An elephant and an antelope drink in the Luangwa river bed.

Zambia: Wildlife Poachers Trade Guns for Gardens

Many anti-poaching strategies aim to kill or jail hunters — but this project puts them to work

CHAMA DISTRICT, Zambia — On the banks of the Luangwa River in eastern Zambia, a small group of men creeps through dry grass with guns raised. A half-dozen hippos laze in the water, antelope graze on the opposite bank, and, farther off, an elephant is drinking water. The men have killed hundreds of animals on these grounds. One by one, they take aim, then fire. The blasts echo and send up acrid white smoke.

But today, there are no bullets in their guns. The men, and scores of others in the Luangwa Valley, have given up poaching for farming. They’ve repurposed their weapons by loading them with a nonlethal mix of crushed chili and gunpowder. They use the spicy blasts to drive off animals that come to raid their fields.

The men are members of an environmental organization that works with two groups sometimes seen as obstacles, if not enemies, to conservation: poachers and farmers. The nonprofit, Community Markets for Conservation, or COMACO, convinces poachers to hand over their guns and pursue alternative livelihoods such as beekeeping, vegetable gardening and carpentry, along with farming. It also confronts the more insidious threat of habitat loss by helping farmers transition to sustainable agriculture and makes it worth their while by buying their crops at above-market prices.

As poaching has reached dire levels across the continent, some countries have instituted “shoot to kill” policies to stop poachers, while private anti-poaching militias patrol swaths of land in others. At the same time, governments and international law-enforcement agencies are working to get tough on wildlife crime by coordinating efforts and stiffening penalties. Yet some conservationists argue that the international response has been weighted too heavilytoward law enforcement, and is overlooking the role that communities who live closest to wildlife can play in protecting these species. A hard-line approach to poaching can alienate or even harm these would-be allies; a recent crackdown in Tanzania was halted after accusations that anti-poaching troops murdered, raped and tortured innocent people.

William Banda, a COMACO regional coordinator, speaks with a group of farmers in Luero village.
William Banda, a COMACO regional coordinator, speaks with a group of farmers in Luero village.

“There’s a strong desire from the international community to do something about this,” said Rosie Cooney, of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Quite often that gets translated into putting more money into enforcement agencies. But unless they’re responsive to the people on the ground, it can make things worse, rather than better.”

William Banda, a regional coordinator with COMACO, saw firsthand the limits of a law-enforcement approach when he patrolled for poachers in protected areas as a wildlife scout working for the government. “People were being apprehended, prosecuted, sent to jail,” he said. “A month after they’d get out, you’d find that same person continuing with poaching. Why? Law enforcement cannot answer the problems people are facing in the communities.”

John Scanlon, the secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which has been at the center of efforts to coordinate the international response, said law enforcement has been emphasized recently because poaching is at a crisis point. Local communities will be instrumental in protecting wildlife in the medium and long term, he said, but only if the animals survive the current bloodbath. “If I’m walking across the street and I get hit by a car, the first thing I want someone to do is stop the bleeding,” he said. “Once I’ve recovered, then I can think about whether I need to get more exercise and eat better. Wildlife’s been hit hard, and we need a trauma-based response.”

A transformed hunter and his family prepare rice fields for the imminent rains.
A transformed hunter and his family prepare rice fields for the imminent rains.

Peanut butter to end poaching
Edson Zimba was one of the first poachers to turn in his gun and begin working with COMACO more than a decade ago. Before that, he’d supported his family by hunting elephants, buffalo, warthogs and other animals in and around the North Luangwa National Park, a remote reserve a bit larger than Rhode Island.

But over his 20 years as a poacher, he watched animal populations shrink due to overhunting. Each year he had to go deeper into the wilderness, leaving his two wives and eight children to fend for themselves for long stretches. So, when COMACO came to the community and began talking about conserving animals and sustainable farming, it didn’t take him long to get on board. “It upgraded our minds,” he said.

The group also improved his family’s standard of living. After turning in his gun, Zimba received carpentry training and hand tools. He and his family also learned new sustainable-farming methods, which boosted their yields and meant they were able to stop buying expensive synthetic fertilizers. Zimba sells his crops to COMACO and said the family has plenty to eat. He has even bought two grinding mills, one for each wife, used to mill corn for their staple food, nshima, which is similar to polenta. The women have made a small enterprise with the machines, charging locals 4 kwacha (about 50 cents) to grind a tin of corn. “I’m living much better than in the past,” Zimba said.

