The Conservancy Rhino Ranger Incentive Program

Current initiative

Published October 2018

Black Rhino - Photo by Conservancy Rhino Ranger Support Group

Black Rhino. Credit: Conservancy Rhino Ranger Support Group

The resurgence of poaching for rhino horn is a serious threat to the black rhino. Most rhino range countries are focussing on military-style enforcement strategies to counteract poaching. But not everywhere. Over the past 6 years in Namibia’s remote north-west Kunene region, where the world’s largest free-ranging black rhino population persists on formally unprotected lands, a more holistic, community-centered approach to rhino conservation-by has been established. It is a collaborative, local-level rhino protection institution known as the Conservancy Rhino Ranger Incentive Program.

Lead

Location

The initiative is taking place on communal land in north west Kunene Region. Kunene is home to the Himba ethnic group. Compared to the rest of Namibia, it is relatively underdeveloped. This is due to the mountainous inaccessible geography and arid conditions that significantly hinders agriculture.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Black Rhino Diceros bicornis

Products in trade

Rhino horn. Medicinal, ornaments, status symbols - which is driven largely by the demand from wealthy people/businessmen from China and Viet Nam.

Overview of the problem

During the early 20th century as many as 850,000 black rhinos roamed the African plains. Relentless hunting in conjunction with land clearance rapidly reduced its numbers, and by 1960 the population had been reduced to approximately 100,000.

This wasn't the worst of it. Between 1960 and 1995, large-scale poaching caused a further 98% collapse in numbers, falling to an all-time low of 2,400 individuals in the mid-1990's. Accordingly, the black rhino is classified as Critically Endangered by IUCN.

Since the 1990s, and with enormous conservation effort, the population of black rhino has doubled to about 5,000-5,500 animals. 

Namibia is a stronghold for more than one-third of these and is the largest concentration of free-roaming black rhino in the world.

Today, recovery of the black rhino is again threatened by rising wildlife crime—specifically poaching and black-market trafficking of rhino horn. The level of resources required to effectively counter poaching of black rhino in Protected Areas far exceed available budgets, making it almost impossible for the government alone to effectively protect this iconic species.

In the 1980s, like elsewhere in Africa, poaching of rhino in Namibia was rife. All rhino were managed and owned by the state. Communities were completely dissociated from wildlife, including rhino. They had no management rights, no say in decisions about rhino, or other wildlife, and gained no benefits from the species. The only interaction wildlife officials ever had with local people from surrounding communities was arresting them or interrogating them for poaching. Many people from the communities were poachers.  

The renewed surge in poaching since 2011, and especially in 2014 on conservancy lands, meant more had to be done to protect this species in these areas. Conservancies are much more difficult to patrol and have access to fewer resources for anti-poaching work compared to protected areas. Anti-poaching work is also made more difficult in conservancies because conservancy lands are much more difficult to patrol and have access to fewer resources for anti-poaching work compared to protected areas. Anti-poaching work is also made more difficult in conservancies because it is impossible to control access (there is free access to communal lands in Namibia) and there are no restrictions on carrying firearms (like in PA's) as long as the carrier has proper ID and license. So anyone can move within the rhino range in Kunene with a firearm as long as they have a license for it.

The anti-IWT initiative

In 2011, in response to the escalating threats from poaching, community leaders already engaged under Rhino Custodianship Programme (RCP) and game guards (employed by the conservancies) realised that they could be more effective custodians if they had better training and equipment to monitor rhinos, which would, in turn, expand their income-generating opportunities from emerging rhino tourism. So they reached out and asked for help.

This was a declaration of their commitment to protecting one of the last truly wild populations of black rhino; recognising that their lives are better with the rhino than without.

Supported by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, a small group of dedicated field conservationists and NGOs responded by forming a working group that sought to deliver targeted support to rhino custodians. A year later, the Conservancy Rhino Ranger Incentive Programme, in the Kunene region in Namibia, was implemented. 

The Rhino Ranger Incentive Program is a direct, pragmatic mechanism that empowers the Conservancy's to fulfill their RCP responsibilities by strengthening anti-poaching vigilance. The approach taken is guided by the belief that securing a future for wild populations of rhinos depends on local people refusing to tolerate poaching, and rhinos being more valuable alive than dead. 

To determine the best strategies to achieve the initiative’s objectives, program leaders met with local leaders to establish how best to harness the values of the community that would be good for the people they represented and for the rhinos. Local game guards were also asked to identify any barriers that were limiting their ability to conduct dedicated rhino patrols.  

Understanding these local viewpoints and context resulted in the development and implementation of a number of strategies and motivations for local communities to engage in rhino conservation. These included:

  1. Monetary and non-monetary incentives - The initiative has strengthened and expanded the capacity of local communities to monitor rhinos on their lands by providing an enhanced training curriculum, state-of-the-art rhino monitoring, and field patrol equipment, and paid and performance-based rewards that enabled and incentivised rhino ranger teams to undertake their duties effectively.
     
