According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, over 111,000 African elephants have been poached in the decade leading up to 2016, while over a fifth of Africa’s white rhinos have been wiped out since 2008.
There is a broad spectrum of wildlife in Namibia including plains game, such as zebra and antelope species, predators including iconic species such as lion, and large mammals including elephant and rhino.
Combatting wildlife crime is a major pillar of Namibian government policy, carried out by the MEFT with its National Wildlife Crime Strategy, government law enforcement agencies and conservation NGOs.
Hunting: legal and illegal
Indigenous Namibians have always hunted for meat. However, the introduction of colonial laws placed ownership and control over wildlife with the state, making it illegal for communities to hunt. Hunting for meat “for the pot” was treated as poaching.
The illegal hunting of animals for profit is categorised as wildlife crime and trafficking, and it is carried out largely by international crime syndicates that trade in plants and animals or their products such as timber, plant products, ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales.
Since the 1996 amendment of the Nature Conservation Act of 1975, rural Namibians were able to form conservancies and have had similar rights to private farmers granted under the Act. They may hunt non-protected species under a sustainable quota system and they may profit from wildlife by operating tourism businesses. There is, therefore, a strong economic benefit for conservancy residents to protect wildlife.
All illegal hunting poses a threat to conservancies and to the nation. Legal hunting carried out according to quotas issued by the MEFT is called conservation hunting, and predominantly falls into two broad categories: hunting for meat, which is then distributed to conservancy members; and trophy hunting, which brings income and meat to conservancies that is used for conservation purposes (i.e. the employment of game guards), rural development projects, and household consumption, respectively.
The loss of revenue caused by illegal hunting, particularly of iconic species such as rhino and elephant, directly affects rural development, conservation, and the national economy, of which tourism is a major component.
Illegal hunting and its control
Both poaching for local consumption, and poaching for profit, can have a devastating impact on wildlife.
The Namibian CBNRM programme, through its generation of income and employment, with meat distribution from sustainable hunting, has to a large extent brought subsistence poaching for meat under control, and this is no longer a major threat.
Commercial poaching on the other hand, continues to be a major threat to wildlife in Namibia, and to the conservancy programme.
The poaching of game to sell meat by individuals or small groups of people for commercial gain remains a constant concern. Poachers sell the carcasses in surrounding towns, often routing the meat through legal outlets such as butcheries or through illegal markets. Such criminals are effectively stealing wildlife and benefits from community members, including the poorer members of communal conservancies.
Indiscriminate poaching for meat is particularly distressing to local community members because the poachers kill animals regardless of their sex or age, and this can reduce breeding rates and/or lead to declines in the legal harvest quotas. This, in turn, reduces the amount of meat that ordinary community members receive through annual meat distribution, as well as revenues from trophy hunting. This type of commercial poaching can be countered through:
- Increased community awareness and mobilisation; and
- the employment, training and deployment of conservancy game guards working in close collaboration with the MEFT and the Namibian Police (NAMPOL).
Essentially, conservancies are the front line of defence against this form of commercial meat poaching as they have an ongoing presence on the land and are best placed to call up law enforcement agencies when the poaching is encountered or suspected.
A second and very concerning type of commercial poaching is that driven by highly organised international criminal syndicates. These criminals target high value species such as rhino, elephant, pangolin, and increasingly, large carnivores. The market for these species is overseas, mostly in the far-east. After more than two decades without syndicate driven poaching in Namibia (since independence) this scourge has in recent years impacted the country. Rhino poaching numbers suddenly rose from 25, to 89, and to 102 respectively, in the years between 2014 and 2016. These losses need to be seen in the context of black rhino being exceptionally rare and slow breeding animals. There is a very real danger of poaching figures above 100 per year driving the species to extinction in Namibia. At the same time, elephant poaching in the north-eastern parts of Namibia has also risen dramatically in past years, as has pangolin trafficking across the country.
These international crime syndicates use local people as trackers and hunters, they may attempt to bribe law enforcement and government officials, they launder money, have little regard for human life, and are often also involved in drug and human trafficking. They sell the products of these species through sophisticated cross-boundary transit routes using land, sea and air transport. This form of poaching and trafficking is extremely hard to counter as it is difficult to identify syndicate members and build strong cases against well-resourced syndicate heads who use high quality lawyers and are willing and able to pay large bribes to corrupt officials.
