Challenges facing some Desert Lion Prides in Namibia. What needs to be done to save them?




By Izak Smit, chairperson of DeLHRA

(Desert Lions Human Relations Aid).

21 May 2021


This is OP-ED is simply based on the view

of the author based on 32 years of regularly traversing the areas in question

of which the last ten years were spent more intensively focussing on Desert

Lion Human Conflict whilst working with Conservancies and the affected communities.



Before independence, the “Suidwes Afrika

Natuurbewaring” was pretty much run autonomously in a military fashion where

every-one knew their place and a low tolerance for outsiders was maintained.

Discipline was the order of the day and maintenance of infra-structure a high

priority. To the old “Bokkiewagters” (Game Rangers), it was not a job but a

calling and way of living. The top structure ruled with an iron fist and outsiders

were viewed with suspicion and marginalized as the brotherhood stuck together,

much like in the army those years. Appointments were made on the basis of

strict vetting and merit and promotions were hard earned. No one dared to

question or challenge the top “Brass” and the public had “no business

interfering with the work of the Ministry”. NGO’s were unheard of and had no

justification as “Natuurbewaring” had it all “under control”.

In 1990 Namibia gained independence from

the South African Government and this culture was inherited by the new

governing body. The management structure was now changed, and the experienced

and knowledgeable pale males had to clear their desks as cadre deployment

became the order of the day. Few remained as mentors were needed for the

transition as empowerment manifested. Those who remained found themselves in

powerful positions as advisors and mentors as the transition process leaned

heavily on their experience and expertise. Those who were replaced who took the

“Golden Handshake” early retirement/retrenchment packages had to seek new

opportunities where their skills would be relevant and valued. This led to many

of them, people like Jan Joubert, starting up Tourism Safari businesses as

tourism started growing in Namibia while some later formed NGOs.




As things developed and the new Ministry of

Environment and Tourism settled in and went through its settling/growing pains,

over the years capacity and resources seemed to have become increasingly

challenged and the ministry’s mandate became more and more impossible to

execute without outside/outsourced assistance. Enters the era of the NGO’s.

Some of the ex-Nature Conservation staff availed themselves and, in time, many

NGO’s were formed. The IRDNC, Integrated Rural Development and Nature

Conservation formed by Garth Owen Smith was one of many. These then joined the

umbrella body NACSO, Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organisations.

Funding and grants from organisations like WWF floated the financial boats of

these NGO’s and MOU’s with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) were

signed and collaborations forged. To this day this structure pretty much rules

the roost.

In the beginning Garth Owen Smith’s

organisation was also faced some stonewalling from the MET as can be seen in

his book “An Arid Eden”. In time, after some lengthy and laborious

persuasion,  the MET endorsed his

proposed CBNRM (Community Based Natural Resource Management) model and the

first Conservancies were registered in the early 1990’s. The NGO’s that were

“in the fold and toeing the line” now had the political clout needed to operate

and relationships with the newly formed Conservancies were forged. Although

there was some collaboration, each NGO operates independently, has its own

mission and vision, agenda and interests. Many livelihoods are dependent on the

funding these NGOs receive and a number of ex Nature Conservation employees

from the old dispensation found a home here and their knowledge and experience

stood to benefit their organisations.

These NGOs now became the advisors and

consultants of many of the Conservancies and functions like Game counts and

others that the Conservancies’ inexperienced managements needed help with were

often outsourced from/guided by said NGOs.

The books written by the late Garth Owen

Smith, “An Arid Eden”, and his partner Margie Jacobsohn, “Life is like a Kudu

Horn”,  gives good perspective of the

history of the IRDNC and how it was established.

While the title of Garth’s book, an Arid

Eden, was appropriate until about 2013/14 it no longer holds true in the face

of the decimation of the wildlife in the conservancies over the last about

seven years. Someone bitterly commented that the title of the book,  “Life is like a Kudu Horn”, is actually more appropriate

now since a Kudu Horn is configured like a screw and the game population in the

conservancies are “pretty screwed” right now.



As many of the NGOs are dependent on

authorisations and permits of some kind from the MET, toeing the line as

dictated by the MET had become a pre-requisite. With-holding a researcher’s

permit or an NGOs work permits needed to operate can mean the end of the line

for that entity. Unsurprisingly therefor, bonding became essential. This

resulted in an “exclusive club” and you could decide whether you are in or out

by pledging subservience to the rules or not. This, in return, ensured

“protection of your turf” and kept annoying newcomers/outsiders out. The

previous Permanent Secretary mastered the art of directing this orchestra

through bullying tactics and strategies. It worked well! In one instance a

newcomer was accepted after arranging study grants for 2-3 MET employees

through his organisation first, a fair exchange? Mutually beneficial deals

involving funding and revenue streams sweetened the arrangement or “Daisy chain”

and in some instances a researcher would team up with a select few NGOs who have

big Tourism interests, a win-win situation of note, although in contrast with

some clear permit provisos!





