Human Wildlife Conflict – the Hot Potato

Photo: Gareth Bentley, WWF
Photo: Gareth Bentley, WWF
Windmill broken by elephants
Windmill broken by elephants
Hyaenas take livestock at night
Hyaenas take livestock at night

While delegates to the National Conference on Human-Wildlife Conflict Management, hosted by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) in Windhoek on the first two days of March were often descriptive – the Chairman of Torra Conservancy referred to the issue as a Hot Potato – the Environment Minister, Pohamba Shifeta, was clear and to the point: Human-Wildlife conflict (HWC) is: “a very difficult challenge.”

Communities living close to national parks suffer a great deal from wildlife, stated the Minister, and they must benefit economically from wildlife in order to tolerate losses of crops and livestock – and human life. HWC cannot be eradicated as long as Namibia conserves its wildlife outside of national parks, and so, according to Shifeta, Namibia has to manage the situation.

The purpose of the conference was to review the existing policy on HWC management, set out in 2009, and for that, said the Minister, there was a wide range of experience and expertise sitting in the conference at the Safari Hotel.

Dr Lise Hanssen, the researcher leading the Kwando Carnivore Project in Kavango and Zambezi Regions, gave scientific substance to the Minister’s remarks, pointing out that wildlife in the Zambezi Region moves between parks, through communal conservancies, and could not successfully survive without freedom to roam, which inevitably leads to conflict in the farming areas between the parks.

The Minister gave some sobering statistics: 39 people killed by wildlife between 2014 and 2016, and 7 already this year. Last year 545 cattle and over 200 goats were lost to predators.

The problems were brought close to home very quickly. Benedictus April, Chairman of Ohungu Conservancy in the Erongo Region reported that a man would be buried at the weekend: the victim of an elephant attack. The MET provides financial offsets for losses through its Self-Reliance Scheme, topped up by conservancies, but the N$ 5,000 provided for a funeral is not enough, said April, noting that no financial payment can compensate for loss of life.

Some delegates to the conference took the attitude that wildlife should be fenced inside national parks to protect the people. Conservancies take a different view. Echoing the Minister’s comments, April said that if wildlife brings benefits that outweigh the costs, people will tolerate it. But he added that the MET has to assist conservancies. When there is an incident, the rangers must react immediately, not call a manager, who has to call another manager, and finally get permission for a vehicle to be sent to the scene when it is already too late. In Ohungu Conservancy there is no hunting quota, so the people do not benefit financially from elephants, said April.

His point was echoed by others. The Ministry does well at a national level by holding conferences, but is not quick to react on the ground, a point taken up by representatives of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Natural Resources, which has recommended de-centralization of the MET, as well as greater compensation for loss of life. Dependants of a lost breadwinner should be supported until the age of 21, according to the Committee.

If the problem had to be rammed home, Fidelis Lizumo, a community game guard from Wuparo Conservancy in Zambezi Region, showed a photograph with a human hand protruding from the mouth of a crocodile. Over 600 cattle were taken in the area between 2011 and 2016, mostly by hyaenas, he stated, and in the same period, there were over 4,000 incidents of crop damage, mostly by elephants, which move between Botswana and Zambia, through Zambezi Region.

However, the conference was far from a list of grievances. Conservancy managers and chairpersons were there to hear suggestions from scientific researchers, such as Dr Lise Hanssen and Dr Flip Stander. Hanssen pointed out that in the areas most affected between national parks in Zambezi, the introduction of lion-proof kraals had led to a 75% drop in livestock losses to lions, with no shootings of lions, which moved on and added to the tourism value in national parks.

Dr Stander, an acknowledged world authority on lions, stated that solutions to predation could only be found with a better understanding of lion behaviour in its habitat. Livestock, he pointed out, is only 3% of a lion’s diet. By studying the movements of lions over many years, Stander has noted ‘hotspots’ of lion-human conflict, which should be concentrated on in dealing with HWC.

Dr Chris Brown, the CEO of the Namibian Chamber of the Environment, has conducted long-term research into HWC in conservancies. Echoing Stander’s remarks, he identified the conservancies with the greatest problems as priority areas to commit resources, to deal with the very real problems that conservancies are facing.

Ohungu’s Benedictus April read out a wish list to the MET. As well as increased funeral benefits and the fast removal of problem animals, he asked for compensation for animals lost to snakes and killed outside of kralls, neither of which are covered by the current policy. Finally, April echoed the calls for a de-centralization of the MET, and for a hunting quota for elephants in his conservancy, so that people could benefit economically from wildlife.

If conservancies suffer from wildlife, so do commercial farms. Dr Helmke von Bach, representing 75 farms in the Kamanjab area between Etosha National Park and Kunene conservancies, pointed out that it takes only a minute for an elephant to push over a windmill costing N$ 80,000. Damage to fences leads to the loss of valuable cattle and game. He estimated the average loss to each commercial farmer in the area annually at N$ 375,000.

The costs add up in conservancies too, noted Dr Brown. Looking at all the data, the cost of wildlife to each conservancy member in Sanitatas Conservancy, in Kunene, amounts to N$ 1,000 per person per annum. However, other conservancies profit from wildlife through tourism and hunting. Brown argued that conservancy members have to see at least a four-fold difference of benefits over costs, for conservancy members to have a favourable attitude towards wildlife, and he made an impassioned plea to the MET to make Human-Wildlife Conflict an integral part of its national budget. Conservancies with the highest losses should receive the highest compensation, he said.

Minister Shifeta stated at the outset that, in order to fulfil its mandate, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism has to review the National Policy on Human-Wildlife Conflict, which was why the conference was convened.

Tommy Adams, Chairman of Torra Conservancy stated that the Hot Potato has to be dealt with, and in a striking demonstration of conservancy solidarity, announced a donation of N$ 1,000 to Ohungu towards the funeral of the conservancy member killed by an elephant. Tommy and Helmke von Bach shook hands after Tommy’s presentation, in recognition of the common interests of communal and commercial farmers.

Dr Chris Brown summed it up: “We know the problems, we know the solutions. We have to get on with the job.”

Steve Felton

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