Poachers shot by game guards

Killing Poachers: Will It Stop Rhino Poaching? – Part I

Part I: Painting the Picture

I recently read an article about a tattoo sporting ex-US marine called Kinessa Johnson, who was coming to “Africa” to “Hunt poachers” for a Animal Planet TV series. She proudly toted enormous automatic riffles in her tree-trunk like arms, and her stated goal was to train up anti-poaching units and to “kill some bad guys”. This scared the shit out of me, and not because she looked like she stepped out of an NRA wet dream. Americans coming to hunt Africans – was I the only one that saw the problems with this? Apparently so, as she was met with a cascade of support on social media, with poaching opponents wishing her happy hunting.

Hunting the hunters

Hunting the hunted

It has become all too common a refrain amongst poaching opponents that poachers are worthless scumbags that deserve to be killed. Look on any anti-poaching forum on Facebook, and the reaction to just about any story, good or bad, is a vitriol of violent utterings about how poachers deserve to die in the most painful and vile manner possible, and that the death penalty should be reinstated for those perpetrating these crimes (See pictures below for examples). In response, anti-poaching units are becoming more militarised, more heavily armed, and more violent in their treatment of poachers, and millions of dollars are being spent arming these teams. But here’s the thing. Going out with the express mission of killing people will not only fail to solve the problem, it will actually be counter productive to the fight against rhino poaching.

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Who are the poachers?

To understand why I say this, we first have to explore who the poachers are. Let us focus on the Kruger National Park, as this is the epicentre of the rhino poaching crisis. To do this, let me paint you a picture of a typical rhino poacher, based on evidence from a US State Department study from 2013.

Our poacher’s name is Andile, and he is Mozambican, since experts estimate that 8 in 10 of the rhinos poached in the Kruger are killed by people of Mozambican origin. He grew up outside the tiny village of Kabok, which lies just east of the border between South Africa and Mozambique within the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area. His family lives in a mud hut, leading a largely subsistence lifestyle, growing crops and rearing livestock.

“We do not have a good relationship because animals devastate the community and the game reserve management never takes any responsibility for it. But when a person kills an animal from the game reserve he gets punished.”

He grew up spending a lot of time in the bush, staying out for days at a time setting snares and hunting with dogs and guns to get meat to subsidise his family’s diet. It’s one of the few pursuits in his life that gives him joy and a sense of self worth. His family fights a constant battle against wild animals. Elephants, buffalo, hippos and baboons regularly raid their crop fields, putting their livelihood at serious risk. Lions, leopards, jackals and other predators kill their livestock, depriving his family of their main source of protein. When his community complains to the park authorities they receive little attention or compensation. He knows that apparently tourists love these animals, and they spend huge amounts of money to see them, but that money goes to someone else and his community sees little benefit from it. To Andile, wild animals are a curse and a resource to be exploited, not something to be observed and admired.

“We have children around here, our kids don’t know the rhino. We need to pay for them to see a rhino in our own land”

Andile received little formal education, and now twenty years old, he has few opportunities for employment in his remote village. Most of the other young people in his village are also unemployed, so they spend their days doing odd jobs where they can find them, tending their fields, drinking in the tavern or hunting to provide for their families.

“That thing [poaching] requires proper planning. If they were employed they wouldn’t even think of going there.”

One day a man in a suit arrives in Andile’s village in a fancy 4×4 with Maputo number plates. He stays for a few hours, talks to a few people then leaves. He says he is working for the government. The next day, Andile’s friend comes to him and tells him that he has something to tell him. In excited tones, he tells Andile that he has been approached with an opportunity that could change their lives. All they need to do is go out hunting in the bush like they usually do, only this time they have to kill a very specific animal… a rhino. Andile has seen these animals once or twice on his hunts, they are big and dangerous looking but generally keep themselves to themselves. He knows little about them and he has no reason to dislike these animals, but no reason to like them either. All he and his friends need to do is shoot one of these beasts with a gun that has been provided for them, cut off the horns with a chainsaw that has also been provided, bring it back and hand it over to their contact. In exchange his three-man team will receive R800 000 ($80 000) to share.

