How liberalism meant 12,000 more Namibian elephants

Elephants are in a dramatic decline across Africa. So how do you save them? Should you simply shoot poachers on sight, as Kenya does? Or try and work with the communities where they live?

Working as an environmental economist in the Namibian government, I got to test this at first hand.

When we went out and listened to local people they told us that they, too, wanted to save the elephants. But it was hard for them to persuade their friends and neighbours to actively fight poaching, because they suffered all of the costs of living with elephants (like their houses being trampled regularly) without getting the benefits of tourism.

So we worked to put in place Africa’s best Community Based Wildlife Conservation programme. The wildlife was effectively given to the communities in which it lived, who could then make money by selling tourism concessions. It was a truly liberal programme, that a great liberal Namibian, Ben Ulenga, somehow managed to get past both his largely Marxist colleagues, and civil service that was still dominated by people put there under colonialism [Edited to add: Thanks to David Nolan for pointing out the longer history of conservation in Namibia that led up to this point – see at the bottom for more details].

Liberalism here was decentralisation – the people who lived with the wildlife were the best people to make decisions about it. And like decentralisation everywhere this meant a leap of faith for the technocrats that people could be trusted to make the ‘right’ decisions. At first this meant that communities were given relatively limited powers to sell tourism concessions, and manage the wildlife day to day, but gradually over time these powers were extended.

Liberalism here was also pro-environment. We knew that without big changes in how wildlife was looked after, the future prospects were bleak. And the communities we worked with were passionate about their children and grandchildren having the opportunity to see wildlife as they went about their day to day lives.

My role was partly to advise the communities on how to negotiate a good deal with tourism operators. Rural African communities knew that their wildlife was valuable, but not how to write contracts that created a mutual interest between themselves and the tour operator. Both had a very strong interest in these businesses being a success, as many of them have been. My job was also to persuade people in the rest of the government that rural African communities could be trusted with wildlife.

Rob worked on conservation projects in Africa

Rob keeping an eye on African wildlife

I spent day after day in meetings under trees in the desert, and in the capital’s civil service, painstakingly answering people’s questions, reassuring them and helping fix all the small problems that came up along the way. Over two and a half years we gradually got the first villages to benefit from the programme. As the programme got going it became a major source of jobs and income in these communities, and made wildlife as crucial to their economic success as their cows and goats.

The results, fifteen years later, have been dramatic, with over 80 communities taking up this right, and the rights being extended to water, fisheries, rangeland and forests:

  • The World Wildlife Fund has given two Gift of the Earth awards to the programme for its exceptional benefits to conservation
  • Over 6,000 jobs in a small country, making community based tourism a major employer
  • An increase in the elephant population from 7,500 to over 20,000, and very low levels of poaching

The programme has now been copied across the world, with visitors coming to learn from Mongolia and Cambodia to  the United States.

By contrast Kenya and the other countries have continued to struggle with poaching because they’ve done much less to involve people in decision making. Namibia’s community based conservation programmes are now a symbol to the world that the liberal ideology of trusting people works, as well as being right.

Thanks to David Nolan for pointing out that this programme built on the successful community conservation programmes of the 1980s by Garth Owen-Smith and others. If you’d like to read more of this history then have a look at this brief history.

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