Once harvested, Zimba’s crops go to COMACO’s food-processing factory in Chipata, the largest city in Zambia’s Eastern Province. The facility produces peanut butter, honey, rice and a hot-cereal mix from crops grown by its farmers, who number about 100,000 in the region. The products are sold under the brand name It’s Wild! at supermarkets across the country.

Workers at the COMACO factory in Chipata apply 'It's Wild!" labels to jars of peanut butter.
Workers at the COMACO factory in Chipata apply ‘It’s Wild!” labels to jars of peanut butter.

Individual farmers, who organize themselves into producer groups and cooperatives, adopt sustainable techniques — they fertilize with compost, incorporate trees into their farms and minimize tilling. Those who follow the guidelines earn a premium price, typically 10 to 20 percent higher than the market rate. To help them comply, and improve food security, COMACO gives loans of seeds, technical assistance and, in some cases, the materials to build poultry houses, wells and efficient stoves.

It’s Wild! had $2.6 million in sales in fiscal year 2013-2014, enough to sustain its own operations, but not the work it does to support farmers, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and other donors. The organization plans to wean itself off foundation support by 2019, said Dale Lewis, COMACO’s founder, an American who has been involved in conservation in the region for 35 years. By becoming a self-supporting business, Lewis hopes, COMACO will avoid the pitfalls of other well-intentioned organizations that hustle to meet shifting donor priorities or move on once aid money is used up. “A business is there to survive and to grow,” he said. “A project is there to spend [donors’] money and then look for the next project.”

Chimdozi Phiri was captured and held by Zambian Wildlife Authority for allegedly hunting wildlife illegally
Chimdozi Phiri was captured and held by Zambian Wildlife Authority for allegedly hunting wildlife illegally

Need vs. greed
The role that poverty plays in poaching is subject to debate, with disagreement over whether poverty drives poaching, is a by-product of poaching or happens alongside poaching in underdeveloped regions where states are weak. Clearly, Asia’s growing financial strength, as well as China’s rising influence in Africa, is helping drive the demand for ivory and rhino horns, while growing urbanization and affluence has also spurred demand for wild game in African cities. And conflict, corruption and weak governance allow illegal wildlife trade to flourish.

Part of the problem is that “poacher” is such a broad term. It encompasses members of armed transnational criminal groups as well as unarmed people who snare the occasional antelope on land that was their ancestral hunting ground before being declared a national park by the government. For more clarity, some conservationists distinguish between poaching driven by need vs. poaching driven by greed. But as governments in recent years have stepped up law-enforcement measures to stop poaching, there are worries that the distinction is being blurred. “The dominant approach now seems to be that poachers are criminals (and even terrorists), which is displacing the more sophisticated approaches that acknowledge that there are different kinds of poachers who have different motivations, techniques and impacts on wildlife,” said Rosaleen Duffy, a professor of the political ecology of development at the University of London.

Wildlife is abundant in the Luangwa Valley, where COMACO works; it has one of the largest concentrations of hippopotamuses in the world, along with elephants, buffalo, big cats and zebras. But poaching has been a concern for decades; hunters decimated the elephant population and poached rhinos into local extinction. Commercial poaching, both for international trade in ivory and skins and urban bush-meat markets, are persistent threats, according to the Zambian Wildlife Authority. Meanwhile, population growth, cutting trees for charcoal and unsustainable farming, particularly of tobacco and cotton, has intensified deforestation.

In the 1990s, Lewis and Banda were involved in a conservation program that tried to fight poaching by putting more patrols on the ground and giving communities a share of safari hunting revenue and meat from wild animals that had been legally and sustainably culled. Yet poaching and snaring continued. “The lightbulb went off when we started looking in the granaries,” Lewis said. People weren’t growing enough food to sustain themselves and were poaching, in part to supplement their diets, but also to trade meat for other food or cash.

The confiscated flesh of a buffalo, killed by an apprehended hunter.
The confiscated flesh of a buffalo, killed by an apprehended hunter.

Lewis and Banda wanted to see whether alleviating hunger would reduce poaching. So they worked with villages in one part of the valley to distribute enough maize to ensure everyone had enough to eat. Poaching decreased.