  2. Development of community-led eco-tourism enterprises.
     
  3. Creating a sense of ownership and stewardship toward rhino.
     
  4. Improving education and awareness about conservation and IWT.

Details provided in the following section.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Paid in money community scouts
Performance-based payments/incentives for patrolling or guarding
Raising community awareness about wildlife crime penalties and sanctions
Further detail

For each conservancy, there are between 18 to 60 fully employed and paid Rhino Rangers are paid locally competitive wages (the conservancies contribute approximately US$100,000/year to support these salaries). Wages are complemented by non-financial benefits (described below).

The initiative has strengthened and expanded the capacity of local communities to monitor rhinos on their lands by providing an enhanced training curriculum, state-of-the-art rhino monitoring and field patrol equipment, and performance-based rewards that enabled and incentivised rhino ranger teams to undertake their duties effectively. Wages are also complemented by non-financial benefits such as such as uniforms, bi-annual team building events, training seminars, and certificates for achievement provided by Supporting NGOs. 

Rhino Rangers visit a number of rural farmers on each patrol to raise awareness about wildlife crime and the consequences, in addition to building trust and strengthening willingness to cooperate by sharing information.

 

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Tourism
Further detail

Once rhino ranger teams acquired the skills needed to effectively monitor the rhino on their land, training in rhino tourism and the development of community-led rhino tourism activities occurred. This helped generate critical finances needed to sustain rhino monitoring and enhanced the value local people placed on keeping rhinos alive. This also provides opportunities for rangers to interact with foreign tourists and receive their feedback (which is almost always very positive) on their work. This appears to be a considerable morale booster for the Rangers resulting in higher performance.

Cultivate local pride - A logo and motto was developed from the onset which created a sense of unity, reinforced local ownership and generated momentum and pride around a clear cause. The logo for this initiative depicts a rhino inside the pupil of a human eye with the slogan "keeping an eye on our rhino."

Build/and or support sense of community ownership or stewardship

Improving education and awareness

Further detail

Additional training of both rangers and other local people to provide local outreach and awareness raising activities in their communities has also been undertaken.

Has the initiative made a difference?

Indicators of success include:

  • After the past 5 years there was an eight-fold increase in patrol efforts and coinciding with more ‘boots on the ground’ poaching rates have dropped significantly - by 80% - since 2014, with only three cases in 2016 and four cases in 2017 recorded on conservancy lands in north-west Namibia. Between September 2017 and August 2018, not a single rhino has been poached. There has also been a fivefold increase in rhino sightings. 
     
  • New sources of local income have been successfully generated. These finance the monitoring work by Rhino Rangers’ and also provides additional revenue that benefits the broader community. 
     
    • In just two years, one-third of the Rangers were leading their own rhino tourism activities on behalf of their conservancies (in partnership with the tourism private sector). This generated over $250,000 in annual net income for communities living on conservancy lands in 2017 and over US$1 million since the programme began in 2012. 
       
  • Provision of uniforms, bi-annual team building events, training seminars, certificates for achievement in exams, monthly patrol performance awards for the best patrol, best sighting and best photograph, on top of bonus payments – all appear to have fostered enthusiasm and pride in their role as Rhino Rangers.
     
  • Local people's willingness to detect and report wildlife crime has increased. 
    • In 2017, local farmers living within rhino conservancies helped foil potential poaching attempts on numerous separate occasions by voluntarily alerting law enforcement after observing suspicious activity near their farms. This led to arrests. 
       
  • Community sense of ownership is being reinforced by the initiative’s success and has heightened community pride.

Only recently have communities been receiving tangible benefits from rhino through the initiative, and although this has increased support for rhino conservation, the basis for communities to act as rhino stewards provided a renewed opportunity to begin building a locally-grown sense of ownership and norms that reduce tolerance towards rhino poaching.
 

Although the strategies used in this initiative (such as increased vigilance and close monitoring, and improving community attitudes toward rhino) has been very successful in the fight against rhino poaching, these alone will not completely stop rhino poaching. Further prevention requires a range of interventions, as described below:

  1. Create true behaviour change or the establishment of new pro-rhino norms in communities. This often requires targeted and strategic multi-stakeholder interventions that remove barriers and incentivises performance for measurable action.
     
  2. The Rhino Ranger Programme is the second line of defense – specifically providing for increased, more focused and better equipped and able vigilance. This includes monitoring the black rhino population. Having good information on rhino population status and distribution at the individual level is as critical as keeping track of human activity. 
  3. Having a responsive and reactive law enforcement agency (in Namibia, the Ministry of Environment and the Namibian Police) is the critical third line of defense.

