A great deal has been written about conservation in Africa, much of it over-simplistic and intentionally emotive. As an informed visitor you are in the unique position of being able to see some of the issues at first hand, and to appreciate the perspectives of local people. So abandon your preconceptions, and start by appreciating the complexities of the issues involved. Here I shall try to develop a few ideas, touched on only briefly elsewhere in the book, which are common to most current thinking on conservation.
must be taken within its widest sense if it is to have meaning. Saving animals is of minimal use if the whole environment is degraded, so we must consider conserving whole areas and ecosystems, not just the odd isolated species.
Observe that land is regarded as an asset by most societies, in Africa as it is elsewhere. (The Bushmen used to be perhaps a notable exception to this.) To 'save' the land for the animals and to use it merely for the recreation of a few privileged foreign tourists – whilst the local people remain in poverty – is a recipe for huge social problems. Local people have hunted game for food for centuries. They have always killed those animals that threatened them or ruined their crops. If we now try to proclaim animals in a populated area as protected, without addressing the concerns of the people, then our efforts will fail.
The only pragmatic way to conserve Namibia's wild areas is to see the conservation
of animals and the environment as inseparably linked to the development
of the local people.
In the long term one will not work without the other. Conservation without development leads to resentful local people who will happily, and frequently, shoot, trap and kill animals. Development without conservation will simply repeat the mistakes that most developed countries have already made: it will lay waste a beautiful land, and kill off its natural heritage. Look at the tiny areas of natural vegetation which survive undisturbed in the UK, the USA, or Japan, to see how unsuccessful they have been at long-term conservation over the last 500 years.
As an aside, the local people in Namibia – and other developing countries – are sometimes wrongly accused of being the only agents of degradation. Observe the volume of tropical hardwoods imported by the industrialised countries to see that the West plays no small part in this.
In conserving some of Namibia's natural areas, and helping its people to develop, the international community has a vital role to play. It could use its aid projects to encourage the Namibian government to practise sustainable long-term strategies, rather than grasping for the short-term fixes which politicians seem universally to prefer. But such strategies must have the backing of the people themselves, or they will fall apart when foreign funding eventually wanes.
Most Namibians are more concerned about where they live, what they can eat, and how they will survive, than they are about the lives of small, obscure species of antelope that taste good when roasted. To get backing from the local communities, it is not enough for a conservation strategy to be compatible with development: it must actually promote it and help the local people to improve their own standard of living. If that situation can be reached, then rural populations can be mobilised behind long-term conservation initiatives.
Governments are the same. As one of Zambia's famous conservationists once commented, 'governments won't conserve an impala just because it is pretty'. But they will work to save it if
they can see that it is worth more to them alive than dead.
The best strategies tried so far on the continent attempt to find lucrative and sustainable ways to use the land. They then plough much of the revenue back into the surrounding local communities. Once the people see revenue from conservation being used to help them improve their lives – to build houses, clinics and schools, and to offer paid employment – then such schemes stand a chance of getting their backing and support. It can take a while...
Carefully planned, sustainable tourism is one solution that can work effectively. For success, the local people must see that visitors pay because they want the wildlife. Thus, they reason that the existence of wildlife directly improves their income, and they will strive to conserve it.
It isn't enough for them to see that the wildlife helps the government to get richer; that won't dissuade a local hunter from shooting a duiker for dinner. However, if he benefits directly from the visitors, who come to see the animals... then he has a vested interest in saving that duiker.
It matters little to the Namibian people, or ultimately to the wildlife, whether these visitors come to shoot the wildlife with a camera or with a gun – as long as any hunting is done on a sustainable basis, so that is only a few of the oldest 'trophy' animals are shot each year, and the size of the animal population remains largely unaffected. Photographers may claim the moral high ground, but should remember that hunters pay far more for their privileges. Hunting operations generate large revenues from few guests, who demand minimal infrastructure and so cause little impact on the land. Photographic operations need more visitors to generate the same revenue, and so may have greater negative effects on the country.
National parks and private reserves
In practice, there is room for both types of visitors in Namibia: the photographer and the hunter. The national parks are designated for photographic visitors, where no hunting is allowed.
Many private ranches now have game on their land and style themselves as 'hunting farms'. They are used mainly by overseas hunters (primarily from Germany and the USA) who pay handsomely for the privilege. The livelihood of these farms depends on hunting, and so it must be practised sustainably.
There are very few countries in Africa where land is being returned to a more natural state, with fewer livestock and more indigenous game, so Namibia is a great success story.