A promising future for Africa's wildlife

In a vast African landscape where many people wish travelers “safe journeys” instead of “goodbye,” a burgeoning cross-pollination of ideas, people, and wildlife is making the future of the world’s largest terrestrial protected area bright

It is still dark outside, with a sliver of a moon hanging in the enormous African sky, when Nelson Sabata starts for work. It’s a short 10-minute walk from his small house to Camp Chobe, an elegant but rustic tented lodge nestled along a turn in the Chobe River, where the northeastern corner of Namibia hugs the border with Botswana. Sabata works at the lodge as a guide, introducing well-heeled tourists to the raw splendor of wild giraffes, hippos, lions, zebras, and other creatures that travel the area’s generous floodplains.

But this morning he has a problem: His house is surrounded by elephants. It’s too dangerous for him to try to make his way past the unyielding visitors on foot; last year his grandfather was killed by an elephant near their village. He calls the lodge, and soon the manager is in route in a truck to collect him.

Nelson Sabata, a guide at Camp Chobe, outside his home in Katounyana.

Nelson Sabata, a guide at Camp Chobe, outside his home in Katounyana.

Sabata appears unfazed by the momentary hitch. “I’m used to it,” he says with an easy smile. “Elephants often stop by.”

Sabata lives within Salambala Conservancy, one of Namibia’s first communal conservancies—areas run by communities to sustain wildlife and create steady income for residents through nature-based activities like ecotourism, hunting, and locally made crafts. It’s a model that is clearly benefitting him; at 25, he says he loves his job and makes a good living. His tidy tin-roofed house is adorned with a solar-powered satellite dish that streams 200 TV channels to his small living room.

Living in close proximity to elephants may sound exciting, even enviable, to those of us whose daily exposure to the wild seldom extends beyond the odd neighborhood squirrel. But there are real risks. Predators like hyenas and lions attack cattle in the night. Grazing hippos and elephants, known for their voracious appetites, lay waste to farms. Less frequently, people like Sabata’s grandfather are killed. Communities have reasons to fear and resent wild animals. They also have reasons to poach them. Rising demand for illegal ivory and rhino horn—much of it coming from newly affluent consumers in Asia—makes it extremely profitable. A kilogram of ivory fetches a local poacher about US$500, a sizable amount in a country like Namibia, where roughly one in three people earns less than $1.25 a day.

In many ways, Sabata’s remote village, while seemingly at the edge of the world, is at the center of a global conversation—one that has profound consequences for the future of wildlife. Regardless of how many well-intentioned conservation strategies are developed or global treaties signed, if the people who live among wild animals do not value them, animals will continue to disappear. Given the alarming pace of species loss and rapid human population growth in the regions that shelter most of the world’s remaining biodiversity, communities like Sabata’s are on the front lines.


Map of KAZA (orange) in relation to the five countries it crosses (grey) and the continent of Africa.

Roughly 40 miles down the road from Salambala, Morris Mtsambiwa greets the morning from his new office in Kasane, Botswana. Kasane lies directly across the Chobe River from Namibia and only a dozen miles from the borders with Zambia and Zimbabwe, earning the area the name “four corners.”

Mtsambiwa has a friendly, optimistic demeanor—important qualities for the job before him. Earlier this year, after a stint as the director-general of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, Mtsambiwa became the executive director of KAZA, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Formally created in 2011, KAZA is the world’s largest transboundary conservation area, covering an area roughly the size of France and spanning territory across five southern African countries: Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The vision of KAZA is ambitious: to unite the five countries in a shared effort to protect wildlife, promote tourism, and support the socioeconomic well-being of local communities.

As with many big ideas, KAZA is moving incrementally toward realization. Aided by funding principally from the German development bank KfW, the five partner nations, WWF, Peace Parks Foundation, and nonprofit organizations such as Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), the countries have created integrated development plans, delineated existing and future wildlife corridors, built initial infrastructure, and identified new tourism offerings.

