African wildlife is one of the remaining assets of the natural world with considerable potential to benefit rural communities. However, one of the greatest threats to this wildlife, particularly the more iconic species such as elephants and lions, arises from human-wildlife conflict (HWC), i.e. retaliation due to loss of livestock to predators, crop damage from elephants and loss of human life or injury.
It is often the poorest and most marginalised people living far from urban centres without job creation opportunities that bear the brunt of living with wildlife. In Namibia, the communal areas that that suffer the most HWC also fall within the poorest constituencies of the country, where in some cases 40% of the population lives below recognised poverty lines.
The Government’s communal conservancy programme has sought to reduce HWC by empowering communities to manage the wildlife and generate income and benefits for conservancy members. Fees are earned from tourism and conservation hunting and used to meet conservation costs and invested into local development projects. Also, such enterprise creates desperately needed employment and training opportunities that are otherwise extremely scarce. However, the current level of returns and benefits from wildlife do not cover the losses generated from human-wildlife conflict.
The problem of HWC is being further compounded by increasing human population, livelihood demands on the land and the impact of climate change. HWC policy leading to action backed by significant resources is therefore required to mitigate the losses and conflict if the future of wildlife, particularly iconic species, is going to be secured in the African landscape.
A policy framework
Addressing Human-Wildlife Conflict requires striking a balance between conservation priorities and the needs of people who live with wildlife. Most Namibians depend on the land for their subsistence. But the presence of many species of large mammals and predators, combined with settlement patterns of people, leads to conflict between people and wildlife. It is therefore necessary that mechanisms are created for rural communities and farmers to manage and benefit from wildlife and other natural resources.
Therefore, in order to provide national guidelines for human-wildlife conflict mitigation, the MET launched a Human Wildlife Conflict Policy in 2009, which was revised in 2018. While the policy makes clear that wildlife is just that – wild, and a part of the natural environment, the Government also recognises that living with wildlife carries a cost and that there is an urgent need to find practical approaches and solutions to reduce the impacts of human-wildlife conflict, particularly in areas with the most vulnerable communities in Namibia.
The national Policy allows for the management of human-wildlife conflict in a way that recognises the rights and development needs of local communities, recognises the need to promote biodiversity conservation, promotes self-reliance and ensures that decision-making is quick, efficient and based on the best available information. In order to address the impact of human-wildlife conflict, the Policy sets out several strategies which include research and monitoring; integrated land use planning; removal of problem causing animals; appropriate technical solutions for mitigating human-wildlife conflict; and application of revenues from problem causing animals to address and prevent the losses of affected persons.
Each year Namibia’s communal conservancies collect data on the number of incidents reported by community game guards. While the numbers are not verified, they do give an indication of the level of conflict that is occurring in many of the 86 conservancies. As the graph shows, by far the largest number of incidents reported are attacks on livestock, averaging approximately 6,000 incidents per annum since 2015. Many of the incidents are cattle related and this is becoming increasingly severe with the worsening drought conditions in Kunene Region.
The predominant species causing human-wildlife conflict vary significantly depending on the regional context. In the Kunene and Erongo conservancies most livestock incidents are due to hyaena and cheetah, whereas in the Zambezi Region it is elephants causing damage to crops.
To offset losses to farmers from wildlife the MET has paid over N$ 3 million dollars to conservancies from the Game Products Trust Fund since 2015. In addition, a number of conservancies have stated in their financial reports that they have set aside over N$ 4.3 million for HWC offset payments to their members.
Although it is not Government policy to provide compensation for losses due to wild animals, it is recognised that there is a need to find means to offset the losses caused. With this in mind, the policy has introduced the Human Wildlife Self Reliance Scheme that allows for offset payments under strict conditions. For example, loss of livestock must be reported within 24 hours and verified by the MET or by a conservancy game guard and payments will not be made if reasonable precautions were not taken.
As reported above, funding for the self-reliance scheme is being provided by the MET from the Game Products Trust Fund. Each conservancy is provided with an upfront payment of N$ 60,000 to which conservancies are expected to add funding of their own. Conservancies with a reasonable income should be able to run their own self-insurance schemes in the future. Otherwise, there is a risk that unless conservancies at least match the funds provided by the MET and rigorously check claims – in other words, move towards self-reliance – then like other compensation schemes in the region, claims will rise and funding will be insufficient to deal with them.
Prevention is better than cure
Conservancies, the MET and NGOs are continuing to develop innovative ways to avoid conflict and react appropriately following a conflict incident. Preventing conflicts is one of the central measures. Innovative techniques have been developed to keep elephants away from crops by using chilli as a deterrent. Other practical efforts to reduce conflicts include crocodile fences to provide safe access to water, predator secure enclosures for keeping livestock safe at night, and appropriate physical barriers to protect water infrastructure from elephants. Some of these systems still require much broader implementation and community acceptance to effectively reduce incidents.
Land use planning at regional and local levels has to take into account both the needs of farmers to grow crops and rear livestock, and of wildlife to move across the landscape. Zoning conservancies so that different land-uses are allocated to separate zones can significantly reduce conflicts, while wildlife corridors allow movement between seasonal ranges, reducing local pressure. Some communities have already zoned their conservancies in this manner.
However, many human activities in communal areas (farming and settlement patterns, for example) currently work against maximising income from wildlife. Conservancies need to find long-term solutions that allow currently competing land uses to co-exist. This is increasingly important with the impact of climate change, bringing longer periods of drought and erratic rainfall, which negatively impact crop growing and livestock production.
However, if the benefits from wildlife are perceived to be sufficiently high, conservancy residents appear to be more tolerant of problem causing species. In Nyae Nyae Conservancy, elephants regularly damage infrastructure, compete with people for bush foods and are dangerous. But despite widespread fear, people say that they wish to live with elephants because they represent income and employment through tourism and trophy hunting.
In some cases it will be necessary to destroy an animal that has attacked humans or persistently attacked livestock. Usually, a professional hunter contracted by a conservancy will be the person licensed to destroy the animal. In line with the HWC policy, that income generated from trophy hunting will be used to offset losses caused by wildlife.
Impact from Human-Wildlife Conflict should not be underestimated, including the impact from actual losses on the ground and compounded by the negative perception of living with dangerous wildlife that exceeds the reality of losses, i.e. lions. Despite international conservation debates focussed on investment to reducing poaching and illegal trade, it will be the level of conflict between humans and wildlife that may ultimately determine the fate of wildlife in Africa.
The Government of Namibia has fully recognised this fact and has taken a significant step in addressing human-wildlife conflict by empowering communities to manage and benefit from wildlife. It has also developed a very robust policy on HWC, which in partnership with NACSO is being implemented in the communal areas most affected by HWC.
There is a general recognition that human-wildlife conflict has always existed and will continue to do so in the future. There is also recognition that people and wildlife live in an interconnected and dynamic environment, that land-use patterns are changing, as are wildlife distribution patterns as populations recover and recolonise former parts of their range. It is also evident that the ongoing and extreme drought in almost all of Namibia is seriously aggravating the situation. So, while it will not be feasible to eradicate all conflict, both the MET and NACSO believe that conflict can and must be minimised through proactive intervention if wildlife stands a chance to survive and contribute to rural development and the national economy.