Big Game Tourism Lessons from Africa

How Elephants Pay for School Fees: Wildlife Tourism in The Zambezi Region

Namibia’s conservancy policies are helping local communities, but challenges remain.

Linus Kalvelage
Tourism Geographic


by Linus Kalvelage, Javier Revilla Diez, & Michael Bollig

THERE are two types of wildlife tourism in Namibia, and only one of them is suitable for vegans. Besides tourists seeking photographic safari experiences, wealthy hunters from around the globe make their way to Namibia to stalk elephant, cape buffalo, antelope and other big game animals.

Many of us look at big game hunting as a controversial leisure activity. But the post-apartheid government in Namibia has found a way to enable local communities to benefit from the thrill of the chase.

Rewilding Namibia

AFTER independence from South Africa in 1990, the policy of community-based natural resource management was introduced in what had become one of the most militarized places of the cold war era. The hope was to rebuild and safeguard wildlife populations and economically uplift previously disadvantaged rural residents living on communal lands.

Where previously thousands of heavily armed South African soldiers defended Apartheid South Africa’s aspirations against the anti-colonial resistance in bordering Zambia, Botswana and Angola, now rewilding and ecotourism were to flourish and to contribute to the healing of both landscape and rural economies.

After a successful hippo hunt, these tourists chase for pictures in Dzoti conservancy, Namibia — by Kalvelage, 2019 © all rights reserved

The basic idea is to reward local communities for their conservation efforts through benefit-sharing agreements with safari tourism and trophy hunting companies.

To this end, villages form communally owned conservancies, which are overseen by a democratically elected management committee that monitors nature conservation measures designed to attract tourism investors. Through zoning, land is set aside for tourism development and wildlife conservation. These policies have put the Zambezi region in north-eastern Namibia on the map of the global tourism industry.

The Challenge of Inclusive Community-Based Tourism

AS IN other remote rural communities in Africa and around the world, great hopes have been put on on tourism’s potential to foster inclusive community development (Scheyvens & Biddulph, 2017).

Community-based natural resource management policy emerged in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and has since been introduced in many southern and eastern African countries (see also Saarinen, 2015). However, positive growth effects from tourism do not occur automatically. Instead, success depend on the structure of the industry.

Low levels of local ownership and a lack of local supply chains for goods needed to serve international tourists often result in a high degree of leakage — profits going to outside tour operators, for example, rather than to the local community in the tourism destinations (Lacher & Nepal, 2010).

Low-income countries are particularly at risk of the emergence of tourism enclaves — areas that are isolated and distinct from their surroundings. Enclaves are usually built and operated by international investors and leave little economic benefit for the local population (Saarinen, 2017).

Enclave tourism can take different forms, from all-inclusive beach resort tourism in the Maldives (dell’Agnese 2018) to urban “tourist ghettos” (Cohen & Neal, 2012).

Thus, attracting tourism investors is not enough to bring broader economic benefits to a region. We need to look more closely at the gains that can be made at the local level.

To assess the effectiveness of tourism as a regional development strategy, it is critical to ask the question: how much remains?

Our Research

IN OUR recent study of wildlife tourism in Namibia’s Zambezi region, we did just that (Kalvelage, Revilla Diez & Bollig, 2020).

(Available for free download from the publisher through late April 2021:)

The objective of the research was twofold:

  • First, to assess how much of the turnover generated in the Zambezi region remains in the region, and
  • Second, to assess the extent to which conservancies enable communities to capture value from tourism.

During two fieldwork periods in the Zambezi region and in Windhoek, the capital city, we interviewed a wide range of tourism stakeholders, with great support from our colleagues at the University of Namibia. These included tourism entrepreneurs, government agencies, business associations and conservancy managements.

This was combined with a business survey to collect general enterprise data, employment figures, booking procedures, supply chains and expenditure. Together with quantitative datasets from the Namibian Tourism Board and a local NGO, we were able to:

  • draw a detailed picture of the tourism industry in the Zambezi region,
  • assess the industry’s embeddedness in the local economy, and
  • determine the degree to which conservancies are able to capture value from tourism for the benefit of their members.

Tourism in The Zambezi Region

The Zambezi by Nicole Olwagen

THE Zambezi region is a popular tourist destination with approximately 60,000 bed nights annually (which is high for rural Africa).

Because of the great abundance of water in this delta/swamp land, it sustains large wildlife populations. Along with national parks, the community-based conservancies work:

  • to preserve and even expand wildlife habitats,
  • to safeguard wildlife corridors, and
  • to promote sustainable ways of agriculture.

There is a total of 47 lodging establishments for tourists in the rural Zambezi region, with the more luxurious ones being located within the conservancies. This is because the scenery is often more attractive in the conservancies and riverfront vistas are more plentiful. Most of these lodges are run by investors from outside the region.