Mtsambiwa admits that despite strong political support, bringing together five different countries with distinct laws, interests, and ways of doing business is not easy. “A huge part of my job is to find common ground between the governments.” He seemed pleased with a recent KAZA golf tournament that brought players from three of the five countries together in shared frustration over their mediocre golf strokes. “They’re getting along much better now,” he says with a chuckle.

“What KAZA may lack thus far in formal infrastructure, it makes up for in biological richness. Advertising itself as a “Noah’s ark” for almost 200 different species of mammals and over 600 species of birds, KAZA is endowed with extraordinary national beauty. The region’s sandy woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands host the world’s largest population of elephants, along with buffalos, rhinos, lions, cheetahs, African wild dogs, and dozens of species of antelope.

Mtsambiwa dreams of seeing KAZA become a well-known tourist destination, enticing visitors to see the marvel of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, the wildlife-rich Okavango Delta in Botswana, the rustic beauty of Bwabwata National Park in Namibia, and the largely undeveloped wilderness of places like Zambia’s Sioma Ngwezi National Park or Angola’s Luiana National Park.

Most important, he wants to see local communities actively engaged in the process and reaping the benefits from tourism development. He wants more people like Nelson Sabata to start new careers and take leadership in decisions about the region’s future. “This emphasis on bottom-up involvement is what makes KAZA so unique,” Mtsambiwa says. “Ultimately our success depends on the communities who live here.”

KAZA is not just an economic dream; it has deep conservation aspirations as well. Wildlife such as elephants, zebras, and lions are freewheeling creatures, oblivious to national borders as they traverse large areas in search of food, water, cover, and mating opportunities. Creating optimum conditions for their survival requires managing entire landscapes, not just individual parks. When one country makes a decision—to dam a river or cut down a forest—it affects wildlife across the region.

On paper, KAZA forms a contiguous landscape, linking together more than 20 national parks and numerous reserves and other protected areas—including Salambala Conservancy in Namibia—so that animals can pass safely between countries.

But the reality is that wildlife faces many roadblocks. For the past nine years, WWF lead wildlife scientist Dr. Robin Naidoo has been studying the migration patterns of zebras, buffalos, and other wildlife in the area. His data shows the impact of fences and other linear boundaries on wildlife movements. For instance, there is a 125-mile veterinary fence erected by Botswana’s government in 1996 to prevent the transmission of livestock disease along the Botswana-Namibia border. The fence obstructs one of the most important wildlife corridors in KAZA. WWF has been a strong advocate for removing portions of the fence, but before this can happen, Namibia must meet certain criteria related to cattle disease control.

Wildlife movements are also constrained by uneven levels of security in KAZA’s five countries. “There is an overabundance of elephants in northern Botswana and Bwabwata National Park in Namibia because elephants are not traveling in large numbers into Angola and Zambia. They hesitate out of fear of poachers,” explains WWF-Namibia director Chris Weaver.

makeshift elephant fence strung with soda cans on the Salambala Conservancy © Gareth Bentley/WWF-US

A makeshift elephant fence strung with soda cans on the Salambala Conservancy.

Even before you see an elephant in Bwabwata National Park, the prodigious amount of trampled and gnawed up vegetation makes it clear that they are everywhere. Hardly an acacia tree in the park stands intact.

“Elephants are catholic feeders,” explains WWF-Namibia transboundary conservation advisor Russell Taylor. “They will eat almost anything. Bwabwata is a good example of what happens when you have a local overabundance of elephants. Research in which I’ve been involved suggests that when elephant density exceeds a certain tipping point, the total number of bird species in an area can decline by 50%.”

For nearby communities, too many elephants also means more frequent crop raids and risky human-wildlife encounters. “For people living on the front lines, the benefits they get from tourism don’t always keep pace with the challenges of increasing wildlife populations,” Taylor adds.

KAZA, therefore, is a needed solution; it offers corridors that elephants and other animals can use to travel from high-density population pockets to less crowded habitat. The KAZA Master Integrated Development Plan, created by working in close partnership with stakeholders including communities and conservation groups, delineates six “wildlife dispersal areas” based on existing animal migration routes. It is a practical way to break up the larger KAZA landscape into smaller, more manageable areas of focus, each of which contains critical habitat and strong income-generating potential for local people.

