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 MEFT 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 2020
Populations of key herbivore species in the north-west remain low due to the on-going drought in most of the conservancies in the Kunene and Erongo Regions. Predator sightings in these regions remain fairly high when compared to the 2000s, although spotted hyaena and lion numbers have declined since all-time highs were reached in 2015. Cheetah sightings increased this year, while leopard sightings remained stable; black-backed jackals and spotted hyaenas were the most commonly sighted predators this year.
Herbivore populations in the north-east are generally stable, although year-to-year fluctuations can be quite high. Impala was the most common species counted in the region for the first time in 2020, as elephant, buffalo and zebra numbers have come down from recent highs. Spotted hyaena, black-backed jackal and leopard sightings appear to have stabilised after the last few years of decline. Lion sightings have declined slightly over the last four years, whereas wild dog sightings have increased during the last two years.
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. The gemsbok population remains extremely low. Springbok and Hartmann’s mountain zebra populations which were declining showed slightly increased numbers in 2020. While the zebra decline is cause for concern, one must also take into account the limitations of road-based counts when counting this species. Hartmann’s mountain zebra range widely and, in response to drought, tend to retreat further into the mountainous areas where some grazing still remains. Few or no roads exist in these mountains, so zebras in these areas will not be counted on road-based game counts. The figures nonetheless reveal that the zebra population has been affected by drought – through increased mortality and/or by moving into inaccessible areas.
Predator sightings in the north-west remain fairly high when compared to the 2000s, although spotted hyaena and lion numbers have declined since all-time highs were reached in 2015. Cheetah sightings increased this year, while leopard sightings remained stable; black-backed jackals and spotted hyaenas were the most commonly sighted predators this year.
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 (2018 data are omitted, as game numbers were not counted in the national parks during this year).
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. In general terms, significant herbivore recoveries have occurred in the Zambezi Region over the past decade and herbivore populations here are now generally stable, although year-to-year fluctuations can be quite high. The recoveries have been due largely to successful breeding, reduced poaching, wildlife introductions, and the dramatic improvement of local attitudes towards wildlife conservation. Impala was the most common species counted in the region for the first time in 2020, as elephant, buffalo and zebra numbers have come down from recent highs. Elephant sightings in 2020 were lower than in 2019, although better elephant population estimates are obtained with aerial surveys that cover the whole area and neighbouring countries in the KAZA TFCA. Elephant poaching has declined due to increased efforts to combat wildlife crime, although ivory trafficking through the region remains a significant problem.
In contrast to north-west Namibia, hyaena and jackal numbers in conservancies have declined significantly over the past decade in the north-east. Spotted hyaena, black-backed jackal and leopard sightings appear to have stabilised after the last few years of decline. Lion sightings have declined slightly over the last four years, whereas wild dog sightings have increased during the last two years. Following a recovery and stabilisation of lion in the years 2012 to 2015, sightings in north-east conservancies appear to be declining during the last four years. Of all the large predators in north-east of Namibia, the decline in hyaena is the most concerning. This is because the downward trend is now consistent over many years and unlike jackal, which also shows a consistent downward trend, hyaena are an extremely slow breeding and rare species, making population recovery extremely challenging.
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 MEFT 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 MEFT 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.