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Anti-poaching. “Time for a new approach?”


There are many aspects, forms, aspirations, and personal whims and fancies involved in conservation today. These include targeted conservation, where the survival of an individual species is in question. There is also broader-based ecological conservation where the balance of the overall ecology of an area is the aim. The former may involve the latter. There is, however, always the chance that tunnel vision can creep in. The individual target species for anti-poaching efforts then becomes the be-all and end-all of the equation. The overall balances can easily assume only a secondary importance. There can then be a tendency to try to tailor the local ecology specifically to the target species. This is as opposed to allowing it to fit in and adapt naturally.

An extinction waiting to happen.

Rhinos, of all species, must rank in the top ten of conservation efforts throughout the world.

This young white rhino will be lucky to reach adulthood. With powdered rhino horn worth more by weight than gold, the writing is on the wall. Apart from a demand for rhino horn in traditional medicine and as a supposed aphrodisiac, there is also a demand for its use in making dagger handles in North Africa and the East. The sums involved are enormous and attract high levels of criminal activity, hard to combat in often impoverished and isolated areas. Rhinos are being poached in numbers, even from under the noses of guards allocated for their safekeeping.

In places, in order to circumvent this dire threat to the animal’s future, steps have been taken to remove the live animal’s horns with a saw. Other than the trauma of being tranquilized there is no pain for the animal. The horn is made of keratin and will regrow over a period. In the meantime, it will not adversely affect the well-being of the animal. The thinking behind this move is sound. Its success, however, depends on being able to de-horn each and every rhino in an area so that it becomes well-known in poaching circles.

Failure to treat every animal means that poachers cannot, in advance, know whether the animal has a horn or not. They may waste a period of up to some days tracking an animal that, when they finally catch up, is of no use to them. Their answer is often to kill it anyway so that they do not make the same mistake the following week!

Evolving Species.

Evolution has been taking place for millennia and has proven to be an unstoppable force. Under this process, species have gone extinct when circumstances have proved no longer tenable. Sometimes this is the result of the emergence of other, more successful, species. These have then gone on to fill the vacant niches left behind. This is a perfectly natural development that normally takes place over great periods. It is an irrefutable part of life and the continuation of the planet. A new natural balance is then ultimately established and maintained, provided the instigating forces are themselves naturally self-induced.

There is also a tendency to decry any extinctions, when they occur, with much fanfare and “woe is us” alarmism. The harsh facts of life are that the overall circumstances controlling the environment are changing constantly. There will inevitably come times when certain species can no longer adapt sufficiently to survive naturally, however much we would like them to. Their extinction will make room for new species to emerge and proliferate or other existing species to expand and evolve in different ways.

Can you imagine us, the human race in all its forms, happily living cheek-by-jowl with the range of dinosaur species that once ruled the earth? We could not. Had they not gone extinct when they did the human race would have had to develop along much different lines – if at all.

The overriding factor prevailing throughout though is that, provided the process is naturally ordained, the peripheral species involved normally have time to gradually adapt to either the extinction or the new emergence and, ultimately, life goes on.

One of Wildlife’s greatest threats.

Unfortunately, a new and unprecedented force has come to dominate the natural world. Its effects can be so severe and immediate that all those natural counterbalances have no time to establish and the whole process of natural evolution goes into free-fall. That, often unbelievably destructive force, rejoices in the name of Homo sapiens, whose current form constitutes the human race as we know it.

The World’s species co-exist much like the various strands of a spider’s web. Each strand plays an essential part and contributes to the strength of the whole. Damage one of those strands, however, and the next time the wind blows or the supporting bushes move, the whole web is compromised to some extent or other. Modern man has the ability to be one of those strand damaging forces and one of the ways in which he practises it is poaching.

First signs of death.

The very first signs of an animal’s impending death, either from natural causes or mismanaged poaching, are vultures, if they exist in the area, circling in the sky. As death becomes more imminent they begin to descend until eventually, they settle on suitable perches. They act almost as a signpost and lead you straight to the spot. In the case of poached animals there may not be much to hold them if meat was the poachers’ purpose. A carcass can be stripped, dismembered and carried away very quickly if necessary.

Sometimes, however, a trophy, such as the tusks in the case of an elephant, or a rhino horn, will be the target. In this case, it/they will be removed post haste and the rest abandoned. This will hold the vultures and other meat eaters in the area until just bones remain. If Hyenas are present, even these will be taken. A large carcass can virtually disappear in little more than 24 hours.

Poaching – a modern-day evil.

