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Opinionista

Move beyond war talk in battle to save rhinos — employ, empower indigenous knowledge

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Bridget Pitt has published poetry, short fiction, non-fiction and four novels. Her non-fiction work includes co-authoring Black Lion, the memoir of Sicelo Mbatha, a spiritual wilderness guide. Her latest novel, Eye Brother Horn (Catalyst Press 2023), explores the social and ecological impacts of colonialism in South Africa.  Pitt is a campaigner for social and environmental justice and has written on environmental issues in various journals and collections and in Daily Maverick. She lives in Cape Town.

We need to recognise and strengthen the role that communities can play in safeguarding nature on their doorsteps. We need to revive cultural connections with nature, and find ways to reward these custodians for keeping the ecosystems intact.

In 1983, I was a supporter of the banned ANC, active in the UDF, supported the End Conscription Campaign, and somewhere between a full-blown communist and a social democrat. Major General Johan Jooste was a career military man, commanding 54 Battalion and overseeing the deployment of San trackers in the war against Swapo and ANC insurgents on the Angolan border.

I did not imagine that 40 years later we would be sharing a platform at a book festival.

But part of the joy of being in the world of books is that you find yourself engaging with people far beyond your usual circles. And, while the General and I eyed each other with some wariness in the beginning, at the end of the session he said to me, “it’s scary how much we agree!”

I certainly surprised myself by finding much to agree with in Jooste’s account of his seven-year project to bring paramilitary solutions to the massively escalating rhino poaching crisis in the Kruger National Park. The book is titled Rhino War, a title which immediately set my hackles rising, for, like the notion of a “war on terror” or a “war on drugs”,  there is so much that is problematic in framing this crisis as a conventional war, or even a guerrilla war.

At the time that Jooste was appointed by David Mabunda as Head of Special Projects with a brief to equip the rangers to tackle this onslaught, much of the poaching was coming from Mozambique. It was easy to frame poaching as an attack by a foreign country to steal our assets, and initially, it seems that Jooste did see it that way.

But Jooste soon discovered that this was not a war against a neighbouring territory, but a far more complex struggle which required, in his words, composite solutions.

This became more evident as some of the strategies to curb the poaching from Mozambique began to pay off, only to be countered by the escalation of poaching from within South Africa, and in other reserves such as the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park in KZN. If this was a war, it was clearly a civil war, whose primary antagonists were citizens of the same country.

Strategies for tackling poaching

Co-authored by Tony Park, Australian author of popular ecological thrillers, the book is well-crafted and an engaging read. It often actually reads like a thriller, as we follow the team on foot, behind dogs, in helicopters, apprehending poachers before or after they’d cruelly slaughtered a rhino for its horn, tracking people with multiple bush skills and strategies to avoid being traced.

But the book also unpacks some of the complexities of the context, and for that reason, I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the poaching situation better.

Initially, Jooste focussed on getting the rangers organised, sourcing the funds — much from private donors — to get the best equipment, establishing communication channels between all role players; streamlining crime scene protocols and ensuring they were followed. But he soon realised that apprehending poachers on its own, apart from being a herculean task in a park spanning over 20,000km² of wild bushveld, will never win the “war”.

Jooste and his colleagues identified four pillars to protect the rhino: effective law enforcement; good biological management (of the species); demand management (of the rhino horn); and community projects. Only by tackling all of these issues, could one hope to help protect Kruger’s rhinos and give the species a fighting chance.

Two aspects of Jooste’s approach resonate with me: first, he made a major effort to ensure that the rangers were valued and supported, which included getting proper uniforms and equipment, trauma counselling, legal assistance if a poacher was injured or killed during contact, decent accommodation and social programmes for their families.

He also supported the SANParks Honorary Rangers in the creation of a monument to honour the bravery of the rangers. Giving the rangers their due is absolutely essential to this struggle, and unfortunately has been overlooked for too long.

Secondly, he points out that community support needs to go beyond “women selling beads at the reserve gates”. This is critical. From the time of colonialism, indigenous communities have been dispossessed of land and have had their connections with the natural world severed.

Community involvement and safety

The exclusion of black communities from conservation policy, revenue and decision-making is well documented. There is no doubt that much more needs to be done to involve surrounding communities meaningfully in conservation efforts, to enable them to experience the parks, and to ensure that they benefit materially.

However, there is a limit to how much revenue conservation areas can generate, and it is neither realistic, nor healthy for the priorities of the parks, to expect them to address all the issues of generational poverty and unemployment that face communities around the Kruger and the smaller reserves like the Hluhluwe Imfolozi.

It is vital to consider creative ways that may be used to extend the benefits of conservation areas to nearby communities, beyond a direct revenue stream from tourism and hunting.

Julian Rademeyer, for example, argues that “one way to rebuild faith in law enforcement in rural areas would be to show how law enforcement strategies to combat rhino poaching syndicates can also ensure that communities become safer and more resilient — by breaking up these networks, cracking down on corruption and creating a climate with opportunities for socioeconomic development.”

There is no doubt that as long as the kingpins and middlemen act with relative impunity, communities will feel an understandable resentment that so many resources are invested in combatting rhino poaching, while crime flourishes unchecked in their communities.

How much harder must it be for those employed by the reserves to resist efforts to coerce or bribe them to collaborate with rhino poachers, when the only successful people they see are those connected to the illicit trade, when everyone is on the take and no one is held to account?

There is no doubt that all these four pillars need to be tackled if one has any hope of turning the tide. But there is a bigger underlying issue arising from our entire understanding of our relationship to nature and each other.

