Hard questions for conservancies

It was a bit like sitting in school with a grumpy teacher asking tough questions.

“How many elephants?”

“Three.”

“Are you sure? What is written in the book? Three or four”

“Three.”

The day when the auditors call is no fun for any business, and these days Namibia’s communal conservancies are businesses, running lodges together with the private sector, contracting out trophy hunting and live game capture, and managing teams of game guards. Today it was Salambala’s turn. For two weeks in January the fifteen conservancies in Zambezi get a grilling from IRDNC, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation, together with the Natural Resources team from NACSO, the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organizations.

IRDNC’s Justice Muhinda has an appropriate name. The auditor sounded like a courtroom barrister: “Why are you giving yourselves 10 of 10?” he barked.

“Because we are sure,” shot back Botha Sikabongo, the conservancy chairman. He is a small, wiry man with a fiery look, whose favourite word is “exactly”. He doesn’t mind the grilling, and says that: “they expect answers from me because I am the man on the ground”. Could he answer everything? I asked.

“Exactly”.

Justice Muhinda defends his tough questioning in the light of allegations made in the press about poor conservancy management in Kunene. “People are critical of IRDNC, so we have to make sure. If the conservancy says they have minutes, we ask to see them”.

Conservancy audits began with the ‘Event Books’. These are simple, robust file binders used by game guards in the field to record every event from wildlife sightings through poaching incidents to human-wildlife conflict. Rectangles in the books are filled in, rather like shapes in a children’s colouring book, to record incidents. Over the weeks these build up into columns: instant graphs that show wildlife trends and conservation problems. The auditors make sure that the work is done properly.

The event book records add up: daily, monthly and annually, and are fed into the Ministry of Environment and Tourism’s data collection system. Together with game counts, the event books provide Namibia with one of the most reliable and up to date wildlife monitoring systems in the world.

James Maiba is IRDNC’s Natural Resources Facilitator. He gives Salambala ten out of ten. They were one of the first four conservancies formed in 1998, so they have had time to get it right. The game guards are smartly turned out in green uniforms, all of their books are clean, with no mistakes or corrections.

Twenty kilometres down the road, at Lusese, it’s a different story. It is a relatively new conservancy. They are hoping for a partner to build a lodge. This year they have their first income from a trophy hunter. There are no uniforms yet, and the conservancy office is a space in the school classroom, when oversized classes permit. The four game guards are keen, but make simple mistakes.

Despite the challenges, the Zambezi conservancies are piloting a new concept: integrating the natural resources audit with other checks on conservancy enterprises and governance. Justice Muhinda was in Salambala to check how the conservancy runs and manages itself. How many women are on the committee? Did the AGM take place? Was there a quorum? Can you prove it?

When he was finished, the conservancy still wasn’t off the hook. Reuben Mafati, the Enterprise Coordinator, took over. Was there a tourism plan? “No” wasn’t a good enough answer. The conservancy has a joint venture partnership with Camp Chobe, a tented lodge on the Chobe River, which brings in regular income. But does it?

Mafati went through the contract. The lodge operator has to pay fees within 30 days of the due date. Was it doing it? The conservancy has to prohibit all hunting in the tourism zone. Were there any conflicts? Direct questions and direct answers. No excuses.

It’s all about compliance explains Mafati. Following criticism of conservancies in Kunene last year, the Ministry has committed itself to check that conservancies have their house in order. The Ministry can de-gazette a conservancy if it fails to comply, but nobody wants that to happen. For IRDNC, which is the main NGO supporting conservancies, it is important to get it right. Salambala’s chairman agrees. “Exactly”.

Steve Felton
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