STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Imagine, for a moment, that we turned a national park into a do-it-yourself proposition. Imagine the U.S. government told people who live around Yellowstone, say, all those bears and wolves are now yours to take care of, and for doing that you get to keep the money from tourists who come to see those animals.

It can sound radical, but that's essentially what the government of Namibia is doing right now. And as a result, wildlife numbers are rising there - unlike much of Africa. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, rural Namibians and international conservationalists are embracing the idea, but living with wildlife isn't easy.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: I'm on the road with Elias Neftali. Neftali used to shoot wild animals as a farmhand. Now he protects them. That can be scary.

Have you ever had an encounter with an elephant or a lion?

ELIAS NEFTALI: Oh my god, yep.

JOYCE: Neftali says he and other wildlife guards once were sleeping in a bungalow in the bush.

NEFTALI: Somebody was screaming. When I opened my eyes, it was this elephant. He was so big.

JOYCE: Everyone froze.

NEFTALI: The things that you see in movies, that we can hear him breathing so heavy - like very angry.

JOYCE: The elephant paused, then turned to the next building.

NEFTALI: We threw off that roof completely, and then he went.

JOYCE: Now, Neftali helps manage wildlife for Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Today, he's driving members of a communal conservancy out to count their wildlife. The conservancies are like village councils - with rural members who elect their own managers.

The government created community conservancies in 1996 to solve a problem. For decades, under the apartheid government, rural Namibians had little more than desert homesteads. Wildlife belonged to government. Usually, it was fenced off in a park. Poaching was rampant. After Namibia won independence from South Africa in 1990, a new idea flourished. If rural people manage and profit from wildlife, they won't kill it off.

Now, every year, the conservancies send teams in trucks out into the bush to count their assets - animals.

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JOYCE: Neftali maneuvers a pickup truck between boulders in a dry riverbed, as his spotters stand in back.

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JOYCE: An animal with long, straight horns runs through the tall grass. It's an oryx, a big antelope.

How many oryx did you see?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Only one.

MICHAEL GUISEB: You see one oryx.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One.

JOYCE: A local wildlife tracker teaches me how to say oryx in Nama, the local click language.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One. (Foreign language spoken)

JOYCE: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

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JOYCE: A group of baboons climbs high on a cliff. Springbok antelope leap in fast retreat. In some cases, we don't see the animal - only the mess it made, like a big tree that looks as if it's been hit by lightning.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, it's the work of the elephant. It's elephants that have broken the branches - testing their strength, I guess.

JOYCE: This is the Huab conservancy. It covers an area a little bigger than Houston, and has only 5,000 inhabitants. It's fairly new and is not making money. There aren't a lot of animals here or a tourist lodge - and tourist lodges are the big money-spinners.

Other conservancies are doing better though, like Khoadi-Hoas, just north of Huab. The conservancy owns the Grootberg lodge, at the edge of a mountain valley that looks, almost, like Mars. Black rhinos and lions thrive there, and tourists love it. Hilga Howeses has run the conservancy for eight years.

HILGA HOWESES: I am a brave woman - I am not afraid to talk; I'm not afraid, even, to the minister. I am afraid of lion and elephant. I don't want to come close to them.

JOYCE: Keeping up the numbers of charismatic animals draws not only tourists, but hunters. Trophy hunting is the second highest source of income for the conservancies. They charge up to $15,000 to shoot a lion. Fifteen thousand dollars is three times the average annual income in Namibia, and way more than what farmers make.

And people can shoot game, like antelope, for meat.

HOWESES: Every two years we are doing community hunting whereby we give meat to each household.

JOYCE: Rural Namibians have few options, and they hold high expectations for the conservancies.

John Kasaona is a farmer, the son of a former poacher, and now a conservationist. He co-directs IRDNC, the non-profit agency that guides the conservancies.

JOHN KASAONA: People are very desperate; everybody wants to make sure they are getting the most out of this whole cake. And people are not very patient.

JOYCE: It takes a long time for uneducated farmers to learn how to run tourist lodges, or manage the flow of cash. But Kasaona says there are other measures of success: new jobs, and local control.

KASAONA: The broader picture is that - the understanding of having this to be run without any outside interference, to me, is the key.

JOYCE: Albert Gureseb got a job at Khoadi-Hoas, first as a hunting guide, and then doing damage control. Today, he's traveling by donkey cart to find and pay farmers who've lost livestock to predators. This is the price of success.

ALBERT GURESEB: When the conservancy started, the number of the predators increased because we are looking after them.

JOYCE: And how did people's feeling about the predators change?

GURESEB: They say they are not happy about increasing of the predators.

JOYCE: Gureseb visits a one-room farmhouse on a dusty hill. Goats shuffle behind a wire fence. Katrina Katatumosa farms here with her daughter. She says recently, a cheetah ate three of her goats. She saw the whole thing.

KATRINA KATATUMOSA: (Foreign language spoken)

JOYCE: She complains that the conservancy doesn't pay the full market value of her goats. Even if they did, having cheetahs around isn't worth it, she says. Gureseb smiles. He tells me that outside the conservancies, farmers get nothing when a predator kills livestock.

Farther down a dirt road, I meet Michael Guiseb at his uncle's farm. A few days before, an elephant came through here and almost destroyed his cistern, a concrete tank 15 feet high. Guiseb says he heard the elephant before he saw it.

GUISEB: Even the stomach of the elephant makes some noise. It's making whooooww(ph), that sort of noise. If the elephant makes that noise that you can hear, something is wrong here.

JOYCE: Elephants hunt water. So the conservancy is building water wells away from farms, just for elephants. Guiseb, who wants to become a conservationist himself, says that's good; people are learning.

GUISEB: Some people want to kill the elephants. But the good way is, let's conserve it. Bringing them very closer to the wildlife, to the elephants, will change this attitude of the people.

JOYCE: Most conservancy members I talked to say profiting from wildlife is better than when the white apartheid government owned it all. And the numbers for rare species - like rhinoceros - and game species - like springbok - are up. Poaching is way down. The conservancies earn about $7 million dollars annually.

John Kasaona acknowledges a lot of that money goes to pay for killed livestock. But he says in Africa, wildlife is worth more than these costs.

KASAONA: We have got open landscape; still not occupied by human beings. If we don't look after the resources, I don't how Africa is to support its citizens.

JOYCE: After 15 years, communal conservancies are still an experiment. But now, wildlife managers from the rest of Africa, Asia and even the U.S. are coming here, to learn how the Namibians do it.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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INSKEEP: And tomorrow, Christopher will tell us about another controversial part of Namibia's program: shooting wildlife. This is NPR News.

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