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Tim Hirsch
visits the conservation project
 real 56k

Tuesday, 22 August, 2000, 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
Rhinos can make good neighbours
Rhinos
The project promotes local management of wildlife
By environment correspondent Tim Hirsch

A unique project to protect some of Africa's rarest wildlife is proving a dramatic success in Namibia.

The black rhino and desert elephant were poached to near extinction in the country's semi-desert Kunene region in the North, a former war zone.

But now both species have doubled in number, thanks to new laws which give local people rights to manage their own wildlife, and to benefit from the income it brings in.


If local people are given responsibility for their own natural resources they will prove far more effective in protecting them

Garth Owen-Smith, project founder
The programme has brought about a major change in the way poor rural communities see the wild animals which share their arid land.

Once they were just competition for the scarce food available to their goats and cattle, and dangerous at that.

Now they are seen as a valuable asset, bringing tourism into the area, and with it much-needed jobs and money.

Employment

The turnaround has not happened overnight, but is the result of patient work by a Namibian conservation group funded by the international wildlife organisation WWF, Comic Relief and overseas aid from the British Government.

First it provided salaries to local men, some of them former poachers themselves, to act as Community Game Guards patrolling the harsh but beautiful landscape.

Tourists on game drive
Tourism is helping the region's economy
Then a network of local conservancy committees was set up, drawn from the local leadership of the scattered tribal groups, to make decisions about how the land should be used, and how the income from wildlife could be channelled back into the community.

These conservancies have recently been recognised under Namibian law, and given conditional rights over the wildlife in their areas, able to allocate some areas for controlled hunting, others for eco-tourism, and so on.

Joint venture

One of the most successful projects has been a joint venture with a large safari company, which has built an up-market tourist lodge on condition that 10% of the profit goes to the community, and that local people are employed.

Eventually the local conservancy will have an option to buy the business and run it on behalf of the community.

The inspiration behind the project is naturalist Garth Owen-Smith, a charismatic naturalist who sees this as a model for protecting the environment around the world.

If local people are given responsibility for their own natural resources, he says, they will prove far more effective in protecting them than a remote government which makes communities feel they are the problem, not the solution.

Recovery

The heartening recovery of species like the black rhino and desert elephant in Kunene bears witness to this - the changing community attitudes now make it virtually impossible for poachers to come in from outside, as the people who know the area and can locate the wildlife now use their skills to protect it.

And it is not just the animals that benefit from all this - the people themselves are finding that the conservancy system has given them both economic and political influence where they were once seen as backward and helpless.

In one area the conservancy has proved so successful in generating income that it has just become self-sufficient, no longer relying on funds from outside to pay the salaries of its staff. And it is able to provide extra money for the local school and other community facilities.

It is a hopeful story on a continent where hope is in short supply.

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