Melissa Reitz
10th July 2019

The hunting of Voortrekker, an iconic Namibian desert elephant, for just R120 000 has sparked the debate on whether Namibia’s wildlife is thriving or flailing. A recent publication raises shocking questions about what looks like a flawed conservation approach. 

Namibia has been recognised internationally as a world leader in Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM), which enables its people to benefit through ownership of their wildlife. But with the worst drought in 30 years taking severe toll, reports of high human-wildlife conflict, diminishing game and dubious hunting practices are continuing to surface. Yet it seems that conservation authorities are in denial.

Published a year ago, Plunderwoestyn, (Plundered Desert) which has been hailed a “ground breaking” and important book, is based on the shocking true-life experiences of author Christiaan Bakkes, who spent over twenty years in wildlife conservation in north west Namibia.

The book, which Bakkes says carries a message to “bring back compassion to nature conservation”, provides a disturbing insight into some iniquitous activities that occur under the guise of wildlife conservation in Namibia. Bakkes exposes outrageous instances of rhino and elephant slaughter; unregulated trophy hunting; excessive hunting by anti-poaching patrols; contentious meat sales from community-run conservancies and declining wildlife numbers, begging the question: Is Namibia’s conservation success story really all it’s made out to be? 

Bakkes previously put Namibian wildlife management in the spotlight in an article End of the Game. Published internationally in 2015, the article highlighted the decline in Namibia’s wildlife and questioned the success of the community-based conservation programme. He was well qualified to do so, after being intimately involved with the NGO Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) which empowers rural communities through conservation. Shortly after its release Bakkes was asked to resign from his job as a guide for a major safari company in the Kaokaveld, and soon after that he left the country altogether.

“I am not the first one to be silenced and ousted after offering a different opinion,” says Bakkes. 

End of the Game brought to light the plight of the drought-stressed wildlife populations of Namibia. Excessive hunting, mismanaged by community members, led to a massive drop in drought-resistant wildlife numbers. Coupled with the prolonged drought in Namibia since 2012, game is now struggling to recover, according to Bakkes.

“Over-utilisation of desert adapted wildlife puts added pressure on a population that will need the drought resistant strains to survive an extended dry period. This may cause the population to crash irretrievably.”

Adding to this, Bakkes claims that the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) ‘shoot-and-sell’ policy put even more pressure on plains game populations, which in turn reduces prey animals and leads to human-wildlife conflict as predators turn to livestock for food. Private businesses are permitted to shoot game on a large scale for commercial meat outlets according to this policy, which was introduced during Namibia’s last wet cycle in the late nineties.

“I saw freezer trucks parked on the plains while gemsbok, springbok and zebra were being slaughtered and loaded,” says Bakkes, who claims he never saw MET officials monitoring these unsustainable slaughters. 

The MET has now issued a moratorium to stop this practice in most conservancies due to the significant drop in game numbers.“By the time I left the Kunene Region at the beginning of 2018 there was very little plains game to be seen throughout the area. Notable was the absence of gemsbok, the most drought resistant of Namibia’s antelope.”

 Journalist John Grobler also recorded reports by professional hunters, tour guides, lodge owners, former MET employees and community members of declining wildlife numbers due to overhunting.

Professional hunter, Stephan Jacobs, says there is so little game left in the Caprivi area that a hunting trip there was “the worst experience” of his life and after 14 days of tracking elephant they gave up.

Yet the MET insists that Namibia’s game numbers are thriving and that wildlife has tripled as result of its successful community-based conservation methods

But this overhunting of wildlife, based on flawed numbers and poor governance, questions the success of Namibia’s CBNRM in which trophy hunting plays an integral role. 

Community members of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, the oldest of Namibia’s communal conservancies and a world-renowned elephant hunting destination, say that the hunting quota and permit system is abused and even though they receive benefits, including meat from hunts, their families are hungry. Nyae Nyae receives the largest hunting quota of all Namibia’s conservancies, yet its starving Kalahari San people exceed their hunting rights by poaching game for extra meat, further exacerbating the excessive harvesting of game. 

While communities do receive some paybacks from the hunting industry, a recent study on the economic benefits of trophy hunting in Namibia found that community and cultural needs are not understood or consistently met and the majority of the revenue – up to US$ 80,000 per elephant hunt – ends up in the hands of hunting operators, airlines, governments and tourism facilities. According to a 2013 paper by Economists at Large, Namibia’s rural communities receive a mere $USD 0.16 per hunting hectare.  

Selective hunting, which CBNRM uses to keep species in balance, seemed to be failing as despite a fluctuation in the total number of animals actually seen during the game counts, the ministry consistently allocates the same number of hunting quotas. Elephants for example, dropped from 1,797 in 2015 to only 603 in 2017, yet a hunting quota of nine elephants remained constant from 2014 to 2018 for Nyae Nyae Conservancy.

Adding to this dubious decision-making on game-utilisation is the discrepancy between conservancy game estimates and official MET estimates. 

Bakkes claims this failing system and rampant over-use of wildlife resources is not only due greed but also a lack of governance.

At the last Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (COP17), Namibian authorities proposed trade in ivory with no more than an estimate of their own total elephant population based on an extrapolation from an unsubstantiated base, and after refusing to take part in the Great Elephant Census. The country plans to make the same request at COP18 meeting later this year.

Namibia failed also to provide accurate poached rhino statistics

According to Namibian Law, sustainability requires a species to be available in the long term for future generations. Namibia‘s Environmental Management Act (2007) enshrines the Precautionary Principle in law to ensure that cautious decisions are made with regard to its wildlife in the interest of human rights protection for future generations. The Namibian Constitution states in Article 95(l) that the state shall actively promote and maintain the welfare of the people through the maintenance of “natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and future.”

“How can it be considered sustainable to legally hunt or trade in a species that is facing numerous stressors to its population. It could be disastrous if Namibia has overestimated how much wildlife it has or underestimated the poaching crisis,” says Bakkes. “The result is that there could be very little wildlife left for future generations to survive from. That is a serious human rights violation.” 

In response to international pressure to ban hunting and the imports of wildlife products Namibia’s Cabinet directed the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to “actively campaign against any attempt to ban or restrict hunting and the export of wildlife products from Namibia.”

Despite denial and attempts by government to ignore on-the-ground reports, Christiaan Bakkes, who now lives in South Africa and is the author of eleven books, stands resolute in what he saw: “It is very convenient to blame the drought for the disappearance of wildlife. I believe it is a combination of drought and over-utilisation. It is also easy to praise community-based conservation on the return of the wildlife after extended rainy periods. The truth is not that simple.  Some proponents of community-based conservation like to blame the old South African Defence Force for exterminating the wildlife during periods of prolonged droughts. Then, during a bountiful wet cycle, that stretches over two decades, they find it is just as convenient to claim that community-based conservation saved the wildlife. It is a manipulation of the truth. Rain and law enforcement save wildlife in the desert.”

(Originally published in Afrikaans as Só Red Namibië  Niks)