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We have so much to learn from those who have spent their entire lives maintaining a fragile equilibrium with the wildlife with which they share the few remaining, truly wild, spaces. Here, no ecologist has been appointed, but rather nature decides who lives or dies.
The oldest of Namibia’s 82 registered communal conservancies, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy is named after the pans located at the northernmost tip of the Kalahari Desert; pans which fill with rainwater at the end of summer and attract large numbers of animals, from elephants to antelope to apex predators.
Namibia has designated about 20% of its landmass as communal conservancies run by local communities. Of these, about two-thirds have hunting rights. They retain a portion of their allocated quota to hunt for food for the local community and sell a portion to professional hunters, who in turn bring in trophy hunters. These mechanisms in place are, theoretically, a win-win for the local communities. They balance the ecosystem while providing income and development opportunities for impoverished communities, giving them a reason to preserve the wildlife with which they share the environment.
It is also the only place left in the world where the indigenous San people, or “Bushmen,” are still allowed to hunt with their traditional bow and poisoned arrows. While some still use traditional snares and traps for smaller game, most hunting is now done with rifles.
“If the great beasts are gone, man will surely die of a great loneliness of spirit.” Chief Seattle of the Nez Percé, 1884. In I Dreamed Of Africa, by Kuki Gallmann.
Welcome to what was once mythologized as the original African Eden or “Bushman’s Paradise;” a nearly 9,000-square-kilometer (3,475-square-mile) communal conservation area close to the Botswana border and the Okavango Delta, run by “the first people,” as the San refer to themselves. Today, roughly 2,800 San people live in unyielding conditions. I watch as villagers shovel dirt over the skull of a bull elephant hunted earlier in the day. It will be dug up about a week later when the muscles around the tusks have receded. The hunter will take the tusks home, while the meat, and a portion of the fee, will go directly to community members and to fund conservation projects to protect the area’s wildlife.
Nyae Nyae’s huge hunting quota, which includes leopard, elephant and buffalo, makes it the most profitable communal conservancy in Namibia, thanks to trophy hunting. In an area without any local industry but rich in game, the profits brought, at least initially, noticeable improvements to the marginalized San people’s lives. For the past 20 years, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) has given Nyae Nyae the single biggest hunting quota of all Namibia’s communal conservancies, about two-thirds of which have hunting rights. In 2018, the conservancy was entitled to harvest more than 1,300 animals and birds, including nine elephants, nine buffalo, seven eland, four roan antelope, three leopards, two spotted hyenas, one giraffe, and a host of smaller species.
The issue begins when wildlife numbers decline due to a multitude of environmental factors, including but not limited to drought. Between 2013 and 2016, Namibia experienced the worst water shortage in 30 years; elephant numbers plunged from 1797 in 2015 to just 603 in 2017. However, refusing to consider these factors, the allocated hunting quota remained intact. When quotas are not adjusted, the pressure put on already declining populations can result in predators seeking other food sources and turning to livestock. This often results in the poisoning of lions by the community.
Seen from the air, Africa can appear as an illusion, with rich velds, dramatic rifts, wide deserts and thundering rivers — seemingly vast stretches of unfettered, unpopulated wild lands ostensibly forgotten by time and people. At a glance, it could be a repository for all our ideas about wilderness at its wildest. And yet today, no patch here goes unclaimed, whether it’s marked, monetized or fought over. The animals that roam the land have become commodified, part of a new consumerism, marketed and sold, their brands pitted against each other, their continued existence now a question of human demand, whim and calculation. Wild game is the continent’s version of crude oil — and it too will run out someday if we continue to misuse it. Revenues of hundreds of millions in federal excise taxes levied on hunters go directly to wildlife management and related activities each year in the U.S. alone. Those who keep a freezer full of venison are likely to tell you that the act of killing your own dinner in the wild is more humane than buying the plastic-wrapped meat of industrially raised livestock. The hugely complex relationship that exists between man and animal, the hunter and the hunted, has always been one of the most difficult to navigate, but the most important to talk about.
I’m struggling to process all that I’ve witnessed in this extraordinarily precious landscape. After years of working on stories related to our coexistence with wildlife, I’m now more aware than ever that the future is bleak simply because it rests in man’s hungry hands. I’ve walked with Bushmen across lands that only hold the spore of the wild, and yet like the very foot that made that track, when severed from the beast that bore it, it dries and withers without the life that sustained it. It is our duty to maintain those areas that offer freedom from the hand of man, to push back our destructive presence and understand that we do not all have a God-given right to access them. Those that do must tread as the Bushmen — lightly, and with respect.
David Chancellor is a multi-award-winning documentary photographer.
His work brings him across the world, from the tribal lands of Kenya to the somber mountains of Scotland. His interests have focused on mapping the jagged and bloody line where man and beast meet. He has participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions, exhibited in major galleries and museums, and has been published worldwide.
Named Nikon Photographer of the Year three times, he received a World Press Photo Award in 2010 for Elephant Story from his series Hunters. Chancellor won the Taylor Wessing National Portrait Prize in 2010, exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery London. David published the monograph Hunters in 2012; the same year he received a Sony World Photography Award (Nature and Wildlife) and Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award. In 2013 he received the World Understanding Award in the Pictures of the Year International competition; the Kuala Lumpur International Photo Award for portraiture; the Vienna International Photo Award for documentary photography; and the Kontinent Award for documentary photography. His work continues to examine mankind’s commodification of wildlife.
Follow David’s adventures on instagram: @chancellordavid
The Weight of Wolves
Hunting with Wolves