Namibia’s Elephants: Victims of Mismanagement and Broken Promises

On March 5, the lives of 22 African elephants—mothers, juveniles, and young calves—changed forever. No longer free to roam the vast open spaces of northwestern Namibia’s Kunene region, they were loaded onto a cargo jet, bound for captivity in the United Arab Emirates’ Al Ain Zoo. This sale, which Namibia claimed was needed to reduce elephant-human conflicts, triggered international condemnation by animal advocates, scientists, and governments, as well as a harsh response from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), of which the Al Ain Zoo is a member. EAZA found no justification for this sale and revealed that the zoo may be subject to disciplinary actions, while the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) promised an investigation of the zoo’s potential violation of WAZA’s Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare.

elephant - photo by Johan Swanepoel
photo by Johan Swanepoel

In December 2020, Namibia published a tender in the government-controlled New Era newspaper advertising the sale of 170 wild elephants, claiming it was required to reduce elephant populations due to drought and human-elephant conflicts. Conservation and animal welfare organizations from around the world pleaded with authorities not to permit further captures, to release elephants already captured, and to prohibit exports in light of international law and the increasingly known physical and psychological toll of captivity on elephant welfare. This call was supported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African Elephant Specialist Group, which stated in 2003 that it did not endorse the removal of African elephants from the wild for any captive use, as such use provides no direct benefit to in situ conservation (i.e., conservation of the species within its native range). 

Namibia’s elephants (like those of Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe) are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), while other African elephants are listed on Appendix I. An annotation to the listing text indicates that these Appendix II elephants can only be exported to “appropriate and acceptable” destinations. A subsequent amendment to the annotation states that elephants from Namibia and South Africa can only be traded to in situ conservation programs. Further, at the 2019 meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties, a majority of CITES parties agreed that, barring exceptional circumstances, the only “appropriate and acceptable destinations” for all Appendix II–listed African elephants are in situ conservation programs. 

Despite this language and two separate legal analyses concluding that Namibia can only trade live elephants under Appendix II rules, the country exported them under Appendix I rules to avoid the restrictions attached to the Appendix II listing. Disconcertingly, the CITES secretariat defended this action. 

An AWI-supported November 2021 report by Dr. Adam Cruise and Izzy Sasada—Investigation into the Efficacy of Namibia’s Wildlife Conservation Model as It Relates to African Elephants (Loxodonta Africana)—reveals that this disingenuous interpretation of CITES standards is only part of the story. Among the eye-opening revelations from the report: Namibian authorities have overstated the frequency and severity of wildlife-human conflicts, and removal of elephants via trophy hunting or live capture from much of Namibia, including the Kunene region, is likely not sustainable. Through literature reviews, wildlife population data analysis, extensive field work, and interviews with dozens of local citizens, their findings indicate that the 22 elephants exported to the UAE, like others before them, fell victim to a management system that has largely avoided any substantive analysis of its efficacy. 

Since 1998, Namibia’s wild lands have been carved into 86 Community-Based Natural Resource Management conservancies (CBNRMs), which ostensibly promote sustainable management of game animals and allow lucrative consumptive and nonconsumptive uses, including eco-tourism and trophy hunting by wealthy foreign visitors. 

CBNRMs are supposed to increase the income of impoverished rural Namibians while permitting the recovery of Namibia’s wildlife populations that were decimated prior to the country’s independence, thereby incentivizing the sustainable use of natural resources by giving them an economic value. CBNRM-generated funds (over US$10 million per year) are meant to provide income and in-kind benefits to local communities—funding anti-poaching operations, wildlife management, education and health initiatives, and other programs. 

While CBNRMs have been promoted as a model for wildlife conservation, the report states that the purported benefits to wildlife and rural communities is “predominantly a fabrication rather than a fact.” Although a number of CBNRMs do contain a large diversity of wildlife species, including elephants, data indicate that in many, elephant numbers are decreasing—in some cases to dangerously low numbers—raising concerns about the veracity of elephant-human conflict reports and the sustainability of trophy and other hunting activities. 

For humans living in or near the conservancies, many of the promised benefits of the CBNRM program have not been realized. While there have been some donations of meat, direct cash payments, and other benefits, a majority of the locals interviewed indicated that the conservancy program is riddled with corruption, nepotism, insufficient or no compensation for livestock lost to wildlife, delay or nonpayment of promised funds for living with wildlife, restrictions on traditional uses of wildlife, ethnic discrimination, inaction against illegal land use, and outright takeover of conservancy lands for livestock grazing, mining, oil drilling, and logging. 

Such evidence led Cruise and Sasada to conclude, “Far from being a success-story, Namibia’s much touted wildlife conservation model and its adherence to sustainable utilisation of wildlife through community-based management has, in fact, achieved the opposite of what is commonly presented. Overall wildlife numbers are declining, and elephant populations in the Kunene Region are collapsing, while rural communities within the CBNRMs are as impoverished as ever, in many cases, more so.”

The saga of Namibia’s elephants is ongoing. The elephants exported to the UAE are likely lost forever from Namibia’s wild lands, but another 148, including some already captured, will be subject to the same fate if Namibia continues to prefer profit to protection. Similarly, unless the conservancy program is fully reevaluated and either replaced or restructured to address its glaring shortcomings, Namibia’s vast wildlife bounty will continue to decline, and the program’s promise to support the well-being of the local people will remain illusory.