Crime – Africa’s wildlife

The Guardian’s proposed poll on whether South Africa should shoot rhino-poachers on sight is an absurdity. The answer is NO. Quite frankly and let’s be fair, the insinuation that Africa’s rule of law is flawed and as a result reliant on the bullet, is distasteful if not derogatory. The article smacks of predisposed geographical superiority; an ambition which history records differently. It gets better…

Mid-way through the article ethnicity or race was posed as a validation for poll-bias. ‘Most tourists are white & affluent‘ & in the context of the article implied a bias on selfish grounds rather than for the sanctity of the beast itself. It’s difficult to assimilate the author’s intent but I assume the author makes reference to ethnicity / affluence to predict the outcome of the poll. The suggestion that the pursuit of a photographic opportunity leads to a bias-predicted outcome, as opposed say the ambitions of a poor African ‘feeding his children‘, is an insult to tourists and Africans alike, ethnicity notwithstanding. The proposition smacks of an agenda or a very limited understanding of what actually is being perpetrated on the ground.

The poaching of Big Game ie: rhino & elephant, is not motivated by the poor African attempting to ‘feed his / her children‘ under circumstances leaving him / her no other choice. The poaching is, in fact, a co-ordinated / well-funded international assault on Africa’s wildlife for products assigned some monetary value offshore. Africans, culturally or even medicinally, derive little benefit from rhino horn – some use ivory as adornments but the majority of both products are harvested for the Asian markets. In South Africa the illegal-harvesting of both elephant & rhino is often perpetuated by well-educated, wealthy South Africans who are motivated by material greed just like most everybody else.

It’s true that Big Game is being poached in the Kruger National Park by Mozambicans. These people enter South Africa illegally on the shared border along which the Kruger is located. In historic times this border was fenced and patrolled by the military. Since then the fences have been dropped to give Big Game the opportunity to roam more freely. The consequences of that decision have been disastrous to say the least. In the earliest days, post the dropping of the fence, illegal migrants used the Kruger’s uncontrolled wilderness to gain access to the more lucrative / stable employment markets in neighbouring South Africa. That experience and the prevalence of demarcated trails has assisted poachers logistically in their more recent pursuit of wildlife-products and the wealth those products bring. On the Mozambican side of the border [eg: Kabok] opulent mansions are being built from the proceeds of this blood-trade and I’m guessing their ‘children eat well.’

What most international readers might not appreciate, given the perpetuation of the ‘starving Africa’ myth in mainstream media, is the prevalence of poaching outside of the Kruger National Park in private conservancies / concessions. Most of the domestic rhino herd, in fact, resides in these conservancies and not in National Parks as is often assumed. The complexion here is very different. Whilst foot-gangs are responsible for most of the killing, their support structure is more robust; less logistically challenging and in some cases assisted by local authorities. In well-documented cases, by way of example, consulting veterinarians have been implicit in poaching either directly, by fatally-darting animals or indirectly as a locality-conduit for the foot-gangs to pursue later. GPS-markers are often placed out in the field to aid the incursion, usually perpetrated at night. Within South African conservation circles low-flying helicopters are often the precursor to a poaching incident. Incidentally, some conservancy-owners / professional ranchers have been responsible for the worst poaching atrocities this country has ever seen. Very few live in food-deprived villages & under porous grass roofs. These acts are hardly within the financial / logistical means of an uneducated, poverty-stricken African.

Out in the field the hunting of Big Game is fraught with danger. A military-presence, both in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa, have consequences for the would-be poacher; sometimes death, usually a long stint in jail. Furthermore, the hunted themselves often resist their impending demise in a most impressive manner and are not easily felled; high-calibre rounds notwithstanding. In this context we’re not talking an ‘organised shoot’ or the pole-axing of Ferdinand the Bull by the Lycra-clad Madonnas of Spain.. This is hairy, scary stuff and poachers who make this their living are hard, uncompromising men & women who spend months in the field – without access to their ‘starving children‘ and without supply or medical assistance. Most are well-armed / well-trained incursion-specialists having learnt those skills in domestic civil conflict. In fact many of these post-colonial conflicts have been funded by government-sanctioned poaching on a scale that is almost irretrievable.

Wildlife-trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry of which rhino-horn and ivory-smuggling form an important part but it’s not limited to Africa’s Big Game either. Hornbills, large birds with ivory-like bills / casques are being harvested at an unprecedented rate to supply ‘pseudo’ ivory to the market. The trafficking industry is, by definition, unregulated and as is the case for all commodities and where regulation is lax or absent, profit-incentives are incendiary. Whilst the foot-soldier earns a few thousand dollars for the kill, the profit-add is exponential further up the chain of command. Rhino horn retails anywhere from $50000 – $80000 per kilogram & the average adult rhino carries approximately six (6) kilograms of horn. You do the maths. It’s a lucrative trade and particularly so for the more influential members of the centrally-controlled cartel. In addition these ‘more senior corporate members‘ reside not in Africa but are, in fact, domiciled elsewhere. High-level / prioritised cross-border co-operation has been negligible to say the least. There are signs, however, that that is about to change and therein lies some hope. Notwithstanding, real progress has been thin on the ground & more needs to be accomplished before the blood – cartels lose ground. Please note that progress of any consequence is largely premised on addressing end-user demand. A protectionist strategy is more often than not wasteful and has limited long-term potential. Have you considered the proliferation of industry-specialists / service-providers & even the plethora of ‘Save the Rhino‘ NGOs reliant on ANTI-poaching projects / incentives for source-funding? There’s a contradiction in there somewhere… Incidentally if you are of Western origin & before you get indignant at the cultural idiosyncrasies of Asia’s people, you might want to understand why it is Westerners are prepared to pay so much for diamonds; a simple, not uncommon stone still mostly controlled by a single price-massaging cartel.

Finally & lest we forget, the extermination of Africa’s free-roaming wildlife took place during the colonial era. Visiting dignitaries & local gentle-folk alike seemingly delighted in the kill – the bloodier the bag the more impressive the haul. Nothing was spared. If ethnicity is considered a handle then Africa’s bloodiest killing fields lie squarely at the feet of white [mostly] colonialists some of whom still call Africa home. At the same time displaced indigenous Africans are also a fact of history upon which generations of poverty are subsequently premised. It is difficult to begrudge a poor man or his children a meal by holding the supposed moral high-ground given the glass-house nature of that discussion. Even so & this is important – African poverty is not driving the wildlife-products trade. The current poaching scourge is much more synonymous with the motivation of Africa’s European colonial masters – greed. Fulfilling those ambitions requires some financial wherewithal, some application, judicious incentives & the logistical compliance of chosen representatives within the enforcement / transport structures.

The apathetic coma that defines us as a species is inherent to the success of wildlife-trafficking & therein lie all sorts of possibilities for good. We shall see.  


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