“Where will you get that kind of money? You find that even a year passes without you even having that kind of money”

Andile is currently lucky if he makes R1000 ($100) per month. He lives hand to mouth, often going to bed hungry at night. Jobless and penniless, he feels useless, helpless, bored. He’s heard stories of these sisluiti that go out and poach rhinos. He’s heard about how they buy themselves new houses, new cars, new clothes. He wants those things. He wants to be respected by his community, he wants his family to be comfortable.

“Seeing others succeed while you are busy sitting here hungry and unemployed, maybe a friend will tell you, then you end up doing it because you are unemployed.”

However he has also heard that it is dangerous, that the rangers that patrol the park often shoot at poachers, and that many young men go into the park and never come back, their bodies never returning to their families to be buried. He asks his friend about this, and is told that his connection has paid off the police, so if they get caught they will be let out. Furthermore, they will be given an AK47 to protect themselves, and they will shoot the rangers before the rangers shoot them. If they do get caught or killed, the contact will compensate his family handsomely.

“We are aware that the person is running risks [going in to poach] but when he does good things, we can appreciate that. He will be creating jobs, helping many people to fight against poverty.”

Plus, says his friend, it will be fun. We’ll go out and have an adventure in the bush, we’ll return home to be rich, our families will be comfortable, we’ll be able to get girls and drive nice cars. Come on, who cares about that big ugly animal, about that park that doesn’t care when our livestock are killed, that park that makes money for other people.

“Plus seeing that the situation at home is bad I don’t even think of the risks. I go, come back, feed my family build a house and keep some at the bank. That is how this thing spreads.”

Of course I am taking some poetic licence in painting this picture of Andile, but this is the profile of a typical poacher painted by this in depth study (http://conservationaction.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Poaching-Rhino-Horn-in-South-Africa-and-Mozambique-2014.pdf). Andile’s story gives a taste of the lives that people lead, the fears they face, and the ambitions and grievances they hold in their hearts. I would highly recommend reading this to anyone who really cares about rhino poaching, as it gives you an insight that you will not find in the mainstream media – an insight into the poacher’s psyche.

Go to Part II to find out why killing poachers like Andile is not going to stop poaching: http://www.whispersofthewild.com/killing-poachers-part-ii/

elephant herd on flood plain zambezi safari

A Beginner’s Guide to the Ivory Trade

So, let’s start at the beginning.

What is ivory?

Ivory unsurprisingly comes from elephant tusks, which are those white spikes that stick out of an elephants face. These are in fact modified front teeth that grow forward out of the elephant’s mouth. These teeth grow continuously throughout the elephant’s life and are vital to its survival. Elephants use them for a number of purposes, including stripping bark from trees, tearing off branches, digging for water and fighting.

The history of the ivory trade

Ivory carving is almost as old as humanity itself. The oldest ever carving of the human form comes from a 40 000 year old carving made out of mammoth ivory. The reason that ivory is so sought after is that it is relatively easy to carve with metal tools, and its shiny, milky white colour conveys an impression of purity. This allows for the creation of stunning pieces such as this (http://www.chait.com/asp/fullCatalogue.asp?salelot=IFA1107++216+) . Few can deny the craftsmanship or beauty of such carvings, but they have come at a terrible price. During the colonial era, ivory was known as white gold, and was one of the most sought after commodities for empires staking their claim to overseas territories. Elephants were hunted relentlessly, but back then, the elephant population was so vast that the supply seemed almost limitless. Researchers estimate that around the 1800s, 26 million elephants roamed Africa. The “Great White Hunters” of the day would venture into the African wilderness and slaughter elephants by the thousands, leaving the carcasses to rot in the sun. Some believe this is where the stories of elephant graveyards originate.  They targeted the individuals with the largest tusks, but in doing so, they all but hunted out the large tusk genes, which is why the record tusk of 102kgs comes from 1899, and no specimens today come close. This killing fuelled the market for luxury items such as piano keys, pool balls, ornaments and combs across the western world. By 1913, the elephant population had dropped to 10 million, and was in rapid free-fall. Around the ‘70s, demand in Western nations started to subside as the public became aware of the consequences of the trade, but by then the Asian market for ivory has started to blossom. By the 1980s, the population dipped below 1 million. By this stage, many African countries were trying to control elephant hunting, but it continued unabated illegally. By 1989, elephants numbered just 600 000. Watch a video of this decline here (http://education.nationalgeographic.com/media/history-ivory-trade/)

The ban on the trade of ivory

Kenya was one of the countries worst hit by ivory poaching, and in 1989, led by conservationist Richard Leakey, they staged a public burning of a huge stockpile of ivory. These images galvanised the international public into action, and by 1990, the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) announced a global ban on the trade in ivory. This effectively destroyed all demand for ivory, and elephant numbers rebounded to about a million individuals by 1999.

