By Fred Nelson
By most counts, 2015 has been a devastating year for Africa’s elephants.
Census results have documented large-scale declines from poaching in a number of key countries and protected areas.
In just five years, Tanzania’s elephant population, which was formerly the second-largest national herd in Africa, has declined from more than 110,000 elephants to fewer than 45,000.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Mozambique, the national population was nearly halved, from around 20,000 to 10,000.
Combined, these losses represent some 15 percent of Africa’s total elephant population, which has been estimated at perhaps half a million.
But even as the gravity of the poaching crisis becomes more apparent through improved aerial survey data and genetic analysis of confiscated ivory, signs of hope are emerging.
Thus far, responding to and combating the elephant crisis have largely been the work of global organizations, including conservation NGOs and multilateral aid agencies.
But many of the critical innovations, leadership measures, and solutions to the crisis lie with talented and committed local groups whose approaches can be taken to scale, often with support from resource-rich international networks.
Local Solutions: Namibia
To put things in perspective, it’s important to note that elephants are not declining everywhere in Africa, as recent survey reports have noted.
Namibia’s elephant population grew by more than 70 percent between 2002 and 2013, from some 9,600 to more than 16,000.
Central to this success are Namibia’s communal conservancies—areas of community land established for wildlife conservation and tourism.
Communities establish a local conservancy committee, put in place a locally administered cadre of wildlife scouts or “game guards,” and develop their own management plan for their conservancy.
In exchange, Namibian conservation laws enable the government to grant those communities broad rights to use and manage the wildlife in their conservancies, establish contractual agreements with tourism or hunting operators, and retain 100 percent of the revenue generated.
Local revenues to conservancies from tourism and trophy hunting have steadily increased, generating more than $5 million annually by 2013. This includes fees paid by tourism and hunting companies to the conservancy committees, as well as substantial benefits to employees of tourism lodges and camps.
The money is used to cover conservancies’ operating costs, including game guards and wildlife monitoring expenditures, as well as to benefit members through individual dividends or community development projects.
The benefits that wildlife in Namibia generates locally have been critical in driving the expansion of conservancies to more than 40 million acres (16 million hectares), extending local protections to an area roughly equivalent to the country’s entire estate of national parks and reserves.
Monitoring data demonstrates that populations of wildlife—elephants, black rhinos, lions, among other species—have widely increased since the 1990s across this vast area of community-conserved land.
Pioneers of the Community-Led Approach
A handful of grassroots organizations have, along with the government, pioneered the country’s community-led approach to wildlife conservation.
Notable among them is Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), which has played a key role since the 1990s in designing the country’s conservation strategies and working with local communities to establish conservancies and enterprises that generate local revenues from conservation.
For example, in Puros Conservancy, at the center of the range of Namibia’s famous “desert” elephants, community income from enterprises that include a campsite, lodge, and Himba traditional village increased from $6,600 in 2000 to more than $170,000 by 2014.
On the other side of the country, Bwabwata National Park is heavily used by elephants moving between Botswana’s Okavango to the south and range areas in Namibia and across into Angola and Zambia.
IRNDC helped initiate a unique management arrangement between the government and Bwabwata’s traditional residents, the Khwe San people, who today control hunting concessions in the park that generate roughly $165,000 a year, financing more than 60 local jobs and providing money for food and health services.
Scaling up Namibia’s successful conservation model will be crucial to conservation outcomes across the vast Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Spanning five countries, including northeastern Namibia, that region may now hold half of all the elephants remaining in Africa.
Kenya: Another Case Study
Conservation is gradually going to scale across large areas of community land in Kenya, where an estimated 10 million acres (four million hectares) are now set aside in emerging conservancies.
In general, Kenya has one of Africa’s most robust and talented suites of homegrown conservation organizations, with groups such as the African Conservation Centre, Save the Elephants, Big Life, and Lion Guardians all developing innovative and locally crafted approaches to community conservation, law enforcement, and wildlife monitoring.
A new umbrella organization, the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, was formed two years ago with the ambitious task of linking the various local conservancies and initiatives into a unified voice and movement.
A key driver of the conservancies movement is the Northern Rangelands Trust, an organization that has spearheaded a network of conservancies in the north and now in eastern parts of the country.
Across conservancies in northern Kenya, the trust reports a 43 percent decline in elephant poaching between 2012 and 2014.
Recent research across the Laikipia-Samburu ecosystem, home to the country’s second-largest elephant population (some 6,500), finds that these conservancies have “significantly higher numbers of elephants and lower illegal killing levels” in comparison to undesignated community lands.
As in Namibia, the key to achieving these outcomes it that conservancies provide communities in Kenya with a framework for improving wildlife protections through local scouts linked to national authorities such as the Kenya Wildlife Service.
And conservancy revenues from wildlife tourism encourage local people to value wildlife as a part of their landscape.
Namunyak conservancy is a case in point. It lies in a key elephant corridor between the Mathews Range and Mt. Kenya to the south. The community, like other conservancies, has its own rangers working to prevent elephant poaching, partly funded by the more than $170,000 earned annually through agreements with tented camp and other tourism ventures.
African Parks: Scaling Up Protection
Founded about 15 years ago by former staff with South Africa’s national parks agency, African Parks is an NGO that has developed a unique niche and has already reached considerable scale of impact across the continent.
Entering into partnerships with national governments, African Parks has assumed full management responsibility across more than 15 million acres (six million hectares) of government and community protected areas in several elephant range countries.
This often involves working in some of Africa’s most challenging contexts, since governments are often keen to outsource underperforming or mismanaged parks.
After establishing an initial model in Malawi and Zambia, African Parks now attempts to hold the line against poaching in Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba National Park. And the organization has catalyzed the recovery of elephant numbers in Chad’s Zakouma National Park since 2010.
Despite all the bad news at the continental scale, it is clear that innovative and committed African conservation organizations are developing effective approaches that can lead to elephant recoveries.
These strategies emphasize a strong role for local communities in protecting and benefiting from elephants, along with rigorous monitoring and enforcement methods.
If 2016 is to be the year the elephant poaching crisis turns around, increasing awareness of these progressive models and stepped-up support for the innovative African organizations that are developing them will be key to achieving impact at a wider scale.
Fred Nelson is Executive Director of Maliasili Initiatives, an organization that supports the growth, development, and performance of leading civil society organizations and social enterprises working to advance sustainable natural resource management practices in Africa. He has worked on a range of conservation and development issues in East Africa since the late 1990s and lived in Tanzania for 11 years. He has written widely on conservation in Africa, including in journals such as Conservation Biology, Oryx, and Biodiversity and Conservation.