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It is easy to forget that there is always a human face behind the statistics that tend to dominate the rhino poaching story.
If we want to be successful in our efforts to protect our natural heritage, including the rhino, we must listen to the people living closest to our wildlife – this is what I’ve learned during my experiences on the ground in Mozambique. Working with the Mangalane community next door to southern Kruger National Park, I have had the privilege of seeing the rhino story through the poachers’ lens as “the horn of opportunity” and this has changed my perception of things.
It was in Mangalane that I first met Robert Tshange*, living in a tiny mud-and-pole house with a straw roof and no windows with his polite wife and three children all smiling from ear to ear. Robert was once the most respected subsistence banana farmer in the community, but he couldn’t have predicted the irreversible devastation of the tropical cyclone that washed away his home. The year was 2008 and the future became bleak for him and his family as there were no alternative employment opportunities at home or in South Africa.
In this desperate time Robert’s friend persuaded him that sometimes a man must die for his family to live. Rhino poaching seemed an easy task as he had crossed these borderlands as a child and had impeccable animal tracking skills. After three successful kills, poaching seemed easy and became addictive as money filled his pockets and he felt resilient once again.
During their fourth attempt to escape skilful rangers, Robert made a mistake that cost him five years in a South African prison. Carrying out his sentence, he regretted the hours he was losing with his family. The promised assurance from his recruiter that his family would be taken care of while he was away never materialised. His feeling of betrayal and the suffering of his family affirmed his sense of failure.
Upon his return, life in his village hadn’t changed much, but his now six-year-old son could hardly relate to him. In this moment of grief, he vowed to bring change to his family and community. He joined a village police programme to support community safety and be that positive voice for young men that crime doesn’t pay.
Widows and grieving mothers are also part of the tragedy of the rhino tale. In Mangalane, I met Ruth Rushava* whose story indicates she could be 100 years old. Married as a child bride to affirm allegiance with a neighbouring village, Ruth bore nine children but only three survived by the end of the Mozambican civil war in 1992.
Under political instability and with the smell of gun powder still lingering in the air, Ruth’s remaining sons knew no other way of life without a gun in hand. As the poaching crisis rose, they saw no other way to support their widowed mother – and so they turned to illegal trade in rhino horn.
Sitting outside enjoying the warm African breeze, her motherly sixth sense was numb to the possibility of them not returning home. But as the golden sunlight set one day, dusk came with the heart breaking news that all her sons had died. While some saw these as deaths in her honour, the risks ultimately resulted in the greater burden of living the end of her life without her children to take care of her. Ruth is effectively an old-age orphan.
Today, she is a voice of wisdom to the women in her village, urging them to rethink the presumed benefits against the costs of poaching. “Loneliness is too high a price to pay,” she says.
WWF has joined hands with USAID in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area setting up an ambitious five-year programme called Khetha. Meaning “choice”, Khetha aims to turn the problem on its head and to work with communities first.
Khetha recognises that communities are negatively affected by wildlife trafficking through these kinds of human costs. Through partnerships, Khetha’s aim is to reduce the impacts on people and flagship species like rhinos and elephants by addressing community attitudes and concerns as part of our response to wildlife trafficking.
Ambitious, you may say, but without offering that helping hand and without the help of people like Robert and Ruth our cause may well be lost.
*Not their real names. This is an edited version of an opinion piece that was first published in the Sunday Times on 23 September 2018 to mark World Rhino Day.
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