Namibia’s constitutional right of landowners to own local wildlife populations is the genesis of a controversial, and yet unproven experiment in Cheetah conservation.
These days, stories about cheetah conservation often have a tragic air. Starting from the population crash of cheetahs in the last century, the articles will go on and on about major concerns like habitat loss and conflicts with humans that cheetahs still face today, leaving many cheetah lovers anxious for the survival of the beautiful animals.
For anyone who’s been diligently following cheetah conservation stories, the predominant impression he/she gets is that cheetahs are endangered everywhere and need urgent protection.
This is probably true to a large extent. Along with many African wildlife, cheetahs generally aren’t doing well with the rapid expansion of human settlements in Africa. However, there is an exception; in one country, wildlife numbers are rising instead of falling. (1).
That country is Namibia.
Gaining its independence in 1990, this new country seems ambitious in preserving its wildlife. Namibia is one of the few countries in the world that includes the protection of environment in its constitution. But what sets its wildlife protection apart from other countries is that in Namibia, people have legal ownership over the wildlife on their land. (1)
This may not seem like a good idea at first. Most Namibians were farmers have livestock to look after, and human-wildlife conflicts were prevalent even prior to the government’s grant of wildlife ownership to its people.
However, the legislation allows rural farmers to form conservancies, which basically means that farmers living in the same community can set aside a part of their land for wildlife, and then make money from eco or hunting tourism. This gives the rural community a source of sustainable revenue and employment. Through the system, they are able to see wildlife, such as cheetahs, as valuable assets rather than pests that need to be removed. (2).
Now, Namibia has 64 conservancies and that number is likely to increase due to growing interests in other rural communities to join the tourism business. (2). For Khoadi-Hoas—one of the oldest conservancies in Namibia—visitors bring in about $172,000 per year, which is significant for the rural farmers who live on a few dollars per day (1).
Overall, the unique conservation strategy seems to work. Although there is currently no accurate data for the cheetah population in Namibia, there seems to be a scientific consensus that the cheetah population has been maintaining itself, if not increasing. According to an estimate by Cheetah Conservation found (CCF), the number of cheetah has increased from 2,000 to over 3,500 since the non-profit organization was founded 25 years ago.
Undeniably, there are other factors that contribute to the local abundance of cheetahs in Namibia: low human population density, the elimination of large predators like lions and spotted hyenas from the area, and various conservation efforts certainly contribute to the increasing cheetah population as well (4).
Nevertheless, the conservancies, now 17% of Namibia’s land, play a critical role in enabling local wildlife to flourish. In fact, some conservancies have worked so well that the Namibian government sometimes transfers animals from over-populated National Parks into conservancies. (1).
However, the success of these conservancies does not come without controversies. Like all businesses that profit, at least partly, from trophy hunting, conservancies like these will inevitably infuriate animal lovers who just can’t bear the idea of their favorite animals being killed.
Although eco-tourism provides more job opportunities in long term, trophy hunting is a quick way to get big money for some rural farmers that are pressingly in need of it. (1).
What adds to the controversy is that in Namibia, one of the wild animals that can be legally hunted as trophies is cheetah. Even though cheetahs are an appendix I species, meaning trade of them is prohibited except under rare circumstances, cheetahs can be legally hunted in Namibia due to their local abundance.
The quota is 150 cheetahs per year, which raises questions on the sustainability of this practice. The only real answer to this question will be that we don’t know. Although by estimation the cheetah population has rebounded in Namibia in the past few decades, without more accurate and long term studies, whether the quota is sustainable is an unanswerable question. (4).
The challenge to accurate data on cheetah population, in addition to their extremely wide range and evasiveness, is that farmers often don’t report the number of cheetahs they kill. (4).
In Namibia, it’s also legal for farmers to kill cheetahs when they feel their livestock are threatened, which is a source of concern in itself. Although a recent study has shown that farmers are now more tolerant towards cheetahs (3), probably due to the economic value associated with them, conflicts between livestock owners and cheetahs are still quite common. The number of cheetahs killed by farmers annually is over 200. Again, this is an estimation. But this estimation plus the 150 quota per year is enough to cause “serious concern” for the cheetah population in Namibia, according to CCF (4).
In the end, what’s more disturbing than this risky management of an endangered species is the lack of attention towards it. While everyone’s talking about things like habitat loss and poaching as threats for cheetahs, no one seems to know that in a country they’re doing relatively well, they are being legally removed at a rate that may or may not be sustainable.
The management of cheetahs in Namibia is a system that raises hope as well as concerns. While solving these concerns are not easy, raising awareness and discussion will be the important first step. Without discussion, problems never get to be solved.
On the other hand, CCF is currently working on giving cheetahs a value for the local communities not through trophy hunting, but through systems like eco-tourism or predator-friendly beef (4), that give cheetahs a value without killing them.
With controversies or not, the success story of Namibia’s wildlife management has attracted countries around to world that are struggling to find an effective way of wildlife conservation to learn from them.
While some people would heartily endorse the Namibian mode of wildlife management, some may denounce it with disgust. It’s probably safe to say that the system is imperfect at the moment. But who knows? This may be the future trend of wildlife conservation.
Contributed by Nikela volunteer Sylvia Lin
- Conniff, Richard. “An African Success: In Namibia, The People and Wildlife Coexist.” Environment 360. Yale University. Web. 12 May. 2011. <http://e360.yale.edu/feature/an_african_success_in_namibia_the_people_and_wildlife_coexist/2403/>
- Joyce, Christopher. “To Save Wildlife, Namibia’s Farmers Take Control.” NPR. NPR. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. <http://www.npr.org/2011/10/10/140445502/to-save-wildlife-namibias-farmers-take-control>.
- Marker, Laurie, et al. (2007). “The Namibian Cheetah: Status Report.” Cat News. Cheetah Conservation Fund, ICUN, and Cat Specialist Group.
- Marker, Laurie. (2015). “Statement on Trophy Hunting.” Cheetah Conservation Fund.