This is the second part in a two part series, ‘Best of Saving the Wild 2015’. In August 2015 I set out on a 14 week mission ‘solving poverty saves wildlife’ – with the objective of creating a global showcase of community conservation stories, which illustrate how we can save Africa’s iconic animals when we tackle the poverty link to the poaching crisis.

From Zimbabwe to Zambia, South Africa to Kenya, pioneering conservationists have continued to exceed expectations, carving a path to the end game in the race to save elephants and rhinos from extinction. These are their stories...

I walk into the no frills classroom while the farming mentor is lecturing, and quietly take a seat in the corner, absorbing all that I see. These poachers look similar to the others: poor, somewhat gaunt, and even though I can see they have made an effort to dress nicely, nothing can hide the stains and wear that comes with time. Their tattered shoes and bare feet are always a giveaway.

It is far cheaper, and less time consuming, to seek out and put someone through a poacher to farmer transformation programme than it is for a wildlife enforcement officer to try and track them down and arrest them. And if they are convicted, their wife and children are abandoned for years with no financial support, and their suffering is tremendous.

Photo credit: Saving the Wild

Read: Poachers surrender guns for peanut butter and honey

Many would argue the South African government is too distracted from doing what needs to be done about poaching because it’s too preoccupied with the debate around legalising the trade in rhino-horn.

Adam Welz, South Africa representative for WildAid says: “All this talk of legal trade seriously compromises a cost-effective, proven and far more durable solution to the rhino crisis; demand reduction, or making rhino-horn use socially unacceptable in China and Vietnam, as it has become in places like Taiwan.”

Read: World Rhino Day – The last stand

David Bozas, an integral character in The Elephant Whisperer, is now carrying the torch of a vision - inspired by his mentor Lawrence Anthony - to pioneer a wildlife economy where Africans would be empowered to protect their natural heritage. Mayibuye, a new urban-bush lifestyle project, is currently at the bedrock stage and has untapped potential to be a blueprint for conservation, community upliftment and business.  

Photo credit: Saving the Wild

Read: Walking in the footsteps of a legend

As WildAid ambassador Sir Richard Branson so urgently points out, “There is a real need for the international community to step up and help these African countries build the capacity to effectively monitor and protect animal populations.Education is power, and the only way to educate is by raising awareness. Both in Africa and globally, we need a lot more people to take action and make a positive impact, before it’s too late.”

Read: Sir Richard Branson leads the charge in race to save rhinos

The long term vision of this project is to develop a wildlife economy around the community-owned land. Flipping the story, villain into hero, where once poachers hailed from neighbouring impoverished communities, they will now have opportunities for employment, stepping up as guardians of their natural heritage.

Clearly Thula Thula Game Reserve is as much about people as it is about animals, built on a vision of a community conservation model that is testing the sands of time. With most of the staff recruited from the local communities, it’s not about how much you know, but how far you are willing to go.

Photo credit: Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization

Read: Thula Thula’s Royal Zulu Dream comes alive

“Conservation cannot be driven by emotion,” Richard tells me on the way to base camp where I will be shadowing Big Life rangers for a couple days. “I think one of the fundamental rules of mankind is economic self interest, and Big Life recognises this. And so we make sure that wildlife is generating revenue streams for the community, in order to sustain many of whom are living below the poverty line. The Maasai are really very tolerant, because after all it is their land, and these animals compete for space, grazing, water and they bring disease, so it’s actually a cost for people living with wildlife. The Maasai might not feel emotionally attached to these wild animals like you are, but they understand that they have a place in the natural world.”

Read: Big Life: Saving Africa’s wildlife, and other social creatures

“Your turn now,” I say. “Tell me about your life as a poacher. Did you enjoy killing?”

“It was a rush,” he replies after a long pause. “I didn’t feel bad, I felt courageous, because I knew I was making enough money to feed my family. But then one day I heard a rhino crying, screaming, just like a human, and I was haunted. I just knew in my heart, there had to be another way to survive.”

Like many other poachers that Big Life has transformed, Justus was never convicted and jailed of a crime. He chose to leave the dark side as soon as Big Life showed him the light at the end of the tunnel.  

Photo credit: Saving the Wild

Read: Tracking rhinos with the rhino poacher that became a protector

“If she goes below five breaths a minute we’re in trouble,” The vet says calmly.

The spear wound is deep, and at least twenty minutes has passed before they start sealing the wound with a type of clay that looks like war paint.

“Four deep breaths on the minute,” I call out just as I feel something squeeze my heart. “Come on girl,” I whisper to Jetta, and at that moment her trunk gently flicks up, signally the M99 drug is starting to wear off...

Read: Saving Jetta, Kenya’s teenage elephant speared in the back

​– This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

 Jamie Joseph is the founder of savingthewild.com – a platform to connect with groundbreaking conservationists engaged in Africa’s poaching crisis. Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

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