Whilst driving through Sorris-Sorris Conservancy on the main road, I had the privilege of seeing an elephant drinking at a water reservoir near the road. The reservoir was in the farming area of the conservancy with a settlement just across the road. At the same time that the elephant was drinking, a herd of cattle was at the nearby trough and a herd of goats came in for a drink.
As I was watching this scene, it struck me how it exemplifies the story of elephants and tourism in this region. These tourists experienced a sighting of a completely free-ranging elephant, without any restrictive rules common in national parks. The elephant we were watching was drinking water that was pumped by the local people, and posed a disturbance if not a slight threat to the goats coming in to drink (I have heard a reliable account of an elephant stepping on a goat’s head in another conservancy).
We were witnessing the costs that these people face when they live with elephants, yet this sighting (and countless similar ones in Sorris-Sorris) provided no benefits to the people living nearby. This might not seem like a real concern to many armchair conservationists, but it means elephants are not respected by many communities in Africa. Elephants are sometimes killed or injured in retaliation for causing damage, or as a preventative measure. It also ups the likelihood that locals will turn a blind eye to poaching for ivory, or take part themselves.
Granted, the use of several litres of water and the potential for harming livestock are may not appear to be very significant costs. However, I have visited an elderly man on his farm in Sorris-Sorris, and he told me his story about an elephant encounter.
Several years ago, he hitch-hiked into town and back to do his shopping. As a hitch-hiker has little choice about when they leave town, he came back late in the night and was dropped off some distance from his farm. He then asked someone from his family to pick him up with their donkey cart. By the time they got home, it was the middle of the night. When they pulled up to the gate of his yard, they brought the donkeys to a halt and the driver went to open the gate. The old man was still on the cart, but had stood up to get out when all hell broke loose. Unbeknown to them, an elephant was standing in their yard. Upon hearing the gate open, the elephant made a noise, and the donkeys realised that it was there. The donkeys then took off in fright – the old man’s leg got tangled in the donkey-cart’s chains, so he was dragged along the ground behind the fleeing donkeys. When the donkeys finally came to a stop, several kilometres from home, the man had suffered severe injuries. Now, several years after the incident, he showed me his scars from that day. He walks with a crutch, as one side of his body no longer functions properly due to the injuries he sustained.
This man has not received any form of compensation for his injuries, as compensation is only available for people who are killed by wildlife (and that only covers funeral costs). Perhaps the only benefit he has seen from elephants is a few kilograms of meat from a recent hunt. Yet the government had to pass through the fire of international protest in order to grant him even this small benefit. I encourage the people who howled the loudest about the injustice of hunting an elephant to come and talk to this old man at his home, face-to-face. It is a humbling experience.
I have read some articles by hunters who seem to think that hunting and conservation are synonymous. I don’t agree. I think that hunting is one way we can generate income for conservation, provided it is done correctly. In a similar way, many camera-toting tourists seem to think that photographic tourism and conservation are synonymous. Once more, I beg to differ. Photographic tourism has the potential to provide income for conservation, but it often does not live up to this expectation. Some lodge owners loathe paying their dues to conservancies, as they see it as a ‘waste of money’; they try every trick in the book to get out of paying, or to pay less than they should. All of this happens in the background, and the tourists who think they are ‘doing their bit’ for conservation remain none the wiser.
When working in areas where people and wildlife coexist, real conservation work is a day-to-day test of patience, resilience and diplomacy. In these areas a typical conservation support organisation helps conservancies to do everything from drafting a letter to providing advice on multi-million Namibian dollar contracts with tourism companies. This support also extends to ensuring that tourism companies abide by their agreements, thus weeding out the unethical ones. Working with the financial book-keepers from each conservancy is another vital, yet largely under-valued, form of support. By establishing robust financial management systems, corruption can be nipped in the bud. This behind-the-scenes work is vital to the operation of conservancies, yet it is not very glamorous, and local NGOs struggle to find sponsorship to provide this kind of support.
Community conservation is all about addressing the cost-benefit ratio for living with wildlife. If we can reduce the costs, then even small benefits can provide greater incentive for tolerating wildlife. However, increasing the benefits is just as important, as without any benefits even the smallest costs will not be tolerated.
The things I mention here are constant, long-term challenges. These challenges need to be overcome with carefully considered, long-term plans. This takes vision, communication and dedication on the part of all stakeholders involved. In this way, we can establish robust mechanisms that incentivise local people to stand up and defend their wildlife. Considering the increasing threat of poaching, this work is absolutely vital if we are to conserve Africa’s iconic wildlife.
In the face of these challenges, there is hope for a bright future for Sorris-Sorris Conservancy. One key part of that hope is the tourism companies who have recently signed deals to manage a lodge and a campsite located in the conservancy.
It is early days yet, but the two companies seem to be committed to paying their way. The future tourism-generated income for this cash-strapped conservancy will be a massive boost to them. They will finally be able to repair their conservancy vehicle, hire more community game guards, and go on anti-poaching patrols. Importantly, they will be able to provide tangible benefits to their members who suffer costs from living with wildlife.
If you are a tourist who really wants to make a contribution to conservation, then please consider this advice; Before embarking on your trip, try to find out which lodges or campsites really assist conservation. Many of the real conservation-supporting accommodation options are also the most wonderful places to stay. If you would like to support the kind of conservancy support work I mentioned here, a list of these supporting NGO’s can be found here. I recently saw a tagline of one conservation-supporting tour operator (Kunene Conservancy Safaris), which I think sums up my advice neatly – make your footprint count.