Wildlife monitoring book in Wuparo

A wildlife monitoring book in Wuparo.

One of those six areas is the Kwando River Wildlife Dispersal Area, which connects Bwabwata National Park and surrounding communal conservancies in Namibia to more sparsely populated parks in Angola and Zambia, including Zambia’s Sioma Ngwezi National Park.

In contrast to Bwabwata’s well-kept roads, worn down by a steady passage of tourist vehicles, Sioma Ngwezi is wild. The park’s sometimes sandy, sometimes muddy and rutted roads are lined with thickets of thorny acacia that grate the sides of the rare vehicle that passes through. There are no elephants in sight, nor are there any tourists. But the landscape is beautiful and rich; its woodlands are auburn as winter nears and replete with bands of skittish impala, sable, wildebeest, and roan.

The habitat is ample, and primed to take on wildlife from Bwabwata; it could easily become an alluring, rugged destination for tourists interested in straying from the beaten path. But the animals here are skittish for a reason: In the middle of the park, circling vultures indicate that there is a fresh carcass a short distance from the road. Simasiku Sitali, a ranger with the Zambia Wildlife Authority, cocks his gun and surveys the landscape attentively. He is suddenly on alert; there may be poachers nearby.

Poaching, of course, is an ever-present threat, and KAZA’s success will depend in part on whether governments can keep it under control. Upwards of 20,000 African elephants are illegally killed for their ivory each year, feeding hungry black markets in Asia and other parts of the world. It is a vicious, sophisticated business—on par with international drug cartels—raking in up to $10 billion a year. 

Sharing intelligence across borders is critical for catching criminals, and there are clear signs that the five KAZA governments are increasingly joining forces. Gryton Kasamu, senior warden of the Western Region for the Zambian Wildlife Authority, remarks that he is now working more closely with his counterparts in Angola and Namibia to apprehend poachers. In Zimbabwe, Zambezi National Park area manager Edmore Ngosi attributes successful arrests and convictions of wildlife criminals to improved cross-border information sharing and better collaboration with the police. The penalties in Zimbabwe have been upped as well, to a minimum of nine years in prison.

Game guard Hamphrey Mwanga describes efforts to mitigate human-wildlife conflict in Wuparo Conservancy.

And it’s not just officials who are talking to each other. At the village level, community transboundary forums, some of which have been in place for over a decade, bring local leaders from adjacent countries together to discuss issues of common concern such as wildfires, human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and the formation and maintenance of wildlife corridors. One of KAZA’s goals is to strengthen and multiply these local structures across the region. The Kwandu-Imusho transboundary forum, for example, has a radio that connects the village of Imusho in Zambia with the Kwandu Conservancy in Namibia. Residents use the radio to share news and, as a result, cattle thefts and poaching have decreased noticeably.

“Conservation issues always span national borders, particularly in Africa, where migrating wildlife often travels through multiple countries,” says Neville Isdell, former chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company. “My wife Pamela and I both grew up in Zambia, and we care deeply about protecting the region for future generations. That is why we are such strong supporters of community transboundary forums, which bring people together to manage shared natural resources, grow the local economy, and fight poaching. These forums are the building blocks necessary for large-scale conservation in KAZA.”

And beyond the crucial contributions made by forums, eliminating poaching in the region also requires addressing fundamental economic and social realities. “Poaching levels fluctuate here from year to year,” Gryton Kasamu says from his post in southwest Zambia. “This year the entire region had very poor rainfall, and people are hungry. And when people are hungry, they’re more likely to poach.”

Hunger and poverty are a constant refrain. In a region where a single elephant intrusion can easily destroy a family’s farm and disrupt their already tenuous food supply, there must be economic incentives for living among wildlife. Otherwise, local communities bear the costs of proximity, while visiting tourists and private operators reap the gains.

Namibia has pioneered a model of community-based conservation that has become a laudable success story. Since 1998, Namibia has created 82 communal conservancies covering nearly 20% of the country. Formed and run by local people, the conservancies offer protected space for wildlife and have embraced wildlife as a livelihood strategy. In fact, wildlife has generated more than $54 million in benefits for communities through tourism and trophy hunting over the past 18 years. All of the benefits go directly to the conservancies, which use them to fund local development initiatives and improve rural livelihoods.