Conservancies are directly impacted by this type of crime through:
- loss of revenues and employment opportunities, because with the loss of iconic species their land becomes less viable for tourism and conservation hunting enterprises;
- reputational damage, by being unfairly implicated in this type of poaching; and;
- being exposed to various social risks as syndicates corrupt individuals in the community and expose youth to drugs and sexual exploitation.
Conservancies are also a critically important stakeholder in countering this scourge because they have a physical and ongoing presence in and adjacent to the land where poaching takes place. Unfortunately, even with the best will in the world, conservancies are not able to counter this type of crime on their own. They need to have the full support of government law enforcement agencies as well as the international community.
Combatting wildlife crime
The growing threat from wildlife crime has produced a strong response by the Namibia Government, the NGO sector, donors, communities, and the Namibian public at large. The MEFT National Wildlife Crime Strategy recognises the importance of a multi-agency / multi-partner approach to countering wildlife crime. Under MEFT leadership, the Namibian Police, Namibian Defence Force, and MEFT staff have established a national structure to collectively address organised poaching and wildlife crime.
The structure embraces the contributing role of NGOs and donors, thereby ensuring a synergetic approach that builds upon organised and sensitised rural communities, ensures more rapid and effective investigations, strengthened prosecutions, and increased judicial awareness of the seriousness of organised wildlife crime.
This process, has in turn, been supported by such development partners as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the US State Department International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Agency (INL), the German Development Bank (KfW), private individuals/foundations, WildCat, NCE and WWF. Collectively, this group has provided funding and resources to strengthen government, NGO, and community capacity to confront illegal wildlife trade.
Stakeholders combatting wildlife crime in Namibia
|Customs and Excise (Ministry of Finance)||Controls border trade and acts to prevent smuggling of animal parts|
|Financial Intelligence Centre||Statutorily mandated to assist with combatting money laundering, financing of terrorism and proliferation|
|Ministry of Justice||Departments dealing with legislation and legal frameworks|
|Office of the Judiciary||New independent body that includes magistrates and judges|
|NAMPOL||Namibian Police Force including the Protected Resources Unit|
|IRDNC||Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation gives training and support to communal conservancies|
|LAC||Legal Assistance Centre gives training to prosecutors and magistrates and supports strengthening of the judiciary system to counter illegal wildlife trade|
|NACSO NRWG||Natural Resources Working Group of NACSO providing training and logistical support to conservancies|
|NCE||The Namibian Chamber of the Environment supports Rooikat Trust and the MEFT and provides flexible funding for combatting wildlife crime|
|NNF||Namibia Nature Foundation gives training and support to communal conservancies|
|Rooikat Trust||Assists the Blue Rhino Task Team in anti-poaching and supports Namibian Customs, FCI and the judiciary|
|SRT||Save the Rhino Trust works in north-west Namibia on rhino monitoring and conservation|
|TRAFFIC||Tracks and monitors illegal wildlife trade internationally|
|WWF in Namibia||Lead partner managing the Combatting Wildlife Crime Project funded by USAID|
|Conservancies||Vested wildlife stewards with thousands of eyes and ears on the ground|
Strategies to combat wildlife crime
The programme introduced two key and over-arching strategies.
First, community stewardship and pride over wildlife has been enhanced. People who feel a sense of ownership of wildlife, who derive economic benefits from it, and take pride in their heritage, are more likely to report criminal activity – especially poaching and the sale of illegal wildlife products.
Second, improved law enforcement has not only led to more criminals being caught and successfully prosecuted, but also to communities being more prepared to act when wildlife crime is seen as a priority by the state and addressed by the National Wildlife Crime Strategy.
Donor funded projects are providing technical expertise, equipment, operational running costs, logistical support, training, mentorship, forensics, information analysis, case preparation, prosecutor support, support to customs (‘the last line of defence’), expert witnesses, legal advice and policy development. In addition to assistance to law enforcement, support is also being provided to conservancies in terms of their role of being the ‘first line of defence’. This includes improved equipment and training to community rangers as well as awareness and pride campaigns for the greater community.
Whilst there is much more that needs to be done, there have been measurable successes from this highly collaborative Namibian approach.
Holistic and collaborative approach to tackling wildlife crime
Efforts to combat wildlife crime in Namibia are not solely linked to anti-poaching and law enforcement activities. The key to success is through a holistic, communitybased approach that includes education, awareness, and collaboration at many levels. Government agencies, conservancies, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and national and international donors all play important roles in the overall strategy.
The Blue Rhino Task Team (joint initiative between the MEFT Intelligence and Investigation Unit and the Protected Resources Division of NAMPOL) plays a key role in coordinating government efforts, while NACSO members work closely with each other and communal conservancies. The U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Global Environment Facility, KfW, the Wildcat Foundation, Rooikat and WWF all provide assistance in the form of funding, technical assistance and training to government agencies and NACSO member organisations.
