Sharing Space

Communities lead the way to a new era of landscape-scale conservation

COMMON GROUND | An elephant traverses the Aba Huab River floodplain. In northwest Namibia, especially during a drought, water and foliage are scarce and must be shared by both people and wildlife.

The sounds of squabbling baboons and squawking guinea fowl greet Tjavarekua Tjijahura as she rises to prepare breakfast and break camp. She is wearing the traditional clothes of Ovaherero women—petticoats, a voluminous dress with vibrant patterns, and a hornlike headscarf that pays homage to part of her identity: The Ovaherero people are historically cattle breeders, and raising livestock is a common way of life.

A woman in colorful traditional clothing

Like many Namibians, Tjavarekua Tjijahura takes an active role in advocating for inclusive conservation initiatives around her home.

While the campsite is far from Tjijahura’s village, she says she feels an affinity for this vast landscape. Like many Namibians, she grew up surrounded by wild places and wild animals.

“Although we have cattle, we have always lived as conservationists,” Tjijahura says.

Nature, it’s clear, is home.

This is not the first time that Tjijahura has traveled through this landscape, which local communities are working to include in the land they have set aside for wildlife as part of a larger vision for conservation and community development. A few years ago, a trip here inspired her and a handful of others to organize themselves into an action group, Women for Conservation, to participate in this historic venture. Now she’s returning to discuss this bold vision with them at the Ehi-Rovipuka Conservancy office.

The big idea? Establish support for a wildlife corridor between the Skeleton Coast, where the Namib Desert meets the Atlantic, and the vast Etosha National Park some 100 miles inland. The vision is to provide for the free movement of wildlife, shore up the viability of a cherished way of life, and create new opportunities for communities—women included—to benefit financially from the land they have chosen to protect. “The landscape already exists,” says Tjijahura. “The corridor from Etosha to the coast has always been there.”

MEET IN THE MIDDLE  |  Gustaf Tjiundukamba (left), chair of the Omatendeka Conservancy, walks with Siegfried Muzuma, chair of the Ehi–Rovipuka Conservancy, as they recall how the vision for a new kind of community-led conservation landscape in Namibia came to be.

The Ovaherero experience of human-wildlife coexistence is far from unique in Namibia. When the country gained independence from South Africa in 1990, protection of the environment was enshrined in the constitution—and included the sustainable use of Namibia’s natural resources for the benefit of all Namibians. In 1996 the Nature Conservation Amendment Act put the rights to, and responsibilities for, conserving wildlife in the hands of the communities living with it. The ground-breaking law emphasized local control and encouraged communities to organize themselves as conservancies to manage and benefit from wildlife on their communal lands.

In the decades that followed, the conservancy model flourished and conservancies multiplied. Today there are 86 conservancies covering nearly 65,000 square miles, or 20% of Namibia—the highest percentage of community management in a single nation worldwide. The country’s wildlife populations, from critically endangered black rhinos to desert-adapted lions, have contributed to a tourism economy that employs thousands and generates more than 14% of Namibia’s GDP. WWF has supported the conservancy program for more than 25 years.

Today, 86 conservancies cover nearly 65,000 square miles, or 20% of Namibia.

At the confluence of two dry riverbeds, two conservancy leaders meet to talk about community collaboration. Siegfried Muzuma is the chair of the Ehi-Rovipuka Conservancy, whose communal lands form the western border of Etosha National Park. Gustav Tjiundukamba is chair of the Omatendeka Conservancy, whose lands are one step closer to the Skeleton Coast.

“We formed our conservancies at the same time,” says Tjiundukamba, “and we have the same goals.” He is nodding as he speaks, and Muzuma jumps in to add, “Joint management means stronger conservation outcomes.”

“These communities have taken the important next step of comanaging their core wildlife areas and becoming partners in the effort to include these areas in the expansive conservation landscape that links the Skeleton Coast to Etosha,” says Juliane Zeidler, country director for WWF-Namibia.

The region hosts much of the country’s desert-adapted elephant population and the only increasing giraffe population outside a protected area in Africa, not to mention a growing black rhino population.

Recognizing the opportunity to team up for greater landscape connectivity, the men met with members of their respective communities, heard voices of support and dissent, and joined with the majority in advocating for consolidation of their core wildlife areas to form the proposed Ombonde People’s Park.

ARID AND ABUNDANT  |  A lioness pads through a recently refreshed riverbed in the Puros Conservancy.

Working alongside the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism, and with the support of WWF and a host of other organizations, the conservancies hope to secure the legal status of Ombonde and, in doing so, establish their right to control access to defined wildlife areas. At present, unguided cross-country tourists drive through for free. Establishing tourism zones to which the conservancies have sole management rights, says Muzuma, would bring in much-needed jobs and development and “change the living standard of the people on the ground.” In addition, under the future park’s management plan, community members would continue to be able to use the area for emergency livestock grazing in the event of drought—a constant threat in this arid landscape.