Imbamba Felicita, Khwe woman from Namibia © Gareth Bentley/WWF-US
Imbamba Felicitas searches for devil’s claw, a plant sold as a treatment for rheumatism in Europe. In Namibia, Khwe women earn money by sustainably harvesting the roots.
Farmer Sipalo Mubita poses with his abundant corn crop © Gareth Bentley/WWF-US
Conservation agriculture techniques help farmer Sipalo Mubita’s corn thrive despite a drought, providing income for him, his family, and more than 40 farm staff.

On Salambala Conservancy land, a herd of zebras hundreds strong pauses in the morning light to rest. Their return to Salambala is proof that community-based conservation works.

The model has produced impressive gains for wildlife: The black rhino, once nearly extinct, has rebounded, with Namibia’s conservancies hosting the largest free-roaming rhino population in the world. Desert lions, reduced to fewer than 25 individuals by the mid-1990s, now number over 150 and roam vast areas of Namibia’s arid northwest. Elephant populations too have grown, from just 7,600 individuals in 1995 to over 20,000 today.

WWF and local Namibian nonprofits like IRDNC have played a central role in the growth of the conservancies. Working in tandem with Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the organizations have helped communities to reintroduce wildlife, create strong governance and financial management structures, and develop relationships with the private sector.

"Prior to the creation of conservancies, local people were living among wildlife but not getting any benefit,” says IRDNC program director Karine Nuulimba. “The mindset at the time of Namibia’s independence in 1990 was that tourism was largely a white person’s industry and that wildlife was a nuisance. That has since changed. People are now growing up in communities that value wildlife and view tourism as a great economic engine."

Mayuni Conservancy, which sits in Namibia’s panhandle in the heart of KAZA, was one of the first conservancies created, thanks in part to a prescient traditional authority, Chief Mayuni, who saw the opportunity ahead.

“As a leader, you can’t ever know when you start something whether it’s going to be a good idea. But I knew that I had to find a way to help my community. I had to try this idea because of the potential it held—for both people and wildlife,” Chief Mayuni explains.

The gray-haired, bright-eyed chief is a study in contrasts: His two cell phones lie face up on his modern desk, but he rests his hands on a namaya—a traditional power stick made of black eland hair and ivory, which has been handed down over generations. And while he is a powerful authority in this area—in keeping with tradition, no one can approach him without first kneeling and clapping—he is at the same time heir to forces beyond his control. At this moment, he is desperate to get water for his community after moving the village away from prime river habitat, ceding the land to wildlife. To recognize the chief for this sacrifice, the KAZA Secretariat has committed to install boreholes at their new location, but so far nothing has happened.

“I am the chief and I have no water,” Mayuni says. “I have to go down to the river and fetch it in buckets in my car. Imagine what the rest of my community is dealing with.”

Nelson Sabata, a guide at Camp Chobe, outside his home in Katounyana

Anastasia Sabata heats water over a fire in Katounyana village near Camp Chobe

Despite the current water shortage, Chief Mayuni has much working in his favor. A strategic businessman, he is assisting his conservancy in partnering with private companies to develop new tourism opportunities. This includes the creation of joint-venture lodges that split revenue between the community and private owners. Mayuni Conservancy’s newest addition is Nambwa Lodge, which with its palatial canopy tents and candlelit dinners overlooking stunning plains, makes for a seductive African experience. (Camp Chobe, where Sabata works, is also a joint venture lodge.)

One of Nambwa Lodge’s shareholders, Juan Marx, is a native of South Africa and has been in the joint-venture business in Namibia for more than 12 years. He says one of the most satisfying parts of his job is getting to build long-term relationships with community members, many of whom work at the lodges.

“I’ve worked with some of the staff here at Nambwa for over a decade. Our chef, Lusken, for example, started at a sister lodge as a carpenter, then moved into the kitchen, and then slowly evolved into a role as a cook. Now, he’s the head chef. It’s been amazing to watch that growth happen. We sometimes sit together and watch BBC Food in the afternoons as he plans his next meal.”

