A country’s plants and animals are national treasures shared by the entire population, to be held in trust for future generations.

In 1990, Namibia turned that concept into law, becoming the first African nation to incorporate environmental protections into its constitution in an attempt to conserve species in sharp decline from poaching and drought.

Before 1990, a small minority controlled tourism in Namibia. Local communities received little benefit from tourism and lacked incentives to conserve. After achieving independence, Namibia, with help from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), shifted the rights and responsibilities of conservation to local communities.

Known as Living in a Finite Environment, or LIFE, the project brought together the Namibian government, USAID, the World Wildlife Fund and several local partners to provide conservancies with technical support, training, grants and regional coordination.

Cattle bunching promotes healthier pastures and attracts grazing wildlife. (USAID/Riccardo Gangale)

To become a conservancy, a community must define its membership and borders, establish a governing committee, create an income distribution plan and adopt a constitution. Today, one in four rural Namibians belongs to a registered conservancy, where wildlife is valued, poaching is unacceptable and threatened species thrive.

In 2004, USAID helped launch a similar project in Kenya. The Northern Rangelands Trust includes pastoralists, landowners and the Kenyan government.

In many communities in Namibia and Kenya, this enhanced care for wildlife has boosted tourism, improved economies and provided specific benefits:

Healthier lands. Conservancies have instituted land-management practices. Cattle bunching lumps herds together for grazing, which helps break up hard soil while giving areas of unused land time to heal. The results? Fatter cattle and higher incomes.

Thriving wildlife. Conservancy members know that abundant wild animals attract tourists. Elephant sightings in Kenya’s Sera Conservancy increased 366 percent after the establishment of the Northern Rangelands Trust. Currently less than a third of elephant deaths on Kenya’s conserved lands are caused by poaching, compared to 87 percent outside the conservancies.

Women in the Northern Rangelands Trust sold $85,000 worth of jewelry in 2011. (USAID Kenya/David Mutua)

More jobs. Conservancies partner with private companies to open safari lodges, sell hunting licenses and make handicrafts. In Namibia, LIFE created 547 full-time and 3,250 part-time jobs. In Kenya, women from conservancies sold $85,000 worth of jewelry in 2011 alone.

Development. Conservancy members share earnings. Many conservancies compensate pastoralists who have lost livestock, subsidize education for members and their children, and start farming projects. In general, conservancies put 60 percent of gross income toward development projects, such as increasing water access or improving roads.

Better governance.  By encouraging inclusive decisionmaking, local conservancies cultivate good governance. Locals learn to hold their representatives accountable and to replace them when necessary. Representatives learn to manage resources on behalf of the group.