INCREASED patrolling in South Africa’s protected areas because of rhino poaching has had the serendipitous benefit of reducing other poaching, say conservationists.
Research published last year by five nongovernmental organisations lists illegal hunting as one of the “most severe emerging threats” to wildlife across the Southern and East African savanna. Giving local communities a greater share of the proceeds from wildlife protection and management is one of several ways in which conservation authorities are trying to curb the phenomenon.
The Kruger National Park is the place in South Africa hardest hit by rhino poaching — it lost 425 rhinos to poachers last year, of the country’s overall 668 lost. The park’s conservation services chief, Freek Venter, says increased patrolling because of rhino poaching has helped prevent other poaching because rangers find and remove snares.
The higher danger of being caught in the park also means poachers would rather risk “life and limb” for the higher financial reward of a rhino horn than for the meat from a buck, says Peter Lindsay, a zoologist at conservation organisation Panthera and one of the research authors.
Dr Venter also says he suspects South Africa’s social grant system has helped protect the park’s animals, as living from the proceeds of a grant is “better than risking your life in the park”.
Hunting for bushmeat probably accounts for “80-90%” of poaching in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park on South Africa’s east coast, says park CEO Andrew Zaloumis.
“What I find very interesting is, 10 years ago ... we stopped selling meat (from events such as buck culls) to our neighbours at nominal prices, for a period. For that period, bushmeat poaching went up.... That’s my hard experience of it,” he says.
Dr Lindsay says a demand for protein, whether for personal or commercial use, is “one of the obvious drivers” of the bushmeat trade, which he calls “an unmitigated crisis” in much of Africa, especially in very poor or conflict-ridden states, and a “managed threat” in South Africa.
Bushmeat poaching is also driven by inadequate legal deterrents, including poor law enforcement; a lack of alternative livelihoods in rural areas; a lack of alternative food sources; a lack of clear rights relating to wildlife and land use; political instability, corruption and poor governance; traditional medicine; and abundant supplies of wire, mostly in park fencing.
Both Dr Lindsay and Dr Venter say research has not been done on the extent of the problem in South Africa, with all the evidence anecdotal.
While it is “managed” in most parts of South Africa — Dr Lindsay believes there are parts of the country where bushmeat poaching is increasingly a problem — it is a serious threat to wildlife in the rest of savanna Africa, and in Central and West Africa.
“It’s complex to resolve, and it occurs most in communities living next to state and private wildlife areas, but investment in antipoaching (measures) and forming a good working relationship with the local community are key,” he says.
One of these parks, Phinda Private Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal, provides a unique case study. The park has belonged to local communities since the 2007 resolution of a land claim, says Dr Lindsay, who also works at the University of Pretoria. Now Phinda pays the communities rent.
Mnqobokazi Community Trust chairman Jabulani Nxumalo used to hunt the Phinda wildlife, but says the animals are now worth more to him alive — to keep the tourists coming.
“We receive R2.6m a year from Phinda in rental income. It has made a difference to the community.... The people in our community were definitely hunting before (the relationship with Phinda was negotiated). Even me, when I was young ... I can’t say there is no longer hunting, but the numbers (of community members involved) have decreased,” says Mr Nxumalo.
The community has, for example, used rental income to bring in electricity, build a training centre and send 40 of its youngsters to university.
“It makes your life a lot easier if the local community benefits from the wildlife, financial benefits and meat, and if the relationship is a business one, not a donation,” says Dr Lindsay.
Finding ways to curb bushmeat poaching is important. If the general trend is not reversed (and the researchers say this is unlikely), vast swathes of Africa could lose one of its most valuable resources: its wildlife.
Snaring is the most common form of illegal hunting, say Panthera, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Living Conservation, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation and Traffic.
It is also enormously destructive because it is “highly effective, difficult to control, unselective in terms of the genders and species of animals captured, wasteful, and has severe animal welfare implications”.
By cutting the population sizes of general wildlife and of particular species (in themselves problematic), illegal hunting can have “severe consequences” for so-called ecosystem services — the benefits derived from ecosystems, such as seed dispersal by herbivores, according to the organisations.
The bad news is that illegal hunting in the region is expected to increase, according to the research.
“Certainly the rhino issue has meant greater antipoaching and that has curbed (illegal hunting), but this is a separate issue. It’s certainly a dramatic factor in the rest of Africa, and in places in South Africa,” says Dr Lindsay.