Addressing today's environmental challenges is intimately linked to understanding and improving natural resource governance institutions. As a result conservation initiatives are increasingly realizing the importance of integrating local perspectives of land tenure arrangements, natural resource rights, and local beliefs into conservation approaches. However, current work has not sufficiently considered the dynamic nature of natural resource governance institutions over time and the potential implications for current conservation interventions. We therefore explored how and why hunting governance has changed since the precolonial period in two ethnic hunting communities in Gabon, Central Africa, integrating various ethnographic methods with resource-use mapping, and a historic literature review. In both communities, hunting governance has undergone significant changes since the precolonial period. A closed-access, lineage-based system of resource use with strict penalties for trespassing, has evolved into a more open-access system, in which the influence of customary governance systems, including magico-political aspects, has declined. These changes have occurred mainly in response to policies and governance structures put in place by the colonial government and postindependence, early state laws. This included a policy of merging villages, the introduction of more modern hunting techniques such as guns and wire cables, and a shift from community to government ownership of the land. Current governance structures are thus the product of a complex mixture of customary, colonial and state influences. These findings suggest that a historical perspective of resource governance, gained through in-depth and long-term engagement with local communities, can provide important insights for community-based conservation approaches, such as helping to identify potential causes and perceptions of environmental change and to design more suitable conservation initiatives with local people.