“My father was a big-game hunter," John Kasaona tells me as we watch an African hawk eagle circling above us somewhere in the endless desert of northwestern Namibia. “We never went hungry. He would kill an elephant and we would eat biltong for six months. My dad would wrap the tusks in blankets and sell them for manioc and sugar. We never even noticed it was illegal."

Three decades later, Kasaona is still tracking trophies, this time a rhino, in the same area his father hunted -- but he's not carrying a rifle. In fact 41-year-old Kasaona, the co-director of Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), is a key player in one of the greatest wildlife recovery stories Africa has ever seen.

Photo: Stephanie Pearson

In a country where the average per capita income is $200 and a black rhino's tusk on the black market is worth $5 million, the fact that there is even one black rhino left in Namibia is nearly miraculous. What's even more miraculous is that Namibia is the only country in the world where black rhino, elephants, giraffe, and lions are increasing in either numbers or range—and many of these animals live outside national park boundaries.

The secret to Namibia's success is a complex system that dates back to the years prior to the country's independence from South Africa in 1990, and more specifically to legislation passed in 1996. Thanks to IRDC and organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, which worked together with tribal chiefs and headman, the government passed legislation giving rural tribes and communities the same rights to wildlife as commercial farmers. For the first time since colonization, these “communal conservancies" gave the black man the same wildlife management rights as the white man.

Today 71 communal conservancies cover 18 percent of the country. Add to that figure national parks, community forests, and freehold conservancies, and 42 percent of Namibia is under conservation management.

In the case of communal conservancies this means that, within the constraints of its meticulously drafted constitution, which sometimes takes years to be approved by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, each conservancy is allowed to manage wildlife in a way that best benefits the community—from granting limited big-game hunting permits, to creating joint ventures with privately owned safari lodges to building campsites for tourists to translocating a species if a particular area becomes overpopulated. As part of the deal, each conservancy member takes personal responsibility for informing the conservancy board when they see wildlife rules being violated by community members or outsiders.

Photo: Stephanie Pearson

The system isn't perfect, but the results have been astounding. Between 1995 and 2008 Namibia's elephant population has grown by one-third, free-roaming lion, giraffe, and black-rhino populations are increasing, and Namibia now has the largest cheetah population in the world.

And that's just the charismatic megafauna. As for the local communities, the annual revenue—which varies greatly, but can top well over $100,000—has gone toward everything from building schools to paying back farmers for damage done by elephants to stocking soup kitchens for the elderly.

“I do think this is the future," Kasaona tells me as he points toward rhino tracks. “Conservancies are opening up a lot of opportunities. But that's just the tip of it. I don't want to talk about rhinos like we're talking about dinosaurs. The main reason we're protecting these animals is because we want them to survive forever."