This situation therefor leaves us with a

regulating body dependent on a group of supporting NGOs for the purpose of

executing the ministry’s mandate that are being run like businesses and funded

by corporate donors and sponsors in need of maximum exposure and recognition

for “fulfilling social responsibilities”. Some of the NGOs are also supported

by the private sector and more particularly, tourism operators in a mutually

beneficial arrangement which included commercial film making and the rare high

valued privilege to see collared Lions.

Hang on you say, this sounds like mud

slinging and the usual handbag in-fighting amongst conservationists in

competition. No, it is not, it needs mentioning to give perspective on why the

current status quo needs a make-over as the CBNRM model evolved negatively

being driven by self- serving outside influences.




When a car starts to smoke, cough, wheeze

and generally starts performing poorly, one is forced to check for the problem.

Is it the gearbox, differential, engine or electrics maybe? If it is all of the

above, you change the whole damn thing.

The CBNRM mode has been going since the

early 1990s which makes it about 26 years old. Things evolve and influences

like climate change changes the variables and essence of such a model over time

and it, inevitably at some stage, needs reviewing. Desertification, both as a

result of overgrazing and climate change has progressed to a point where so-called

traditional farming, nomadic pastoralism and even subsistence farming may no

longer be sustainable or even possible. Traditional farming, in the modern

context has reached proportions in places emulating modern commercial farming

which has no place in an unsuitable, sensitive, arid environment.

Diversification of income is much needed and no traditional, albeit

destructive, livestock farming can hold the environment hostage to its needs

any longer. All of us on this planet are going to have to adapt or, yes, die! A

sixth mass extinction is not just a rumour, the tangible evidence is there for

all to see!

The CBNRM model caters for “sustainable

use”, which includes both consumptive and non- consumptive exploitation of

resources. Currently the lines are blurred and haphazard “zoning” which is

supposed to distinguish between farming, hunting, general, wildlife and tourism

areas, is just a thought which vanishes with the first signs of a drought when

it all becomes available as “emergency grazing” areas. This of course impacts

heavily on the availability of the very scarce nutrition the Wildlife had

become dependent upon as they adapted over centuries to survive in this hostile


In many instances we have witnessed semi-nomadic

Himba pastoralists and local farmers simply ignoring the Conservancy rules and MEFT

directives by driving large numbers of cattle into ephemeral rivers and areas

“zoned” for Wildlife and Tourism. Even worse, Reed beds would be set alight in

order to induce new growth for the starving cattle with no regard to the

destruction of the environment and ecology. The Huaruseb, Hoanib and Huabrivers

in particular became linear farms in these times to the detriment of and

causing major disturbance to the Wildlife. Since the moratorium on hunting and

utilisation had been announced after it had been discovered that the Game

populations were becoming precariously low, bushmeat poaching increased which

took its toll on the few remaining animals tasked with repopulating the

conservancies in future. Allowance was made for Game to be hunted for purposes

of catering for traditional leadership meetings and in many instances the

animals could not even be found. Some Farmers openly defied the MEFT and Law

enforcement agencies during the drought and the environment paid the price as the

result. The outcome was quite predictable and is now manifesting in starving

predators and ecological systems imploding.

The question that now arises is whether

having your Cake and eating it is possible in this context? The very

environment that attracts Tourism is under siege by Agriculture, the latter

which is clearly failing and not sustainable. In the end it will be either or……

. Either the Environment will have to be protected or it will logically be

overrun and turned into the wasteland it is already fast becoming. The Ministry

of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) is regularly on record stating that

the CBNRM model is so successful and serves as a role model to the rest of the

World. It claims that Wildlife had “triplicated” in numbers and that the

current lack of game in the conservancies had been solely caused by the nasty

drought…. . While it is true that game in Namibia has vastly increased over the

years, this can mostly be attributed to the commercial farm owners on freehold

land diversifying in order to survive financially and to optimize their return

on investment. This had been instrumental in building a big Hunting Industry

which contributes handsomely to the GDP. The difference being that the owners

of the game manage it like a business and carefully manage and invest in their

own stock for long term gains. The conservancies, however, being on state land,

are not managed in the same way at all and no real ownership and accountability

exists in this model. Windows of opportunity for corruption, maladministration

and mismanagement are abundant and exploited. This is sadly reflected in the statistics

regarding the high failure rate on financial audits of conservancies in Namibia

(over 84% failed?) and the current, sorry state of affairs regarding the

depleted natural resources.

