garth-Owen Smith is an autobiographical account of conservation in Kunene, and ‘Life is Like a Kudu Horn’ by Margaret Jacobsohn adds personal reminiscences on the same topic from an anthropological point of view.

The article below is informed by information from Owen-Smith, Jacobsohn, and Brian Jones, a journalist who joined the Ministry of Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism. The history of post-independence conservation in Namibia is the story of how conservation begun by individuals became Community Based Natural Resource Management, which is now an established Namibian conservation programme.

The Namibian National CBNRM programme had its origins in the period just before and just after Namibia's independence from South Africa in March 1990.

The legacy of apartheid

After the implementation of apartheid under the South African Odendaal Plan in 1970, major commercial and subsistence poaching occurred in all Namibia’s communal areas, initially by government officials and security forces, but later by local communities. At the time wildlife and tourism were not seen as having any role to play in the economic development of the South African created ethnic “homelands”.

North-west Namibia, known as Kaokoland, previously the stronghold of black rhino and desert-dwelling elephant, had virtually lost both species by 1982. Poaching for rhino horn and ivory then moved south into Damaraland. In 1982 the newly established Namibia Wildlife Trust, supported by the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa, started their Damaraland/Kaokoland Project to assist Chris Eyre, the only nature conservator based in the region. Garth Owen-Smith was appointed as its field officer.

Originally from South Africa, Owen-Smith, supported by the Namibia Wildlife Trust, had worked with local communities to establish a community game guard system which proved highly successful in restoring to local communities a sense of responsibility over wildlife and in reducing poaching.

Having previously worked as a government agricultural extension officer in the region, Owen-Smith was able to re-establish his relationship with the local communities and their traditional leaders and discuss the value of wildlife and the potential future benefits it could bring. This later this resulted in the first three chiefs appointing their own community game guards. They were not an anti-poaching unit, but simply the eyes and ears of their traditional leaders, who would now be accountable if poaching occurred.

The game guards also provided a service to the broader community by actively assisting with human-wildlife conflict. As additional donor funding became available, more community game guards were appointed and the poaching by local community members stopped. A local vision of wildlife being more valuable alive than dead had spread among the majority, isolating the small percentage of potential law-breakers.

Owen-Smith later teamed up with social scientist and former journalist and anthropologist Margaret Jacobsohn to form a new NGO, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC). They continued to work with the community game guards and assisted a small community to channel income from photographic safari operators to community members, linking the income to wildlife and wild habitats. The community game guard system was extended to eastern Zambezi Region in 1989.

Up until independence, the involvement of the conservation authorities with local communities remained limited, and came more from the interest and vision of individual conservators rather than official policy. Government Nature Conservator Chris Eyre, for example, played a major role with Garth Owen-Smith in working with local communities to stop poaching.

An opportunity for the post-independence government to explore approaches to working with local communities came in early 1990 with the withdrawal of the occupying South African Defence Force (SADF) from the Caprivi Game Reserve (now Bwabwata National Park) prior to Namibia’s Independence.

The Caprivi Game Reserve had been proclaimed in 1968, but occupied by the SADF soon afterwards and run as a military zone for operations into Angola and as a training base for Angolan rebels. The Directorate of Nature Conservation in the pre-independence government had little access to the reserve, and when the SADF withdrew, it was necessary to investigate the ecological status of the area and its conservation potential.

Surveying new opportunities

The task of leading this investigation was given to ecologist, Dr Chris Brown, who realised that the Directorate's investigation had to be expanded beyond ecology to include socio-economic issues as well. The SADF had left behind about 4,000 people, mostly of San origin, who had been soldiers or worked for the military. Many of these people lived with their families in villages attached to the military bases. For generations before military occupation in the mid-70s, San people had used this area for hunting and gathering.

Brown put together a multi-disciplinary team to carry out a socio-ecological survey of the Caprivi Game Reserve in April, 1990, one month after Independence. Included in this team were Brian Jones of the Directorate, Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn from IRDNC, and Megan Biesele and Patrick Dickens of the Nyae Nyae Foundation of Namibia, an NGO working with San people in the area then known as Bushmanland (now the Nyae Nyae Conservancy).

The survey resulted in a series of recommendations for the Caprivi Game Reserve which included the zoning of the park into core conservation areas and a multiple use area covering the area inhabited by people, the sustainable use of wildlife for the benefit of residents, the establishment of a community game guard system and the establishment of a joint steering committee for the park. A project was put together to carry out these recommendations with IRDNC playing a major implementation role, with funds provided by WWF-US.

