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Namibian Communities Take the Lead on Conservation

Chris Weaver with camera

Living in Namibia for the last 20 years, I have seen the outlook on the wildlife here go from rather dismal to incredibly hopeful.

By the mid-1990s—shortly after Namibia won its independence—wildlife numbers were at historical lows in many communal areas. But since passage of the 1996 communal conservancy legislation, the recovery of the wildlife has been amazing. We now have the largest free-roaming population of black rhino, the only expanding population of lions, and the biggest cheetah population in the world. Elephants are recovering and enlarging their range, while migration routes for many animals are being re-established.

This remarkable transition has all been possible due to Namibia’s visionary government, which recognized the importance of engaging communities in conservation. The government teamed up with multiple non-governmental organizations, including WWF, to create a national community-based natural resource management program. We jointly assist communities in forming conservation areas to manage and benefit from their wildlife. Once a community meets legal criteria, it becomes a legitimate natural resource management organization registered and recognized by all branches of government in Namibia as a communal conservancy.

Two lions drinking water

Namibia as a conservation model

With 79 registered conservancies covering 38 million acres, Namibia has become a conservation model that inspires hope for countries and communities around the globe. Twenty different countries have sent delegations to come and learn from Namibia’s experiences and successes.

One of the most inspiring visits was a high-ranking delegation from Nepal. It was remarkable to sit in the constitution room at parliament and hear our Namibian hosts so proudly tell their guests about how important it is to create a constitution that incorporates sustainable management of the environment and proactive engagement with communities.

And it’s very exciting to watch the transformation in how people value wildlife in Namibia. Wildlife, once perceived as a detriment to peoples’ livelihoods and used as poached meat, is increasingly being viewed as a valuable asset to attract tourists. One can see peoples’ mindsets incrementally shift; they start to think that wildlife is worth something and that it should be conserved and protected.

Realizing the value of lions

A great example of this is Puros Conservancy, in northwest Namibia. If you approached members of this community about lions in the 1990s, they didn't even want to talk to you. If a lion made it near their villages, they would track it down and shoot it.

Slowly, they came to realize that lions have a value, that tourism could bring income and employment benefits. In 2008, we attended a meeting with the Puros Conservancy committee to discuss how the resident pride of lions could generate benefits for the conservancy members. During the meeting, the community requested that WWF fund radio tracking equipment, a vehicle, and staff so the conservancy could monitor lion movements and manage potential conflict between the lions and resident livestock.

As Puros Conservancy was already generating some tourism income, we offered to provide half the money if the conservancy put up the other half. After two hours of discussion, the conservancy’s representatives agreed. That was a huge demonstration of their attitude shift. Not only did they no longer want to kill the lions, they now were willing to invest their own money in managing the lions.

Working for WWF and being involved in this kind of work is incredibly satisfying. I doubt there's any other place in the world where I could have had so much personal impact or satisfaction from a job.

Learn more about Namibia.