All of this could not have been intentional

and a large portion of this failure could be attributed to the fact that the

management committees are simply in most cases not equipped to run these

“Parks”. Office bearers in responsible positions in many instances do not have

the knowledge, experience, acumen and training to execute their portfolios. I

do not fix my own plumbing as I would flood the house and possibly the town,

therefore I outsource a Plumber for that purpose. I also do not perform Heart

surgery as I am not qualified to do so. The same holds true here and it is

expected of these people to perform such tasks up to the same standards as a

highly qualified National Parks management structure would deliver? Oh, hang

on, there are many NGOs advising and assisting said Conservancies…. ? Now

therein lies the problem. Different agendas, interests, missions and visions

and in many cases the exact same lack of knowledge, training, experience etc.

and so forth exists within these NGOs. No, badmouthing them is not the purpose,

merely stating the facts here. A lot of confusion and the evident failure of

the current status quo being reflected in the affairs of the conservancies and

state of the environment bears witness to this. Also, after 26 years, if

properly empowered, surely the conservancies would have been able to function

effectively and independently by now?


us face the brutal truth, without insulting any party, the CBNRM model needs a

make-over of note and the drawing board beckons while time runs out!

In our humble opinion, the example of

Africa Parks, set in Africa over the past years as a turnaround specialist is

very relevant. In order to optimize Wildlife and Tourism areas these have to be

identified and clear boundaries defined to begin with. It should then be

gazetted as such, whether as concession area or proclaimed protected area,

either way it must emerge with a status properly protected by legislation and

through law enforcement. Farming, general and hunting areas (the latter clearly

not bordering the protected areas) should be clearly zoned with clear

distinction from the protected areas. This would have the advantage that vast

areas with huge potential like the breath-taking area between the Ugabriver and

the Southern Veterinary fence boundary along the Bergsig/Springbokwasser gate

road including the whole Huab valley can then enjoy the same protection as the

Palmwag concession area and even be integrated with the latter. This will mean

that instead of being a free for all area exploited and damaged by all

currently, it can be developed by concession holders and investors and run like

a park by custodians charged with managing Human Wildlife Conflict, security

and anti-poaching and maintenance while optimizing revenue, creating job

opportunities, skills-development and welfare for the Conservancy communities.

The aim should be proper mentorship and development with clear goal posts

ultimately enabling absolute empowerment over a period. Palmwag concession has

proven its success with Gondwana lodge and the Hoanibriver Wilderness Lodge

contributing substantially to the conservancy coffers. The wheel in this

instance, does not need to be re-invented but merely copied and pasted by

including more protected areas.

Land use guidance and assistance to

subsistence farmers enabling diversification to ensure food security while

downscaling livestock farming to provide sustenance instead of being managed as

a “traditional currency” will be of paramount importance. Considering what the

Israelis harvest from their equally arid Desert there is no shortage of options

that should be investigated and developed. Education and training will be key. Continuing

on the same destructive path currently followed in the name of “traditional

livestock farming” will be short lived considering the progressive

desertification and change and is not negotiable really.



Good rains on and off had been experienced

between 2007 and 2012 and it was a “time of abundance” during which the

predators, a good barometer of the health of an ecosystem, and their prey

species had multiplied to a point considered as being well balanced. Game

counts, for such an arid environment with below 150 mm of rain falls per year,

were impressive. This was, however, clearly the end of a “boom cycle” and a dry

cycle was to be expected as per the normal and natural ebb and flow trending of

“seven fat and seven lean years” as a well-known, historical phenomena.

The quotas released for the “sustainable” utilisation

of the game were unprecedented and overly generous but according to those

responsible for the game counts, justifiable. People like the well- known

environmentalist Christiaan Bakkes  and

myself frowned upon this and we made our disgust  publicly known at the time. We encountered Zebras

that were clearly wounded and left to die in the “Red line” veterinarian fence near

Palmwag during one cull of 70 Hartmann Mountain Zebra and Christiaan Bakkes’

article in the Namibian newspaper, titled “End of the Game” described the waste

and massacre on the Giribes Plains amongst other similar cases of

indiscriminate plundering (as per his book “Plunderwoestyn”). This earned him an

end to his long career in the Tourism industry in Namibia due to the

traditional leaders and Chiefs’ wrath incurred.

