Part II: Exploring the issues
If you haven’t read Part I, read it here: http://www.whispersofthewild.com/killing-poachers-part-i/
Is it effective to kill poachers?
Let’s for a second say that by some unexpected turn of events, the constitution is amended to make the death penalty legal, and convicted poachers can now be hauled in front of a firing squad and shot. Added to that, anti-poaching units are given license to shoot poachers on sight the minute they see a weapon. Would these measures really deter enough people to drastically reduce the number of rhinos poached?
To answer this, let us ask two questions: how many poachers are perpetrating the current level of poaching, and how many potential poachers are there living around the parks?
Experts estimate that at any given time, 15 teams of poachers consisting of three to four people are active inside the park. Let’s assume that they spend an average of three days in the park at a time, and for arguments sake, let’s say that no team goes into the park more than once a year. That gives us a worst-case scenario of 7 300 individual poachers actively trying to poach rhinos each year, and in reality there are probably far fewer.
To the second question, doing a very crude calculation of the populations of the districts adjacent to the park on either side of the border, and isolating the populations of males between 18 and 40 that are unemployed we reach a number close to 200 000. That’s 200 000 young, unemployed, disaffected and probably poorly educated men, and only 3.65% of them need to be willing poachers to reach the current level of poaching.
Then we take into account that these men fall into the most risk-inclined demographic, a demographic that is infamous for ignoring their own mortality. Add to that the fact that these men stand to make more money from three days work then they are likely to have seen in their entire adult lives, and with that money comes status, respect, possessions and women. Finally, a recent study found that 88% of criminologists did not consider the death penalty to be an effective deterrent against homicides. And that is killing other human beings. These guys have to kill an animal that they have barely ever seen. Suddenly, finding four willing poachers out of every hundred doesn’t seem like too difficult a task, even with the threat of death hanging over their heads.
“We even told the Kruger National Park that they can keep shooting the people, but the people will not stop poaching.”
Is it desirable to kill poachers?
The short answer to this question is no, and there are several reasons for this. The first is that intelligence is a much more powerful weapon in the fight against poaching than violence is. If you kill a poacher, you lose the opportunity to interrogate him to gather intelligence that could lead you to the bigger fish. And let’s be clear here, the bigger fish are the ones we really want. The middlemen, the transporters, the gang leaders. There are far fewer of these people than there are poachers on the ground, and taking out one significant player can mean a serious setback to the poachers.
At the community level, intelligence is vital to gaining insights into where and when poaching is likely to take place. SANParks offers incentives to people for information that leads to the prevention of poaching incidents or the arrest of poachers. However, poachers are members of the community. They are somebody’s brother, father, son or husband. Community members are unlikely to inform the authorities about potential poaching activity when it could mean death of one of their own.
“We would never call the park [about poaching], they are bad people.”
Finally, the increased militarisation of anti-poaching efforts runs the risk of creating an arms race that will bring casualties on both sides. If poachers know that anti-poaching units are heavily armed and aiming to kill, they are going to arm themselves in response. If they see their opportunity, they are going to take the first shot. I have had many conversations with rangers who say that poachers have become increasingly heavily armed. They now carry weapons like AK47s designed to kill humans, as well those designed to kill animals. This militaristic approach is going to bring terrible bloodshed on both sides, and that should never be a desirable outcome.
Is it right to want poachers dead?
A quick skim down any anti-poaching page on Facebook shows that the people baying for the blood of poachers come almost entirely from the white South African community. These people, sitting in their houses with their bellies full and their children content and well fed on the couch, will take to their computers to call for the indiscriminate killing of poor, uneducated, rural black people. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning the poachers’ actions, they are wrong, they should be stopped, and they should be punished to the full extent of the law. But NO, these people do NOT deserve to die.
Have you ever played that game with a friend where they say “How much would you have to be paid to do this?”. With my friends, “this” usually refers to something disgusting like eating a piece of dog shit. Now imagine you live in abject poverty and that you have little prospect of improving your life. Imagine you put your kids to bed hungry because wild animals ate your crops. Then someone says “How much would you have to be paid to kill this animal that you know little about?”. Can you confidently say that your answer would be “There is no amount of money in the world”? I know I can’t.