Once off sales of ivory

During the ban, some African countries accumulated large stockpiles of ivory from natural deaths and seizures. Countries like South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe felt they were being unfairly punished, as they still had healthy elephant populations and now had to keep their ivory locked up. They placed pressure on CITES to temporarily lift the ban and allow a once-off, controlled sale of ivory. In 1999, CITES relented, and allowed an “experimental” sale of ivory to Japan. Subsequently, China placed pressure on CITES for a second controlled sale, and despite huge opposition, they got their way in 2008. Proponents of the sale argued that flooding the market with cheap legal ivory would reduce the need for illegal sources, and if the stockpiles were released slowly and consistently, vendors would move away from the unreliable illegal suppliers. History unfortunately has proved them very wrong.

The situation today

The legal ivory sales once more stimulated a demand for ivory where it had almost ceased to exist. The Chinese delegates at a CITES convention in 2002 admitted that the 1999 sale sent mixed messages to consumers. Where before they were being told that buying ivory was absolutely wrong, the legal sale sent the message that it was only kind of wrong… sometimes, and their desire for ivory was not something to be ashamed about. The criminal networks selling the illegal ivory capitalised on this confusion, promoting ivory as a status symbol to the growing middle class. China is the main destination for ivory but there is now also significant demand from other Asian nations like Thailand, Hong-Kong and the Philippines. This rise in demand has fuelled the illegal poaching of elephants to crisis proportions. A recent survey estimates that 100 000 elephants were illegally killed in the last three years. Countries that have large elephant populations but do not have the resources to police their wildernesses are being the worst affected. Central Africa has seen a 64% decline in their elephant population in the last decade. In Tanzania’s Selous National Park, an elephant census in 1976 recorded approximately 109 000 individuals. A repeat survey last year recorded just 13 000 left. In war torn regions like Mali and the Central African Republic, armed militia are intimidating and coercing locals into leading them to elephant feeding areas. They then use high-powered weapons to mow down whole herds. The ivory that they collect from these massacres is allegedly sold to finance further arms purcahses. In Zimbabwe, people have poisoned water holes with cyanide in Hwange National Park, killing hundreds of elephants and countless other animals. The elephant population is now estimated to be just 500 000 worldwide. African Elephant are listed as vulnerable and Asian elephants are listed as endangered.

The economic case against legal sales

Here is a basic economic model to explain why the once-off ivory sales stimulated the illegal poaching of elephants. Below is a basic supply and demand curve, the first graph taught to all first year economics students. On the X-axis (bottom) we have the quantity of ivory supplied by the market, and on the Y-axis (Left) we have the price that the market will sell that good at. We are told that the point where the demand and supply curves cross is the so called “equilibrium” point, where supply equals demand, and that is the price that the market will sell at, and the quantity that will be supplied. At this point, the price of ivory is (a), and the quantity that is being supplied by the illegal market is (x).

Figure 1

Elephant economics graph 1


Now the once-off sale of ivory would increase the supply of ivory in the market, and on the graph this appears as a shift of the supply curve to the right. You can see that this drops the price to (b), but the quantity that is now required by the market has increased to (y). (y) is being supplied by the legal and the illegal market as evident from the green and red lines. Proponents of the sale argued that with the release of the legal product, most of (y) will come from legal sources (n), and the amount of illegal product in the market will become (y-n). You can see that (y-n) from Graph 2 is smaller than (x) from Graph 1, so in effect, this will reduce the demand for the illegal product, which will lift the poaching pressure being placed on wild populations.

