John Kasaona grew up watching his father as he hunted animals in northwestern Namibia. That is what cattle farmers did back then. Now decades later, he is leading one of the most successful conservation programmes in Africa.
Namibia, a country with only 2.1 million residents, has been formally developing its innovative conservation experiment for almost two decades. What started out as an ambition to give local communities their wildlife back has resulted in one of the country's most admired inventions: its communal conservancies.
There are 79 across the country, covering almost 20 per cent of the land. One in five rural Namibians lives in a conservancy, each responsible for the natural resources within the boundaries. Conservancies have defined borders, governance structures and management plans, which allow locals to manage and benefit from some of the country's biggest species.
"The colonial government didn't allow [communities] to have any say in the management of wildlife; they were all regarded as poachers," said Mr Kasaona, 42, executive director for the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservancies. "The idea that communities are equally responsible for wildlife is something people in the past never knew. Today, they see there is a reason to have wildlife around them. They value wildlife."
In a few weeks' time, Mr Kasaona will come to the UK for the London Wildlife Conference, where some of the world's leaders and heads of state will try to find a solution to global wildlife crime. They could do worse than heed his advice. Wildlife crime is the world's fourth biggest illegal trade after narcotics, human trafficking and counterfeiting. About 100 elephants are killed every day for their ivory. According to a South African report, 2013 was the worst year on record for rhino poaching in the country, with 1,004 animals killed – a 50 per cent increase on 2012.
The Independent on Sunday, alongside its sister titles, is calling for the leaders to commit to better training and resources for rangers on the ground; better education in places such as Asia, where consumer demand is driving up poaching; to stamp down on corruption and implement adequate laws for those involved in the trade; to aid local communities to develop sustainable livelihoods; and to uphold the ban on the international trade in ivory.
The illegal wildlife trade has reached crisis levels. But in Namibia, wildlife is recovering. It is the only country across the continent with an expanding lion population, and it has the largest population of rhinos on community land. Rhino and elephant populations have risen threefold since the conservancies began, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Only four rhinos were reported to have been killed last year, according to the conservation group, compared with more than 1,000 in South Africa.
"What makes this such an exciting story is that these aren't national parks or protected areas. It is all largely communal land," said Drew McVey, the WWF-UK's East African regional manager. "Why live with elephants and lions on your doorstep if all they do is threaten your survival and kill your livestock? There has to be a financial return. Ninety per cent of jobs in the conservancies go to the local community; money generated goes back in."
It was not always like this. Wildlife in communal areas had plummeted prior to Namibia's independence in 1990. Residents had virtually no rights to use wildlife and it was seen as a threat to crops, livestock and to safety. In a sign of how far things have come, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism in Namibia has even translocated some black rhinos out of national parks into the safe keeping of communal conservancies. "It is a model each and every country in Africa, and in the world, could follow," said Mr Kasaona. "If we are to sustain conservation in Africa, we can't limit wildlife to zoos or national parks. We have to open up conservation corridors and buffer zones beyond. We need hundreds and thousands of eyes and ears on the ground to help us conserve wildlife."
Tens of millions of Namibian dollars in revenue has been funnelled into the conservancies – primarily from tourism and hunting – which can be channelled back into community conservation projects. While hunting precious animals might seem to jar with the principles of conservationism, Mr Kasaona insisted that in Namibia, it is "sustainable". He added: "You sacrifice one lion, one elephant, or one rhino, and you conserve hundreds of others. It is selective hunting; it's about generating income to put back into conservation."
Concerns with hunting aside, other countries are taking note. Namibia has had delegates over from places including South Africa, Nepal, Mongolia and Kenya. The last, under its new wildlife conservation and management bill, has placed emphasis on providing benefits and incentives for communities that live among wildlife, recognising the importance of conservancies.
The IoS's elephant appeal supports Space for Giants, a charity determined to defend Africa's elephants. It works with the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya to assist economically marginalised pastoralists to use conservation as a tool for livelihood security and development.
"One of the greatest and most unexpected expansions of conservation as a form of land use has been among community-owned lands in the drylands of southern and eastern Africa," said Dr Max Graham, founder of Space for Giants. "The key driver has been the value that wildlife brings through benefits to local people."
Join our campaign
A unique chance to save the elephant comes this month when Britain hosts an international conference in London to address the global poaching crisis.
The event, which is hosted by David Cameron and features some 50 heads of state, must take steps to stop the £12bn illegal wildlife trade. The Independent on Sunday, joined by our sister papers The Independent, i, and Evening Standard, is demanding that those attending sign up to:
* Train wildlife rangers who risk their lives stopping poachers.
* Educate people, particularly in Asia, about the true cost of buying illegal ivory.
* Stamp on corruption, and enforce adequate laws to punish those responsible.
* Uphold the existing ban on the international trade in ivory.
* Help local people in poaching hot spots to benefit from wildlife conservation.
Join us in calling on world leaders to act by signing our petition at www.independent.co.uk/voices/campaigns/elephant-campaign/