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The night before we met, an elephant herd passed through Rebecca Adams’ small village in the heart of northwest Namibia's arid Huab River Valley. "They pushed over a fence to raid a small garden. I thought, elephants again. And I decided I would stay in bed and let others chase them away,” she said
I’m with Rebecca tracking these same elephants, having followed their footprints through the village of De Riet to further along the Huab River bed. It's a vast semi-desert landscape ranging from stoney plains to extraordinary rock formations and dunes. The elephants had paused to drink at the reservoir just outside the village. The sun's low angle had highlighted the distinctive ridges of the herd’s tracks in the powdery dust, intermingled with human footprints and goat tracks.
Rebecca is one of a community known as the Riemvasmaakers. Once South African residents living in Riemvasmaak in the Northern Cape, South Africa, they were forced by the South African government into Namibia in the early 1970s under the apartheid government's racist regime.
Traditionally livestock farmers, the Riemvasmaakers have managed to keep goats, sheep, donkeys, and chickens alive in arid and dangerous conditions. Beyond frequent droughts, their animals could be preyed upon by lions and hyenas. “We were not used to these wild animals at all, and we had to move from the first place we settled because there were too many lions,” Rebecca says.
But in a show of resolve and ingenuity, the community learned how to survive. Today, Rebecca has a small flock of 20 goats, including two new kids. "I had 200 before the recent drought," she says, optimistic that the herd will recover so long as there is rain. With their tiny bells jingling, the goats snack on pods falling from giant Ana trees that grow along the dry waterways, tapping into secret springs and moisture deep within the earth. The sun is blazing hot, but Rebecca made friends with it long ago.
After South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, the Riemvasmaakers' land was returned to the community and they were given the option of returning to South Africa. Despite the harsh climate and living closely with the elephants and the lions, Rebecca chose to stay in Namibia. Like some other Riemvasmaakers, the dust had gotten under her skin. She'd learned to love the elephants, although they remain hard to live with, and she says she is content here with her goats.
Namibia’s desert elephants are uniquely adapted to the harsh terrain. Though not a subspecies of elephants, the herds have adapted remarkably well to their environment, passing on the knowledge that enables them to survive. They dig to access underground water and can walk more than 40 miles daily to find more. Recovering wildlife populations in Namibia means there are more elephants now than when Rebecca moved here about 50 years ago. There are also more lions, which occasionally attack livestock and frighten the community. With lives and livelihoods at stake, the attacks could lead to reduced tolerance of wildlife and more likelihood of retaliatory killings of some species.
Rebecca explained that several management approaches have been implemented to reduce conflict with wild animals, like a lion early warning system. This system works by connecting the signal from collared lions to an antenna in the village, alerting villagers to take precautions early while the lions are still some distance away. "We are warned not to go out with the goats,” says Rebecca.
For the elephants, a water reservoir was built outside the village. "It's better now, but the elephants still dig up and damage our water pipes," she says. Still, the elephants are generally well tolerated by the villagers. Tourism has softened attitudes toward them. "The villagers know that having visitors from around the world creates jobs and opportunities for them," says Rebecca.
"It's good to have elephants. We were terrified of them. Now we are living with them."
Like most of the villagers in De Riet, Rebecca is a member of the Torra Conservancy. There are 86 communal conservancies in Namibia that enable communities to manage and benefit from the wildlife in their region through conservation-related jobs like game guards and rangers, employment through tourism-related products and services, and the revenues earned through joint business ventures with lodges. Conservancies also help members address and respond to issues like human-wildlife conflict.
"The conservancy is how you take care of your land, animals, and assets. You can live from and profit from this," says another De Riet local, lodge manager Agnes Bezuidenhout. Agnes was born in South Africa in 1972 and went with her parents when they were forced to move in 1974. They survived the trauma, she says, and built a better life in Namibia. She's particularly proud of the village school and kindergarten developed in De Riet. Agnes also loves elephants. "If you see how they move and walk, it's like they’re showing you, 'I'm the boss,'" she says.
She works just a few tire-eating, bone-shaking miles away from the village at a lodge called Doro Nawas. This lodge is one of the first to embrace the joint venture model, where the operators have negotiated a lease with the conservancy to bring tourists to see the landscape and the wildlife. The money they pay to the conservancy helps develop infrastructure in the village and provide other community benefits, like electricity. "I thought it was a joke because I didn't believe people would come and build a lodge here,” says Agnes of the initial proposal. “But that's where I got my first job. I'm very proud of what I'm doing and of working for my community."
Life is still challenging in De Riet. The COVID-19 pandemic had immediate and devastating effects on tourism, the conservancies, and those who relied on them for income. Beyond tourism, there are few opportunities for subsistence agriculture or other employment.
But for a community that once had all their power and agency taken away through unjust forced removals, the conservancy gives them a voice in managing their future. "My dream for my people is that the conservancy makes their lives easier. Our Conservancy is on our side. They try their best to assist the people,” said Agnes.
Meanwhile, the elephants abide, moving with the seasons along ancient paths they have trod into their DNA. Rebecca's eyes shift toward the purple haze of the horizon. She knows what it’s like to be forced from her home. “People and elephants must live together here. Now, where are my goats?”
Conservancies are lauded as having played a key role in Namibia’s recovering wildlife populations, from endangered black rhinos to desert lions. WWF is part of a network of organizations working with the Namibian Ministry of Environment Forestry and Tourism to help communities establish new conservancies and support existing conservancies in bettering the lives of people while conserving wildlife.