Figure 2

Elephant graph 2


The above prediction relies on demand remaining relatively constant. In reality however, what happened was that the legal sale ivory made it more acceptable to buy ivory, which converted many more people who would never have previously bought ivory into new ivory customers. More customers means more demand, and on the graph that appears as a shift of the demand curve upwards. This increases the price from (b) to (c). It also raises the quantity demanded by the market from (y) to (z). However, the legal market can still only supply a quantity of (n), so the rest of the supply, which has now risen to (z-n), must be supplied by the illegal market.

Figure 3

Elephant graph 3

The problem is that there is no telling how high that demand curve will rise. With the middle class in China alone projected to reach 340 million people by 2016, the graph could look more like Figure 4 (http://www.chinabusinessreview.com/understanding-chinas-middle-class/). Remember too that the legal ivory sale was only once off, so it is finite, so once it runs out, all of z will have to be supplied by the illegal market. The real numbers seem to bare this out. The Chinese government is releasing 5 tons of legal ivory into the market a year, which makes (n)=5 tons. However a Chinese delegation at CITES in 2013 estimated that they would require 200 tons to satisfy the intense demand for ivory. Therefore, (z-n)=195 tons of ivory. The average tusk weight of seized ivory is 5kgs, so a quick calculation tells us that 19 500 elephants would have to die per year to satisfy that demand. That is just in China, and that demand curve is still rising. Incidentally, this is the same risk we run if we decriminalise the trade in rhino horn.

Figure 4

 Elephant graph 4


Debunking misconceptions about Chinese consumers

There are major misconceptions that makes many people despair that this battle is unwinnable. These are that Chinese consumers are evil, heartless people that buy ivory despite knowing that an elephant had to die for it, and that they are very unwilling to change their habits. The reality however is very different. Ivory, like most other products, has an extremely opaque supply chain, and most consumers have no idea where the ivory actually comes from. Think about it, do you know exactly where your food, your clothes, your jewellery, your appliances actually come from? Probably not. The mandarin word for ivory literally means elephant teeth, and a survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that 70% of ivory consumers did not know that the elephant had to be killed to collect the ivory. Most of these consumers are simply ignorant, and not evil, as many believe. Encouragingly, 83% of those people said that they would not consume ivory if they had known that it comes from dead elephants. So there is cause for hope.

What is being done?

Demand reduction is the most important tool in fighting the ivory trade, because as the drug trade has proven, as long as there is a demand and money to be made, people will find a way to meet that demand. Several organisations have put their shoulder to the wheel of reducing demand for ivory in Asian countries, the most significant being WildAID and the African Wildlife Foundation. They leverage the influence of popular celebrities such as Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, and get them to star in adverts like this one (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xmqf_UfcARw) to try to convince the public not to buy wildlife products. They have met with some significant success, but there is a long way to go.

The illegal trade in wildlife products has become a multi-billion dollar industry run by ruthless, sophisticated criminal syndicates. These syndicates are involved in the movement of a host of illegal products, from drugs to weapons to people. Organisations such as TRAFFIC are partnering with International crime fighting organisations like Interpol to combat this trade, and they are starting to use the advanced crime fighting techniques employed in the drug trade.

There are some that believe that the war on wildlife crime should be fought on the ground, and that with more rangers that are better trained and equipped, the war can be won. On the ground enforcement is very important, but we are dealing with dispersed elephant populations that roam over vast areas in inhospitable and often war ravaged regions. Laws are often deficient and poorly enforced, and corruption regularly undermines the good work of rangers on the ground. For this reason, the conservation returns to investment in on the ground anti-poaching are likely to be quite poor. The criminal syndicates are too intelligent, and have too much money to be hindered by small, dispersed forces.

What can you do?

The first thing you can do is to learn to love elephants. Learn what amazing, intelligent and complex animals elephants are, because it is hard to care about an animal you know little about. Then, learn about their plight. Read up on the impact that poaching, habitat loss, climate change and human-elephant conflict is having on these majestic beasts. From there you can decide to get involved. Sign petitions, volunteer your time, protest, and most importantly, donate. There are a host of organisations doing fantastic work in the fight to save elephants. Choose where you think your money will best be spent, whether that is in research, crime fighting, demand reduction or any other cause close to your heart. Just make sure first that the organisation is legitimate, and that they are one of the best organisation in their field.

