Looking at the big picture

Wildlife in some African countries has been significantly depleted through poaching. But the motive of a poacher is not, as commonly thought, greed but need. Poverty drives these men to do what they can to survive. Until we address the underlying reasons, poaching will continue. Abré J Steyn reports.
Issue date : 03 April 2009

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Wildlife in some African countries has been significantly depleted through poaching. But the motive of a poacher is not, as commonly thought, greed but need. Poverty drives these men to do what they can to survive. Until we address the underlying reasons, poaching will continue. Abré J Steyn reports.

In zambia, OUTSIDE NATIONAL  parks and protected areas, no wildlife exists anymore because a sea of humanity has taken its place and poaching is the Zambian way of life. For centuries they lived off the land, depending solely on the rich variety of wild animals and fish in the many woodlands, forests, rivers and lakes. They used to live in paradise, but now it’s finished. Excluding Barotseland in the west, the people hardly plant any crops except cassava – the lazy man’s crop – and keep very little or no livestock. Along the roads, rats dangling by their tails from sticks are sold for consumption, because the exploding human population has consumed everything else. If they weren’t fed daily by international food aid centres everywhere, millions would starve. This is the reality of many places in Africa.

In Farmer’s Weekly of 30 January 2009, the “Letter of the Month” was written by Anna Merz. She sharply criticised my view that one of the things we can do to combat the illegal trade in rhino horn is to farm with surplus rhinos and then harvest and sell their horns (see The Rhino Wars – 5 December 2008). She argues the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) ban on ivory trade stopped elephant poaching and allowed populations to recover, but when limited trade was resumed, it caused poaching to escalate. This is incorrect and an over-simplification. That she ran a rhino sanctuary for 15 years in Kenya is praiseworthy, but it doesn’t mean she has a holistic view on poaching. Without implying for one moment that she’s an animal rightist, she does, however, speak their language, because this is the lie they want the world to believe. Although the ban made it more difficult for the black market of both ivory and rhino horn to operate, it didn’t stop poaching because it didn’t address the real and underlying causes of the problem.

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I’ve spent a lifetime in all facets of conservation and lived and worked for over 20 years among African people. As a wildlife scientist, I spent two years intermittently travelling through conservation areas and remotest parts of Central Africa. I think I’m able to see the big picture and without condoning their actions, understand poachers better than most whites. Therefore I stand by what I wrote. To produce rhino horn for the oriental market won’t increase demand, but it’ll make the black market less lucrative. It also won’t stop poaching, because contrary to popular belief, the poacher is driven by need, not greed. We must understand the poacher and address his reasons for doing it, because poaching will only stop when nothing’s left.

To understand the root of poaching in Africa, the causes of the commercial poaching pandemic and have any hope of combating it, one must start at the bottom, unlike CITES, which started at the top. One must realise that the lowly poacher who pulls the trigger doesn’t do it for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He never sees it. He does it because it’s often the only way he can earn money and he feels he must do it to survive. The money he gets for a good set of rhino horns, weighing many kilograms, is often far less than what the end-of-the-line, black-market medical dispensers in China charge for a single gram of scrapings. The same goes for ivory. He has with no access to the end of the illegal pipeline, but without him, it wouldn’t exist. The goods go through merchants, corrupt civil servants, politicians and unscrupulous middlemen. The poacher’s motives are different from theirs and his cut is the smallest, but as long as his reasons for poaching remain, you have no hope of ever plugging the pipeline.

As long as donor countries dump vast amounts of money in the bottomless pit of corrupt African bureaucracies, without ensuring the lives of ordinary people are improved, poaching will continue and African wildlife will have to pay the price. Instead of investing in building factories and creating industries that are properly managed and which can provide training and employment to the poverty-stricken millions on the continent, developed nations soothe their consciences by merely handing cash-on-a-plate to inexperienced and inefficient governments, unable or unwilling to utilise it for their people’s wellbeing. The only real investments from the northern hemisphere in Africa were in mining, through which they robbed the continent of its mineral wealth.
One investment we could make which could benefit the people and save wildlife is tourism. The benefit of manufacturing and selling souvenirs to foreign visitors can be substantial. You only have to look across the Limpopo to see what was a prime example.

Zimbabwe was the most beautiful country on the sub-continent and, before Mad Bob’s land-grab, one of the best value-for-money destinations. Along the roads you could buy the most beautiful woodcarvings imaginable of local animals, because the people knew what was attractive to tourists. Just outside the little hamlet of Kariba was a large signboard which read: “No animals. No visitors. No jobs.”

As soon as the land-grab started, the flow of tourists, especially from South Africa, stopped. Everyone was scared. The souvenir sellers sat for months at the roadside, without selling anything. I went there frequently without any problems, except fuel now and then, but nobody believed me. On one trip, my son bought a huge carving of an elephant from a seller, who said, “I sat with this elephant for two years beside this road. If you people don’t come any more, these will be the only animals remaining here. To live, we must now eat the wild ones.”

Anna Merz’s lament that, unlike great art works, we don’t protect wildlife unless it’s “commercially viable” is nonsense. Only extremely valuable art works are protected. You buy the others in swop shops. Her solution that governments and private owners must “invest in adequate protection for their wildlife” has proved no solution either, but investment in people is. If the countless billions poured into Africa had been invested in the people’s basic needs instead of sophisticated armament, black limousines, extravagant palaces and corrupt governments, it wouldn’t be the Dark Continent it still is. Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected].     |fw