From The Zebra's Mouth

                                                                                       Thoughts On Poaching

I like to formulate opinions based on first hand news such as observation and informal conversations.  Traveling to Africa on a photographic safari I take with me ideas about this continent that need to be tested.  I bring questions about poaching and the benefits of conservation.

On a flight from Selous game reserve to Ruaha National Park, Tanzania, our small, twin engine plane climbs to around 3,000 feet.  I have a bird’s eye view the entire ride.   Uninhabited land stretches as for as I can see for most of the trip.  There are potential corridors for animals to travel from Ruaha to Selous—if there are animals.  On a single engine flight from Masai Mara, Kenya to Nairobi, again the habitat is there.

If you fly from one city to the next, quickly rising to above 30,000 feet--above the clouds and too high to see the land--it’s easy to assume the problem with loss of wildlife is loss of habitat—human encroachment—nothing left for elephants and giraffes and lions to use.  That’s not what I saw.

As much as I can find proof that poaching is the central problem with loss of wildlife—short of spending time with poachers as they slaughter animals—I have done that.  I don’t believe we can underestimate the devastation of poaching: poaching for ivory and other body parts; poaching for bush meat; poaching to ameliorate the loss of livestock or crops to wildlife.

Yet there is optimism about the problem.  In Tanzania that optimism may stem from the fact that the government—according to a camp manager I spoke with—has finally admitted there is a problem with poaching; amazingly, just three years ago.  It is a start.

In Selous, a game reserve, hunting has, at least for the time being, been suspended.  This is what the camp manager and our driver said.  It’s not exactly clear to me why.

I have read that big game hunting is declining due to the suspension of elephant and lion imports in the United States.  Is this good or bad?  Some say loss of big game hunting will leave the wildlife to the poachers and only make matters worse; that selling hunting permits for big game actually protects big game. 

No one wants to hear that killing elephants & lions helps protect elephants and lions, but it could be true.  Here in the United States, killing ducks for example, helps protect ducks because the money generated by hunting licenses goes towards protecting habitat.  Owners of large game reserves have an interest in protecting wildlife for hunters who pay.

There are different types of hunters.  On my flight back to the states I shared a seat with a big game hunter from Oregon.  He was returning from a safari in Namibia of a different type.  His safari included the right to kill one Oryx, one Mt. Zebra and one Kuda--he got all three.  He is not interested in shooting lions and elephants and the meat from all three kills went to local people.

If the population of Oryx, Mt. Zebra and Kudu are healthy, this kind of safari sounds sustainable to me.  The money brought in by the safari camp will trickle down to villages and the meat provided by the hunt reduces the need for locals to poach for food.

It seems to me that if Kenya and Tanzania and other African countries make the same concerted effort to stop poaching that they have made to make their airports safe--they will be successful.  This will of course require eliminating--or at least reducing--corruption.  Nothing in my travels has indicated corruption is on the decline anywhere in the world.

Mark Paul