On the plane flight to Washington D.C., when I was heading to the Taking Action for Animals conference before moving on to South Africa, I was reading the August issue of Vanity Fair. In it, a sixteen-page article on the ivory trade, which results in the slaughter of thousands of African elephants. At the conference, three different sessions I attended brought up the ivory trade problem again. Finally, after the conference weekend and during our hour-long refueling stop in Senegal, I got into a lively discussion with a group of college students sitting near us on the plane, along with one of their faculty chaperones who was an Ethics professor: all were very interested to learn more about Animal Law and eager to discuss issues ranging from whale hunting to companion animal cruelty cases. Once the stop in Senegal was over and we all sat back down in our seats to continue on to Johannesburg, one of the students passed me a magazine: “Have you seen this?” The Vanity Fair issue.
Among the places my husband Seth and I would be visiting was Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, which was featured in the article; however, poaching is a widespread problem throughout the continent. Particularly after all the pre-trip ivory trade talk, I landed in Africa with open eyes and open ears. I was curious to hear what those living there would have to say about the issue and to learn more about local efforts to end the atrocities. We weren’t five minutes in the Johannesburg airport before we saw the first sign of awareness and activism: an anti-poaching poster with the ghastly picture of a dead rhinoceros, blood dripping from where his horn used to be. Although the rhinoceros horn is not made of ivory, the animal is also the target of poaching for its unique feature; like elephant tusks, the rhinoceros horn is a top commodity on the illegal wildlife trade market.
According to the Vanity Fair article, there has been an increase in the demand for ivory, largely attributable to a nouveau-riche class in China that desires such ostentatious signs of wealth. It’s estimated that up to 100 elephants a day are being killed; in addition, the rhino is endangered — we didn’t even get to see one during our trip. As far as the laws are concerned, most African countries have a ban on the sale of ivory. For example, Kenya has a zero-tolerance policy regarding the sale of ivory. Making a strong statement against the trade, Kenyan officials burned the country’s old stores of ivory back in 1989. However, other countries allow for the sale of ivory stock that pre-dates the ban; and, needless to say, this opens up the door for sales of newly-gained ivory because distinguishing between old and new ivory is virtually impossible for a typical buyer.
buffalo, snare across his eyes
The ivory and rhino horn trades are not the only thing threatening the various species of Africa’s wilderness. The illegal skin trade is worth billions each year — animals are captured for their skins and fur. And for the surrounding poor rural communities, the bush meat trade becomes a source of survival. What this means for animals: entrapped animals often suffer a slow death of starvation and dehydration. Animals caught in wire snares often are blinded, as was the buffalo in the picture I’ve included here.
My personal experience in Africa connected me with two remarkable groups focused on anti-poaching management and enforcement, Wilderness Wildlife Trust and the Bumi Hills Anti-Poaching Unit.
Wilderness Safaris, which operates the two camps Seth and I stayed in while visiting Zimbabwe, also manages Wilderness Wildlife Trust. The Trust oversees conservation and anti-poaching programs in several African countries, with two of its projects located in areas we visited. The Hwange Anti-Poaching Project, working since 2007 in conjunction with the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, the Painted-Dog Anti-Poaching Unit, and NGOs, focuses on apprehending poachers, snare removals, and giving snared and injured animals a second chance. The Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit, also managed by the Trust, in the past year located 223 snares and apprehended 328 individuals within the state park (poachers, illegal miners, drug dealers, smugglers, and border jumpers). In addition to these laudable efforts, Wilderness Trust has a program in Zambia that I find especially interesting in terms of its far-reaching potential: the Poacher Transformation Project rehabilitates poachers through education and training, providing them with basic living and conservation skills. The training gives poachers alternatives, ways of making a legal income so that they don’t have to resort to poaching in order to make a living. Since the program’s inception in 2009, there have been nine such trainings held, resulting in the training of 226 poachers, with 411 guns and more than 3,000 snares collected.
The second group I encountered was while visiting the Lake Kariba area. The Bumi Hills Anti-Poaching Unit currently functions with only four (!) men; nevertheless, Seth and I crossed paths with the unit on both land and water during our stay. With the help of volunteers, the unit has collected more than 4,000 wires snares. It was encouraging to speak with individuals involved in the leadership of this group, who are optimistic about the increase in awareness and concern for the animals. And because the community counts on tourism to bring in so much of its revenue, many of the locals also realize that keeping the animals around is in their own best interest, too. The unit is expanding and, among other things, aiming to increase its task force to twelve individuals in the near future. I’m looking forward to updates about the unit’s progress.
Anti-Poaching: The Laws
Two international treaties that have the capacity to buttress local anti-poaching efforts in Africa are the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and The 2003 African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. CITES focuses on regulating, largely through the implementation of a permit system, the international trade of animals and plants listed in the treaty’s three appendices — namely, endangered species. The 2003 African Convention addresses hunting, fishing, and culling, and complements the regulation established under CITES while also incorporating objectives concerning sustainable development.
As with any other legislation, especially ones dealing with the environment and animal welfare, challenges arise when it comes to enforcement and funding. Anti-poaching efforts inevitably must rely on NGOs and donations to fund their investigations and enforcement. The 2003 African Convention actually includes in its language the expectation that members will “mobilize further financial resources.”
Another challenge these international treaties present is that members adhere to the agreement voluntarily and are given great discretion when it comes to deciding how to meet the stated objectives. Notably, the 2003 African Convention also points out the importance of giving local communities an active role in the process and including local incentives for conservation and sustainable practices. However, the 2003 African Convention is still awaiting the required number of ratifications to be entered into force.
Each day during my visit to Africa, I encountered countless animals in their natural setting. I quietly watched them just going about their day, and then moving on — back into the bush, back across the plains. As I watched them disappear just as gracefully as they had appeared, I wished them well for the rest of that day and the remainder of their lifetime. I know that some of them will not be fortunate. Some of them will be trapped, shot, or poisoned. And that is an altogether different reality than nature at work on its own. For their sakes, I hope that awareness and support of anti-poaching efforts will continue to grow — and at a rate faster than the fastest cheetah.
Kudos to all the people who are giving their time and energy to these causes each day.