The USAID’s Combatting Wildlife Crime Project (CWCP), which started in 2017, has provided funding for Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), IRDNC, Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF), Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), Namibia Development Trust (NDT), TRAFFIC and the NACSO Natural Resource Working Group to run awareness raising and training events in the Erongo and Kunene Regions. In the north-east, CWCP supports MEFT and the Prosecutor-General’s Office with funding and specialist training. Their work in the north-east is part of a much larger KAZA-wide project.
This year, the annual Rhino Pride celebrations were much smaller than usual due to COVID restrictions on public gatherings. Nonetheless, 15 members of the Opuwo Youth Rhino Club held a march on World Rhino Day and several rhino-related events and discussions were held online. NNF and SRT held smaller meetings with nine Rhino Youth Groups throughout the northwest during 2020, thus reaching 195 members of these groups. Other events held to raise awareness around wildlife crime (in both the north-west and the northeast) targeted schools, traditional authorities, taxi drivers and sports teams.
Save the Rhino Trust organised their inaugural Kunene Rhino Awards event in March 2020 just prior to COVID restrictions. This event recognised the efforts of conservancy rhino rangers, whereby 200 prizes were awarded under more than a dozen performance categories. Receiving such recognitions boosted morale among patrol teams and led to increased patrol efforts in the months that followed, despite COVID restrictions.
Combatting wildlife crime initiatives are not just limited to awareness and community pride, however, as this holistic approach includes providing alternative livelihoods, reducing human-wildlife conflict and rewarding community conservation efforts through Wildlife Credits. Consequently, all CBNRM activities that support livelihoods, governance and natural resource management efforts ultimately contribute to reduced wildlife crime in communal areas.
Wildlife crime trends during a pandemic
The economic downturn and restrictions relating to COVID-19 posed a significant threat to anti-poaching efforts relating to wildlife crime. However, the funding from the CRRRF ensured that community conservation operations continued, including patrols to detect and deter wildlife crime. Effective law enforcement, largely unaffected by the pandemic, has been the central key to curbing high-value species crimes. Pre-emptive arrests in rhino cases have significantly disrupted poaching gangs, while the arrests of high-level dealers and kingpins in early 2020 disrupted trafficking routes out of Namibia and dismantled high-level wildlife crime syndicates. This led to the arrest of numerous lower level traffickers during the year, particularly for rhino-related crimes. Some swiftly concluded court cases and significant sentences for perpetrators of wildlife crimes have acted as an additional deterrent.
Poaching figures for rhinos, elephants and pangolins declined in 2020 across Namibia. This is the first year that a decline in pangolin seizures has been reported since this problem was first detected in 2015. Pangolin seizures reached a peak of 129 (52 of which were alive) in 2019, which dropped to 74 (8 of which were alive) in 2020.
After 2.5 years of no rhino poaching incidents in the north-western communal conservancies, two incidents were recorded in which four rhinos were poached during 2020 (an estimated 31 rhinos were poached throughout Namibia). Nonetheless, pre-emptive rhino arrests – where poachers are caught before they kill a rhino – continued to save rhinos during this period (46 arrests made) and more rhino-related arrests were made during 2020 than any previous year (145 in total), even though poaching losses were at their lowest since 2013. During these arrests, 21 rhino horns were seized, which is more than double the seizures made during 2019.
An estimated 11 elephants were poached in Namibia this year, which is two less than last year and continues the downward trend since 2016 (for both rhinos and elephants, the poaching date is estimated based on the age of discovered carcasses). Namibia plays an important role in disrupting ivory trafficking in the KAZA region by arresting traffickers who try to sell ivory in Namibia that is obtained from poaching in other countries. In 2020, 62 elephant tusks were seized (from at least 31 elephants; single tusks are regularly seized) and 64 arrests were made relating to elephant poaching and/or trafficking. Transboundary cooperation is essential in this area, and Namibian wildlife crime teams work closely with their counterparts in Botswana and Zambia to disrupt these international trafficking networks.
Unlike the decreases reported for poached high-value species, poaching for meat increased in some parts of Namibia during 2020 (the Erongo Region was a hotspot). Over 200 carcasses of large mammals (84 of which were gemsbok) were confiscated during this year, which is possibly linked in part to economic desperation created by the pandemic situation. This figure includes incidents on freehold and communal lands, and state protected areas.