Sunday, March 13, 2011

Contract Killing the Animal Kingdom: The Un-natural Nature of Modern Poaching

(written February 22nd, posting delayed due to issues with press statements and media release of information regarding the following incident)

            I wore shoes today for the first time in a long time. You see, unless one is trudging through the curious and unpredictable Eastern Cape forest, there really is no need for footwear in these parts. Today, however, this was not the case--shoes were required. As of 9 this morning, we were informed that the CEO of the Eastern Cape Parks Board was flying in by chopper and we were to meet him. The reason for his visit was two-fold: (1) to briefly meet and greet with us students and officially welcome us to the Eastern Cape nature reserves and (2) to deal with the white rhino poaching that was discovered in Dwesa (just a stones throw across the Mbashe) earlier this weekend.
            As I discussed in an earlier post, the white rhino discovered in Dwesa last weekend had been poached some months before. But between the large area of the park, the thickness of the Wild Coast forests, the relative elusive nature of the rhino, their small numbers and the reasonable limitations of constant patrolling, the carcass had gone unnoticed until just this Saturday afternoon while we were doing our field work in Dwesa. A forensic specialist was immediately flown in from Jo-burg in order to try and piece together the puzzle of how exactly these poachers got into the park, dodged the radar of the park rangers, and managed to get back out of the park with a rhino horn that could fill the back of a bakkie (that’s Afrikaans for pick-up truck).
            From talking to Park Ranger Jan Venter, I gathered several reasons as to how something like this might happen. Essentially, it has a lot to do with how the nature of poaching has changed over the past few decades. Since the infamous poaching of the 1980’s that brought the white rhino to near extinction, poaching techniques have adapted. As conservation management quelled the rhino genocide of the 80’s and gradually improved their numbers across the African continent in the 90’s, poaching efforts became much more organized and much more sophisticated. Even despite the great overhead costs involved in a rhino poaching operations, the money in this market has become so good that larger, well-organized syndicates are taking up the torch and bringing illegal poaching of critically endangered animals into this new century.
            The problem is an economic one: as the supply of rhino horns on the black market decreases, largely due to improved conservation efforts, the demand, and therefor the price, for the animal increases as well. Often times, this increase occurs exponentially until the cost/benefit equilibrium is thrown into another functional scale, one where the potential for profits greatly exceeds even the strictest penalties for such activities. The horn poached from Dwesa last week from one of the 3 remaining female rhinos on the reserve is estimated to fetch R500,000 (or somewhere just under $100,000 USD) on the black market (likely in China or elsewhere in Asia).
            No longer is it local people hunting for small financial benefits (as was largely the case in the 1980’s). Instead, it is now international cartels of powerful individuals with inroads into illegal markets--there is no point in killing a rhino unless one can get it to a willing buyer. These people have the capital to front the funding for the new-age technologies required to poach and transport these items. The players have changed, but, ironically, the game remains the same (pun intended). The money is just too good. At times, it almost seems that strong conservation might even be the worst fate to befall these animals, as very strict limitations on “wild animal harvesting” create such a strong demand and such an intense market for their goods.
            And yet, the most disheartening part is this: the individual who pulled the trigger on this lone, docile rhino might have turned a profit of R3,000 (thats somewhere just over $400 USD). This individual was likely a local farmer trying to make some extra money to put his kids through school. The way the system works is as such: the large cartels often hire (for very little money, i.e. $400 USD) local people to stake out, gather intelligence and actually do the dirty work of poaching in the park. The operation itself probably lasts for several weeks or months even. It is well planned and executed, as the penalty for getting caught is becoming increasingly more severe. When the time is right, the cartel organizers give the go-ahead, the locals go into action, do as their told, and an endagered rhino gets killed. Big people make money, the locals think their getting a great deal and of this all happens within the context of a poverty ridden community sitting on the outskirts of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.
            In a way, this entire system, in all its neo-liberal, top-down, hyper-capitalistic glory, is not only degrading to the environment but also to the livelihoods of people as well. The shortsightedness of poaching is this: a quick and big profit today looks great on the surface, but when considering how much revenue could be generated for a local community through a healthy rhino population within their community-owned nature reserve, it becomes evident that these people are getting exploited and robbed on a massive scale. This system circumvents local ownership of land resources and community investments into nature reserves in a very clever, extremely dastardly, but very clever way. Ultimately, it is only those already poor and marginalized populations that suffer.
            But this is not the only face of poaching--sometimes the facade is far more benign. For large, high-profile animals, poaching it is difficult. Often times, however, as with smaller animals (such as many antelope species), “poaching” is really just a conservationist word for “subsistence hunting” undertaken by local people to supplement their diet. One day, a person is a hunter on communal land. After the fences go up and the rangers come out, that same “hunter” has now become a “poacher”, but one with an absolute necessity to put food on the table for his family. The politics and intricacies of these issues are immense, and, unfortunately, it is often the local people that are caught in the cross-fire.
            The individuals involved in these problems--from the local people, to the cartel organizer, to the buyer, to the Parks Board, to the Parks Rangers, to all of us complicit in the same economic system--are extremely varied, making it so difficult, both legally and morally, to point the accusing finger. The tragedy is buried within the ambiguity, within the pervasive mentality of our profit-driven society (I don’t mean to sound so overtly like a Marxist, but the self-interests promoted by neo-liberalism might just be the root of the problem). In this situation, we are confronted by many issues: poverty, conservation, bureaucracy, equity, justice, and class-struggles, just to name a few.

            On a similarly sad note, this morning, just after the Parks Board CEO left Cwebe for Dwesa, we were informed of another tragic loss. Zebbie the trademark Zebra from the Haven (in Cwebe) was shot and killed somewhere in the local community. As the last of three Zebra that had integrated themselves into the horse herds here at the park, Zebbie had become the unofficial mascot of the reserve. He drank from the pool, grazed among his distantly related equestrian brethren and between the cotteges, and just last week, took a shit on the stoop in front of my rondevall. He had escaped several days ago through some holes in the fences of the reserve.
            The Haven staff, quite keen on Zebbie, sent out a call to the Parks Board for help in getting Zebbie back into the park. The Parks Board, already dealing with the rhino issue and with limited funds and resources, could not oblige. Zebbie was shot dead yesterday, the second casualty we have witnessed since we arrived here. Sobering, yet again, is perhaps the best word. So it goes.

            *Just as a final note, with the smoke clearing and the actual events of the poaching unfolding, the final death toll is as follows: all five remaining rhinos in Dwesa have been poached, sometime in the past year or so. It is not clear how this all happened, but somehow the remaining herd of these beautiful and endangered animals was systematically slaughtered without the Parks Board or the rangers having known. Also, Zebbie the zebra, as mentioned, was also killed. This is a truly unfortunate tragedy, that is striking very close to home for many people here at the reserve.

            These are the issues that modern conservation and development face. It is not as if these are solely animal issues or human issues, environmental or anthropocentric. They are inseparably both and undeniably intertwined. As humans on this planet, our fates are intimately interwoven within the fabric of the natural world. The future for our world is written in both tongues and we must learn to meander in both realms if we hope to thrive or even survive.

with love and hope from the still Wild, wild Coast,
-little hupo

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