Initially, Simon Mayes, working for the environment ministry, had supported the setting up of a community game guard system in West Caprivi, but in 1993 Simon left the ministry and joined IRDNC, which had been asked by the ministry to support the residents of West Caprivi.

Similar socio-ecological surveys were carried out between 1991 and 1993 in in eastern Bushmanland, eastern Caprivi, the lower Kuiseb River in the Namib-Naukluft Park, the Huab River Catchment and the Sesfontein District, both in Kunene Region, either to develop new projects and partnerships with the local community or to build on work already begun by IRDNC.

At the time of the Caprivi Game Park survey, the pre-independence Directorate of Nature Conservation was being transformed into the Ministry of Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism as part of the post-independence reconstruction of government.

Partly due to their involvement in the surveys and in a number of broader environmental issues, Brown and Jones were seconded to form an Environmental Planning Unit (EPU) in the Directorate of Wildlife Conservation and Research within the new Ministry.

The socio-ecological surveys confirmed two things. First, Namibian communities in northern Namibia did not want to see wildlife disappear, although they wanted something done about predators that killed livestock and elephants that ate crops or destroyed water installations. They also resented the attitude of some government officials who behaved as if they owned the wild animals.

Communal farmers wanted the same rights over wildlife as had been given to white freehold farmers by the pre-independence South African administration. Before being able to benefit financially from sustainable use of wildlife the commercial farmers were shooting wildlife that they viewed as competing with their livestock for food and water. Enabling the farmers to gain an income from wildlife on their land, as well as a sense of ownership of it, had reversed the decline of wildlife on freehold farms.

A note from Brian Jones

What struck me in all our early work was that Namibian communities we visited wanted to keep wildlife – very different to the standard perception that all they wanted to do was eat it! We heard time and again that it was important for younger generations to see wildlife.

In order to secure the funding for the LIFE Programme we had to take the Regional USAID Director to Bwabwata National Park to see what we were doing. A San headman told him about the problems the people were experiencing from predators and elephants and he asked the headman: “So why should we conserve wildlife if you get all these problems?” The headman replied: “So my childrens' children will know and see the wild animals on this land”. So although people wanted the same financial benefits as the white farmers, they also placed intrinsic cultural and spiritual value on the wildlife. This was an important, but sometimes overlooked foundation for all that has followed.


The socio-ecological surveys and the idea of involving local communities in conservation were supported by the first SWAPO Minister of Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism, Nico Bessinger, and the Ministry’s first Permanent Secretary, Hanno Rumpf. Officials and others approached Bessinger and Rumpf to explain their vision for a new inclusive form of conservation in Namibia based on sustainable development principles and including black communal farmers. The ideas suggested to them provided Bessinger and Rumpf with a concrete platform for reform within the fledgling ministry.

The result was that officials, backed by Minister Bessinger and Permanent Secretary Rumpf, began working on a new conservation policy for communal areas, based on communities forming a conservancy. Bessinger chaired a large national meeting of community leaders and traditional authorities to confirm the results of the socio-ecological surveys and to hear directly how people viewed wildlife and conservation.

Prior to Cabinet approval of the conservancy policy document in 1995, Permanent Secretary Rumpf and Deputy Minister, Ben Ulenga, accompanied by officials, embarked on an extensive tour of north western and northern Namibia to promote the conservancy approach among local leaders in communal areas, against the backdrop of a government election campaign.

Conservancies: a new idea

Approval of the policy by Cabinet led to the development of the 1996 legislation that made provision for the establishment of communal area conservancies, and the registration of the first four conservancies in 1998. The legislation was developed by MET officials and human rights lawyer, Andrew Corbett.

The EPU continued to coordinate CBNRM activities within the Ministry until its transformation by Bessinger in 1993 into a new Directorate of Environmental Affairs (DEA). In April 1994, to reflect its broader environmental mandate, the Ministry became the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). The DEA continued to coordinate CBNRM activities within the Ministry, with the Directorate of Resource Management beginning to play a greater role in the implementation of local projects.