Joint-venture partnerships are not without their challenges. Reuben Mafati, who works as a tourism coordinator for IRDNC, explains that the organization “often helps facilitate conversations between the private sector and communities. There can be a huge power differential when the groups sit down at the table. Community representatives may only have an elementary-level education; they may not know what a percentage is. We join the conversation to help ensure that it is balanced.”

WWF business specialist Richard Diggle—a former London banker who fell in love with Africa on his first trip to Kenya in 1992 and has lived in Namibia for the past 17 years—is quick to point out that the power dynamic can go both ways. “Conservancy leaders and traditional authorities are critically important business partners for lodge operators—they can make or break a lodge’s success.”

Namibia’s conservancy model is not perfect; there are instances of corruption and financial mismanagement. In one such case, a conservancy chairman allegedly withdrew $1,500 to purchase rifles that never materialized. But overall the program is producing significant results that are attracting the attention of Namibia’s neighbors.

Across the border in Imusho, Zambia, Bornfree Kumara, the chairperson of a local village action group, wants to emulate Namibia’s success. “We’ve seen our friends on the other side of the border fight to get where they are, and the benefits they are receiving are inspiring to us. We feel we could do something similar here if the government revised its policy to allow it.”

Kumara says this with fire, adding: “We have very little else we can do here. This year the rains were bad, and people are starving.”

As KAZA evolves, it is building up structures that stimulate the cross-pollination of ideas and cooperation across borders. Kumara, who actively participates in the Kwandu-Imusho transboundary forum, remarked that he has learned a lot about communal conservation from visiting his Namibian neighbors. His chief, Gerard Mayema, wants to create a similar partnership between Imusho and a community in Angola to the west to form a large connected area between the three nations. His goal is to work together to protect their shared resources and grow the local economy through tourism.

Victoria Falls © Gareth Bentley/WWF-US
At dusk, hundreds of elephants move through the brush near the Kwando River’s famous “horseshoe” bend in eastern Namibia.

Sharing resources is a central theme at KAZA’s biannual transboundary forum in July 2015—a three-day, two-night affair, held under a sweeping mahogany tree at an enchanting spot above the floodplain within Salambala Conservancy—just a few miles down a dirt road from Nelson Sabata’s post at Camp Chobe. Here, Bornfree Kumara joins more than 60 other community members, NGO staffers, and government officials from four of the five KAZA countries—Angola, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia—as well as representatives visiting from Tanzania, to share stories, successes, frustrations, and ideas. Nearby, a lone elephant grazes alongside the riverbank. As people arrive, greet each other with warm hugs, and unpack their camping gear, it feels like a family reunion.

Geraldo Mayira Moyo, who works with the nonprofit Association of Conservation and Integrated Rural Development, or ACADIR, in Angola, is attending the forum for the second time. Conservation has not taken a firm hold in Angola yet, and the portion of Angola that sits within KAZA may still have some land mines from prior conflicts, slowing efforts even further. Even Mayira Moyo admits that Angola is short on tourists and high on poachers. But he sees the example of Namibia as a beacon, and he was so heartened by what he learned at the last forum that he has returned—this time with a community leader and a representative from Angola’s Ministry of the Environment in tow.

As participants take their seats in plastic chairs and the dialogue begins, it becomes clear that this small, vibrant group of people—coming together to make conservation work in their shared landscape—is also taking part in a much bigger story. The world is in the midst of what New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert aptly calls “the 6th extinction”—the rapid loss of animal and plant species due to human activity. In less than two human generations, populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish have dropped by half. Now human decisions, including those made by the people who live among vulnerable wildlife, will either further abet collapse or carry life forward to safer ground.

This afternoon, though, the gathering at Salambala Conservancy bears no signs of such gloominess. The air is buoyant. In the distance, zebras, once largely absent from the area, kick up dust clouds from the arid soil. The landscape is alive, the day is not yet over, and the outstretched plains invite the imagination toward unformed possibility.

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