“We see them as role models, we wish to be like them. Because we are unemployed.”
These people take their middle class, educated values developed in the comfort of a middle class lifestyle, and expect these rural people to live by them. And if they don’t, they deserve to die. However they forget that the vast majority of rhinos on this earth were not killed by poor black poachers, they were killed for sport by European hunters. Hundreds of thousands of rhinos were slaughtered in the colonial era when it was just an acceptable thing to do. The grandfathers and great grandfathers of many of the people calling for the death of poachers today would probably have participated in or supported this activity in some way. Yet we tend to forgive the actions of those in the past, writing them off to a different era and a different value system. Well, poor rural people have a different value system too, a value system that puts their own survival and well-being above that of an obscure animal’s. Our task should be to change that value system, not to destroy the people that hold it.
Here is the really shit thing about this militaristic, violent attitude: it runs the risk of turning rhino poaching into a racial debate, and turning black people against the anti-poaching cause. I believe that the majority of South Africans, black and white, believe that rhino poaching is a serious problem for the country. However, this small subset of blood-thirsty white South Africans are saying loud and clear that a rhino’s life is worth a lot more to them than a black person’s life. This creates the risk of turning black South Africans against the anti-poaching cause, because it appears to be a white person’s cause that aims to kill black people. This sentiment is already out there. The observations of comedians can be very revealing, and here are three that I have heard recently.
“I’ve got 99 problems but a rhino ain’t one”
“If black people were rhinos, apartheid would have been over 30 years earlier”
– Chester Missing
“Rhinos are proof that white people are capable of compassion”
We better hope that such sentiments do not spread, because this is a cause that needs the support of all South Africans.
What better alternatives do we have?
- More boots, less guns
An incredible recent success story comes from the Balule Game Reserve on the border of the Kruger. An all female anti-poaching team known as the Black Mambas patrols the area on foot, searching for signs of poachers, removing snares and destroying poaching camps. When they detect poachers, the team will call in a highly trained, armed support team to deal with the threat. They have met tangible success in their fight to protect their rhinos, and were recently given the UN Champions of the Earth Award. This model seems to me to make more sense. Less money spent on guns for each guard means more guards can be employed and they can cover more ground. Furthermore, if the poachers know that the ground teams are not armed and out to shoot them, they will be less likely to shoot at them pre-emptively.
- Technology is a rhino’s friend
In Hluhluwe Mfolozi Game Reserve, a team called Air Shepherd has deployed low cost drones equipped with thermal imaging and infra-red cameras, and guided by a state of the art tracking system that calculates with 93% accuracy where rhinos and poachers are likely to be at any given time. This technology was developed for the US army, and has successfully intercepted poachers before they get a chance to lay sights on a rhino. Although expensive, it has drastically reduced the poaching toll to the point where they experienced no poaching incidents in over six months.
- Education and community engagement
The quotes that litter this article should show that this is not an issue of people being evil, it is an issue of people not seeing the value in living rhinos, and of people being poor enough to risk their lives for an easy payday. We need to find mechanisms that effectively channel benefits to surrounding communities. Trust and good relationships need to be maintained, and education programmes need to make people aware of the value of the animals in the park.
“It is wrong, but because we don’t have a choice, we do this thing knowing very well that it is wrong.”
- Guns don’t kill rhinos, corruption kills rhinos
Corruption at all levels, from game guards on the ground to politicians at the top, is driving the slaughter of rhinos. Strong leadership needs to be shown and effective measures need to be devised to curb this scourge.
Compassion over killing
The word compassion is often thrown about by anti-poachers, but for many of them, that compassion does not extend to the communities from whence the poachers come. The poaching crisis is not going to be solved by people like Kinessa Johnson with bullets and bloodshed. It is going to be solved with compassion, leadership and cooperation, with a helping hand from technology.