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.
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.
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/