Just remember that people are people, no matter where they are in the world, and if we are united in our message that buying ivory of any sort is unacceptable, we can turn the tide on this crisis.


To hunt or not to hunt

Commercial hunting is one of the most polarising issues in all of conservation. Those opposed to hunting often shout from the rafters that hunting denudes the land of its wildlife, and is a treat to conservation worldwide. Hunting enthusiasts on the other hand claim that despite what logic might tell you, killing animals is actually helping to conserve them. So who is right?

Let me state off the bat that I am not a hunter. I believe I could kill an animal to survive, but I find the killing for “sport” extremely barbarous and unfair. That said however, I am a realist, and the reality is that wildlife needs to pay for itself. Habitat loss is by far the biggest threat to most of Africa’s wildlife, and this is because in the capitalist economy, wildlife is competing with alternative land uses like agriculture and mining for space, and wildlife doesn’t provide the same economic returns. Wildlife therefore needs to generate some income to make it sustainable and to give landowners incentive to maintain wildlife on their land.

At the heart of that issue is how the land rights, and the ownership of animals are defined by the government. In South Africa the owner of the land owns the wild animals on the property. This has far reaching consequences because it means it is in a landowner’s interest to keep the animals on their land, which is why the South African landscape is riddled with fences. It has also spawned a massive wildlife industry where people can buy and sell wildlife at auctions, but can also make money from it through hunting and safaris. Hunting in South Africa is huge, and with about 205 000 km2 of land maintained as wildlife ranches by private land owners, compared to just 75 000 km2 set aside by government as protected areas. So hunting maintains vast areas of land in essentially wilderness conditions, and on top of that it provides jobs and significant economic income to large numbers of people. In South Africa alone hunting is estimated to bring in over $600 mil. in revenues. Hunters maintain that it is in their interest to manage the wildlife on their land sustainably to secure their income stream in future. This has meant that in South Africa, populations of trophy animals are very healthy, and generally on the increase as they are introduced to more and more private hunting farms. Hunting helped to bring species like white rhino and bontebok back from the brink of extinction as private land owners were incentivised to introduce these species onto their land, while South Africa is the only country in the world where lion distribution is actually expanding. Hunting land that is maintained in a wild state is holding back the march of human development, and it provides vital habitat for a whole host of non-target species like birds, reptiles, plants, and smaller mammals.

In most other African countries, wildlife is owned by the state, which is good in that it means there are fewer fences so animals are kept in a much more “natural” and free roaming state, and populations and landscapes do not have to be as intensively managed. On the downside however, there is no incentive for people on private or communal land to protect wildlife. If people can get away with it (which they usually can since it is very hard to police the wilderness), they will illegally hunt animals for food or sport, often leading to overhunting and depletion of wildlife populations. Countries such as Botswana, tried to counteract this “tragedy of the commons” effect by setting aside vast tracts of land as hunting concessions where private operators can profit from hunting wild animals. This only works where those concessions are long term, and do not change hands regularly. However, despite the Botswanan government’s best efforts to manage the industry sustainably, research found that wildlife populations had plummeted dramatically, in part because of hunting. They have therefore placed a moratorium on all hunting until populations recover.

In Zimbabwe, where much of the land is communally owned by local tribes, but wildlife is owned by the state, a programme called the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (Project CAMPFIRE) was started which gave communities the power to manage their animals for the economic benefit of the community. This allowed them to charge hunters thousands of dollars to come in and kill pre-defined numbers of prized animals on their land, to the general benefit of the community at large. This also allowed them to dispose of problem animals like elephants that were destroying their crops, or leopards that were killing their livestock, and make up for some of the losses they experienced. This programme was reasonably successful for a while, and similar projects are springing up across Africa now, but these are still subject to mismanagement and abuse by governments and communities.

