Fresh thinking to combat rhino poaching

Dr. Annette Hübschle of the Environmental Futures Project, Institute for Safety Governance and Criminology at the University of Cape Town offers pragmatic insights on how consumers can think and lobby more effectively in the fight to save the rhino.

Wildlife crimes – like rhino poaching, over-fishing or the harvesting of cycads – once considered “green” matters, have moved higher up on global security and policy agendas.  This is partly linked to concerns about the extinction of species and the demise of ecosystems. It has also been sparked by the involvement of organised criminal networks in illegal wildlife supply chains.

Rhino poaching has particularly captured public attention. A plethora of national and international regulatory measures aimed at disrupting the consumer markets and criminal networks that allow the trade to flourish, have failed.  This is largely due to their focus on the symptoms of the crimes, rather than the root causes – usually a conflict over access to land, resources and benefits.

The time has come to change our approach to conservation issues like rhino poaching for the damage it causes – especially in poorer communities.

Little benefit to communities

The important role of local people in protecting and managing natural resources has started to become a policy prerogative in many southern African countries. Implementation and accountability are key issues.

The reality is that wildlife conservation continues to benefit economic and political elites. Local and indigenous communities remain mostly excluded from real benefits, and conservation often comes at a huge cost to them. They lose their land, access to natural resources and cultural sites. They have limited agency and ownership of areas and management. Often, the only benefits accruing to communities from wildlife and conservation derive from the poaching profits that trickle down to grassroots level.

Instead of recognising local people as important change agents in wildlife conservation, conservators are calling for more boots on the ground, helicopter gunships and new technologies. Securocrats are leading the war on rhino poaching. Money is spent on security officials and private investigators. Expensive technologies are brought in to deter poachers.

The securitisation of anti-poaching measures has caused increasing anger among communities and negative sentiments against protected areas and conservation management authorities. This is because some poachers return from such areas in body bags, if at all, or end up in correctional centres. In this environment, locals living around parks and reserves see wild animals as having more value than their own lives.

Structural inequality

South Africa, where most of my research has been conducted, is home to some of the world’s largest and most diverse populations of endangered plants, animals and mineral resources. It is also one of the world’s most economically and structurally unequal societies.

The state, hunters, farmers, tourist operators and other economic elites have benefited from conservation while local communities have enjoyed few benefits apart from menial jobs as trackers, rangers and cooks and occasional donations of game or elephant meat. The restitution of property, cultural and hunting rights has either not been tackled at all, or only partially attempted, in a top-down fashion with no input from the affected communities.

It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that some people who struggle to make a living might be tempted into poaching. The street value of rhino horn is greater than that of gold and platinum.  Rural residents can make more from poaching and selling a single rhino horn than they usually would in an entire year. This makes communities vulnerable to organised crime networks, who recruit poachers from areas around large reserves.

These networks are the real criminals, along with corrupt government officials and members of the wildlife and conservation industries who facilitate the flow of illicit wildlife and plant contraband.

Community empowerment is key

Law enforcement officials and policymakers have been focusing their efforts on reining in poachers rather than buyers and intermediaries. These intermediaries organise and coordinate the transfer of wildlife contraband and other natural resources from the bush to the market. They are usually well connected and have access to transnational trade networks.

Some scholars have started to look at the root causes of environmental and wildlife crimes by considering broader economic, political and systemic factors. Their assessment is that broad-based community empowerment is key. This will not only address structural inequality and poverty but could also alleviate wildlife and other types of crime. This is borne out by Namibia’s experiences: where former poachers have become wildlife guardians.

Although not perfect, the example of communal conservancies in Namibia offers fascinating insight into the process of communities. One thing is clear: in order to see change, we need to create sustainable communities that benefit from and live in harmony with ecosystems.

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