AFRICAN TROPHY HUNTING: In the Context of Community Conservation

Published on September 27, 2013

Trophy hunting is often the subject of heated debates. The hunting of predators is a particularly sensitive topic, often described as a cruel, needless practice that has no conservation value for the species concerned. Hunters, on the other hand, claim that hunting of predators is an essential part of conservation outside of national parks.

Here then is an example of how trophy hunting can be of benefit to conservation, if formulated properly and managed strictly. The notes in this blog posts refer to a particular area in Namibia (Kunene) and do not speak to trophy hunting operations elsewhere.

As with most hotly contested issues, trophy hunting is more complex than it first appears.

Typically, two main questions regarding trophy hunting arise: 1) is trophy hunting beneficial for conservation? 2) Is it providing substantial benefits for local people? I believe that the Namibian government has a good trophy hunting system in place, which keeps corruption to a minimum and provides direct benefits to local people. I therefore use the Namibian system as an example of how trophy hunting can benefit conservation and local communities in Africa.

There are two distinct types of farmland in Namibia – communal and commercial farms. In the commercial farming areas, land is parceled up into privately owned farms that may be used for livestock, game farming, hunting or ecotourism. In the communal areas, the land is owned by the state, but inhabited by people who farm with cattle, sheep and goats. Although trophy hunting on commercial farms in Namibia is worthy of consideration as part of the hunting debate, I will focus here on communal farmlands.

Although Namibia is currently hailed as an outstanding example of conservation in Africa, this was not always the case. In the 1980s, illegal hunting by foreigners and locals was rife in the communal lands now known as the Kunene and Caprivi/Zambezi regions. Poaching was rife and the very idea of conservation was met with hostility, as it was seen as yet another means of oppression by the apartheid government.

This situation changed with new legislation brought in by the independent Namibian government in 1996. The essence of this legislation was to give Namibians living in communal areas rights to utilise their wildlife sustainably and to benefit directly from ecotourism in their regions. The main prerequisite for these rights was that the people formed local institutions to manage and conserve wildlife within self-defined areas; these institutions are known as conservancies. Democratically elected committees run the conservancies, to manage the wildlife and money coming from wildlife-related activities within their boundaries. Through their conservancies, local people are now able to charge trophy hunters and ecotourism operators for using the peoples’ natural resources.

Today, community conservation in Namibia can be compared to a three-legged pot (or ‘potjie’), which has three supporting ‘legs’. These legs are: local ownership, ecotourism and sustainable use. Local ownership of wildlife is the most important of these legs, as it provides the foundation for the other two legs. Ecotourism and sustainable use (including, but not limited to, trophy hunting) are the two main income-generating avenues for the Kunene conservancies. The relative importance of these two legs varies from one conservancy to another.

Three of the five conservancies in the southern Kunene sub-region, with whom I work closely, have stable income from hunting and ecotourism, the fourth relies only on hunting and the fifth relies solely on ecotourism. The first three indicated that roughly one third of their income (R120 000-150 000 per year) is derived from trophy hunting, the rest coming from ecotourism and other forms of wildlife hunting (e.g. for meat). Together, these conservancies manage 10 835 km2, home to approximately 5 900 people.

The conservancy that currently relies exclusively on trophy hunting, generates R100 000 annually but is in the process of building an ecotourism lodge to increase their income-generating potential. One of the main reasons that this conservancy has been slow to realise its ecotourism potential is that it is not as scenic as the other conservancies in the region. Thus, investors have started with the more spectacular conservancies, leaving this one to depend on hunting. Without trophy hunting, this conservancy – covering 2 290 km2, home to 1 300 people – would simply not exist.

Finally, one conservancy has chosen to rely solely on income from ecotourism and not to allow any kind of hunting in their area. The reasons for this decision are multiple, but it is important to note that the local people decided to use only ecotourism themselves. This is the smallest of the five conservancies (286 km2, home to 230 people), yet it is a hotspot for ecotourism, as it has a famous rock art site within its boundary. Several lodges and a campsite operate within this relatively small area, and there is simply not enough space to include trophy hunting – gunshots are not appreciated by most eco-tourists! Simply put, it made more sense for this conservancy to rely on ecotourism alone.

The main species hunted in all conservancies are antelope. As illogical as it may sound, allowing conservancies to kill antelope has been the primary reason for the recent increase in the range and population numbers of antelope species in the region. Hunting in the Kunene region has shifted from being an uncontrolled, illegal past-time for a large number of local people to being a controlled, legal form of income-generation from a small number of foreign hunters. After recovering from severe drought and intense poaching in the 1980s, wildlife populations increased and started stabilising after the establishment of communal conservancies. From 2003-2011, annual road-based game counts have shown that the main prey species in the Kunene region (springbok, gemsbok and mountain zebra) have either maintained their population numbers or increased.

Each conservancy is granted a hunting quota of game animals by the government; they then reach a bilateral agreement with a trophy-hunting operator. In this agreement, the trophy hunter agrees to pay a certain amount of money for each antelope shot in the conservancy (amongst other conditions). The conservancy sends one or more of its employees with the hunting operator and client when on safari, to ensure that they comply with the terms of agreement. The conservancy then records the numbers of animals shot by the hunter and ensures that he pays them for what he shoots, and that he does not shoot more than the agreed quota.

So what does trophy hunting in the context of community conservation really mean for conservation, especially for carnivore conservation? As outlined above, controlled trophy hunting of prey species has led to an increase and stabilisation in their populations, which support the predator populations. The lion population, which is well studied and monitored by the Desert Lion Conservation and Research project, has increased from approximately 20 individuals to over 130 during the time that conservancies have operated in the region.

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