“We’re going to fan out, like a ripple moving through the bush.”
With those instructions, our group of American diplomats made a long line, carefully stepping through the long, yellow grass of the Victoria Falls National Park. We were less than five miles from the spectacular Falls, but in the park it was hot, dusty, and dangerous.
The park is home to elephants, African buffalo, lions, leopards, warthogs, and many other animals. While the animals certainly pose some danger, the real dangers we were looking out for were snares. Using nothing more than copper wire, often stolen from telephone lines, poachers fashion crude but effective nooses looped between scrub trees to catch animals. A snare can bring down a 600 pound Kudu antelope, leaving it disabled and exposed to the elements where it will take three or more days to die of dehydration. Snare poachers are generally local villagers -- an estimated 1.9-3.5 million tons of illegal bush meat come from snares each year in Africa -- but the locals share the bush with well-equipped commercial wildlife traffickers after elephant tusk and rhino horn for the lucrative Asian market. In addition to animals, wood and other natural resources are also illegally taken from the national park, leading to large-scale habitat degradation. One local conservationist estimates that 80 percent of curios bought by tourists are made from wood stolen from national parkland.
The Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit (VFAPU), a partnership between the private sector tourism industry, the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, and the Zimbabwe Republic Police, is working hard to rebalance the area in favor of both local people and animals. Since its formation in 1999, VFAPU has removed 22,000 snares and arrested over 600 serious poachers. They have successfully lobbied for more stringent laws against poaching and helped destitute locals who might otherwise have become poachers find other work. VFAPU conducts scout trainings and reaches out to schools and tourists with education programs.
Though these efforts have made a great difference, the long-term answers to this problem are sustainable development, education, and community involvement. U.S. Embassies throughout sub-Saharan Africa are working with African authorities to build effective, integrated approaches to wildlife conservation. Fighting wildlife trafficking, which is directly tied to transnational crime, is a U.S. foreign policy priority.
“The whole thing with poaching,” says Charles Brightman, founder of VFAPU, “is that it is not sustainable -- there is no thought for tomorrow. No wildlife means no visitors and no jobs.”
About the Author: Sharon Hudson-Dean serves as Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe.