Namibia Elephant Hunting, An Alternative View

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    Namibia Elephant Hunting, An Alternative View
    by Garth Owen-Smith

    OVER the past few weeks I have watched in amazement the escalating media frenzy, sensational headlines and misinformation over the Ministry of Environment and Tourism's issuing of trophy-hunting permits for six elephants to conservancies in Namibia's northwest.

    Having worked as an agricultural official in the then Kaokoveld (1968-70), I was in charge of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's field operations in Kaokoland and Damaraland (1982-1990), and since then been co-director with Dr Margaret Jacobsohn of the Namibian NGO Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation, which works with 25 conservancies in the Kunene Region, I would like to give my perspective on the issue.

    Let me start with the situation in the late sixties.

    At the time I estimated the number of elephants in the Kaokoveld (north of Sesfontein) to be between 600 and 800, of which about 200 were permanently, or semi-permanently resident west of the escarpment, in the pre-Namib but which also moved down the larger riverbeds into the true Namib Desert.

    The only other elephants inhabiting such an arid habitat were in the Gourme Reserve, on the border between Chad and Mali.

    FIGHTBACK When I returned to the region in 1982 the situation was very different.

    On the highlands of Kaokoland commercial poaching had wiped out all but about 50 elephants along the border with Owambo and the Etosha National Park.

    An accurate figure was impossible to get because most of this area was then a war zone.

    Based on Dr PJ Viljoen's research (1975 to 1983) and an aerial census in 1982, west of the escarpment only six elephants survived on the lower Kunene River and 30 along the lower Hoanib River.

    The situation in Damaraland was a little better, with 185 elephants in the Ombonde, Uniab and Huab river catchments, of which between 30 and 40 were in the pre-Namib along the Uniab and its tributaries.

    There were then no elephants in the lower Huab or in the Uchab catchment.

    However, as over 80 elephant carcasses were also counted, it was clear that large-scale ivory poaching was now taking place here.

    Over the next two years nature conservation officials under Chris Eyre, assisted by the EWT staff and community-appointed game guards, achieved numerous convictions for illegal hunting and stopped the poaching of elephants.

    Sporadic cases of rhino poaching still occurred until 1994, but in only one case was a local community member responsible.

    As between 600 and 1 000 elephants were killed or sought refuge in Etosha during the previous decade, without a single prosecution, this was a remarkable achievement, due primarily to the local people in the region now actively supporting conservation.

    Since then elephant numbers have rapidly increased on the highlands, probably supplemented by some returnees from Etosha to the highlands because illegal hunting was no longer occurring in this prime elephant habitat.

    In 1992 an aerial census counted 366 elephants in the region, but some herds were known to have been missed and the actual figure was taken to be about 400 - up from a total of 270 ten years earlier.

    Although there have been no recent accurate counts, over the past 16 years we know that elephant numbers north of the veterinary cordon fence have increased substantially and they have now re-colonised much of the range they inhabited before 1970.

    This would have been an unmitigated success if Kunene Region was a game reserve.

    But it is communal land where the local people are trying to make a living from livestock and rain-dependent agriculture.

    The elephants raid their crops, damage water installations and come into villages to drink large amounts of water that is pumped by the farmers at their own expense.

    They also pose a hazard, particularly to women and children, that very few people anywhere in the world would be prepared to live with.

    TUSKER RENT In spite of this most of the communities in the Kunene Region have shown they are prepared to live with elephants and have formed, or are in the process of forming conservancies, so that they can get the rights to manage and benefit from the wildlife on their land.

    It is also important that we clarify the term 'desert elephants'.

    Source: The Namibian

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