When evaluating the results of opinion polls or questionnaire surveys, it is good practice to reflect on where the data come from and how the responses were gathered. In this case, the Namibian government commissioned conservation professionals including three of the authors of this article (with Mr. Kenneth /Uiseb providing oversight), to hold a series of public meetings in rural areas known to host elephants. These stakeholder meetings included 38 communal conservancies – community-based institutions that have been granted conditional ownership rights over wildlife that occur within their jurisdiction. Between these meetings, people were interviewed about elephants.
The respondents we highlight here were part of the daily management (staff members, including field staff) or oversight (committee members) of their communal conservancies. As residents and managers in conservancies, these interviewees have both first-hand experiences of living with wildlife and a detailed understanding about how hunting works in their conservancies. They were interviewed in small groups, informed regarding how their responses would be used, and assured complete anonymity when the results were published or used for decision-making purposes.
Almost by definition, a community will have nearly as many opinions on any given subject as there are people, so this relatively small sample does not cover the full gamut of opinions about elephants in Namibia’s communal areas. Those who were surveyed nonetheless hold positions within their communities that provide them with greater insight into the challenges and benefits relating to elephants than most. The field staff (also known as game guards) report human-wildlife conflict incidents across their communities, while the management staff and oversight committees manage the business relationships with hunting outfitters and tourism operators.
Due to space constraints, we cannot give the full list of responses to all of the questions, so we have selected a few that make important points that were raised by several respondents.
When answering a broad, open-ended question about their feelings towards elephants, most of the respondents were positive. Many of them expressed pride in having elephants living in their conservancies, while others emphasized the importance of tangible benefits:
“We feel proud. We are also proud to be part of the elephant conservation as our future generation will be proud of our interventions.”
“We feel good because they bring us many benefits. Such as income and meat.”
These positive responses reflect some of the key benefits of community conservation – feelings of pride in their involvement in conservation and seeing real benefits from tourism and hunting. Yet not all of the responses were entirely positive. Questions regarding elephant management were often answered in the light of on-going human-elephant conflict experienced in many Namibian conservancies:
“Those elephants are mainly destroying crops, fences, boreholes and water tanks. They also drink up farmers’ water from the reservoirs.”
“Crops are the main damage. Damage to trees [is a concern]. One person was killed in 2002.”
Understanding the reasons behind rural attitudes towards elephants is especially important when formulating policies that will affect human-elephant relations. These community leaders are aware of the international pressure to ban hunting, which has most recently taken the form of the UK’s proposed Animals Abroad Bill. During the interview, respondents were asked what they would say to anti-hunting campaigners if they had the chance. Their responses were clearly influenced by their overall views on elephants and how to manage conflict with them:
“They [campaigners] should not come here and dictate us. We have our own rights to our resources. Elephant hunting has brought development in our community, such as electrification, hostels, kindergarten, water points, community office. If it were not for elephant hunting there could be no development.”
“We cannot stop hunting elephants because our conservation strategy depends upon it. People conserve and are willing to live with the elephants only if they are benefitting from them. If these people are willing to finance our developmental projects and provide us with mitigation measures, we can stop hunting. If hunting stops our rangers will not get salaries to work in the field.”
“Elephants are supposed to benefit those who conserve them. Our utilization is based on sustainability. There will still be more elephants even if we hunt some.”
“They must give us other alternatives. It’s a threat to human lives. These are our resources, no one can tell us what to do with them.”
These and other responses highlighted several key themes that must be borne in mind when considering anti-hunting legislation. First, the respondents drew a direct line between the tangible benefits generated by elephant hunting – income and meat – and the willingness of their communities to tolerate elephant-related conflict. Yet the intangible issues are also brought into contention, as respondents argued that they have a right to manage wildlife and conserve it in ways that they see fit – a right that they are unwilling to relinquish to foreign campaigners.
Second, the management system of quotas issued by the government and adhered to by communities and hunters was emphasized to show that legal hunting is designed with elephant conservation in mind. None of the respondents wanted all of the elephants in their conservancies to be killed or removed, despite the damages that they have incurred. Hunting an elephant for meat and income was therefore aligned with their earlier views of pride in their elephant conservation efforts.
“We support sustainable hunting because if the number become too much they will destroy our crops. Our hunting is very controlled and is in line with national and international obligations. We do not just hunt for the sake of it, we get very limited quotas once in a while.”
Finally, several respondents asked if anti-hunting campaigners were willing or able to provide them with alternative income streams and practical ways to reduce human-elephant conflict. Both of these issues would need to be addressed fully before they are willing to replace hunting:
“If we do not hunt them, the number of [conflict] incidences by elephant will go up. If they do not want us to hunt, they must give us alternative sources of income so that our conservancy can continue to conserve these elephants.”
“Most of the people complaining do not live with elephants, hence it is very easy, if they do not want hunting, let them bring alternatives.”
“They must take responsibility for the damages caused by elephants. They should come and experience what is happening on the ground. It is not easy to live with wild animals and not benefit from them.”
These community conservationists hold nuanced views about elephants that reflect their first-hand experiences of living with this species. While elephants are revered and conserving them is considered a badge of honor, they are also a source of conflict and even mortal danger.
Several respondents expressed their respect for differing opinions on the issue of elephant hunting, yet they appealed to those who want to turn these opinions into legal policies to think again. They felt strongly that campaigners would gain a different perspective if they visited rural communities who live with elephants. Those who have visited and yet still feel that hunting should be banned were invited to present practical alternatives.
Until such alternatives are available, these communal conservancies see no reason to prevent hunters from the UK and elsewhere from using their resources in a sustainable way to support African wildlife conservation and rural development.
Submitted by Gail Thomson (Resource Africa); Kenneth /Uiseb (Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism); Rosalia Iileka (Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organisations – NACSO); Hilma Angula (NACSO); Dr Malan Lindeque (Resource Africa).