The Story Behind Namibia’s Elephant Auction– Facts are important—and Namibian conservation could do with fewer critics and more supporters
The recent decision by Namibia to sell 170 elephants drew public outcry, confusion and unsubstantiated and accusatory media coverage. Instead of simply assuming the worst, consider history, facts and context.
Towards the end of 2020, Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism announced it would sell a total of 170 elephants from four different locations in Namibia. The stated reason for the sale was the increase in human-elephant conflict in the four areas, which has been exacerbated by the recent drought. In each area, the elephants to be taken were entire family groups (i.e., females and young) plus a few bulls. Buyers would have to employ qualified Namibian game-capture teams and move the animals to a suitably fenced private reserve in Namibia or, if they wanted to export them to another country, adhere to all CITES export and import requirements.
The important points to note from the tender are MEFT’s insistence on taking whole family groups (rather than individuals) and the demand that the buyer and destination abide by national and international law. These stipulations should weed out unscrupulous buyers who prefer young individual elephants that can be tamed (or broken) for the purposes of human entertainment. The requirements for proper fencing in Namibia are probably to make sure that the elephants do not start causing conflict in other areas of the country, or simply return to the capture location.
Some details left out of the tender are crucial to understanding the thinking behind the decision. I obtained a draft copy of a document titled “An Overview of Elephant Conservation and Management in Namibia,” which accompanies the Draft National Elephant Management Plan. This document details all of MEFT’s recent public consultations; past and present elephant research and monitoring; and various approaches to reducing human-elephant conflict by MEFT and non-governmental organisations. This extensive document (commissioned by MEFT, but prepared by an independent consultant) provides valuable insight into the reasoning behind MEFT’s intention to sell 170 elephants.
The historical context
As with most things in Africa, the history of elephants in Namibia is tied up with the history of colonialism, land development and war. Rock art paintings show that elephants occurred throughout the country before waves of colonisers eradicated almost all of them, at least in the south, during the 1800s. Later, in the more remote northern regions, the remaining elephants were killed in high numbers by colonisers, local people and, in the mid- to late-1900s, the South African military. (Even in Etosha National Park, established in 1907, elephants were not safe; this population had been eradicated in 1881, returning only some 70 years later.) Severe drought in the northwest during the 1970s and ‘80s added to the elephants’ woes.
As the elephants were pushed out of central Namibia, the region most suitable for agriculture, the land was settled and fenced. Today, these farms are still privately owned (known as freehold land) and largely commercial livestock or wildlife operations. The infrastructure includes windmills and diesel pumps, to provide water, and internal fences to manage grazing. The farms that have converted to wildlife have taken down their internal fences but they are surrounded by high fences to keep in the valuable game.
In the communal homelands established during apartheid, when Namibia was administered by the Republic of South Africa, rural Namibians were dispossessed of their traditional rights to hunt. When they did hunt, to survive the severe droughts of the 1970s and ‘80s, they were branded as poachers. Today, nearly 60% of these communal lands have been gazetted as communal conservancies and the people living there are regaining their rights to use the wildlife on their lands. This program has reduced elephant poaching tremendously, particularly by allowing people to benefit from photographic and hunting tourism.
The current situation
These historical details inform the situation with Namibian elephants today. Elephants have not only recolonized Etosha National Park, they also have recovered in the communal conservancies in that area and across northern Namibia. However, the freehold farmlands remained free of elephants until recently—the 1990s and 2000s. Thus the farm infrastructure mentioned above had been built without the need to protect it from thirsty and often destructive pachyderms.
Human-elephant conflict is continuously managed in the communal conservancies by their game guards and the Event Book monitoring system. HWCSRS, the Human-Wildlife Conflict Self-Reliance Scheme, assists farmers in communal areas who lose crops (but not water infrastructure) to elephants. Further, the wildlife-based businesses in conservancies directly link elephant presence to benefits such as income, tourism jobs and meat. While mitigating conflict will always be part and parcel of the communal conservancy program, these efforts have generated a fairly high level of tolerance for elephants among conservancy members.
MEFT’s targeted 170 elephants (less than one percent of the country’s elephant population) are animals that have moved onto freehold farmlands from neighboring communal lands and national parks. Commercial farmers are generally wealthier than their communal counterparts and elephants have been absent from their lands for many years. Thus the government’s focus has been to help poorer communal farmers living with elephants in conservancies. However, the recent drought has brought elephants back to the freehold lands they lived on 50 to 100 years ago. These elephants found a land of plenty—year-round pumped water and many large trees that grew in their absence. More and more elephants have made their way onto these commercial farms as drought pushes them to search for greener pastures.
The damage to infrastructure by elephants dwarfs the crop damages reported in communal conservancies. During the consultations for input into the Elephant Management Plan, several freehold farmers showed losses amounting to the equivalent of $6,800 to $13,600 (€5,700 – €11,400) per year. Fixing a single windmill damaged by elephants costs $2,000 to $3,400, or €1,675 to €2,850. With an estimated 180 freehold farms now affected by elephants, infrastructure damages could come to $600,000 (€502,600). By contrast, the payments to offset crop losses throughout communal conservancies amount to about $140,000 per year or €117,200.
Given these costs, it is unsurprising that the farmers are urgently requesting help from MEFT. Their suggestions include reducing elephant numbers and allowing elephant hunting to cover their damages and defray the costs of repairing and protecting their infrastructure.
