Hunting is Central to Wildlife Conservation

By W. David Montgomery

Photo by Author
Black rhino by the Etosha Pan

Reports that an American hunter paid $400,000 for a permit to hunt a black rhino in Namibia sent social media and anti-hunting activists screeching with outrage.  Yet he was doing exactly the right thing for preservation of endangered species.  Revenue from trophy-hunting is indispensable to wildlife conservation in Southern Africa.  Sentimental and ill-informed efforts to ban imports of legally-obtained lion, rhino and elephant trophies undercut successful programs in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana that provide incentives for local communities to protect wildlife resources. 

Namibia’s market-based wildlife conservation program is recognized as Africa’s greatest conservation success.  During a recent visit, my wife and I visited these community-based wildlife conservancies and talked to leaders of anti-poaching efforts.  The Namibian program was started shortly after the country became independent from South Africa in 1994.  The initial impetus for Namibia’s program came even before independence, when Garth Owen-Smith started working with tribal chiefs and local communities to find ways to make wildlife conservation in the practical interest of those communities.

The solution worked out in Namibia started with devolution of property rights in wildlife and other resources from the central government to the communities where they were located.  Then a governance structure for the conservancies that would be vested with those rights was developed.  The conservancies were run by members of the community, and they were aided in monetizing the value of their resources through tourism, hunting and other concessions.

For example, we stayed in several lodges now owned by the conservancies themselves.  When a conservancy was established, it gained the right to grant concessions to outside investors to build and manage lodges, which then provided employment for members of the community and shares of profits.  One of the older conservancies used the payments to buy out the original concessionaire, so that the lodge and all its revenue are now going to the conservancy. 

Each conservancy was empowered to create its own plan for how its resources would be used for hunting, photo tourism, and other economic purposes.  Fees paid by tour operators and most importantly, a large share of payments for hunting licenses, were shared with the conservancies.

As an arid country with marginal grazing land, the most serious threats to wildlife in Namibia now come from human-wildlife conflict and poaching.  Elephants can cause disastrous damage to settlements and crops, and periodic droughts can drive lions to attack domestic cattle and even humans.  Converting wildlife habitat to grazing and cropland increases the conflicts and threatens survival of wildlife at the same time.  

A desert-adapted elephant

Revenues obtained from hunting permits and lodges and local income generated by employment in tourism are sufficiently large that they overcome the communities’ natural inclination to get rid of wildlife that is destroying their livelihood.  In addition, the fact that income potential depends directly on the prevalence of charismatic species has made communities strong allies in anti-poaching efforts.

Other countries that apply these market-based principles, in particular neighboring countries of Botswana and Zimbabwe, have had similar success to the extent that their programs effectively channeled funds back to the local communities.

To give an idea of both the scale and the impact of these programs and the critical role of revenues from the very expensive permits to hunt lion, rhino and elephants, a few numbers are helpful.

In the 20 years after introduction of the conservancies, Namibia’s elephant population more than doubled. The population of desert-adapted elephant in the Kunene region grew from around 150 to about 750 between 1982 and 2012.  Namibia’s population of free-roaming desert lions increased five-fold in less than two decades.  Black rhino were almost gone by 1995, and now there are about 2000 of them.  There have only been two confirmed rhino poaching incidents in Namibia in the last two years, thanks to the co-operation of the local people and a continued respect for wildlife.

We can also attest to the government’s report that in the regions we visited the population of Hartmann’s mountain zebra grew from around 1,000 in 1982 to around 27,000 today and springbok numbers rose from less than 1,000 in 1982, to over 25,000 in 1999.

Springbok at a water source in northwestern Namibia

Hunting has made a critical contribution to this success.  Between 2012-2018, Namibia spent over US$7.5 million from wildlife revenues on conservation projects; 61% of this expenditure was dedicated to anti-poaching and rhino population management. US$2.3 million of this budget provided direct support for anti-poaching teams.

The same story is told in Zimbabwe, where its comparable program is known as CAMPFIRE (Community Areas Management Program For Indigenous Resources).  Hunting generates 90% of CAMPFIRE income, with elephant hunting contributing 70% of annual income. American hunters make up 60% of the clients in CAMPFIRE areas.  CAMPFIRE is reported to have 2.4 million beneficiaries, made up of 200,000 households that are directly involved in the program and 600,000 households that benefit indirectly from social services and infrastructure supported by wildlife related income.

According to the Zimbabwe government, “sharing of hunting income creates a real incentive to protect elephant and other game species, even when these species negatively impact people living in CAMPFIRE areas… the poaching of elephant in CAMPFIRE areas is relatively low, with only 38 elephants poached since 2016 to the present. Effective local level anti-poaching operations through CAMPFIRE have resulted in the decline in elephant poaching in Mbire district from a peak of 40 cases in 2010 to only 5 so far in 2017.”

Bans on trophy imports into the U.S. directly harm conservation efforts in both countries and lead to more animals dying at the hands of poachers.

Zimbabwe pointed out that “…suspension of elephant trophy imports in 2014 resulted in the cancellation of 108 out of 189 elephant hunts booked by US citizens. This translated to a sharp decline in income to the CAMPFIRE program from US$2.2m in 2013 to an average US$1.7m in 2014 through to 2016, putting the conservation of elephant in these areas at huge risk.”

Namibia is allowed under international convention to permit five male rhinos a year to be hunted, but only recently have imports of black rhino trophies been allowed into the U.S.  Namibia strongly defended the new U.S. policy: “despite the furor in social media and newspapers when an American hunter paid $400,000 to hunt a black rhino, … black rhinos … cannot be effectively protected from poachers without substantial funds. The US$400,000 paid …for the recent black rhino hunt provided a welcome boost to Namibian conservation.”   Moreover, the 29-year-old rhino for which the permit was issued was itself “interfering with breeding by younger bulls and harming population growth.”

Botswana learned about the value of hunting for conservation when it imposed a 5-year ban on hunting on government land.  In its announcement that hunting would resume, the Botswana government stated:

“Prior to the hunting suspension, communities felt they were part of the effort to manage and maintain wildlife. However, the decision to suspend hunting was made without the participation or input of the people living with wildlife.

“Without the benefits of income from hunting, jobs in the hunting industry and meat derived from hunting, communities lost their commitment to wildlife. They now view wildlife as the property and responsibility of the government.

“With the increased destruction of agriculture, lost grazing areas for cattle and the sharp rise in human deaths from wildlife encounters, communities no longer participate in protecting that wildlife. Poaching activities are on the rise, and communities that previously reported these activities no longer share information that would prevent poaching or help capture poachers.”

The facts are clear that trophy-hunting makes a significant contribution to wildlife conservation in Africa, and that far more animals are saved by the revenues African countries gain from hunting than are shot by hunters.   Efforts to prevent hunters from importing trophies into the U.S. directly hurt the livelihoods of communities that now derive substantial benefits from hunting on their lands.  The only prudent and moral judgment is to leave those countries free to manage their own wildlife resources, just as we expect to be left alone here.

David Montgomery is Managing Editor of the Chesapeake Observer. In addition to being an economist with a deep interest in effective ways to raise the incomes of poor countries around the world, he is an enthusiastic hunter and hopes some day to take his favorite rifle to Africa. He and his wife Esther returned from a trip to Namibia with their cameras at the end of September.

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