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I was driving my trusty old 4×4 Toyota Hilux on a familiar dirt road in the Kunene Region of Namibia when a movement caught my eye. Through the trees and clouds of dust, an elephant was moving toward a watering hole for a drink just before sunset. Slowing to a stop where there was a better view, I noticed a few tourists who had also spotted the gray giant and were filming him from a safe distance while standing outside their vehicle. 


This was a special elephant sighting for a number of reasons. Firstly, this particular bull elephant occurs in an arid part of what is a generally dry country. Their ability to survive in these harsh conditions has earned them the nickname “desert elephants,” although scientists prefer the term “desert-adapted elephants.” The second reason this was special, from the tourists’ perspective, was that the elephant was roaming on unfenced land where there were few official rules. They were therefore able to get out of their vehicles (strictly forbidden in Big Five National Parks) and find a perfect vantage point from which to view the animal. 


This elephant sighting was a form of photographic tourism, and I knew that we were in an area where elephant hunting was allowed. At face value, this sighting shows that hunting and photographic tourism can indeed work in the same area, although this is hotly debated both within Namibia and around the world. Why can’t we just enjoy watching elephants, without putting a price on their heads? Why does anyone have to shoot them? These are simple questions, but the answers are far from straightforward — one first needs to understand where the humans fit into this picture. In landscapes shaped by humans, meeting the needs of people is key to conserving not just elephants but all wild animals.



Like the tourists, I enjoyed the sight of a free-roaming desert elephant, but I had gained a different perspective on the situation during the years preceding this event. I am a conservation biologist who was employed to reduce human-wildlife conflict in the area. I was not just touring around looking for wildlife and enjoying the spectacular desert landscape (undeniable perks of the job), but on my way to visit the offices of a communal conservancy. These conservancies were initially set up by the local communities so that they might benefit from the wildlife they live with, including elephants. These benefits flow from two primary sources: photographic tourism and what Namibia calls conservation hunting.

As I watched the scene unfold before me, I witnessed something that few people consider when they think of desert elephants — the cost of living with them. This particular reservoir was not built, and the water in it was not pumped for the benefit of elephants. The local farmer pumped this water for his goats and cattle, which were trying to access the water trough at the same time as the thirsty elephant. With loud trumpeting and stomping feet, the elephant scattered the livestock in all directions. Once satisfied that it could drink alone, it quenched its incredible thirst — one elephant can drink up to 50 gallons of water each day. 

In a desert landscape, water is a precious resource that must be pumped from underground aquifers. This particular pump was diesel-powered, which means that the farmer must pay for every gallon of water the elephant drinks before his livestock even get to the trough. If the reservoir does not have water in it when a thirsty pachyderm arrives, the frustrated elephant might break reservoir walls, rip water pipes out of the ground and trample livestock to death. The farmers here have begrudgingly learned to keep their uninvited guests well watered or suffer the consequences.




This is why monetary benefits from wildlife are so important — no one would tolerate dangerous, sometimes badly behaved wild animals on their land without obvious incentives. The tourists who jumped out of their car to film the elephant certainly placed great value on the sighting, but did their visit to this particular area contribute to the farmer who provided the water? It’s unlikely. This conservancy did have a nearby campsite, but that was all but defunct, and the conservancy did not yet have a lodge on its land. Wherever these people were staying, it would not be nearby, and their tourist dollars would go elsewhere. 

However, hunting tourism supported this conservancy in the absence of camps and lodges, while providing a reason for its members to tolerate the elephants. Unlike the photo tourists, international hunting tourists come for a different experience. They do not need a lodge or even a well-serviced campsite with Western amenities like flushing toilets. Hunting operators can bring their clients to a rustic camp with no running water, as the promise of a challenging hunt is enough to attract them to this place. 



Since that experience, the conservancy has renovated their campsite and now has a new lodge, thus bringing much-needed employment and income. Hunting continues in a different part of the conservancy from where the lodge is located. The people living here see no reason why tourism and hunting cannot both contribute to their conservancy and thus help them to better coexist with elephants. Despite their losses, they are not against elephant conservation and are involved in the process of setting sustainable hunting quotas for all of the wildlife on their land. In the case of elephants, long-term monitoring using internationally accepted aerial survey methods has shown that their numbers are increasing in Namibia. As long as the lodge and hunting operators pay according to their contracts (and the latter abide by the quota), employ local people, and distribute the meat from hunting as agreed, why should they choose one over the other?

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