Not very long after this, filling hunting

quotas started to become problematic as the number of animals available simply

did not match the numbers on the permits anymore. Hunters started to abandon

concessions due to non-viability and the question arose, “where are the

animals?”. A Moratorium on Shoot and Sell and own use was hurriedly imposed as

late as 2017 and after confronting those NGOs responsible for the game counts, we

were “confidentially” told that the scientific formula used for the estimation

of the game numbers had been found to have been flawed and hence optimistically


With no means of putting the Toothpaste

back into the tube, the damage had been done and we witnessed the resultant

sharp escalation of Human Lion Conflict in these areas from 2014/15 onwards. As

a consequence, this had a big impact on Lion mortalities through poisoning and

shooting by retaliating farmers. In one single incident a Lioness pregnant with

four fully developed and ready to be born, cubs was shot and killed.

When comparing the variance in Predator/Prey

ratios in protected areas, i.e. Palmwag concession, Etosha Park etc. versus the

same in the conservancies, the contrast is shocking. The conclusion can only be

that management, or the lack of it, should be held responsible since the

protected areas had gone through the exact same ordeal caused by the drought.

It has become apparent that, when “sustainable utilisation” quotas were

calculated no, or inadequate provision had been made for Predator requirements,

loss of game to poaching and disease/natural causes and that no contingency/allowance

had been made for core herds needed to repopulate the areas once the wet/boom

cycle begins. The results were clearly starving predators and Human Lion

Conflict escalating to an all-time high. Whenever Humans upset the equilibrium

in nature, Newton’s Law comes into play…..




While it is good and well for the MEFT (Ministry

of Environment, Forestry and Tourism) to boast that about 43% of land in

Namibia is under conservation, the question arises as to how the land outside

of protected areas in this category is being managed and why the disastrous results

and outcome. Having huge areas under conservation devoid of Wildlife due to

poor or inadequate, inefficient management may look good statistically but in

real terms defeats the object. It is common knowledge that the habitat of Lions

in Africa has shrunk by about 80% over that last decades and the same holds

true for the Kunene region, formerly known as Damara and Kaokoland. Where Lions

used to roam from the Ugabriver in the South right up to the Marienfluss in the

North, barring few Lions, most now only occur in the protected Palmwag

concession area. Recently the whole Huabriver Lion population had to be

translocated to a sanctuary due to starvation and more will follow. It would

make more sense to identify areas in Conservancies ideal for Wildlife and

Tourism and convert those to “Park-like concessions” with the appropriate

legislative and statutory protection surely?

A Perfect example of such successful

turnaround endeavours is that of African Parks. So far, they have taken over

management of about nineteen Parks in Africa in countries where conservation

had failed in totality. Their successes in Liuwa Plains and other parks speak

for itself. Not only do they manage the parks but the positive effects of their

Human Wildlife Conflict management, anti-poaching, skills development, job

creation, community welfare and upliftment etc. has made a huge, positive

impact on the lives of those living in close proximity to the parks as well as

conservation. By employing experts and applying sound principles, management

plans and strategies their story is one of success. It simply cannot be

expected that the same results could be obtained by incapable, inexperienced

locals advised by a a mix of, own interest driven NGOs on a hit and miss basis.

The shockingly low game counts leading to the current disastrous ecological

imbalances in the conservancies bears witness to this. The rather desperate,

urgent last-minute efforts by the MEFT to outsource the services of a consultant/advisor

unfortunately casts doubt on their grip on the situation and gives the

impression that they may be at the end of their tether…


The reality is that it is very late in the

day and if Namibia is serious about continuing on the path towards successful

conservation of its natural heritage, no amount of political correctness will

realise this.

We need to accept that things are wrong,

learn from past mistakes and take some concrete action, even if unpopular in

some circles. One cannot simply put a Band aid on a bullet wound. The solutions

are there and need to be expeditiously implemented. For this, Political Will is

required first and foremost. Own interests/livelihoods, egos and needs will

have to take a back seat. Much like the climate change phenomena where some

drastic changes are needed to bring down CO2 emissions which involve sacrifices

and a paradigm shift, conservation has also arrived at a clear crossroad.

In hindsight, the words of Chris Bakkes may

have proven to be prophetic, this could indeed be the “End of the Game” unless

acted upon with urgency….. .


would be sad to see the CBNRM model,  Garth-Owen Smith’s lifelong dream, disappear

in the Desert dust…. 

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