Garth Owen-Smith, Architect of Community-Based Conservation, Dies at 76

April 12, 2020

Garth Owen-Smith, of Namibia, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa in 1993 with Dr. Margaret Jacobsohn for their pioneering work in community-based natural resource management, has died. He was 76.

In the early 1980s, Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn, an anthropologist, began a lifelong effort to link wildlife conservation with the needs of the local Himba, Herero, and other indigenous peoples in northwestern Namibia. Working with village leaders, they created a cadre of auxiliary game guards to safeguard wildlife populations from poaching. Their work resulted in the significant protection of desert elephants, black rhinos, and many other rare and endangered species. Eventually, their work with local communities became a model for similar initiatives elsewhere in Namibia and throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Owen-Smith chronicled his efforts spanning nearly 50 years in his 2011 book, An Arid Eden: A Personal Account of Conservation in the Kaokoveld. He first visited the Kaokoveld region of Namibia in 1967 and the experience changed his life. His work with Dr. Jacobsohn challenged the conventional wisdom of wildlife conservation in Africa. The nonprofit organization they founded, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation, continues to advance new innovations in conservation, agriculture, and rural development.

Garth Owen-Smith and Margaret Jacobsohn in 1993

Owen-Smith defied many of the tenets of traditional wildlife conservation and was no stranger to controversy. His longtime support for trophy hunting and the funding it provided for local communities sometimes put him at odds with western conservationists. “Without trophy hunting there would be no wildlife,” he said in an interview last year with the Mountain Journal. “But trophy hunting is just one of several different ways to give financial value to wildlife in areas where ecotourism is insufficient to make a difference. Tourism needs to generate income for people who live with or near wildlife, and importantly, to cover the costs of living with wild animals.”

No one could argue with Owen-Smith’s success; thanks to community-based conservation, wildlife populations in Namibia and many other parts of Africa have begun to rebound. Asked about his vision, Owen-Smith said, “I was inspired by early conservationists who had the humility and insight to recognize that working with local communities was—and is—the only way to ensure the future of wildlife.”

In 2015, in recognition of their lifetime achievements on behalf of wildlife, Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn were awarded the Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa.

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About the author:
Mike Sutton pictureMichael Sutton is Executive Director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, which awards the Goldman Prize each year to grassroots environmental leaders on six continents. Mike is a respected environmental conservation leader with extensive experience managing nonprofit organizations, influencing public policy, advocating for natural resources, and guiding successful philanthropic efforts. His distinguished career has ranged from work with the National Park Service to senior conservation roles at the World Wildlife Fund, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, the California Fish & Game Commission, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and National Audubon Society.