Poaching is the killing, capturing or taking of wildlife species from an environment where they are protected in some way, shape or form. The motivations for it are many and varied. The oldest, and perhaps most contentious, is the claim that it is necessary to sustain life for the poacher and/or his dependents. Perhaps the biggest instigator is that of commercial gain from the sale of such as meat, as part of the “bushmeat” trade, and pelts and feathers for the clothing industry or traditional costumes.

Other reasons include the taking of trophies, the harvesting of body parts for traditional medicine, a form of protest against authorities and regulations, a claim to ancient and traditional hunting rights, the sheer “thrill” of the hunt and the challenge of being able to outsmart the gameKeepers and wardens. There is also significant Worldwide trade in endangered species as well as in a whole raft of species much favoured by the pet trade. Some of the values involved are sufficient to attract sophisticated career criminals who are able to set up international supply chains.

Causes apart, the effects of poaching can be catastrophic for the balance of the local ecology. Unfortunately, poaching often targets certain species only. It can continue until that species has effectively ceased to exist in a given area or is reduced to such low numbers that its regenerative capability is impaired or impossible. Many habitats depend on a delicate balance of species and should that balance become disturbed the ecological effects can be disastrous. For example, a shift in grazer/browser balance can devastate woodland or cause grassland erosion on a grand scale. Furthermore the “domino effect” can become unstoppable.

This Giraffe carcass is what happens when there are anti-poaching measures

Baby Giraffe.

The death of this lovely animal was the direct by-product of poaching. The mother was killed at Pamuzinda game park near Harare and the young one was old enough to flee. Not old enough, however, to survive without mother’s milk!

Anti-poaching initiatives can prevent such injury to animals

Young Baboon.

This young baboon had been caught in a poacher’s snare that had tightened on its wrist. To escape it had chewed through its arm. The only good news is that it seemed to have adapted to its disability. Fortunately, food was in relative abundance. Otherwise only having one hand, with which to climb and pick up food, could have meant its inability to compete with its peers and possible starvation.

How big a threat is it?

It is, perhaps, difficult to comprehend how, here in Zimbabwe, the poaching of an Impala can represent a threat to the World’s ecology. Taken in isolation, a case could probably be made one way or the other. The problem is that it cannot be taken in isolation as poaching has proved to be a progressive and pervasive force. The days when we needed to live off nature’s wildlife bounty are long gone in most modern societies. Our food chains now are controlled by governments and commerce. With current communications as they are, their components are sourced on a worldwide basis.

The harsh reality in this day and age is that the man who, this week, poaches an Impala to feed his family will next week poach two so that he can sell one. When the Impala ceases to be available he will direct his attention to something else such as fish or birds but, in reality, he will not stop as long as he gets away with it.

If it’s not one thing it’s another.

Fish poachers are often apprehended in the prohibited areas of Lake Kariba. It would be easy to say “They were just catching a few fish for the family”. These poachers, however, often have huge stashes of fish drying in the local bush. More than enough to feed a whole village. Not only that, but usually the canoe bottom also contains a whole bunch of other weapons. Presumably to give them something else to go for if the fish weren’t obliging.

Poaching methods.

Depending on their policing, different areas are poached in different ways. The digging of pit traps is visible and time-consuming. It is not a viable option in areas where anti-poaching measures and personnel are in place. Deliberate burning of grassland during the dry season, however, can often be effected without too much fear of being caught. The new growth of grass that results will then attract grazers and the burnt-off foliage will allow animals to be seen from a great distance. Bows, firearms and dogs can then be brought into the equation. Dogs can be noisy but some have their vocal cords tampered with and others are trained to stay silent. The clear view can work two ways so that certain game species can see a threat coming and take evasive action.

Other species, however, like sable antelope, will not run but stand at bay to defend their young from the dogs. This allows the poachers to approach and spear their prey with little noise created. Unsilenced firearms can only be used in areas where there is little or no anti-poaching patrolling or where a quick in and out is possible.

What they leave behind.

The carcass is all that remains when elephants are poached in Zimbabwe’s major game reserves. Poachers have taken to poisoning salt licks and waterholes with cyanide and other poisons which can cause the deaths of a whole herd in one operation. Unfortunately, they do not die in one spot and the poisoned carcasses become scattered throughout the surrounding bush. There, after the poachers have removed the tusks, they are eaten by a wide variety of predators and scavengers. These then become secondary victims to the poison and then, themselves, are scavenged. This creates tertiary victims and so on down the line.

In this case, the domino effect can be endless to the extent that birds are dying all around from eating insects that have fed on the carcasses. The sheer volume of the carcasses involved, and the often inaccessible areas where the poisoning has occurred, make safe disposal of the remains a major problem.

What a dreadful way to die.

