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Shame on those who rejoiced at the death of a rhino poacher, who was just a poor and desperate pawn of the mega-rich

When many in rural communities struggle to send their children to school or pay medical fees, it is little wonder that they can be drawn into being the poor bloody infantry of the poaching business

Keith Somerville
Monday 08 April 2019 17:00 BST
Buyers in China and Vietnam will pay $60,000 per kg for rhino horns, believing them to cure cancer, stop hangovers, or because they see them as something to show off
Buyers in China and Vietnam will pay $60,000 per kg for rhino horns, believing them to cure cancer, stop hangovers, or because they see them as something to show off (AFP/Getty)

On 2 April five men armed with rifles illegally entered South Africa’s Kruger National Park (KNP) in the Crocodile Bridge area. Only four returned to their homes. The fifth was trampled by an elephant and his body eaten by one of Kruger’s numerous lions. The four would-be poachers who escaped told the dead man’s wife and children that he had been killed by an elephant but they couldn’t find his body.

The family contacted KNP headquarters and the regional ranger there, Don English, launched a search. The man’s pitiful remains were found on Thursday, 4 April. Most of the body had been eaten by lions, leaving only his skull and a pair of pants. The four accomplices have been arrested and charged with murder.

Unusually in a case where poachers – and the four accomplices admitted they intended to poach rhinos – have died in the process of poaching, the managing executive of KNP, Glenn Phillips, extended his condolences to the family, commenting, “very sad to see the daughters of the diseased (sic) mourning the loss of their father, and worse still, only being able to recover very little of his remains”.

His sympathy for the man’s children was not matched on social media. Some of the comments I've come across include: “He had it coming. Excellent way to dispose of wastage”; “There truly is a god”; “Nature taking apt revenge on poachers. What could be better than that?”; “Karma”.

Understandable, you might say, as many people (myself included) abhor poaching and the killing of rhino for their horns – which are made of compacted hair with no medicinal or other value. Yet, buyers in China and Vietnam will pay $60,000 per kg for it, believing it to cure cancer, stop hangovers, or because they see it as something to show off to business associates and friends. This demand drives poaching in southern Africa, where the majority of the world’s black and white rhino survive. The population of Africa’s two species numbers between 22,500 and 24,500. Between 2007 – when poaching started to surge – and the end of 2018, records show that 8,014 rhinos were poached in South Africa.

Men like the one who died a week ago are not the kingpins or smuggling syndicate leaders whose greed leads them to commission crimes to feed the demand from East Asia. The poachers are generally poor rural dwellers who gain little or nothing from the lucrative safari businesses that operate where they live.

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Apart from low-paid menial jobs in national parks or safari lodges, they get little benefit from wildlife and its conservation. Instead, it is their children who may be killed as they walk to school by elephants, whose livestock is killed by lions, hyenas or leopards or whose crops are eaten or trampled by elephants, buffalo, bush pigs or other animals. They suffer rather than benefit from wildlife.

Struggling to send their children to school, pay medical fees or raise their living standards, it is little wonder that they can easily be drawn into being the poor bloody infantry of the poaching business. If they get tracked down they risk being shot or, at best, imprisoned. Those that commission them – the rich kingpins like Dawie Groenewald, Hugo Ras or Dumisano Gwala – hire clever lawyers, who keep them out on bail or have connections in the police, judiciary, or high political places and they rarely end up serving long sentences, or their cases never come to court.

Poaching is wrong. There are no two ways about it. But so was forcing people from the land on which they or their ancestors lived and legally hunted for subsistence for centuries, and so is a system that makes billions a year through high cost or high volume tourism but returns a pittance to the local communities. These communities deserve help not vilification; incentives not ignominy.

Successful conservation linked with tourism and other sustainable forms of income generation from wildlife, even dare I say it regulated hunting, can work to conserve wildlife, protect habitats and benefit local communities, as it has through Namibia’s community conservancy model, which has helped reduce poaching, increase elephant, rhino and desert-adapted lion numbers and given local communities a sense of ownership. Empower and incentivise them and you cut the poaching kingpins power over them and everyone but the criminals can benefit.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. His book, Ivory, Power and Poaching in Africa, came out in December 2016. His new book, Humans and Lions Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence, will be published later this year

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