Private land with private ownership of wildlife would appear to be the best from a conservation perspective. This stategy wouldn’t necessarily work everywhere though. The reason it is so successful in South Africa is that much of the country’s land is quite infertile and is poorly suited to agriculture. Wildlife ranching is a good alternative land use as it offers a good income from this otherwise unproductive land. In more fertile countries it is unlikely that wildlife ranching would be able to compete economically with agriculture, and so this ownership strategy would probably not be as successful. It seems however that in countries where the state owns the wildlife, sustainability strategies rely on the state granting some form of private proprietorship to individuals or communities.

There are of course many negatives to hunting too. The hunting of certain species such as leopards, elephants etc. is regulated in South Africa and many other African nations by a permit system. Permits are issued by the government, but the number and distribution of those permits are often quite random and not informed by science. So leopard permits might end up being concentrated on properties very close to each other, causing a decimation of the local leopard population.

Hunters also regularly talk about killing problem animals such as leopards as a solution to the problem, when in fact, this often ends up making the problem worse. Leopards are territorial, and when one is killed it creates a power vacuum, which draws leopards in from the surrounding areas. These are often young individuals that have not established a territory, and if they are drawn into an area with lots of livestock, these inexperienced hunters are more likely to kill them for an easy meal, and thus establish a habit of doing so early on in their lives which is hard to break. So by killing leopards, you are likely to increase the local leopard population in the immediate future, and possibly create more problem leopards. The best solution is to have a settled population of leopards, and to better protect the herds with dogs, collars and better holding pens at night.

Then there is the issue that when a property is managed for wildlife hunting, it can be detrimental to other non-target species. If for example, the main income of a property comes from breeding prize kudu or sable, then it is in their interest to protect those animals from predators. Ranchers will therefore kill leopards, caracal, jackal and hyaena, often illegally, to protect their wildlife. Often many other harmless carnivores like foxes, aardwolfs, and serval are persecuted in the bargain. This also causes people to kill cheetah and wild dogs that stray onto their land.

Another serious issue with the hunting industry is genetic dilution. For example, the sable from Angola and Zambia have bigger horns than the South African specimens, and are therefore being introduced into South African herds. This mixes the genes from the different populations the genes of distinct subspecies are being diluted by such activities. This is being taken to an extreme in the exotic game breeding industry. Wildlife breeders are using selective breeding to isolate recessive genes in certain species, creating natural oddities like white lions, black impala, and golden wildebeest and zebra. These animals fetch massive payloads from hunters seeking a “freak of nature” to hang on their walls, and these animals thus go for jaw dropping prices at animal auctions. From a conservation perspective however, these animals are probably doing more harm then good. They are significantly inbred to isolate those genes, and as we all know, inbreeding is bad. As they become more expensive though, farmers are replacing the “normal” animals on their farms with these inbred populations that contain these genes. Many landowners prefer having white lions to normal lions, even though white lions in nature rarely survive.

On top of this, private ranches will often overstock popular hunting species like buffalo or kudu causing major degradation to the ecosystem. The ranchers will supplement the feeding of their valuable species with farmed feed, however the other species in that system will often suffer or disappear. In effect, these species become semi-domesticated animals, bred for the bullet.

Then there are the arguments about hunting out certain genes. The heaviest elephant tusk of 102kgs comes from 1899, and today, giant tuskers are so rare that they have almost become celebrities. In most popular trophy species, you will find that the records for the largest and most impressive specimens come from several decades ago, and few animals these days even compare.

Commercial hunting has also spurred the development of the canned hunting industry. This is the practice of essentially raising high value species like lions or buffalo in small camps until they are of prime hunting age. They are then released into “the wild” which is usually a relatively small reserve, and a hunter then pays big bucks to come and shoot it. Many lions that people pay to pet when they are cubs end up in this industry, and the bones are then exported to the East to be used in traditional medicine. This is a barbaric and unsporting practice, and on top of that, it encouraging the use of lion bones as medicine which is likely to have spill-over effects onto the wild lion population.

On the human side, hunting often causes landowners to exclude poor and hungry communities from their land, often violently. This creates an antagonistic relationship between communities and wildlife areas, which makes community members more likely to get involved in more serious forms of poaching like rhino poaching. Furthermore, while the hunting lobby will often quote impressive numbers regarding the scale of the income generated from hunting, what they often leave out is that only a fraction of that will actually stay in the country where the hunting occurs. Foreign hunting clubs will usually purchase a hunting licence from the government or from a community, and will then auction it on overseas for many times the price that they bought it for. Most exchanges therefore happen outside the countries borders.