The situation as it stands is untenable; doing nothing is not an option. Long-term mitigation is necessary, but farmers cannot keep haemorrhaging money until these plans are developed and come to fruition. Since MEFT cannot afford to compensate farmers while a more permanent solution is found, something else must be done to help in the short term.
The tender to sell elephants for translocation reveals MEFT’s first choice of action. Elephants have been sold and successfully moved to private reserves within Namibia before (for example, some elephants on Erindi Game Reserve are privately owned and others are leased from the government), so the sale seems to be an effort to replicate past successes. If elephants can be moved from where they are not wanted to where they can live in peace and generate tourism revenue, we have a win-win situation.
The recent drought plus the damage to tourism due to the pandemic may, however, affect this plan. But if no Namibian buyers can be found, perhaps game reserves in other countries that have experienced elephant declines will be interested. Angola and Zambia have habitats similar to parts of Namibia and may wish to restock some protected areas. But the costs of moving entire elephant family groups over large distances may prove prohibitive.
The simplest and cheapest option would be to cull the elephants causing damage on freehold farms and sell the meat to recoup the costs. Several farmers suggested this during the public consultations. This is clearly not MEFT’s preferred option (or they would have done it already), but it may become necessary if there are no buyers for these elephants.
Simply chasing the elephants out of the farmlands also has been suggested, but this is impractical and inhumane. The protected areas nearest to the conflict farms are distant enough that chasing the elephants that far would cause much more overall stress than culling. There is also no guarantee that the elephants would stay away—the same drivers that are causing elephants to leave these areas (too many other elephants, too little food and water) would still be present and some parks do not have sufficient fencing to prevent future breakouts.
The proposed sale of 170 elephants will reduce each of the problem populations by about half. Clearly, this is a measure to try to limit damage in the short term while searching for longer-term solutions. Building walls around water points has been successful in conservancies, particularly with solar-powered pumps. (Pumping with diesel gets expensive; elephants consume water quickly.) Adding a strand of electrified wire around the areas where elephants are not wanted may also be feasible in some places.
A few of the farms in the Kamanjab area, south of Etosha National Park, have turned to tourism for income, but these elephant-tolerant landowners are surrounded by others who are still farming. Transforming the Kavango Cattle Ranch, in the northeastern conflict hotspot, into a game reserve might also work—if sufficient funding is available for the transformation. (The ranch is managed by the Namibia Industrial Development Agency on behalf of the Ministry of Trade and Industry.) An elephant-proof fence would have to be erected around the ranch to keep elephants off the neighboring freehold farms.
In all four conflict zones, however, there are farmers who are not interested in developing for tourism, especially in the wake of COVID-19, which has devastated Namibia’s tourism industry.
Several farmers suggested that the government simply support private elephant ownership, which at the moment is limited to just a handful of farms. This would give farmers greater freedom in managing their elephants through hunting, culling or live sales to other farmers. (These actions would still require permits, as elephants are specially protected in Namibia.) Freehold farmers could then earn elephant-related benefits the way the communal conservancies do, to help offset the costs of living with the animals.
Why the criticism?
Considering the substantial recovery of elephants since Namibia’s independence, in 1990, the nature of the current conflict and MEFT’s efforts to resolve it without culling, one would think that the elephant sale would be met with international interest and support. While previous elephant translocation efforts in other countries have been heralded as wonderful conservation initiatives, Namibia’s plan to move elephants to suitable locations has been met with harsh criticism.
One of the key sore points is the conflict hotspot near the village of Omatjete, 270 kilometres (167 miles) northwest of Windhoek, where it is assumed that the target elephants are those west of the village, near the Ugab River. These are desert-adapted elephants with high tourism value; the regional communal conservancies benefit from their presence and therefore tolerate them. An NGO called EHRA, Elephant-Human Relations Aid, has invested heavily in protecting water points in this area and monitoring these elephant herds.
This particular criticism would thus be well founded—if it were not based on a misunderstanding of exactly which elephants are targeted. The elephants around the Ugab west of Omatjete are not the ones causing havoc on the freehold farms, and not the ones that MEFT wishes to sell. If elephants on these freehold farms northeast of Omatjete (where there is no tourism, by the way) are sold, as tendered, that income could be used to electrify the fence between the conservancies and the freehold farms and establish a longer-term solution.
Long-term investment in both mitigation and tourism is required in all four of these present conflict hotspots. Near Omatjete, some of the communal conservancies need joint-venture tourism partners to realise the same benefits as conservancies located farther west. (Many communal farmers here who are not in conservancies require assistance as much as the nearby freehold farms do.) And all of the freehold elephant hotspots require protection for their water points and electrified fencing to keep the elephants where they are welcome, or at least tolerated.
With some context and a better understanding of the situation, my hope is that those who read this article will consider ways to support MEFT and the farmers.
In the wake of a devastating multiyear drought and the pandemic that has crippled tourism, Namibian farmers on both freehold and communal lands are in dire need of support. MEFT and its partners have stepped in to help the communal conservancies with a COVID resilience fund, and the elephant tender is meant to provide much-needed relief to freehold farmers suffering damage. Particularly at this moment, Namibian conservation could do with fewer critics and more supporters.
Gail C. Thomson is a conservationist who has worked in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana on human-carnivore conflict, community conservation and wildlife monitoring. She is interested in promoting clear public communication of science and conservation efforts in Southern Africa. A version of this article first appeared on ConservationNamibia.com.
Banner image: The tender for MEFT’s elephant auction as it appeared in several newspapers. So far, no auction results have been released and there has been no announcement of bids, amounts or when to expect such information.