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 MET 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 MET 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 MET 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 on their own able to counter this type of crime. 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 MET National Wildlife Crime Strategy recognises the importance of a multi-agency / multi-partner approach to countering wildlife crime. Under MET leadership, the Namibian Police, Namibian Defence Force, and MET staff have established a national structure to collectively address organise 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 MET 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 CWCP|
|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,.
Prevention is better than cure:
Operation Blue Rhino
During 2016-17, the Directorate of Wildlife and National Parks within the MET created the Wildlife Protection Services Unit, as well as the Intelligence and Investigation Unit. The Protected Resources Unit of the Namibian Police Force was upgraded to the Protected Resources Division. Realising the enormous challenge of combatting well-organised crime syndicates, this unit submitted a proposal to the MET and NAMPOL to form a special task force. This was approved by the Inspector General of NAMPOL for an initial three month period, beginning in July 2018. The initiative was named Operation Blue Rhino. Motivated by its immediate and ongoing success, it has been extended several times.
The initial objective of Operation Blue Rhino was to identify and apprehend rhino poaching and trafficking syndicates that were operational in and around Etosha National Park at the time of the operation’s inception. The urgent need to identify the flow of illicit wildlife products within and out of the country was also identified.
The initial tasks consisted of consolidating all rhino poaching case dockets, verifying and scrutinising all statements of witnesses and suspects, evaluating all gathered evidence and identifying both gaps and linkages, and finally tracing and arresting suspects.
Within the first month of its operation the Blue Rhino Task Team had registered 11 new wildlife crime cases, arrested 23 suspects (9 linked to previous cases), seized more than a dozen wildlife products, three firearms and two vehicles and established a variety of strong partnerships.
As a result, during its first year of operation, the Blue Rhino Task Team has been able to disrupt numerous criminal syndicates by arresting the poachers on their way to the intended crime. Follow-up investigations have led to the arrest of other members of the syndicates in each case.
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.
It is perhaps telling that there has been no poaching of rhino in communal conservancies in the past two years despite rhino poaching initially beginning there in 2013 – this is attributed to the increased anti-poaching effort and the full cooperation of conservancies and their residents who have repeatedly intervened even before poaching has been attempted.
Anti-poaching measures across the country have become much more effective with rhino poaching figures in the past three years being cut from the peak (over 100) in 2015: to 32, 77 and 49 in the years between 2017 and 2019. However, there is no room for complacency as poaching appears now to be shifting from protected areas and conservancies to freehold land.
Investigations have also dramatically improved. The establishment of Operation Blue Rhino by MET and NAMPOL has empowered a highly dedicated task team to achieve stunning successes including 419 recent arrests and having prevented, through pre-emptive arrests, over 20 rhino poaching incidents. A reward scheme has been set up in respect of trade in pangolins.
Significant progress has also been made in strengthening cases evidence and the judiciary process through the establishment of an Environmental Crimes Unit by the Office of the Prosecutor General together with logistical and technical support.
In addition to continuing to provide the existing levels and types of support to government agencies and conservancies at the front line of defence, the Combatting Wildlife Crime Project has to improve the understanding of trafficking routes and structures in order to have a greater impact higher up the crime chain.