I’ve been working full time on the rhino poaching crisis for years now. The appalling corruption and lack of political will in South Africa has often left me feeling crippled with despair, but back in January I was introduced to the andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve (while shadowing the Sharks Rugby team on their mission to make 2016 the Year of the Rhino) and it was like landing on a pile of Christmas!
The original wild wonderland of the andBeyond Group, Phinda, has one of the healthiest populations of rhino in the world. They have lost only a handful of rhino to poaching since the crisis began in 2006 because they worked out a long time ago that you cannot save the wild without saving the people first.
I was so blown away by what I learned at Phinda in January, that I returned in March, this time as Associate Producer for Rhino Man. The team’s vision for the documentary is to shine a light on the deep social injustices surrounding rhino poaching, while at the same time providing a beacon of hope for the future. Phinda is intimately connected to both aspects of this vision – with a potent formula for successful wildlife security incorporating Africa Foundation and Nyathi Anti Poaching.
Africa Foundation is andBeyond’s non-profit, founded in 1992 to support the organisation’s commitment to empowering and enriching the lives of rural communities living in and adjacent to conservation areas.
Whereas most rural poachers across the continent are lured by criminal syndicates to butcher for the horn – status symbols in China and Vietnam – the 80 000 people spanning five communities that border Phinda are the ring of protection that are saving rhinos. And that’s where Nyathi Anti Poaching enters the circle of trust.
Nyathi hire anti poaching rangers by first approaching the nkosi (tribal chiefs) and community leaders – they then nominate people, leaning towards those that need the work the most. People so poor they’re likely to poach for bush meat.
As a first line of defense Nyathi also employ several community guards, male and female, that do not wear a uniform and who get paid a salary each month. Nyathi train them in first aid, security, and conservation law enforcement – their job is to serve both their community and Nyathi Anti Poaching. They report any suspicious vehicles, people enquiring about the reserve, and any other people unknown to community members. They also report on meetings between poacher groups and any other suspect people entering the community.
Spearheaded by Barend Lottering, Nyathi Anti Poaching oversees security for more than a dozen private game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal. “The value of the community to the anti poaching strategy is massive. I’m in a position where I look after several reserves, and so I can assess Phinda alongside other reserves; whether its security, education, or health” says Barend. “At Phinda, we have lost a minimal amount of rhinos, and none on the boundaries where we have community projects – not handouts – meaningful projects.”
In other parks there are things happening (such as community members collecting firewood or marula fruit), but nothing sustainable and these parks are still experiencing an influx of rhino poaching. We can have the biggest guns, the best helicopters, drones and dogs, but if we do not have the community on our side we will have nothing – and we will lose.
Community guards are trained in first aid so that they can attend to anything from a burn victim to a car accident while they wait for an ambulance to arrive. Also if there is theft in the community, the community guards can take down all the details and contact Nyathi, they’ll then contact the police, and together, will launch an operation to arrest the suspects and recover the stolen property.
“There is job creation and there is a benefit to the community. So it turns into a win-win situation, but it’s so much more than that. The neighbouring communities have, on multiple occasions, prevented rhinos from being poached,” says Barend.
Another example I’ve been made aware of was when a community member tipped off authorities about poachers that were returning to kill rhino. They didn’t know what vehicles the poachers were using, and they weren’t even sure of their names. “We mobilized our communities to be on the look-out for suspicious vehicles and to check the roads. A call then came through to say two suspicious vehicles had entered through the Mozambique border and was spotted inside one of the communities,” shares Barend.
Barend told the community guards that it would take at least a half hour to get to them, so to continue monitoring the vehicles. Twenty minutes later he was informed that they had intercepted one of the two vehicles and arrested two poachers in possession of a .458 hunting rifle, ammunition and an axe. Neither the anti poaching team nor the police played a part in the arrest. It was all done by the community, using their vehicles.
“The power of the community is incredible,” says Barend as he suddenly lights up. “They can shut down a national road. They can block poachers until we have time to get there with the police and make an arrest. And it’s not just rhino poaching. We can shut down a community if there is an armed robbery at the tuck shop. Community involvement is critical.”
I have to believe that if we keep sharing these successful community conservation stories more rhino owners will take the lesson, and ultimately we will save our iconic species from extinction. If we don’t start investing in the people that border wildlife areas and if we don’t become truly humanised, this war on greed will continue to exploit poverty.
Clearly we’re never going to shoot our way out of this war. So how about we stop banging our heads against the world and put more effort into making the world a better place?
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