July 1993 saw the start of a US $14 million support programme for CBNRM in Namibia, known as the Living in a Finite Environment (LIFE) Programme, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), WWF-US and the MET. The LIFE programme provided support to the implementation of community conservation projects by Namibian NGOs and the MET in some areas. It also supported the emergence of an informal 'collaborative group' made up of the key implementation partners, which at the time were the MET, IRDNC, the Social Science Division (SSD) of the University of Namibia, the Rössing Foundation, and staff of the LIFE Programme. This group laid the foundation for the later formation of NACSO and the establishment of a national Community Based Natural Resource Management programme.

A reflection – and a warning

Garth Owen-Smith

A snapshot from the past: Asked to reflect on the past 35 years, Garth Owen-Smith asserted that the early CBNRM initiatives in Kunene and later in Zambezi succeeded not merely because of potential jobs and income but because the key – and universal – principles of community-based action were followed: a local vision of wildlife being valuable was nurtured, a sense of ownership of wildlife ensued, real relationships and partnerships were fostered, communities were directly involved in implementation; thereby assuming responsibility and being accountable for their wildlife and other valuable natural resources. If government or NGOs erode any of these principles by being too proactive and taking initiative away from communities, Namibia’s CBNRM successes could be endangered, Owen-Smith warned.

Key events in the life of Community Conservation

Early 1980s Local leaders, Nature Conservation staff and NGOs agreed to start the Community Game Guard system in north-western Namibia to curb poaching of wildlife. This was the first coordinated CBNRM activity in Namibia.
From 1990 to 1992 A series of socio-ecological surveys identified key issues and problems from a community perspective concerning wildlife, conservation, and the then Ministry of Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism (MWCT).
1992 MWCT developed the first draft of a new policy providing for rights over wildlife and tourism to be given to communities that form a common property resource management institution called a ‘conservancy’.
1993 The Living in a Finite Environment (LIFE) Programme brought major donor support (USAID and WWF) and the CBNRM programme started to evolve as a partnership between government, NGOs and rural communities.
1995 Cabinet approved the new policy for communal area conservancies, and work began on drafting legislation to put the policy into effect.
1996 Parliament passed the new conservancy legislation for communal areas.
1998 The first four communal area conservancies were gazetted. A workshop was held to plan and launch a national CBNRM coordinating body.
September 1998 Official public launch of Namibia‘s Communal Area Conservancy Programme by the President, His Excellency Sam Nujoma. On behalf of Namibia and the CBNRM programme, the President received the WWF ‘Gift to the Earth Award’ in recognition of the value and uniqueness of the conservancy programme.
August 1999 The second phase of the LIFE Programme started. This was to last a further five years.
July 2000 The CBNRM Association of Namibia, CAN, (consisting of MET and NGOs) secretariat was established. It was later renamed the Namibian Association of Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) Support Organisations (NACSO).
2001 The Forest Act was passed by parliament.
2003 The Polytechnic of Namibia incorporated the teaching of CBNRM into its National Diploma in Nature Conservation, institutionalising CBNRM as an option in its Bachelor of Technology (Nature Conservation and Agriculture) degree.
October 2004 The ICEMA, LIFE Plus and IRDNC Kunene /Caprivi CBNRM Support Projects were launched.
February 2005

The first State of Conservancies Report, entitled Namibia’s Communal Conservancies - a Review of Progress and Challenges was launched.

2005 The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Economics, Natural Resources and Public Administration, which visited conservancies in the north-west, strongly endorsed conservancies and tourism for contributing to national development.
2005 The Forest Amendment Act was passed, amending the 2001 Forest Act.
November 2005 In its report Recommendations, Strategic Options and Action Plan on Land Reform, the Permanent Technical Team on Land Reform (PTT) recognised conservancies and community forests as CBNRM models to be followed for the development of Namibia’s communal lands.
2006 The six year Strengthening the Protected Area Network (SPAN) Project was officially started.
February 2006 The first 13 community forests were gazetted in terms of the Forest Act.
2007 Cabinet approved the National Policy on Tourism and Wildlife Concessions on State Land.
2009 Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Minister of Environment and Tourism, launched the National Policy on Human-wildlife Conflict Management.
2013 The tenth Adventure Travel World Summit was held in Namibia - the first time that it was held in Africa.
2013 The Ministry of Environment and Tourism launched the National Policy on Community-Based Natural Resource Management.
2018 The number of registered communal conservancies increased to 86.
2022 By the end of 2022, there were 46 registered community forests.