Chief Kenamurire Kasaona, a traditional leader, conservancy member, and liaison for Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC)—an NGO that has played a leading role in establishing and supporting conservancies—says he is proud of how Namibia is righting historical wrongs. In giving conservancies responsibility for managing wildlife, Namibia began to restore precolonial practices.

Under colonization, he says, game animals were officially owned by the state. Conservation efforts ignored local knowledge and excluded rural people from decision-making. This deprived the people who lived with wild animals and competed with them for water and grazing lands of the benefits of tourism, hunting, and resource use. Allowing conservancies to control access to their core wildlife zones would further empower communities and expand the conservancy model’s gains.

“The vision for this conservation area has been to ensure animals can move freely and that people can benefit from this for generations to come,” says John Kasaona, executive director of IRDNC (and a relative of the chief). His father was one of the first game guards recruited when the conservancy program was in its infancy—a poacher turned protector. “My dad, and the men he worked with, would be so happy to see what’s happened in Namibia,” he says. “They went through many hurdles for the conservancy model to get where it is now. I’m sure they are smiling, wherever they are.”

Giraffes stand tall near a tourist lodge in the Palmwag Concession.

An elephant grazes on the greenery sustained by the seasonal Aba Huab River.

In an area known as Little Serengeti for its sprawling grasslands, craggy buttes, and deep, windswept canyons, oryx and springboks dot the wild landscape and giraffes use their long purple tongues to pluck at camel thorn leaves. “Wild animals can be hard to live with,” says Chief Kasaona. “Still, people want them here. They want measures in place to prevent [human-wildlife] conflict. But they don’t want the animals to be taken away.”

Lions pose a particular challenge. Following the advent of Namibia’s conservancy system, the lion population increased nearly fourfold (after nosediving for much of the 20th century). Although their population numbers fluctuate, the big cats’ range has expanded. A recent prolonged drought has thrust wildlife and livestock into ever-closer proximity, and close quarters can spark conflict: Lions, hyenas, and other predators have been responsible for thousands of livestock attacks. Retaliatory killings are the number one cause of mortality for juvenile and adult lions in northwest Namibia.

In a village near the proposed Ombonde park, Himba herder Tjimbali Kamendu lives a simple life in a mud-daubed hut not far from the folds and whorls of one of the ephemeral rivers that offer vegetated pathways through the landscape. Kamendu spends his days watching over his goats in the veld or taking them to the water to drink. Goats are core to people’s livelihoods here; Kamendu says he knows immediately if one is missing.

This is where the Lion Rangers, conservancy-employed game guards, come in. Working with researchers and the government, rangers proactively manage conflict by fitting lions with collars that communicate with receptors in villages. This early-warning system alerts villagers when lions are nearby and allows them to track how close the lions are and in which direction they’re moving; in addition, solar-powered lights and sirens keep lions away from livestock kraals.

“The farmers are feeling very good about this system in terms of preventing livestock losses by knowing when there is a collared lion around,” says ranger Jendery Tsaneb. He says farmers have become critical partners who help them do their job by sharing information. “If they see a lion which is not collared, they tell us,” he says.

In her role as a rhino ranger, Erlyn Touros of the Uibasen Twyfelfontein Conservancy scans the landscape for rhinos.

Hofney Gaseb, a Save the Rhino Trust ranger, watches a black rhino in the distance. Community engagement and pride are at the core of efforts to protect Namibia’s rhinos.

Deep within Torra Conservancy territory, a black rhino peers from amid sheltering scrub.

Perhaps the best example of Namibians’ willingness to protect their wildlife? The black rhino. Today, Africa’s largest free-roaming population moves throughout northwestern Namibia’s Kunene Region, where the rhinos are found not only in traditional protected areas like Etosha National Park (the rhinos’ heartland) but also on community lands, under the watch of conservancies. “It’s the only place in the world where you get free-roaming black rhinos living amongst communities,” says Simson Uri-Khob, CEO of Save the Rhino Trust.

“As Namibians, we have done things that no one in this world has done before. We have secured wildlife species that went extinct in other countries. They live outside protected areas and are free roaming in their natural habitats. It’s a victory for us to see conservancies putting more land aside for conservation. These are all ordinary people, cattle herders who have walked the talk of community-based natural resource management and want to take the next step.”

John Kasaona
Executive Director Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation

The trust is one of the oldest black rhino conservation groups and the only one with an agreement with the government to monitor the population and conduct research on black rhinos in the remote Kunene Region. The group pioneered the strategy of putting the well-being of black rhinos in the hands of communities that live with them, and it’s paid off. In the area where the trust operates, black rhino numbers have increased threefold over three decades. The rhino’s range has also expanded, and people will pay to see them. “Now that [people] get benefits directly from the rhinos, they are proud to have them here and to protect them,” says Uri-Khob.

