In this guest blog, Jamie Joseph explores the importance of solving poverty to reduce the demand and appeal of hunting some of the world's most beautiful and endangered species. 

Towards the end of last year, Prince William bestowed to Richard Bonham, co-founder of Big Life Foundation, the lifetime achievement award for his contribution to wildlife and the Maasai community in Kenya. Saving Africa’s last wild places is as much about humans as it is about animals, and this award is long overdue recognition that we cannot afford to shove poverty into the unsolvable box. 

“Elephant and rhino poaching is a very real temptation when most Africans living in or on the borders of wildlife areas are living in poverty. The only way to mitigate this temptation is by providing incentives such as employment, through wildlife based revenue streams.” – Richard Bonham.

Big Life Foundation was co-founded five years ago by acclaimed photographer Nick Brandt. The foundation was created as a response to the sudden surge in poaching, and the insatiable demand for ivory and rhino horn status symbols in China and other parts of Asia. 

Amboseli was the first community in East Africa to establish community scouts to protect wildlife, and the first to set aside its own wildlife conservancy. The region’s Maasai community of 10,000 is currently benefitting from a revenue stream of over a million dollars a year from tourism conservation fees and other sources. 

Image by Nick Brandt, Big Life.

Throughout Africa’s poaching hot spots, fathers and sons from the local villages are being recruited by criminal syndicates to poach elephants and rhinos. However, Richard says that within their Amboseli ecosystem – guarded by 300 game scouts and covering over two million acres – all of the poachers hunting Africa’s iconic species are from outside of the community.

“Armed poachers are coming across the border from Tanzania, and from the north, entering through Somalia,” says Richard. “We also have a 15 kilometre hot pursuit agreement with Tanzania, so if we’re on the tracks of poachers we’re allowed to travel 15 kilometres past the border.”

In stark contrast, the Mozambique, South Africa border is the bloody killing fields of rhinos, and after years of discussions there is still no agreement between the two governments on hot pursuit operations.

Then there is the notorious, and yet inspiring story of Mutinda, hailing from a small village on the edge of Chyulu Hills – not far from the place Richard calls home. Up until 2005, Mutinda left a trail of animal carcasses in his wake, until eventually his luck ran out and he was arrested. A sympathetic magistrate gave him a $10 fine, and then the poaching continued. Again his luck ran out, but again he was let off – this time with the evidence of rhino horn and ivory mysteriously disappearing from the police station. 

Infuriated, Richard thought, “If we can’t beat him, let’s get him to join us. I wrote a letter asking him to meet me on neutral ground. He didn’t turn up so I sent another letter, this time with some money enclosed, suggesting we meet in a bar on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway. I arrived, waited an hour or so and was just getting up to leave, when a man with an open, smiling face sat down at my table. He held out his hand and said, I am Mutinda.”

After a few beers, barriers began to break down, and they got talking about the wildlife and the land they shared. 

Image by Nick Brandt, Big Life.

Mutinda said that he did not know what else to do and had little formal education. He had been taught to hunt by his father; starting as a seven year old, learning how to make the poison, the bow and the arrow, and moving up the apprentice ladder from there until the day, aged 17, when he killed his first rhino and became a fully-fledged hunter. 

The rest is history. The lure of a steady pay cheque at the end of every month, and a game ranger’s uniform that brings with it, status and honour, is a future worth fighting for.

“Mutinda has become one of the most reliable and trustworthy game scouts I have met anywhere,” concludes Richard. “He has also brought with him a mine of bush knowledge that has rubbed off on the other rangers, and has shown us previously unknown trails used by poachers that have led to successful ambushes.”

Richard goes on to say that the real long-term benefit may be the example he is showing to his community through the growing prosperity of his family. The challenge is to find work and employment for others in his old poaching fraternity, in order to get them to change. Richard however does go on to tell me that luring rural poachers away from the dark side is not as simple as knocking back a few beers. 

Image by Nick Brandt, Big Life.

“The temptation to go back to poaching is still there. They’re making $8000 to kill one elephant, a lot more for rhino, and that is many times more than what they’d earn in an entire year as a game scout, and so ultimately the risk has to outweigh the gain. People know if they come into the Amboseli ecosystem there is an 80 per cent chance they will get caught. And once these guys have been through a jail term, in and out of court, it takes its toll.”
 

The problem is that the poaching conviction rate is less than 10 per cent right across Africa, which begs the question, ‘What is the point of having laws if it doesn’t serve as a deterrent?’

A ‘watchdog system’ whereby a poaching case is followed through every stage of the process would be a game changer for this wildlife holocaust. Clearly we need independent case officers working with National Parks, police and Central Intelligence Departments, to make sure the charges and affidavit are correct, and to ensure evidence doesn’t go missing. And we need magistrates workshops so that the enforcers realise the value of wildlife to the economy, and that they have the authority to implement the law and protect their heritage.

The gloomy truth is that most magistrates in Africa don’t even know that we’re in a crisis. If not properly addressed, this vile illegal trade will go on to dismantle African economies so intrinsically reliant on tourism that it will cause more job losses and fuel more conflict.

There is a very real opportunity for NGOs right across Africa to tackle governance through collaboration. In Southern Kenya last year, law enforcement workshops were hosted by African Wildlife Foundation and Kenya Wildlife Service, a government agency. This workshop had a direct impact on an elephant poacher getting a seven year conviction – a rare success... and it was Big Life’s rangers and tracker dogs that located the poacher. 

Thanks to Big Life Foundation, the Amboseli ecosystem they strive to protect has arguably the lowest poaching rates in Kenya. This would never have been possible were it not for the fact that the community is on the side of conservation.

We can save the wild, one human at a time.

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

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

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