There are synergies between these 'lines of defense' that also need to occur for success. For example, the Rhino Ranger programme also provides the necessary skills and knowledge to create income-generating opportunities (such as tourism) that may improve attitudes. Also, the inclusion of police officers in the ranger patrols has helped, in some but not all cases, to build local trust and respect.

What works and why

This initiative is a leading example of how communities can effectively lead the protection of wildlife and clearly demonstrates that having ‘rights’ to manage and benefit from rhino coupled with a strong sense of ‘ownership’ provide a foundation for effective community engagement in the fight against poaching.

The game-changer has been the collaborative multi-stakeholder approach that has harnessed each contributor's skills and expertise in a way that benefits both rhino and local people. 

Only recently have communities been receiving tangible benefits from rhino through the initiative, and although this has increased support for rhino conservation, the basis for communities to act as rhino stewards provided a renewed opportunity to begin building a locally-grown sense of ownership and norms that reduce tolerance towards rhino poaching.

Other factors that enabled success include:

  • Taking the time to carry out a needs assessment that took into account how to increase local benefits from the rhino. 
     
  • A transparent and inclusive decision process that worked closely with appropriate local institutions was key to ensuring decisions were made that reflect the common interest.
     
  • Letting the locals lead. By this, we mean ensuring that decision-making arenas, especially on strategic and operational issues, were led by individuals and organizations that work locally, at the ground level. Our support group, for example, existed almost exclusively of local leaders in support NGOs with vast amounts of field experience and intimate understanding of local context.
     
  • Anticipating potential and actual barriers to effective implementation increase success. Simply providing training and equipment wasn't enough.
     
  • Carefully drafted letters of agreement developed and signed by both parties to clarify the roles and responsibilities among the partners. 

Factors for success

Supportive national policy/legislation for devolved governance of natural resources

Supportive, multi-stakeholder partnerships with a shared vision

Devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)

Further detail

The introduction of the Nature Conservation Amendment Act 1996 provided a legal foundation for local people living in communal areas to form conservancies as a basis for conditional rights to manage and benefit from wildlife on their lands. Conservancies started to form and enter into contracts with the tourism sector and trophy hunting operators, and new income was generated. Wildlife populations, including rhino, began to recover. The creation of new sustainable livelihood opportunities provided another incentive to protect the rhino. 

As conservancies became self-sufficient they took on the responsibility of paying the game guards, who became conservancy employees.

The collaborative multi-stakeholder approach - the diversity of government, NGO, community and private sector support - that harnesses each contributor's skills and expertise in a way that benefits both rhino and local people have been pivotal for achieving rhino conservation at this scale.

To determine the best strategies to achieve the initiative’s objectives, program leaders met with local leaders to establish how best to harness the values of the community that would be good for the people they represented and for the rhinos. Local game guards were also asked to identify any barriers that were limiting their ability to conduct dedicated rhino patrols. Understanding these local viewpoints and context resulted in the development and implementation of the strategies employed by this initiative.

What doesn’t work and why

The initiative is not without challenges, including:

  • The difficulties associated with sustaining local interest and support while ranger patrol and tourism training is completed before the full benefits of the training can be realised.
     
  • Logistical constraints, e.g. the distance between the homes of some rangers and rhino areas creates a management challenge and increased costs for these individuals (transport and time).
     
  • Turnover in conservancy leadership has strained communication between conservancies and the program support group in a couple of cases.
     
  • Longer term uncertainty about whether new revenues from rhino tourism will actually change attitudes in the wider community.
     
  • Available resources currently limit the project to working with conservancies that already have resident rhinos.
     
  • The difficulties of changing local customs and beliefs, such as ‘witchcraft' customs and practices that may discourage people from reporting suspicious behaviour (e.g. a ‘poacher' will go to a powerful witch doctor and pay for a ‘spell' to be cast on anyone who would report him/her), however the extent of this problem is unknown.
    ​​​​
  • A recent challenge has been the emerging confusion from the rangers on whom they actually represent and/or who they are mostly accountable to, since a number of institutions provide various types and amounts of support. 
     
  • Lastly, despite the dramatic increase in rhino tourism income, Conservancies still rely heavily on the financial support of NGOs. 
     

Factors that limited or hindered success

Ineffective and unaccountable community-based natural resources management institutions

Lack of transparent and accountable distribution of benefits to local communities

Lack of clearly defined tenure or resource use rights

Further detail

There remains a lack of capacity in Conservancy leadership to fully manage the programme, although this is highly variable.

Although significant funding has been raised through rhino tourism, support NGOs are still providing the majority of the financial inputs.

Local communities can not restrict access or use of properly licenses firearms in the rhino range on communal lands.

Organisers, donors and partners

Save the Rhino Trust, Minnesota Zoo, Integrated Rural Development & Nature Conservation, Namibian Nature Foundation, Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

For further information contact Dr Jeff Muntifering (jmuntif@gmail.com).