For some, protecting rhinos has become central to both life and livelihood. The men and women employed as rangers in the region are masters at tracking the animals in their arid, hardscrabble home. It’s boot-stripping, tire-tearing terrain, but rangers move across the landscape with apparent ease, fluent in the language of the rhino—an overturned rock here, some rhino- or oryx-browsed euphorbia there.

Sebulon Hoëb began working for Save the Rhino Trust 33 years ago, and his son, Hofney Gaseb, has followed his lead. “I could track a rhino before I could read,” says Gaseb, recalling his days as a young child in the field with his father and brother. While on patrol for up to 21 days at a time, rangers photograph each rhino they see, feeding a database that informs management decisions. Committed rangers are recognized at annual award ceremonies, can earn performance-related cash bonuses, and vie for the coveted title of “Rhino Hero,” which comes with a bomber jacket for colder months.

In fact, there’s a whole culture developing around black rhino conservation through initiatives like an annual rhino pride march, a rhino conservation-branded soccer league, and early literacy projects that elevate the animals in the eyes of rural Namibians.

“We feel like the rhinos are our children,” says Hoëb, proud of how his work has supported his family and community and cemented deep ties to the wild land he loves. Equally important? Rhinos draw tourists; their presence creates jobs and generates income. Hoëb’s other son, Rodney, is a rhino guide.

“If you don’t have communities on your side in conservation, there is no hope for you,” says Save the Rhino Trust’s Uri-Khob. “We know the people we employ, and the traditional authorities know them. The communities know them. It’s kids growing up in the communities who keep these rhinos alive.”

Just two years ago, he says, a poaching syndicate from up north came into one of the patrolled areas.

“Before they came in, the communities already knew about them,” says Uri-Khob. “The poachers were arrested before they could do any harm.”

Moving Forward

WWF and our partners are pursuing two initiatives united by a shared vision for a sustainable future

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Poaching is just one of the challenges conservancies face. In the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic showed that relying on tourism alone to fund conservancies leaves them vulnerable to disruptive events that impact global travel. At the same time, the prolonged drought has increased conflict over grazing lands and water and wiped out large numbers of livestock and wildlife, including rhino calves.

Satisfaction with conservancies varies from area to area, depending on the level of local engagement, how much revenue is generated, and how it’s shared. Conservancies with more wildlife or the most spectacular scenery may find it easier to make money from tourism, for example. Even with this new vision for the Skeleton Coast-to-Etosha land bridge, and the gains the Ombonde People’s Park could provide, not everyone benefits equally, and some feel they don’t benefit at all. Yet more than three decades of community-based natural resource management have proven the value of working through such challenges together.

“Now we have a whole landscape of conservancies with the same ambition coming together in this area,” says Maxi Louis, director of the Namibian Association of Community-Based Natural Resource Management Support Organizations. “And when conservancies come together institutionally,” she adds, “you are addressing many issues at scale”—including wildlife management, human-wildlife conflict, governance, poaching, and gender equity.

Members of the Women for Conservation action group assemble to discuss their priorities, which include making sure women’s voices are represented as conservation decisions are made.

At the Ehi-Rovipuka Conservancy office, Tjavarekua Tjijahura and 16 Women for Conservation members gather to discuss the proposed park.

It has been four years since she was first inspired by the landscape and its tourism potential, and it’s clear that she relishes her role not only as chair of the group but also as an advocate for her culture and women’s inclusion.

“The [vision for this initiative] provoked me to stand up and tell the women that we can play a bigger role. Although women have been left behind, once they take something up, they take it up with both hands,” she says.

“We are the caregivers who make sure the children are fed and go to school,” adds conservancy member Linda Kavetu. “Why shouldn’t we contribute more to conservation and tourism? It will create jobs for our children.”

Another member, Tuaendasanavi Ruhamba, nods in agreement as she cradles a child in her lap. The baby was born when the discussion around creating this large, linked landscape was at its height. Taking the chubby six-month-old into her arms, Tjijahura smiles and gives him a little jiggle.

“This little one is called Uekerondavi,” she says. “His name means ‘landscape.’”

MOVEMENT MATTERS  |  Herders tend to their goats on Anabeb Conservancy land. Freedom to follow grazing opportunities is vital for both rural communities and wildlife.

WWF is grateful for generous support from the Bezos Earth Fund, USAID, and many others whose commitment to community-centered conservation in Namibia is helping to ensure a sustainable future for its people and protect the country’s wildlife and natural resources for generations to come.



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