When Velds Collide

Maya Cough-Schulze studied sociology and biology at the College of William and Mary, and spent the summer interning with an urban ecology project. She currently works for Eastern Mountain Sports, writes for her local newspaper, and is learning about initiatives that effectively bridge conservation and development.

In many places, conservationists and local people have fought over access to fragile lands, but Namibia has integrated the interests of both parties to help endangered wildlife populations rebound. Since 1983, many communities in the largely rural country have legally registered their land as “conservancies,” meaning that they can continue to herd livestock and farm there in addition to monitoring wildlife and showing tourists around.

“We knew conservation [in Namibia] would fail if it didn’t include the local communities,” says John Kasaona of IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation), the NGO that hired the first wildlife monitors. Much of the rural population lives in poverty, making conservancy jobs highly prized—in 2008, conservancies generated $5.7 million. “This is our new economy,” says Kasaona.

“The first people to become involved [in conservancies] were ex-poachers and the black disenfranchised generally—people who knew the bush,” says Patricia Skyer of WWF-Namibia. Involved with the movement since its inception and 2002 recipient of WWF’s prestigious Women in Conservation Award, Skyer has much to be proud of. Conservancies now cover 17% of the country’s land area and involve 240,000 people, or 1 in 8 Namibians. Elephant and southwestern black rhino populations have more than doubled since the movement began. Kudu and gemsbok (species of native antelope), springbok (a gazelle) and mountain zebra have increased by as much as tenfold.

John Kasaona’s father was one of those poachers to become the first wildlife monitors. Given the opportunity for another form of employment, he and other poachers were happy to “renew their commitment to nature,” Kasaona says. This shows how the conservancy model is a world away from the traditional mode of conserving wildlife in parks. Officials evict locals to create parks, which deprives them of their livelihood, as herding livestock, farming and hunting require land on which to do so. This sends the message that the government and international conservation community value wildlife more than people, naturally breeding resentment towards conservation.

By contrast, conservancy employees pursue their traditional forms of livelihood within a matrix of conservation activities. Monitors map their land and take wildlife censuses; hunting quotas are then set based on population trends. Revenue from tourism and guiding trophy hunters (who pay handsomely to help hunt animals down to acceptable quotas) helps pay monitors’ salaries and NGOs (WWF being the primary funder) augment where internal funds run short.

Living within a semi-wild environmental matrix is what makes community-based conservation initiatives effective, but it can lead to conflict—there are always rumblings of discontent when elephants trample crops or a lion kills livestock. Strategies for mitigating human-wildlife conflict can include installing electric fences and compensating herders for livestock losses (similar to how some American NGOs compensate western ranchers for wolf-killed livestock.)

Unfortunate though these incidents are they do show that wildlife populations have rebounded and are on the roam. Conservancies’ major success is that they support landscape-scale conservation. This means that community landholdings are close enough together to serve as corridors through which large species can migrate. Such species do best when traveling across an unbroken corridor of protected land; they can be shot when passing through unprotected areas between conservancies. But in the absence of a continuous corridor, a close enough network of conservancies and negotiating with landowners between protected areas goes a long way toward recreating the big species’ natural migration routes.

In a country many Americans don’t know exists, on a continent too many people connect only with death and destruction, conservancies are “serving as a model to Africa,” says Kasaona. “And Africa can serve as a model to…the United States!” His comment garnered appreciative laughter and applause at the TED conference, but if we could adapt the model for our endangered species, it would be a strikingly effective synthesis: of global idea-sharing, of conservation and development.

The American pronghorn is an endangered species that evolved on our Great Plains, analogous to the African veld; where African antelopes evolved their speed to escape lions, pronghorn evolved in the Pleistocene to flee lions that roamed the plains then. These animals depend on the buy-in of individuals and communities throughout their range to preserve their migration corridors.

Maybe if western communities showed tourists the pronghorn migration on their land, while continuing to farm and ranch, pronghorn protection would improve and locals would be more supportive of conservation. Maybe the conservancy model could be generalized to other species or to whole ecosystems, since the US doesn’t have the “big five” like Namibia does. Who knows? Beautiful things might happen when velds collide.