Remarkable wildlife recoveries have taken place due to efforts by government, conservation NGOs and conservancies to minimise poaching and ensure the sustainable use of wildlife. This was initially most evident in Namibia’s north-west, where wildlife had been reduced to small numbers through drought and poaching by the early 1980s. It is estimated that there were only 250 elephants and 65 black rhinos in the north-west at that time, and populations of other large mammals had been reduced by 60–90% since the early 1970s.
Data from the MET and NACSO shows that the number of rhinos and elephants has increased substantially since Namibia’s independence in 1990. Game counts indicate that springbok, gemsbok and mountain zebra populations increased by a factor of 10 between 1982 and the early 2000s, then stabilised for a decade. Since 2012 a combination of factors has resulted in a reduction of game numbers in areas surveyed: drought, animals moving out of the survey areas, and suspected poaching.
A review of 2018
In the north-west, numbers of plains game have declined significantly in recent years as a result of the extended drought cycle, leading to increased mortalities and heavily reduced breeding rates. Heavy destocking through harvesting was necessary in the early years of the drought cycle to reduce mass mortalities.
Significant wildlife recoveries have occurred in the north-east over the past decade. These have been due largely to successful breeding, reduced poaching and wildlife introductions. Although poaching of plains game has significantly declined, elephant poaching driven by criminal syndicates has become a great concern.
It is evident from the wildlife population health maps below, that whereas many conservancies have good species richness, very few have healthy populations of these species. This situation has declined sharply in recent years as a result of the drought, which has heavily impacted wildlife populations. Game species will need several years of good rains, coupled with low take-off rates, to fully recover to pre-drought levels.
Overall, predator populations in the north-west conservancies appear relatively healthy, which is to be expected during times of drought, where prey animals are weakened. However, in north-east Namibia, hyaena and jackal numbers in conservancies have declined significantly over the past decade. The decline in hyaena is the most concerning because hyaena are an extremely slow breeding and rare species.
A more detailed assessment is provided with the figures below.
The graphs show total estimated populations of 3 indicator species: gemsbok, springbok and zebra, from aerial censuses prior to the year 2000.
The annual North-West Game Count, shown on the right for the same species, counts the number of animals seen per 100 kilometres driven. This graph shows population trends over time and does not show total population estimates.
It is clearly evident that in the north-west conservancies, numbers of plains game have declined significantly in recent years. This is certainly as a result of the extended drought cycle leading to increased mortalities and heavily reduced breeding rates. But this is not the only reason: heavy destocking through harvesting was necessary in the early years of the drought cycle to reduce mass mortalities. The return of patchy rainfall to the Erongo and Kunene regions in 2016 led to a small short-term increase of species of plains game, particularly springbok, which have the ability to respond quickly to good rainfall. Reduced offtakes account for the slight levelling off of the zebra and springbok populations in recent years, but gemsbok populations continue to decline, which is a concern. It also needs to be borne in mind that the game counts do not cover the entire landscape, i.e. the counts do not cover the mountainous areas or the escarpment areas to the east – and in this landscape wildlife can and does move great distances. This makes it extremely difficult to know precisely the impact of the extended drought on these meta-populations. Suffice to say that these have been severely reduced, down to levels similar to those in the late 1990s. Game species will need several years of good rains, coupled with low take-off rates, to fully recover to pre-drought levels.
Event Book data shows that cheetah and jackal have increased, whereas hyaena and leopard have stabilised (hyaena at all-time highs). Lion sightings have reduced in the past three years from their all-time high in 2015, probably in response to a significant reduced prey-base and retaliation due to HWC. Overall, predator populations in the north-west conservancies appear relatively healthy, which is to be expected during times of drought, where prey animals are weakened. However, going forward, it is to be expected that predator numbers will probably start to decline in response to the diminished prey-base, and it would seem that lions are leading the way in this regard.
In north-east Namibia conservancies are small and integrally connected to the unfenced adjacent national parks. As a result, the north-east ground-based game counts reflect wildlife populations across both conservancies and the national parks. In 2018 it was not possible to count in the national parks (all the conservancies were counted) and so we are unable to reflect on the most recent population numbers. For consistency, the trend data up until 2017 is presented and it is hoped that the next count in 2019 will again include the parks.
