By The Global Initiative Posted May 23, 2016
In discussions around southern Africa’s wildlife crime challenges, is usually assumed that there is a high degree of engagement by communities that live adjacent to national parks. Common wisdom suggests that this is predominantly for economic reasons, but a recent research study undertaken by Global Initiative member Annette Hübschle-Finch suggests that motivations vary in communities adjacent to the Kruger National Park. Her granular analysis, which included interviews with poachers and community members between 2012-15, shows that communities that live either inside or on the edge of national parks do not form homogenous groups of people that consists of both poachers and villagers who all benefit equally from rhino poaching, and that a more nuanced approach is needed.
From financial profits to social meaning
A 2012 study of stakeholders’ perceptions and motivations to uphold wildlife laws in Namibia found that a number of motivations extended beyond what they termed “cooking pot and pocket book” explanations for poaching behaviour. Some poachers were motivated by rebellion or disagreements with the rules. Negative sentiments towards the establishment, governance or benefit distribution system of the relevant community conservancies led to poaching transgressions. Kahler and Gore conducted a follow-up study in the northwestern Zambezi region of Namibia. The study looked at how human-wildlife conflict (HWC) might influence valuation of wildlife and potentially lead to poaching decisions. The study revisited inequitable benefit distribution systems, suggesting broader community engagement and nuanced open communication and messaging with local communities.
Research undertaken in local communities living adjacent to the Kruger National Park supports a nuanced take on poaching motivations. Law enforcement and conservation officials portray communities living inside or on the edge of the Limpopo National Park as a homogeneous group of people that consists of poachers and villagers who benefit from rhino poaching in equal measures. It is suggested that rural poverty, opportunity structures of living close to the park and greed are feeding the poaching crisis. These factors constitute sufficient drivers of poaching; however, the root causes of poaching touch on the history of conservation, hunting rights and land ownership in southern Africa. The effects of structural violence are visible in the village communities who not only live on the edge of parks but also on the periphery of society when it comes to social development and economic upliftment projects. The continued economic, political and social marginalization of village communities has given rise to environmental and social justice concerns. While the rhino has a bounty on its horn that far outweighs the average annual income of a rural villager, poaching is not just about the price of the horn but also about claiming reparations for the loss of land, hunting and land use rights and demands for economic opportunities and agency to co-determine the future and good fortunes of village communities.
Self-styled Robin Hoods
It is against this backdrop that rhino poachers and kingpins have emerged as self-styled Robin Hoods, who use rhino poaching for their own upward social and economic mobility. The influx of hard cash into village communities has created the perception that villagers benefit in equal measures from rhino poaching. The social banditry associated with Robin Hood captures an important aspect of kingpins’ and poachers’ asserted identities in the context of village communities. The role, functions and identities of kingpins and poachers are, however, far more complex, multi-layered and contingent on the geographic context (SA versus Mozambican side of the border). While many poachers originate from village communities, others join hunting crews from communities elsewhere, even neighbouring countries (usually connected to village communities via kinship ties). The level of social embeddedness of kingpins and poachers varies, and carries structural and logistical implications for the flow of rhino horn. Of importance are community perceptions of whether their fortunes and livelihoods are improving.
Mozambican communities appear to benefit largely indirectly, as there are few direct hand-outs. Direct hand-outs are relegated to certain kingpins “throwing a village party” by slaughtering a few cows and providing traditional beer upon the return of a successful poaching expedition to the Kruger National Park. Others construct servitudes, water wells, small local shops and bars, and occasionally a few cows are donated for slaughtering to the benefit of the community. Compared to the meagre livelihoods of village communities, kingpins and poachers have purchase power, allowing them to buy greater volumes of goods and services, which indirectly benefit community members. One young poacher (mid-20s) related how he was bearing the risk when going on hunting expeditions in the Kruger Park and thus was not prepared to share his profits with the community: “It benefits me, I don’t give to the community.”
Not all poachers are paid equally well. A crime investigator in the KNP recounted the story of interrogating a 17-year old poacher, whose teammate was killed during a shootout with the KNP anti-poaching unit:
“What the hell are you doing here? Did they promise you money? Yes. But the money is not the issue. They promised to give me 12,5 kilos mealie meal [maize flour]. They are four – three kids [and him], his father passed away at the mines. He’s a veewagter [cattle herder]. He’s looking after cattle for somebody else. He is the only one that earns money in that house. For a bag of mealie meal…”
Foreign or out-of-town poaching crews rely on local accommodation, food and logistical assistance from members of the community. It is, however, incorrect to assume that the entire community is complicit or benefits in equal measures.
