From poachers to protectors
In 1976 there were 35,000 African elephants in Kenya. An influx in the ivory trade coupled with environmental issues saw that number being driven down to an alarming 5,400 in 1988. However, it is not only the ivory trade, which was only made illegal in 1989, that is putting Kenya’s wildlife under strain.
In Tsavo West national park, a popular tourist destination, it is the illegal hunting and selling of wild animal meat, commonly referred to as the ‘bush meat trade’, which has had the most serious negative impacts. Despite continuous efforts from conservation organisations and government institutions ‘bush meat trade’ has escalated and by far surpassed ‘habitat loss’ as the greatest threat to tropical wildlife.
Commonly the trade starts with individuals living in rural communities which resort to poaching to sustain their families. Once certain boundaries are crossed, people move on to larger organised groups and sometimes progress to big game poaching for ivory. Despite tough sentencing and even a shoot-to-kill policy towards perpetrators, there are hardly any income-generating alternatives, thus 90 percent of poachers arrested and prosecuted resume poaching after release. Government and non government organisations are starting to realise the importance of addressing poverty and thus the poaching problem at the roots and are making an effort to get rural communities actively involved in conserving their wildlife.
In 2012 the ‘Southern Tsavo West Community Rangers’ group was formed in line with the grass-roots conservation idea. The group has been supported by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), GVI’s main partner and Tsavo Pride, a non-governmental organisation directed by a former GVI member of staff. The ranger group is made out of 40 members and all rangers are former wildlife poachers from numerous different tribes. The rangers have been actively involved in conservation for more than 6 years, and formed a group to actively stop poaching in the corridor between the southern end of Tsavo West national park and the Tanzanian border overshadowed by the mighty Kilimanjaro Mountain. These poachers risk their own safety to patrol this areas two times a month. Camping in the bush, recording any signs of poaching for KWS and often, coming to risking their lives by confronting poachers in the bush. Despite lack of resources and funding or payment, these men and women are risking their lives to protect wildlife prevent poaching and to change the attitudes towards wildlife within their communities.
GVI in partnership with KWS, and Tsavo pride had the honour of working with this group in Tsavo. After identifying the most urgent needs of the group, an extremely generous donation from a GVI volunteer that visited the area on a previous trip, brought the group what they needed: handheld GPS devices, torches, binoculars, cameras, handheld radios and specialist wildlife identification books. Everything needed to collect the vital information on illegal poaching whilst out in the African bush. With only one problem, most of the rangers had never even seen a camera before, let alone used a GPS.
This is where GVI volunteers stepped in, by organising and applying three days of extensive training with the ranger group.
Classes started out simple, by teaching how to change batteries in a camera, but instructions became complex quite soon when they moved into marking exact locations on handheld GPS devices. As a final test GVI volunteers set out an unmarked trail through the bush, which had to be followed with the GPS as only guidance. Most classes and exercises proved a lot of fun but it was very clear to everyone that this equipment would soon be used to acquire photographic evidence of illegal poaching and construct maps showing poaching hotshots in the area.
As the group of rangers is very diverse, and in bush they must be able to rely on each other a hundred percent, the third day was reserved for a series of indoor discussions and team-building activities. A GVI volunteer couldn’t resist asking the rangers why they are now protecting their wildlife instead of hunting it even though they gain no income from this. A wide range of answer was heard; from people having seen the decrease in wildlife and wanting to stop it before it was too late, to people saying they enjoyed this sense of community and the feeling that they are doing something worthwhile. One of the few women in the group said: “As a woman my task was to carry the bush meat home, but like other women I was often attacked on my way, but I, like everybody was too scared to go the police as what I was doing was illegal. Now, working with the rangers, I finally feel safe.”
All in all, the training was a massive success, and so was the celebratory meal of barbequed goat on the last night. Later on in the night, the leader of the ranger group thanked GVI for their help: “Thanks to the knowledge GVI have given us, we now have a massive advantage on these poachers who are set on destroying our wildlife. We will continue patrolling until there are no more poachers and our land is once again safe.”
GVI has been working with Tsavo communities since 2008, working on alternative income generating activities. GVI is working in close partnership with Tsavo pride founded by Julie Dawson to find out more about the work done in this area please visit http://www.tsavopride.org.
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