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After reading the report about the hunting of Namibia’s unique population of elephants that spend most, but not all, of their lives in a true desert, I immediately requested further information and I had a chance to discuss the situation with the Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism’s (MET) director of parks and wildlife, Colgar Sikopo.

© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art
© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art

Before going any further I would urge you to read an article published in The Namibian on Thursday, June 5 by Helge Denker titled If We Ban All Hunting. This article explains in a way I fully agree with, why hunting is essential to Namibia’s conservation success story. Some people may not like trophy hunters and hunting any more than I like men who own a Ferrari for their egos, or women who own 30 pairs of shoes and 50 dresses they only wear once – but at least in Namibia hunters put their money directly into the hands of the people who are conserving elephants, and who bear the costs of living with them.

Helge makes the case for the sustainable use of wildlife very succinctly, so let me get on to the issue of hunting elephants in Namibia’s Kunene Region.

Elephants can live in a wide range of habitats, including deserts, but they could not do so if it were not for the large seasonal rivers that traverse the northern Namib. They also have a large home range and are opportunistic, moving upriver into higher rainfall areas during the wet season. In fact, it is not so much the hyper-arid environment they utilise in the dry season, but the spectacular scenery here – deep gorges and sand dunes – that makes them into such a major tourist attraction. This said, this population of between 120 and 150 elephants that live most of their lives in the northern Namib are of enormous value to the country and the world.

© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art
© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art

But they are not the only elephants that inhabit the Kunene Region. Another 400-600 live in the higher rainfall parts of the communal area, where they share the land with the local human population. Thanks to the Namibian government’s communal conservancy program, which devolved the rights to benefit from wildlife and the responsibility to manage it sustainably to local communities, the Damara, Herero and Himba pastoralists and small scale crop growing residents have embraced the consumptive and non-consumptive utilisation of wildlife as a complimentary economic activity. This has resulted in a major increase in all wildlife species – including elephants.

But it is not easy for subsistence farmers to live with elephants. They damage water-points, raid crops and come into villages to get water, thereby posing a threat to families and especially their children that no westerners would be prepared to accept. In this regard three local people and a trophy hunter were killed by elephants in Kunene Region in 2013 and one local person has already been killed there in this year. For all these reasons the MET is under great pressure to find ways in which communities can get direct benefits from the elephants they live with.

© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art
© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art

Conservancies that have joint-venture lodges do get a good income from non-hunting tourism, but many that experience elephant problems get little or no benefits from them.

Unlike the anti-hunting lobby, which can express its emotions but has no responsibility for what happens on the ground, the MET has the very difficult task of balancing the interests of wildlife conservation and the needs of the local people, many of whom see living with elephants as a cost with no benefits. For this reason all the trophy elephants have been given to conservancies in the higher rainfall areas where the 400-600 Kunene elephants occur. Here a quota has been issued for one elephant in three years and in most cases the income is to be shared between neighbouring conservancies.

© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art
© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art

have no problem with this because the off-take is low enough to be sustainable, and the large number of people that live within these conservancies need to receive some direct benefits from the elephants to ensure their continued support for their conservation.

The controversy comes in with the six conservancies in southwest Kunene Region, Otjimboyo, Ohungu, Sorris Sorris and Tsiseb, that have between them been granted a quota for one non-trophy elephant in three years, and Torra and Doro !nawas that have between them also been granted a quota for one non-trophy elephant in three years. This gives a total of two non-trophy elephants that will be hunted here in three years.

Both Otjimboyo and Ohungu experience considerable problems from elephants and at present receive no income from non-hunting tourism. They are also situated east of the Khorixas-Uis main road and not within the true desert zone. Therefore, if the non-trophy elephant allocated to them, Sorris Sorris and Tsiseb is hunted in Otjimboyo or Ohungu in the dry season, it should not impact on the population that inhabits the lower Ugab River at this time of the year.

© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art
© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art

The present chairman of Torra, Bennie Roman, has stated that they have no wish to hunt an elephant in their conservancy, and are merely acting as a partner with a neighbouring conservancy that experiences major elephant problems and receives less income from non-hunting tourism. The partner chosen by the MET, Doro !nawas, has a large part of the conservancy within the desert zone, but also a smaller part further east with a high density of people who have regularly complained about elephant problems. To add to the complex situation here, Doro !nawas has a very poor conservancy management record that includes accusations of corruption.

In regard to the advert that appeared on social media sites for hunting non-trophy “desert elephants” in 2014 and 2015, we have been unable to find out which professional hunting outfitter placed it. As any genuine company would have put their name on the advert, and as no non-trophy hunting quotas have been issued for two consecutive years, this opens the possibility of it being a bogus advert, put on to the social media by anti-hunting activists to stir up the controversy. The fact that it includes a provocative photo of a dead elephant with a hunter standing next to it lends weight to this suspicion.

Having here stated the facts as best I could establish them, and recognising that my knowledge of the elephant population south of the Huab River is limited, I still had some concerns, which were expressed to the MET director of parks and wildlife.

1. When the hunting of the two non-trophy elephants takes place in the southwest conservancies, how will they ensure that they are not shot in the very high profile non-hunting tourism areas along the lower Ugab and Huab rivers?

2. Even though the tusks are not exportable, how will an unscrupulous professional hunter, under pressure from his high paying clients, be prevented from allowing him/her to shoot one of the few remaining mature bulls in the south west of Kunene Region? These concerns applied mainly to Doro !nawas, which has a very far from good record of sustainably managing its wildlife. For this reason alone it is questionable whether it should have received any quota at all.

In conclusion, my concerns involve only the two non-trophy elephants that will be hunted in three years, and as I believe the MET officials and NGO support staff involved are committed to ensuring that the conditions of the quota are adhered to, the misinformation and media controversy they generated is not justified.

© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art
© Anja Denker Wildlife Photography & Visual Art

In regard to the trophy elephant quotas granted to conservancies outside of the desert zone, the general public needs to be reminded that they are not being hunted in a national park, and that the local communities who have made Namibia’s conservancy program so successful have a legal and moral right to get some financial benefits to compensate them for the losses they experience.

Africa Geographic Travel
Garth Owen-Smith

Garth Owen-Smith is a Namibian conservationist. He was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1993, jointly with Margaret Jacobsohn, for their efforts on conservation of wildlife in Namibia, where illegal hunting was threatening species such as elephants and black rhinos. His book "Arid Eden" is a must-read for serious conservation-minded people.