The publication of a tender document for the auction of four groups of elephants in Namibia triggered howls of protest from the animal rights lobby all around the world. As often happens in these cases, the mainstream media published sensational and misleading information that vilified the Namibian government with accusations of corruption and all other kinds of malfeasance. The Namibian Chamber of Environment (the NCE) is a respected non-government organisation – a comprehensive assessment of the issue has now been published on its website.

Gail Thompson has written a very useful account of the background to the controversial move by the government of Namibia which puts things into perspective. Readers can find the article here: A summary of Gail’s document follows.

Towards the end of 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) announced its intention to sell a total of 170 elephants from four different locations in Namibia. The rationale was to address the increased human-elephant conflict in the four areas, which has been exacerbated by the recent drought. In each area, the elephants to be taken were entire family groups (females and young) plus a few bulls. Potential purchasers of these elephants had to employ qualified Namibian game capture teams and move them to suitably fenced private reserves in Namibia, or if exporting them to another country, adhere to all CITES requirements.

Important to note are MEFT’s insistence on taking whole family groups (rather than individuals) and their requirement that the buyer and destination abide by national and international law. This would exclude unscrupulous buyers who might want to take young elephants that can be tamed for the purpose of human entertainment. The requirements for proper fencing in Namibia are to ensure that the elephants do not simply cause conflict in other areas of the country, or return to the capture locations.

The tender advert does not provide sufficient information to understand the thinking behind the decision. Gail obtained a draft copy of a document called An Overview of Elephant Conservation and Management in Namibia that accompanies the Draft National Elephant Management Plan. This document details all of MEFT’s recent public consultations, past and present elephant research and monitoring, and approaches to reducing human-elephant conflict by MEFT and non-governmental organisations. The information contained in this extensive document (commissioned by MEFT, but prepared by an independent consultant) provides valuable insight into the reasoning behind MEFT’s intention to sell these 170 elephants.

Gail discusses in detail the history of elephant populations in Namibia. The country was colonised by Germany; then in 1920, after the end of World War I, the League of Nations mandated administration of the colony to South Africa. As the mandatory power, South Africa imposed its laws, including racial classification and policies. The central and southern areas of the country most suited for farming were fenced and elephants were exterminated.

At the same time, rural Namibians were pushed into apartheid-type ‘homelands’. With the passage of time and the independence of Namibia, these communal rural areas have adopted the practice of ‘communal conservancies’, where wildlife has thrived and elephants have multiplied. And elephants have also prospered in Namibia’s game reserves.

However, the farms are still privately owned, and the people living on this land farm for commercial purposes with livestock or wildlife. The infrastructure on the livestock farms includes windmills and diesel pumps to provide water for cattle, and fences have been erected to manage livestock grazing. The farms that have converted to wildlife are fenced with high game fences to keep valuable wildlife in (some are particularly valuable, such as sable and roan antelope), and while internal fences have been dropped, water is still pumped for game species to drink.

Over time, elephants in the communal areas and the wildlife conservation areas in the northern parts of the country have multiplied and expanded, now causing substantial damage to the commercial farms in their quest for water. The human-elephant conflict that is addressed in MEFT’s tender for selling 170 elephants is targeted at elephant populations that have moved onto freehold farmlands from neighbouring communal lands and National Parks. With an estimated 180 freehold farms affected by elephants, infrastructure damages could come to N$ 9 million (US$ 600,000) using a conservative estimate of N$ 50,000 per farmer per year. The situation as it stands is untenable; doing nothing is not an option.

The simplest solution would be to cull the elephants and sell their meat. The Namibian government is trying to avoid this by seeking a short-term solution to the problems of the commercial farmers, while working on some longer-term solutions. A better understanding of the situation would hopefully make the media more mindful of the true story about these elephants.

Namibia’s wildlife management policies are the most progressive and successful on the African continent. This has resulted in the country having growing populations of all species of wildlife, including rhinos and elephants. When elephant numbers increase, conflicts with humans become inevitable, and Botswana is now experiencing the costs of successful elephant conservation. Managing human-elephant conflict is not easy, and those who approach the issue with compassion and good intentions deserve to be treated fairly by the media. Readers are encouraged to access Gail’s comprehensive article, and to share it with friends and objective journalists.

Dr John Ledger is a past Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, now a consultant, writer and teacher on the environment, energy and wildlife; he is a columnist for the African Hunting Gazette. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.