The poaching pandemic

The sweltering heat and humidity were becoming unbearable. The wise old wildebeest cow we’d been tracking had entered the thick riverine bush.
Issue date : 10-17 April 2009

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The sweltering heat and humidity were becoming unbearable. The wise old wildebeest cow we’d been tracking had entered the thick riverine bush. If I shot her there, the heat and the delay in getting her to the bakkie and loaded would surely spoil the meat, even with the help of the game guards. So I called off the hunt. The impala and blesbok I’d shot earlier were already in the cold room and would have to do.
At a little river Gumede, my induna game guard and tracker and I sat down in the deep shade. I was exhausted, while he wore a jacket and gumboots and seemed unaffected. He was marvellous companion in the bush, who’d taught me enough Zulu to carry on quite a decent conversation. I stuffed my pipe and offered him some tobacco, which he accepted with grace.

 That year was dry, and the culling I did every week was essential. The park had a limited carrying capacity and was becoming overgrazed. I had to cull more animals at a faster rate, especially wildebeest. My policy was to shoot two or three animals weekly throughout the year and sell them to the locals. When I’d first arrived in Zululand to head the training of black conservation officers, one of my duties was to manage this small game park for the KwaZulu government, but poaching was rife. About half the animals were poached every year, even by the game guards. I immediately changed the guards and started to shoot an animal every month and offer 1kg portions for sale to the locals at 70c/kg. This was cheap, even 25 years ago. Within three months all poaching had stopped.

As the herds increased I could shoot more frequently until the carrying capacity was reached. From then on I shot two or three animals every week. I sensed the locals’ attitude towards conservation had changed, but wanted to know what they thought.
“Gumede, why don’t the people steal our animals any more?” I asked. He puffed on his pipe for a while and then replied, “Because you are clever. You use the people’s land for nyamazane (wild animals), but you provide them with meat. It is a good trade. They now think the park is a very good thing.”

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We have to realise the vast majority of people in Africa don’t view conservation, or the necessity for it, as Europeans do. The same is true of poaching. For them, modern conservation is a “white man’s game”. Wild animals used to belong to nobody, but the people had a traditional conservation ethic laid down by the chief. In most cases, it doesn’t exist anymore. Nowadays there’s no real vacant land left – every piece of the earth belongs to somebody. To create a wildlife sanctuary, we have to move somebody out, put a fence around it and claim ownership of the animals. When the previous inhabitants, who used to live and hunt in the area, enter it to hunt, we call it “poaching” and arrest and punish them. But when the animals multiply, they see us bring our friends in for “culling”. They don’t understand this and resent what we call “conservation”, and no amount of explaining will convince them otherwise.

Deprivation without compensation
No-one practises conservation without deriving some benefit, whether financial or just enjoyment. So why should the descendents of those we displaced share in our ideals, if they don’t share in the park’s benefits? Why wouldn’t they blame the park for their hardship and, when they gain control, destroy what we’ve created? I hate poachers and have prosecuted many, but if I can’t understand the causes of poaching and realise traditional measures against it are futile, I must be a moron.
Imagine what it’s like to live in a primitive hut next to a lush unfenced national park or game reserve, on land once inhabited and hunted by your forebears. The park provides jobs for a lucky few, but because there’s no other development in the area everyone else lives in poverty.

The few crops you plant are destroyed by stray elephants, hippos, bushpig and other animals. You have to stay up all night to chase them away. The few goats you have are frequently killed by predators. The entrance gate, where wealthy visitors arrive to stay in luxurious lodges, is on the opposite side of the park. You never see them and can’t sell them anything. Your father was a skilful hunter, often providing meat and beer for community celebrations. He had cattle and many goats and as he was highly respected in the community, everyone helped him safeguard his animals. But you’re poor and jobless, so you traded a precious goat for a roll of strong wire and some old mine cable to a merchant, who buys elephant tusks and rhino horn. You make snares like your father’s, to kill some of these big, sometimes dangerous animals, which plague you daily and destroy your property. This will let you escape from your miserable life of poverty and suffering. The U (R285) to US (R379) for a set of horns or tusks is as much as you’ve earned in two or three years, but more important is the huge quantity of meat. Your family will eat like kings, and if you dry some you’ll barter it for everything you need to live a decent life and be respected in the community.

Not sharing with neighbours is why the entire Kruger Park is currently subject to land claims. Poaching has escalated alarmingly and offices have suffered repeated armed robberies. For decades, tons of buffalo and elephant meat were “harvested”, but not shared with the people. It seems the acclaimed transfrontier parks are on the same road and will be doomed from the start. Poaching is Africa’s new pandemic. It’s useless to treat the symptoms without the many causes, mainly poverty. If the billions poured into Africa aren’t used to create jobs, our spectacular wildlife will be gone for ever. Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected].     |fw