Awards and Prizes

Local and international awards to Community Conservation

Regional and international interest in the CBNRM programme continues to grow, as an increasing number of high profile delegations visit Namibia to study and learn from its experience. A host of awards from international, regional and Namibian organisations have recognised the success and progress made in developing CBNRM and conservancies in communal areas:

1993 Garth Owen-Smith and Margaret Jacobsohn (IRDNC): ‘Goldman Environmental Prize’ (Africa).
1994 Garth Owen-Smith and Margaret Jacobsohn (IRDNC): United Nations Environmental Programme ‘Global 500 Award’.
1997 Garth Owen-Smith and Margaret Jacobsohn (IRDNC): Netherlands ‘Knights of the Order of the Golden Ark’.

Republic of Namibia: WWF ‘Gift to the Earth Award’.

Damaraland Camp (Torra Conservancy) and Wilderness Safaris Namibia: British Guild of Travel Writers ‘Silver Otter Tourism Award’.

2000 Janet Matota (IRDNC Caprivi): Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF) ‘Environmental Award’.

Benny Roman (Torra Conservancy): Namibia Professional Hunting Association (NAPHA) ‘Conservationist of the Year Award’.

Prince George Mutwa (Salambala Conservancy): NNF ‘Environmental Award’.

Patricia Skyer (NACSO): WWF ‘Woman Conservationist of the Year Award’.

Patricia Skyer (NACSO): Conde Nast Traveller Magazine ‘Environmental Award’.


Garth Owen-Smith and Margaret Jacobsohn (IRDNC): Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) ‘Conservationist of the Year Award’.

King Taaipopi (Uukwaluudhi Conservancy) and Chris Eyre (MET): NNF ‘Environmental Award’.


Chris Weaver (WWF/LIFE): NAPHA ‘Conservationist of the Year Award’.

Torra Conservancy: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ‘Equator Prize’ (Sub-Saharan Africa).


NACSO and the NNF: ‘Namibia National Science Award ― Best Awareness and Popularisation’ for the book Namibia’s Communal Conservancies - A Review of Progress and Challenges.

Wilderness Safaris and Torra Conservancy’s Damaraland Camp: World Travel & Tourism Council ‘Tourism
for Tomorrow Award’ (Conservation Award).

Beaven Munali (IRDNC Caprivi): Nedbank Namibia and NNF ‘Go Green Environmental Award’.

Anton Esterhuizen (IRDNC Kunene): NAPHA ‘Conservationist of the Year Award’.


Chief Mayuni (Mafwe Traditional Authority, Caprivi): Nedbank Namibia and NNF ‘Go Green Environmental Award’.

Dorothy Wamunyima (NNF): River Eman Catchment Management Association (Sweden) ‘Water Award’.

The Kyaramacan Association and MET: International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) ‘Edmond Blanc Prize’.

2008 N≠a Jaqna Conservancy: UNDP ‘Equator Prize’ (Sub- Saharan Africa).

John Kasaona: CCF ‘Conservationist of the Year Award’.

NACSO: World Travel & Tourism Council ‘Tourism for Tomorrow Awards Finalist’ (Community Award).


Namibia Communal Conservancy Tourism Sector web site: Travel Mole ‘African Web Award’ (Area Attraction).

Namibia Communal Conservancy Tourism Sector web site: Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) and National Geographic Traveler ‘Leader in Sustainable Tourism ― Platinum Award’.

Chris Brown (NNF): NAPHA ‘Conservationist of the Year Award.

Maxi Louis (NACSO): CCF ‘Woman Conservationist of the Year Award’.

2012 NACSO and MET: CIC ‘Markhor Award for Outstanding Conservation Performance’.
2013 Republic of Namibia: WWF ‘Gift to the Earth Award’.

WWF in Namibia: UN World Tourism Organisation Ulysses Award ‘for conserving wildlife and empowering communities’ ― 1st runner-up.

Garth Owen-Smith: Tusk Conservation Awards ― Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa (lifetime achievement award).

Dr Marker, Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF): Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal Award Ulysses S. Seal Award for Innovation in Conservation.

Conservation icons

Community conservation said farewell to two conservation icons in 2020 – Garth Owen-Smith passed away, while Chris Weaver retired from his position as Managing Director of WWF in Namibia. These two distinctive characters played different roles, yet their legacies to the CBNRM programme will be lasting.