We need to recognise the underlying values in our social and economic systems which drive, and will continue to drive, the rhino trade, the abalone trade, the pangolin trade, the lion and tiger bone trade, the cycad trade, the trade in live songbirds and reptiles captured in the wild to sell as exotic pets, the trade in illegally harvested succulents that is decimating fragile ecosystems in semi-arid areas around the globe, and all the other feathered, clawed and barked entities that make up the wildlife trade.

The wildlife trade, legal and illegal, generates around $220-billion in profit every year.

Crimes of the past, eco-crimes of today

While humans have lived off wildlife for millennia, using nature as a source of medicine, clothing and supplemental food even after they became herders and farmers, the trade exploded under colonialism. Colonial powers regarded the colonies as a limitless supply of natural resources, and stripped them of minerals, wild animals and plants with no compunction, sometimes beyond all reason.

The Cites convention was signed in 1973 to regulate this trade. Its proponents argue that the best way to protect a species is to ensure that it is valued by putting a price on it — and then regulating how it may be harvested and traded.

But regulation relies on strong governance. And in Africa and Asia, which are the source of most wildlife products, governance is weak, poverty levels high, and corruption is rife. Whether the legal trade is sustainable is debatable, but increasingly, the lucrative wildlife trade has shifted from legal to illegal, as more criminal networks discover it to be a lucrative interest with good opportunities for money laundering.

While in theory, a well-regulated wildlife trade can promote conservation, as the illicit trade increases, it has become the second biggest driver of extinction after habitat destruction. It affects not only the plant or animal being trafficked but also other species, as it creates destructive imbalances in the ecosystem.

It has social consequences as it disrupts generational relationships between indigenous communities and local wildlife by recruiting poor people to pillage their own environments, or stripping them of valuable plants and animals which they had been sustainably harvesting for centuries. The illegal trade also brings criminality, extortion and violence.

The wildlife trade is governed by Western viewpoints of science and nature, which became dominant, stripping all non-human life forms of sentience and cultural value, and casting all nature as an inert “resource” to be exploited.

But indigenous communities with cultural bonds to nature have historically played a positive role in conserving the wildlife on their doorstep. Plants and animals are interwoven with cultural identities and have a value beyond what they can fetch on the market. Protection is woven into the philosophies — many Zulu clan names are taken from animals, for example. These totemic animals would have been protected by members of this clan.

Empower local custodianship

This strong sense of connection is a far more powerful incentive to conserve a species than its market value. There have been many instances in Africa, South America and Asia where local communities have defended forests and grasslands against encroaching mining and other extractive operations, sometimes at the cost of their own lives.

But as communities are fragmented, sometimes cynically and deliberately by those wanting to weaken their protection of natural assets; as population increases, and more and more are thrown into poverty — often precisely because the forests, grasslands, and fishing waters which used to sustain them have been stripped by big corporations — these connections have broken down.

Once it slips the bonds of cultural connection, the trade becomes rapacious and destructive. With weakening regulatory environments, increasing poverty, and the escalation of the illegal trade, the wildlife trade is no longer serving as a mechanism for conserving species and biodiversity but is hastening their destruction.

It is highly debatable whether that golden boy of capitalism, the “self-regulating” market has served society well — it certainly serves some sectors of society a lot better than others. But there is no question that it is rapidly accelerating the sixth mass extinction and our slide into ecological devastation.

It comes back again to the simple principle of care. The only thing that might stop someone catching and selling the last abalone, the last rhino, the last rare orchid, is if they care enough to keep these entities alive. Nature will not survive if we don’t care about it, recognise our total dependency on it, and treasure it for its generosity and utter magnificence.

But equally, we cannot confine our care to nature, we need to care for its custodians. We need to recognise and strengthen the role that communities can play in safeguarding nature on their doorsteps, which means ensuring that the communities are cared for, that crime does not flourish, that services are provided.

We need to stop killing community activists who are fighting mining or logging operations, such as Fikile Ntshangase, assassinated for opposing the extension of the Somkhele coal mine near the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park.

We need to ensure that young men and women have better routes out of poverty than trapping and killing or maiming wild animals, or stripping the veld of endangered plants. We need to ensure that their children are educated, that they have health care and food security, so that they are not vulnerable to the threats and inducements of the traders.

We need to revive cultural connections with nature, and find ways to reward these custodians for keeping the ecosystems intact.

Let us not think of this as war. As Johan Jooste himself said, in his book and to me, nobody wins a war.

Let us think of this as sickness, the sickness of imbalance, of greed, of alienation, of carelessness and neglect. It has brought humanity to the brink of self-annihilation as we drive the Earth to the point where it will no doubt continue to sustain other species but it may well not sustain us.

To have the slightest chance to save the rhino, the dugong, the pangolin and all the others threatened by extinction, we do need to uphold the four pillars identified by Jooste in his book.

But we also need a sea change, a massive shift in how we generate wealth, and how we treat all living beings, be they plants, animals or humans.

Without that, the future is dark for all of us. DM

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  • Alexis Kriel says:

    Thanks you for this article Bridget. Is this paradigm so far gone that “we” as the destroyers – in the wake of colonialism – are called upon, to re-construct the indigenous relationships with nature? So much fiddling. Alexis Kriel – African Pangolin Working Group.

    • No, I don’t at all think it is for the descendents of colonisers to reconstruct the indigenous relationship with nature, I think it is about creating the conditions that enable indigenous communities to reconstruct those relationships themselves. And for us to learn from this in how we do things. Unfortunately our current extractive economic model is antithetical to congruence with nature. For a more liveable and sustainable future that has to shift.

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