By Azzedine Downes
All poachers are not inherently evil. We know that in impoverished countries killing animals for their parts is often done out of economic desperation.
We’ve been reminded of this in a flurry of recent interviews with poachers, including the Dodo’s “Exclusive Interview With an Elephant Poacher,” Vice’s “Elephant Poachers in Kenya,” and The Mirror’s “The elephant slayer: Butchery of poacher who killed more than 70 elephants and inadvertently helped fund terrorism.”
And for what?
The money they get from traffickers is a pittance compared to its eventual black market value. Nevertheless, that payoff might allow these men and their families to survive that month.
Some admitted to remorse for their deeds. A few explained that there were no other ways available to them to put food on the table. One poacher in Vice’s interview actually called out his critics: “I am requesting that whoever wishes to conserve elephants assist us in getting jobs.”
It’s a pretty powerful reminder. We conservation organizations cannot ignore that one step in stopping illegal wildlife trade is to make it so people do not turn to the allure of easy money from poaching.
Not only is it easy money, we have learned that in many places there is little social stigma from poaching, a small risk of arrest, and very lenient penalties levied on perpetrators. The killing and theft can be done quickly, inexpensively, and at times convenient for hiding such activity from one’s own family.
Poachers must find alternative means to survive in the harsh and unforgiving parts of the world where drought, famine, war, political unrest, corruption, and economic instability can force even the most morally steadfast individuals to take drastic measures.
So while comments vilifying poachers usually follow news of such horrific incidents and social media is awash with calls of condemnation, we at IFAW instead try not to make such character judgments.
Yes, we condemn the crime, but must offer solutions to help the villager who has turned to crime.
How do we do this?
Well-meaning individuals, groups and nations have been fighting this fight in third-world countries for as long as time itself. I know. I spent my formative years in the Peace Corps tirelessly working toward this end. Our budgets—the budgets of any NGO for that matter—pale in comparison to what would be needed to revolutionize these economies, providing long-term, sustainable livelihoods for anyone who seeks them out.
But we make attempts nonetheless.
In Liwonde, Chikolongo Community Fish Farm is an important alternative livelihoods project of the Liwonde NP Conservation Programme, for which IFAW partners with Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW). This programme includes community outreach as a key part of its work. If Liwonde NP is to survive as a safe place for wildlife then ways must be found to ensure the communities enclosing the park thrive.
Together with our partner Wildlife Trust of India, IFAW has introduced further green livelihood alternatives under the Greater Manas Conservation Project in the villages surrounding Manas National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
About 60 women were chosen with the help of village heads based on the proficiency of their skill and given looms and initially raw materials like yarn. We opened a weaving centre in the Kachugaon division, where some choose to work (others prefer working from home where they can take care of their young ones and conveniently sell the products at the same time).
“If it hadn’t been for my employment here we would have had to struggle in getting back on our feet,” says one woman in the program. “It’s only because of this income that I and the other women have been able to send our children to school. We can finally live with dignity.”
Our ranger training initiatives in specific areas where wild animals are often victims of poaching plays a role in this larger effort. By providing better resources and wages for these jobs, some poachers give up their criminal past and join the ranks of the very men who are trying to stop their killing. Stories abound of these transformations, including that of an IFAW-WTI animal keeper who has recently been recognized for his work on our clouded leopard project.
Will these initiatives eliminate poaching entirely?
International crime syndicates are driving most of the larger-scale poaching and the subsequent shipping of the ivory to China and other parts of Asia. We must also be diligent in tackling the organized crime that is not fueled by economic desperation, but by sheer greed.
Will they make all impoverished communities respect and appreciate the elephants?
Human wildlife conflict still creates resentment of animals and reduces our ability to promote community policing efforts which are essential to intelligence led enforcement.
Will these initiatives make a difference?
We are confident that they will.
They are strategically placed to help communities that border wildlife habitat thrive economically, which will lessen the chances that people will turn tragically to poaching defenseless animals and rely on the money made off their ivory as a source of income to survive.
Everyone has a right to lead a life of dignity and value and not be pushed into a criminal activity because it is the only option.