Garth was a somewhat introverted, quietly determined man of the field who spent much of his time working side-by-side with communities, while Chris is an outgoing peoples’ person, who worked long office hours and created networks both within and beyond Namibia’s borders. Both men exhibited an undying passion for CBNRM and kept the big picture in focus, while still paying attention to important details. They shared a strong desire to develop the capacity and leadership skills of the people around them.

Garth Owen-Smith
Garth Owen-Smith, 1944-2020

Garth worked closely with communities since the 1980s, particularly by encouraging traditional leaders to appoint community game guards, after developing this idea with traditional leader Joshua Kangombe. Garth and his partner Dr Margaret Jacobsohn soon established Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) to support the deployment of game guards and later to assist communities in establishing the first communal conservancies.

During the early days, many people – within communities, government, and donors – needed to know what conservancies were and how they would work before they could get on board with the idea. Garth and his team at IRDNC therefore focused on creating awareness among communities about the conservancy concept, while also developing relationships with the government and other support organisations.

The initial success of the programme garnered further support and interest both within and beyond Namibia’s borders – the support organisations grew in number (eventually forming NACSO), farsighted government officials put policies in place to provide national support for CBNRM, and the programme became globally recognised as a community conservation success story. While the success of the programme goes far beyond the efforts of any individual, Garth’s ability to share his understanding of community conservation was key to generating support at all levels and creating a common vision.

Garth was especially cherished for his wise advice and gentle yet firm approach to dealing with contentious issues. He showed genuine respect and care for the communities he worked with, even treating ‘poachers’ with fairness. This was in stark contrast to the concept of conservation held by his contemporaries in the pre-independence government, thus putting him in direct conflict with those in power at the time. His respectful approach nonetheless won him the trust and respect of many who would become the backbone of communal conservancies – leaders, game guards, and community members.

Despite COVID regulations keeping numbers low, representatives of conservancies from all over the country attended Garth’s funeral in early 2020 to say their final farewells. Those present shared personal stories of how Garth had touched their lives and careers, with many expressions of heartfelt gratitude for his decades of devotion. In his honour, Dr Jacobsohn established the Grassroots Owen-Smith Community Ranger Awards (GOSCARs) to recognise dedicated community rangers whose work is an extension of Garth’s contribution to community conservation.

Chris Weaver
Chris Weaver, retired 2020

Chris arrived in 1993 and had his first memorable trip with Garth to what was then the Caprivi Region (now the Zambezi Region). This trip was an eye-opener, as he witnessed first-hand how a strong leader – Chief Moraliswani of Salambala – played a critical role in establishing this communal conservancy. Chris was a strong proponent of community-based natural resource management even before arriving in Namibia, but his experiences in the field were key to his understanding of and passion for the Namibian CBNRM programme.

Chris had been brought in to run the USAID-funded Living in a Finite Environment (LIFE) project that was run jointly between WWF and the then Ministry of Environment and Tourism (now MEFT). LIFE would go on to provide support for IRDNC and other partners in the CBNRM programme for 15 years, during which time the first conservancies would be gazetted.

One of the key aspects of Chris’ work was to create links between Namibia and the rest of the world – not only for fund raising purposes, but also to raise the profile of the programme and share the lessons learned in Namibia with other countries. He frequently led international visitors on tours through the conservancies, thus enabling the people on the ground to share their experiences with a global audience. While Chris would provide information to his guests whenever necessary, he purposefully stepped into the background to promote Namibian voices and perspectives.

When Chris retired from his position as Director of WWF in Namibia, tributes poured in from all quarters. Staff members expressed gratitude for his leadership, which included a real interest in their lives and careers, his open-door policy to listen to their difficulties and provide advice, and creating space for them to innovate within their respective roles. His outstanding work ethic and dedication to CBNRM inspired his team to give their best efforts, while his sense of humour and compassion created a comfortable working environment.

Those outside WWF who worked with Chris applauded his skills as a facilitator, effective fundraiser and visionary. His influence was felt throughout the WWF network and beyond, particularly in the field of CBNRM. In Namibia, Chris was acutely aware of the need to build local capacity and leadership, so he was ever willing to provide mentorship and advice to those outside his organisation. He was closely involved with the establishment of the Community Conservation Fund of Namibia (CCFN), which is tasked with ensuring the long-term sustainability of the CBNRM programme.

This page was last updated on: 15th March 2023