On a balance, I would say that while I personally hate hunting and find it barbaric, hunting is actually has a net positive impact for conservation. There are major caveats to that statement though. In order for hunting to be beneficial to conservation, it needs to be closely regulated, and strict quotas need to be enforced. Endangered species like black rhinos should never be targeted when there is a poaching crisis raging. Best practice guidelines need to be created to ensure that hunting benefits the overall ecosystem, and all quotas need to be informed by sound scientific information to ensure sustainability. Local communities need to be included in the industry, and some of the benefits must flow to them to give them an appreciation of wildlife.

Hunters and anti-hunters both claim to love nature, but emotions on both sides prevent them from engaging in constructive talks. We all need to come together and make compromises for the greater good of nature.

check the 2 black label beers in the trunk copy

The alcoholic elephant

In 2011, my friend and I went on a 4×4 trip through Botswana. We had just arrived at Savuti camp in the Chobe National Park after a long drive and after lunch we set up our tent and settled in for an afternoon nap. My sleep was interrupted by a swooshing noise which struck me as odd. I stuck my head out of the tent and looked up at my old Pajero 4×4, and there, looming over it was the biggest elephant I had ever seen. When he spread his ears his head alone dwarfed my relatively large vehicle, and I realised with a start that his trunk was inside the back of my car. Luckily the car stood between us, but I grew very concerned when I realised that he was trying to get into our boxes which contained all of our food supplies for the next week. In a moment of foolish bravado, I started shouting and clapping to try to scare him away but this clearly wasn’t his first raid, and he couldn’t have cared less about me.

Not finding any luck through the back door, he then lifted his head and rested it on top of the car, buckling the roof in the process, and stuck his trunk over the top to try get in through the passenger door. His trunk at this point was only a meter and a half away from me, and I couldn’t believe just how thick and muscular it was (it was thicker than my entire body), but at the same time how dexterously it probed the inside of my car searching for an opening in the boxes. Eventually he pulled the trunk out of the door and I slammed it shut, causing him to recoil.

He returned to trying to get into our boxes from the back door, and while he was doing that, my friend and I grabbed our essentials and jumped into the car with the intention of driving to safety. As we did this, the big guy managed to pull a box out of the car and it crashed open on the floor. I’m sure he was hoping to find some nice fresh vegetables, but it just so happened that this box contained all our booze for the next week. To our surprise though, he then picked up a six pack of beer bottles and put the whole thing in his mouth. He then used his mouth to deftly pull off the plastic before he dropping them all to the floor once more.

At that point we thought we had realised that he had hit a dead end in his search for something edible, but he then did something that took us completely by surprise. He proceeded to pick up two of the beer bottles in his trunk, and pop them into his mouth. To our astonishment he then crushed them in his powerful jaws, beer spraying out of his mouth with an audible pop. While he was pillaging our alcohol supply, we drove to safety. Whether or not the glass caused him any damage I couldn’t tell you, but elephants have phenomenally strong mouths and stomachs, and the confidence with which he put those bottles in his mouth made me think that those weren’t the first beer bottles he’d sipped on, so I doubt if it caused any major discomfort.

It turns out that this was an old bull that regularly raided the Savuti campsite. The reason for this is actually quite sad, and has to do with his teeth. An elephant’s chewing teeth are thick and ridged for chewing on tough plant material, and at any given time they have two on top and two below. These teeth get worn down though, due to the elephants diet of tough wood and bark, and so, the jaw acts as a conveyor belt of teeth, with the front most teeth popping out when they are worn down to nothing, and being replaced by fresh ones from the back. The elephant has six sets of these teeth throughout its life, but around the age of 40 years the elephant grows its last set, which must last it for the rest of its life. By about 60 years of age though, that last set has been worn down to almost nothing. At this stage, it becomes extremely painful for the elephant to feed, as it is basically chewing jawbone to jawbone, and it therefore seeks out soft vegetation to feed on.

Our friend in the campsite was extremely old, and had clearly reached the point where he could barely chew any more. In his wisdom he had worked out that there were plenty of soft treats to be found in the cooler boxes of the unsuspecting campers.