What does rhino horn buy?
Poaching profits are predominantly laundered into real estate, as well as the luxury goods and automobile sectors. The Mozambican town of Massingir exudes an aura similar to short-lived boomtowns during an apparent ‘Gold Rush’. It has become a magnet for business entrepreneurs from other provinces or across the border, keen to seize new opportunities. Young men from elsewhere in Mozambique and South Africa arrive in Massingir seeking recruitment into poaching crews. One kingpin has built a hotel complex; others have invested in holiday houses at the coast – the coastal town of Belene, for example, is located a 5 hours drive from Massingir, and rhino horn profits have been invested into several luxurious seaside villas in the small coastal town. Many poachers are building modern townhouses in the villages, replacing the traditional clay and reed huts common in the region.
The property boom has also led to an influx of skilled artisans, labourers and business people working in the construction, building materials, telecommunications and retail sectors. The younger generation invests their rhino profits into off-street vehicles and luxury cars while the older generation is buying heads of cattle which signal affluence and status in village communities. While rhino poaching has become the main source of income, some rhino kingpins are astute business entrepreneurs, running a number of legal and illegal side businesses. There is awareness about the ceiling to the rhino horn fortunes; in other words, kingpins acknowledge the existential threat to rhinos through poaching and that they will have to seek new sources of income, or return to the old ones once the rhinos are gone. Fast moving consumer goods (designer clothing, shoes and sunglasses), off-street vehicles and face brick houses have become sought after consumer products and status symbols amongst kingpins and poachers. Instead of accepting hard cash for rhino horn, some poachers choose to pay off motor vehicles, construction materials, real estate or consumer goods instead. Through their business connections, rhino kingpins are able to procure or assist with the procurement of such consumer goods and construction materials (which are mostly imported from South Africa). They also control the debt economies emanating from this barter trade, which provides them with another layer of control and an informal economic leadership role.
Kingpin or economic freedom fighter?
In line with environmental and social justice arguments, kingpins, poachers and smugglers portrayed their criminal careers as legitimate livelihoods throughout the process of data collection in the borderlands and South African prisons. Two charismatic Mozambican kingpins, for example, have constructed their identity as “economic freedom fighters” that fight for the economic and environmental rights of their village communities. Others have labelled themselves as ‘businessmen’, ‘developers’, ‘community workers’ or ‘retired hunters’. A convicted poacher stated:
“You see in a rural area, they used to call each and everyone that stayed there and they talked with us to decide about things that concerned us. Now things are different. And they put the president on the chair, they don’t ask us anymore, they do things on their own. It is them that behave like they are crooks. That’s why we end up killing the rhinos.”
Kingpins lay claims to fulfilling important social welfare, community development and political leadership functions. Rhino horn is instrumental to achieving these overtly altruistic goals in an environment where the state has failed to provide such functions. The actual representatives of the state and traditional leaders fulfil ceremonial duties, often heavily subsidized by resident kingpins. Similar legitimation strategies are employed in other natural resource-dependent economies elsewhere in the southern African region. Abalone poaching gang leaders in the Western Cape Province of South Africa have also made claims about the social legitimacy of abalone poaching in light of commercial fishing quotas, which are perceived to be unjust and unfair to struggling grassroots fishing communities along the South African coastline.
Is there a role for legal hunting?
In the case of rhino poaching, legitimation strategies also include the appropriation of job labels from the ‘legal’ hunting sector. Rhino poachers regard themselves as ‘professional hunters’ or ‘hunters’. The position of a hunter comes with status and prestige in village communities where a young boy’s first hunt is a rite of passage and “you actually become a man when you hunt”. The poacher is claiming back his right to hunt by poaching in modern day conservation areas, which were the traditional hunting grounds of his forefathers. Colonial anti-poaching laws and their modern incarnation in the form of hunting regulations require payment for hunting permits. Total protection zones which ban hunting and other land uses have led to the economic and geographic marginalization of rural communities from ‘legal’ hunting in areas close to where they live.
Poaching was initially a partial form of protest against the hunting ban and park authorities, allowing some unhappy rural villagers to protest against unfair and economic exclusionary rule making. What started as an illegal economic activity born out of need and protest against unfair rules has however snowballed into greed-based accumulation further exacerbated by the high value of rhino horn at the source and in consumer markets.
Find Annette Hübschle-Finch’s complete report here.
Image by Liane Visser