By Dale Lewis
Stanwell Chirwa is 42 years old with a history of poaching wild animals in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia. He admits to killing 11 elephants, more than 20 buffalo, and kudu and eland. Farming had been his main livelihood, but poor yields and low market prices pushed him into poaching. He was arrested once, but was acquitted in court. On a second occasion, Chirwa was apprehended but managed to escape. He knew his luck would run out someday, and his family would be far worse off if he did not stop poaching.
Persistent hunger and poverty drive many small-scale farmers living near the wildlife-rich Luangwa Valley to poach. And law enforcement alone can’t stop them. It is too expensive and logistically difficult for the government to police the over 1,500 miles of park boundary to keep poachers out of the park. Animal counts across the Luangwa Valley indicate that from the 1970s to the 1990s, elephant numbers fell by more than half. More recent surveys show that wildlife has disappeared from parts of the valley where animals should occur. Researchers estimate that during the late 1990s poaching in the valley claimed the lives of 5,000 animals each year.
One day in 2008, a farm extension officer working for a company called Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) approached Chirwa and explained that COMACO worked with small-scale farmers to improve yields and increase farm prices if practices such as poaching were abandoned. The officer managed to convince Chirwa to surrender his gun and join a COMACO producer group.
Chirwa’s life is very different today. He has since handed over all of his guns and earns a good living selling his soybeans, peanuts, and honey from more than 15 beehives, making far more money than he did as a poacher. He refuses to pass on his hunting skills to his children and has helped identify 12 other hunters in his home area, convincing them to abandon hunting in favor of the opportunities COMACO offers. He is currently advising the local chief on the development of a wildlife conservation area on community land outside the established national parks. More....