Namibia’s successful community-based wildlife conservation

by Dec 2, 2010Wildlife News

Before independence in 1990, wildlife populations in Namibia’s communal areas were plummeting as a result of extensive poaching during prolonged military occupation.

By applying lessons from neighbouring countries’ attempts at community-based natural resource management (CBNRM), and through its own earlier successes in devolving wildlife management to commercial landholders, the context was set for a national CBNRM programme after independence. In 1996, Namibia passed the Nature Conservation Act, giving rights over wildlife and tourism to local communities that formed management bodies called conservancies. This move allowed communities to benefit from wildlife on communal land by working with private companies to create a tourism market.

By 2007, 50 conservancies had been established, and today people see wildlife as an economic asset to be managed. This is in stark contrast with 20 years ago, when hostility towards wildlife was prevalent among communities, as this was a state-controlled asset from which local people received no benefits. Namibia is now an acknowledged pioneer in the sustainable management of wildlife through CBNRM. This positive shift has occurred through community empowerment on a large scale, supported by cutting-edge legislation that links environmental management with economic opportunity.


Namibia’s national park system covers almost 15% of the country. In addition to the national park system, there are over 50 nationally registered conservancies (as

of 2007), 31 of which are directly adjacent to protected areas.

These conservancies provide important corridors between protected areas, thus increasing the land available for wildlife by more than 50 per cent beyond the

existing national protected area system.

The introduction of grassroots wildlife management practices (wildlife water points, dedicated wildlife production zones, reintroduction of game to facilitate faster recovery rates) has led to significant recovery of wildlife populations. This recovery has been documented in Caprivi and Nyae Nyae and across the entire northwest of Namibia.

CBNRM and conservancy activities have become a major source of benefit for rural communities, in the form of cash, employment, payment for plant products and in-kind benefits such as meat from game or harvested trophies.

Cash incomes to communities are bolstered by partnerships with the private sector. By 2004, a total of 180 enterprises were operating under the programme.

At that time, 37 conservancies were receiving cash incomes, totalling approximately US$2,25 million annually.

Importantly, 15 of the 37 conservancies were fully self-financing, and seven were paying over half of their operating expenses.

In 2008, the conservancies earned US$3,25 million in direct cash income. The value of game meat distributed to members was an additional US$382 500. Conservancies directly employed 154 people, and tourism and hunting generated 605 full-time and 2 267 part-time jobs. These jobs are often in remote rural areas, where opportunities are few and cash income is low.


Much of Namibia’s progress has occurred as a result of improved natural resource governance, formalised in new legislation. Early on, in 1975, the Nature Conservation Ordinance was enacted, which devolved rights to landowners to use and benefit from wildlife on their land. Resulting improvements in wildlife populations led to discussions on how to apply similar incentives to communal land. The 1996 conservancy legislation addressed this issue, with the government devolving rights to benefit from wildlife to communal area residents living in conservancies.

The devolution process was also given financial, technical and political support and sustained engagement, enabling success. For example, Namibia’s CBNRM policy established equity, participation and benefit sharing as policy goals.


The support of international donors has helped considerably in establishing Namibia’s CBNRM programme and in putting the conservation and economic benefits in place. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Living in a Finite Environment (LIFE) project was implemented in three phases from 1993 to 2009.

Its main purpose was to support the national CBNRM programme in Namibia by assisting government and NGOs to help local communities establish conservancies.

This type of long-term support provided conservancies with the stability and time needed to develop and experiment, and also allowed wildlife populations to recover.


The major lesson learnt is the importance of linking economic incentives with environmental management. In other examples, including Namibia’s own past

experience of land use management, environmental sustainability has been hampered largely because government has not succeeded in creating sufficient incentives for private sector activity.

The country’s progress also owes to its innovation in establishing a legal framework that allows communities to access economic benefits directly, through better management of wildlife and other natural resources on communal (or state) land.

The legislation also allows for: devolution to lower levels of government; transfer of authority to community-led institutions; a predictable incentive-based approach to promote participation; a commitment to equity; and linkages to wider social programmes.

This has led to an important change in perception among those living in conservancies.

Benefits of such programmes have in the past often been poorly understood and weakly accounted for. The Namibia case adds to the weight of evidence that, over and above its intrinsic ecological benefits, conservation management has the potential to generate real wealth over a long time period and real gains for disadvantaged groups.

*This is an abridged version of a research paper and is one of 24 development progress stories being released at The development progress stories project communicates stories of country-level progress from around the world, outlining what has worked in development and why. This publication is based on research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.