Perhaps the most pernicious of the poachers’ bag of tricks is the snare. These can be set quietly at night along game trails and paths to water. Unfortunately, there is no control over what species will become ensnared nor what part of the body may become directly entrapped. Rarely does the snare fall around the animal’s neck and suffocate it quickly. Rather it catches the animal by the horns or the leg. The victim is then left tethered until the poachers return and finish it off. This may be a matter of some days without food and water. In the meantime, the animal often undergoes considerable pain and suffering.

Almost a worse scenario is when the animal manages to break free but with the snare still attached.  It will then drag the wire, often attached to an anchoring log, through the bush. The snare then gradually wears away at the point of attachment until it cuts through flesh, down to the bone. In areas where there are natural predators these unfortunately injured animals may quickly, or otherwise, fall prey. In many reserves and parks, however, where natural major predators are excluded, this will not happen. Unless the poachers, or the park staff, find the injured animal, it will suffer a painful death spread over a period of days.


Kudu move in small groups of either mothers and young, or bachelors. During the heat of the day, they are given to standing in small clusters of trees or bushes. This provides both shade and camouflage. In some cases, the bunch of trees concerned are the only ones in the area. Poachers saturate the branches with snares which can trap several members of the group. It may have been the entire group. Snares either remain attached to the remains or hang from the branches.

Even more unforgivable than the act itself is that, for some reason, the poachers never returned to check their snares. This condemned their victims to a lingering death over a period of what could have been days. Maybe they got caught elsewhere, maybe they forgot where they set the snares. Maybe anti-poaching activities in the area were suddenly ramped up. Who can know?

Whatever the case was, not only were the animals killed in the most horrible fashion, but the carcasses did not even provide the meat they were intended for.

How bad can it get?

Not much worse than being born a kudu in an unprotected area. The poor old kudu has it coming at him all ways. Firstly he’s a large antelope with plenty of meat on him. This makes him a prime target for the meat hunters. Secondly, that meat happens to make the tastiest of biltong, which makes him a prime target for the biltong hunters. Thirdly those carvers of wooden curios have discovered that his horns, with their beautifully curving design, make ideal coffee table legs for the tourist trade. Fourthly he’s pretty dumb.

Many of them live in game reserves and similar protected areas with game fences to keep animals in and people out. Here they could live out their lives in relative peace bar the need to stop eating and smile and pose for the odd game Drive that comes by. But no! Mr Kudu, and Mrs as well, can jump higher than the average game fence from a standing start. And so they do. Just when they’re well off and looked out for they seem to take it into their heads to move. It must be a case of the grass looking greener on the other side of the fence. Once they’ve jumped, however, they are at the mercy of all and sundry in the area.

Dramatic effects.

Poaching predation can result in a whole plethora of species going “locally” extinct. Without controls, the effect can become more widespread. We are now faced with the appalling situation whereby our children, or certainly our grandchildren, may never see a wide range of endemic species other than in a zoo or its equivalent. Whilst admitting that here, at Pamuzinda and Chengeta, we cannot hope to solve the problem continent-wide, nor even nationally, we are doing our best to preserve our children’s heritage in our neck of the woods.

How can we prevent it?

It would not be prudent to disclose either the details or the extent of our anti-poaching regime. Suffice to say that, for our size, they are significant. Apart from various modern technological aids we also operate with that tried and tested success story – trained ranger/ dog teams. These are on constant patrol on a shift system 24/7. We offer no quarter to poachers if they are apprehended. Whatever sob story they come up with – and there always is one –  they will be handcuffed and handed over to the local Police. We will then, without exception, pursue them rigorously through the courts regardless of cost. Furthermore, I can imagine no worse nightmare than to be a small poacher’s dog and find oneself suddenly confronted by one of our monsters (the anti-poaching dogs).

A possible solution.

The greatest threat to poaching would be if we could make its perception socially unacceptable. Many local residents are aware of the identities of poachers but see no harm in it. Certainly, they would not dream of “turning a poacher in”. One of our aims is to educate our local children on the importance of maintaining, and retaining, our wildlife for future generations to enjoy. We have our local school here, with a total of some 640 Pupils between the Primary and Secondary Sections. We are instigating, to begin shortly, a series of illustrated wildlife and conservation presentations in the hopes that we can win the children over. They can then pressure their parents into adopting the same attitudes. “Watch this space”, as they say.

We can also offer a number of conservation-based talks to Groups staying at either Chengeta or Pamuzinda, as part of their evening agenda. These would need to be booked when making their reservations

Wishful Thinking!

You can almost hear this young vulture thinking, as he eyes this ancient Elephant skull, “There must be some meat left on there somewhere!”

Brian Pettit.



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Anti-poaching. “Time for a new approach?”

Anti-poaching. “Time for a new approach?”
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