These meagre picking were clearly not enough however. Two years later I returned to Savuti hoping to be reunited with my old friend, but I was informed by the camp manager that he had died just a few month later of starvation.

rhino vs lion

Battle of the Giants

The game drive had stopped on an open grassy plain for a sundown drink and the game ranger invited everyone to step out and stretch their legs. He turned to me, an 18-year-old volunteer who was assisting him on the drive, and asked me to keep an eye out while he entertained the guests. I peered for a while into the fading light, but seeing no immediate threat, I turned to the drinks table and poured myself a Coke. After two minutes of idle chatter with one of the guests I returned to my duty, once more scanning the surrounding area for danger, and there, silhouetted against the darkening horizon, two enormous shapes, like massive round boulders, jutted out above the flat plain. I quickly alerted the game ranger of our uninvited guests.

He ushered the guests back into the vehicle before firing up the spotlight. The beam swung round, eventually illuminating two magnificent white rhinos not forty meters away from where we having our drinks, and slowly ambling ever closer. Having established the identity of our intruders, the ranger sent the roving spotlight beam across the plain to check if there were any more rhinos wandering in. As the beam swept across the grass in a wide arc, it suddenly stopped and turned back, doing a double take. And there in the centre of the spotlight, just meters from the rhinos and barely visible in the dry yellow-brown grass, was a golden head; ears laid flat, eyes focused. Without warning the lioness exploded from the grass towards the unsuspecting rhinos. Its compatriot, previously unseen behind a termite mound, broke cover at the same time and attacked from the other flank. In a flurry of snarls, snorts and swirling dust, one of the lionesses managed to spring onto the back of the smaller of the rhinos, digging its claws into its thick hide. But the rhino spun around violently, dislodging the offending feline and sending her sprawling to the ground.

This bought the rhinos enough time to adopt a defensive position, back to back, facing the feline onslaught head on. At this point we noticed three lion cubs sitting passively a few meters away from the action, enjoying the spectacle that their mothers were putting on. The lionesses charged and dodged, ever wary of the threat of being impaled on one of those sharp, prehistoric horns. Eventually the lionesses’ persistence paid off as one of the rhinos broke ranks and made a dash for freedom. In the blink of an eye a lioness was on its back, but the rhino was equal to the attack and once again managed to fling the lion away. The rhinos were about to assume their defensive position again when suddenly the scene was plunged into darkness.

The battery of the vehicle, which had been running the spotlight, had run flat. We sat in the darkness, in awe of the terrifying cacophony of grunts, growls and thunderous footfalls that met our ears. But as the raging battle moved steadily away from us, the volume gradually decreased. The game ranger decided that this spectacle was too good to miss, and deemed it safe for myself and a couple of the more daring guests to jump out of the vehicle and give us a push start so that we could catch up to the action. Probably not the safest thing to have done given that two of Africa’s big five were engaged in combat not too far away, but at that point we had the rush of the hunt in our blood, and we paid little regard to our own safety. We simply needed to lay eyes on the battle once more.

We put our combined strength behind the old Landie, pushing her for about twenty meters before she coughed and spluttered to life once more, and as the engine roared into action the battle was again miraculously illuminated. We drove closer to the action and saw that the battle was following a predictable pattern of minor skirmishes. The rhinos would adopt the defensive position for a few minutes while the lions charged and dodged the deadly horns. When the pressure got too great to bare, the rhinos would once again make a dash for it, giving the lions an opportunity to spring on their backs. The rhinos were far too powerful for just two lionesses however, and the rhinos thwarted each attempted attack by spinning and throwing the lions off, then resuming the defensive arrangement once more. All the while, the curious cubs followed at a safe distance.

In all the excitement, the ranger forgot that the battery was on its last legs, and turned the Landie off, once more plunging us into darkness. By that stage the lions were tiring, and the battle had almost played itself out. We listened in silence to the final few grunts and snarls, and then, everything went deathly silent. We sat with bated breath in the heavy blackness, our every sense on highest alert, until out of the darkness came the sound of the dull thud of padded paws as the great cats moved into the night in search of less virulent quarry.