Hunting tourism companies usually operate on a fly-in, fly-out basis because local communities lack the required skills and marketing opportunities to conduct these activities themselves.

The supply of local products to these tourists is very limited. The lodge owners told us that food from the local markets often does not meet the quality standards required to cater for international clients. Larger lodges, therefore, must rely on the services of specialised logistics firms that deliver food and beverage products directly from Windhoek by truck and boat.

The above are symptoms typical of enclave tourism in many parts of the world.

What is different about Namibia, however, is that the national government has given the conservancies regulatory power to negotiate with tourism investors for a share of their profits to potentially benefit their communities.

Conservancies are able to capitalize on their scenic landscape and wildlife assets in negotiating a financial benefit-sharing agreement. At the same time, they can use these negotiations to secure an agreed upon level of employment of their community members.

Tourism Benefits in The Zambezi Region

NAMIBIA’S policies bring income opportunities to a region with few other formal employers and a high degree of unemployment. Our calculations show that roughly 20% of the tourist expenditures stay in the region.

  • Hunting tourism brings direct benefits to conservancies. However, the full benefit does not reach households since large shares are used to cover the conservancy operational costs.
  • Lodge operators contribute substantially less to conservancies, but their employment effect provides a greater benefit to community members overall.

It is striking that all these benefits are almost exclusively derived from the capacity of conservancies to enforce quota fees and local employment.

A large and currently untapped potential for value capture, however, lies in local entrepreneurs being actively engaged as either a supplier or tour operator. This potential remains largely unexplored.

Similarly, there are no direct payments for ecosystem services (payments by users specifically to maintain an ecosystem), despite the critical role that the conservancies play in protecting migration routes for large ungulate animals.

Conservancy building in Bamunu: The tractor was purchased from hunting revenues — by L. Kalvelage, 2018 © all rights reserved

As a rule of thumb, conservancies spend about 50% of the income they receive on operating costs and about 50% is distributed to communities. Increasingly, these funds are used for community-wide investments, such as village electrification, water supply, and road infrastructure.

A share of the conservancy income is also used to support farmers who suffer harvest losses from wild animal raids, as well as grants to cover student school fees, and as direct cash benefits to community members.

Thus, thanks to the collaboration of conservancies and tourism investors, elephants, cape buffaloes and other big game animal species pay the school fees of some community members. This, perhaps, has the potential for the greatest return on investment, as educated youths are more likely to become more engaged entrepreneurs in the future.

Issues & Challenges

WHILE the idea that wildlife pays for education and infrastructure is certainly alluring, this approach is far from being a panacea for combining nature conservation and regional development.

First, in the Zambezi region tourism contributed only 5.5% to the net income of rural households in 2019, according to a recent survey we conducted. This illustrates that tourism is still very marginal compared to other livelihood strategies.

Second, increasing wildlife numbers through conservancy practices threatens the profits of small land holding agriculturalists, because their fields are often targeted by elephants, and their livestock often fall victim to lion and crocodile attacks.

Third, the conservancy approach seems to be able to cure the worst symptoms of enclave tourism, but local residents continue to play the role of being passive recipients of transfer payments (grant rather than income) or as low-wage employees in tourism businesses.

Fourth, questions remain regarding the distribution of benefits at the local level. While the conservancy as a whole may receive their share, their operational costs are high and some community members may benefit disproportionally.

Therefore, it is critical to ask “how much remains?”, but an equally important question is “who benefits?”.

All in all, the contribution shows that:

  • Firstly, we need to pay attention to the institutional settings of host countries to assess tourism’s development effect.
  • Secondly, while the ethical implications of leisure hunting are certainly debatable, tourism geographers can contribute to the debate by analysing the degree to which hunting tourism benefits (or harms) local communities.

Given current quests to expand conservation areas considerably, our research shows that economic development, poverty alleviation and conservation do not automatically reinforce each other. Careful institutional development with a concern for environmental justice writ large is the only way to make this promising triad work.

About the Authors

  • Linus Kalvelage <> is a research associate at the Institute of Geography, University of Cologne. As a member of the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC 228) ‘Future Rural Africa: Future-making and social-ecological transformation’, his research interests include tourism GPNs, nature conservation and regional development in Southern Africa.
  • Javier Revilla Diez <> is full professor of economic geography at the Institute of Geography, University of Cologne. Currently, he concentrates on the desired and undesired regional socio-economic effects of growth corridors as principal investigator of the CRC 228.
  • Michael Bollig <> is full professor of social and cultural anthropology at the University of Cologne. As a board member of the Global South Studies Center (GSSC) and vice-speaker of the CRC 228, his research focuses on human-environment interaction, political ecology and environmental history.

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