Poachers shot by game guards

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

Part II: Exploring the issues

If you haven’t read Part I, read it here:

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”

-Unknown comedian


“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”

-John Vlismus


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.

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 ( 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: