The human cost of living with wildlife

Farmer Zatrick Mbanga greets you by tapping his right arm with his left hand, which he then extends for you to shake. He can’t give you his right hand. The arm was bitten off by a hippo. Human-wildlife conflict is a fact of life in Namibia’s communal conservancies, especially in Zambezi Region, where elephants, lions, crocodiles and hippos live in close proximity to farmers’ crops, livestock, and to people themselves.

Mbanga lives in Isuswa village, wedged between Botswana and Zambia, and close to the Chobe River in Salambala Conservancy. Hippos often come to graze on freshly growing maize, and one night in 2010, Mbanga was out checking his crop. He remembers the date well, the first of November. Mbanga had telephoned the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to report that hippos had been in his fields. An official was due to visit that day, but failed to turn up. So Mbanga lit a fire to deter the hippos, and as he was walking home, he heard a hippo breathing close by. Within seconds the hippo was chasing him. He tried to zig-zag through the maize field, and he fell. The hippo attacked and Mbanga lost an arm. Hearing the noise, other villagers came running, and chased the hippo away.

Mbanga is now 47, and has a wife and two children to support. He still farms and has around twenty cattle. Planting maize is increasingly hard work. Sitting on the tailgate of a bakkie, he takes off his shoe and shows why. The hippo also bit off his foot. He gets around his farm on a prosthetic lower leg, which was paid for by a kind-hearted businessman in Rundu, where Mbanga was treated in hospital.

Although the environment ministry does not compensate for injuries caused by wildlife, it did create a self-reliance scheme by giving each communal conservancy N$60,000, to match with conservancy funds raised from trophy hunting and tourism, to offset crop and livestock losses to farmers. Salambala pays farmers N$1,500 for a cow lost to predators, and a gives fixed sums for crop losses, well below the market rate. In the sad event of a death, the conservancy will pay N$5,000 towards the funeral. Although there is no compensation for injury, Salambala paid Mbanga five thousand dollars to help him to recover.

Hippos grunt in the Chobe River, to the delight of tourists at Camp Chobe, which provides income to the conservancy through a joint venture. Last year Salambala sold two hippos for trophy hunting, together with six elephants, buffalos, plains game and crocodiles. Wildlife is plentiful in Zambezi, partly because it is tolerated by farmers who see the benefits from tourism and trophy hunting, which for Salambala includes jobs, meat, and cash distribution. But not all conservancies have the potential for hunting and tourism. Some will not be able to raise the funds to compensate farmers for losses. They continue to live with wildlife. In a recent survey for NACSO Natural Resources Working Group in the Zambezi Region, most conservancy members said they wanted to see wildlife on the land, so that their children will enjoy it. But they know that living with wild animals comes at a cost.