In general terms, significant herbivore recoveries have occurred in the Zambezi Region over the past decade. These have been due largely to successful breeding, reduced poaching, wildlife introductions, and the removal of a generally hostile environment to wildlife. Although poaching of plains game has significantly declined, elephant poaching driven by criminal syndicates (mainly from Zambia and Angola, but with help from Namibian accomplices) has become a great concern. Whereas the numbers of elephant poached remain well within sustainable offtake levels, the disturbance effect may be having an impact by displacing elephant away from the area of the counts. It does need to be borne in mind that these ground counts are not designed to monitor elephants specifically and they do not cover areas away from the major rivers. The KAZA-wide aerial census of elephant should be given greater weight in the analysis of elephant population trends. Five selected species are shown in this graph, which includes national parks adjacent to conservancies. Wildlife moves freely between parks and conservancies in the region.
Defining and Tracking Wildlife Status
As wildlife densities vary, conservation management efforts focus on maintaining populations between lower and upper thresholds. Maintaining numbers above the lower threshold ensures that the species is able to recover from external impacts such as drought, disease, predation, utilisation and poaching. Keeping numbers below the upper threshold enables viable offtakes and ensures the population stays in balance with its habitat and other land uses.
Tracking population trends with the expectation that wildlife numbers should always increase is not viable in the longer term. More sophisticated monitoring tools now define the ‘species richness’ and ‘population health’ of game in conservancies.
Using game count data and information from a wide variety of other sources, wildlife experts compile ‘species richness’ lists for each conservancy. These show the present diversity of species in the conservancy relative to past diversity. The population health of each species is also scored, and from the two sets of information maps are generated to portray wildlife status in conservancies.
Assessment of Species Richness and Population Health for all Conservancies
The overall status of wildlife in conservancies across Namibia is shown in the figures below.
The wildlife species richness map indicates the large wildlife species currently present in conservancies, as a percentage of those that were present in the past. A high score means that a large percentage of the species are still in the area.
The population health map indicates the percentage of all large wildlife species that historically occurred, which currently have a healthy population in a particular conservancy. A healthy population is one large enough to sustain itself. National parks included on the maps for comparison are Etosha, Nkasa Rupara, Mudumu and the core areas of Bwabwata.
It is evident from the species richness map that the majority of conservancies have 80% or more of their historical species intact, ten have between 70 and 80% of their original species present, and about 25 conservancies have less than 70% of their indigenous game species left. The best means of correcting these deficiencies (and enabling these conservancies to enter the wildlife economy) is through strategic game reintroductions, which is only possible if there is funding available for the purchase and or capture and relocation of game from areas where these species are abundant. This should be a priority area for urgent fund-raising, particularly at this particular juncture where much of the country is under drought-induced stress and many conservancies need to reduce their wildlife numbers.
On the other hand, it is evident from the wildlife population health maps that, whereas many conservancies have good species richness, very few have healthy populations of these species. This situation has declined sharply in recent years as a result of the drought, which has heavily impacted wildlife populations and its going to take years of careful management and protection, including on-going reduced offtake quotas, to rebuild these populations. This will, in turn, adversely impact financial benefits that accrue to conservancies, and more seriously, the meat benefits that individual households have valued over the years. The pressure for prematurely increasing quotas will therefore be high, and this tension between rebuilding wildlife populations and addressing community needs and aspirations will be extremely challenging over the coming number of years.
Wildlife translocations into conservancies
Targeted reintroductions of game by the MET have boosted natural increases to help rapidly rebuild the wildlife base. Translocated game was moved from areas of over-abundance to areas where populations were low. Whilst the bulk of the species translocated have been common game such as springbok, gemsbok, kudu and eland, the introductions have also included highly valuable animals such as sable, black-faced impala, giraffe and black rhino (see table).
Several species that had become locally extinct have been re-established through translocations, namely giraffe, black-faced impala, Burchell’s zebra, blue wildebeest, eland, sable and black rhino. Conservancy formation has helped to reinstate the range of these species and a number of conservancies are now officially recognised as rhino custodians.
From 1999 to 2013, a total of 10,568 animals of 15 different species were translocated to 31 registered conservancies and four conservancy complexes by the MET and funding partners including WWF, New Zealand and the Millennium Challenge Account. The total value of the translocated animals (excluding black rhino) was in excess of N$30 million.