Guest Column

End of the game

2015-03-25 09:04

Christiaan Bakkes

It was the year 1995.

I had just joined Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), a WWF-funded NGO that was charged with the responsibility of empowering local rural communities through conservation. The goal was to establish communal conservancies that would enable the people to take ownership of their wildlife and natural resources.

The communal conservancy legislation was passed through parliament in 1996.

I saw agreements between conservancies and tour companies. Joint ventures for the benefit of all. Private operators would pay communities for the privilege of tourism on their land. Local community members would be employed and trained and empowered. It was a wonderful period of growth.

The conservancies were granted hunting rights and made agreements with professional hunting enterprises. The conservancy members could also hunt for the pot and own use.

This was after game counts were conducted and quotas were worked out.

The good rains of 1995 turned into a wet cycle that lasted until 2011. It was a time of bounty. Plains game proliferated and black rhino numbers increased. More newborn elephant calves were noted among the small desert-adapted herds. The desert lion made a remarkable comeback.

Soon the world took notice. Conservation awards started pouring in. Namibia was hailed as the world leader in community-based conservation.

There was enough for everybody. The money came trickling in. It was never a flood. But it was enough to whet the appetite for more.

The expectations became too big. Then the rot set in.

The first signs of the decimation of wildlife came with the introduction of the shoot and sell policy. In this policy, outside contractors get permission to shoot plains game on a large scale to supply their butcheries elsewhere. This seemed to be a profitable venture for the conservancies.

I saw freezer trucks parked on the plains while gemsbok, springbok and zebra were being slaughtered and loaded. On my second encounter with these shooting teams, the back registration plates of the freezer trucks were covered with duct tape.

The road between Sesfontein and Purros used to abound with gemsbok and springbok. After shoot and sell was introduced, wildlife visibly diminished.

Another alarming occurrence was the high mortality rate of elephants in the Purros conservancy. A recent study argues that the Hoarusib - Hoanib river elephant population has declined by 30% in the last 10 years. The total resident elephant population at Purros at present numbers six individuals.

Purros has always served as a model of people and elephant co-existing and benefiting each other through tourism. That does not seem to be the case any more.

Black rhino poaching in the communal areas started in December 2012. The last isolated incident before that was two decades ago. Evidence points towards organised crime and intimidation. There is a cloak of silence over events. It seems as if conservancy or community members are harbouring criminals.

Critically endangered species that stand as symbols of successful community-based conservation are being slaughtered. Why now? Why after all these successes?

It seems that even for conservationists, wildlife and wilderness have no place if they cannot be of financial value to people. Never was this doctrine more evident than in community-based conservation in Namibia. It is all about money.

Everything must have a price tag

Our relentless quest for financial benefit bred one thing: GREED.

Unscrupulous foreign investors, with a lot of financial backing, have come with a new incentive: wildlife products. Rhino horn, ivory, pangolin, lion bones, meat, hides, organs. Everything now has a higher price. It is “good business”.
Will we stand up to this new threat? Will good people be bought and corrupted?

Our clinical and non-emotional approach towards wildlife and wilderness will not be enough to stem the new wave of exploitation. We must look into our hearts again. We must remember that we are part of nature. Not owners and manipulators. This earth will not tolerate our greed forever.

* Chris Bakkes has been involved in conservation and ecotourism, mostly in Namibia's north-western areas, for more than two decades. He is an acclaimed author of eight books published in Afrikaans, with a selection of his work translated into English and published under the title 'Bushveld, Desert, and Dogs: a Game Ranger's Life' (Human & Rousseau) in 2012.

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