To shift to an anti-poaching approach that emphasized food security, Lewis sought buy-in from the chiefs who govern in the area. That helped gain the trust of poachers and villagers. Over time, COMACO has grown to involve 100,000 households in the region. Along the way, it has collected almost 80,000 snares and 1,900 guns. A 2013 internal survey of former poachers in 13 chiefdoms found that incomes had improved in all but one. In some places, incomes tripled. COMACO broadens its reach through weekly radio broadcasts that address farming techniques and conservation.

As the program has taken root, the populations of many large mammals have stabilized in areas where COMACO is most active, according to research published in 2011 by Lewis and Cornell University researchers. An aerial survey of elephants and buffalo the following year found buffalo numbers rebounding and elephants holding steady in most COMACO regions with the exception of the area that holds the tourist lodges serving South Luangwa National Park. Overall, though, elephant poaching appears to be increasing in the Luangwa Valley, based on the number of elephant carcasses found in areas where COMACO is not active, Lewis said. It’s also important to note that other factors such as increased law enforcement and a temporary ban on safari hunting, are also likely affecting wildlife counts.

A worker at the COMACO peanut butter factory, in Chipata.
A worker at the COMACO peanut butter factory, in Chipata.

Based on yearly audits, COMACO believes that only about 5 percent of its participants revert to shooting or snaring animals. And members of Zambia’s wildlife authority said COMACO farmers are now helping them enforce poaching laws. In December, the Zambian Wildlife Authority, acting on a tip from a COMACO farmer, arrested a trafficker who was buying poached ivory from the western side of the Luangwa Valley and taking it to Lusaka, the capital. It was sold to Chinese and Congolese buyers there, according to Friday Katombi, an intelligence officer in Serenje who led the investigation.

At least 10 local poachers were supplying the ivory trader, Katombi said, though they haven’t been arrested. Still, he said, there have been very few elephant carcasses found in the region since the bust. A year earlier, Katombi helped bust a nine-person poaching ring in the area.

Despite these successes, wildlife authorities say they don’t have the resources to control poaching through law enforcement alone. “The manpower we have is very minimal compared to the work that we are supposed to do,” Katombi said. His colleague Moses Mbewe, a park ranger at Lukusuzi National Park, said material deficiencies also limit their effectiveness. The 1,050-square-mile park doesn’t own a single vehicle, so anti-poaching patrols work on foot and can only cover a small part of the area, unless they can borrow a truck. Their patrols, which last for days at a time, are often delayed because they don’t have enough food rations.

Given these limits, local communities are key. “Without citizens that have the passion for natural-resource conservation, like that farmer, poaching will increase,” said Katombi.

Scanlon said a scenario like this, in which local people help law enforcement, is ideal. But it’s important to remember that Zambia is a relatively peaceful country with a functional government. Political instability or widespread collusion between poaching rings and law-enforcement officials can make such collaboration less likely, he said. “The profit is too high and the people are too ruthless,” he said. “They’re not going to respond to a soft approach. They’re going to respond to an approach that increases the risk and reduces the profit.”

Dale lewis; Founder of COMACO
Dale lewis; Founder of COMACO

Unintended consequences
Zimba and others who live near his village said they are encountering more and more wild animals. But standing among the ragged remains of a banana field that was ravaged by elephants, one could clearly see that this win for wildlife comes with trade-offs.

A group of young former poachers had planted the banana trees on a fertile floodplain not far from Zimba’s house. The group took precautions. Its members strung up fragments of bed nets to frighten animals and built a small grass shelter at the edge of the field, where they took turns staying the night, playing drums to scare away wildlife.

But the elephants came anyway and chased the former poachers off before gobbling up the 16-foot tall banana trees and their fruit, which was almost ready to pick. Now nothing was left but a few inches of stubble.

“It is very terrible,” said Luongo Tenson, a former poacher who grows maize, cotton, and fruits and vegetables. “Now, I’ve been prevented by animals from getting a living.”

Conservation efforts can have other unintended consequences, too. One study of children in Madagascar, for example, found that bush meat was a critical source of iron in the young people’s diets. The researchers predicted a 29 percent increase in anemia among children if they stopped eating game due to conservation laws or species loss. COMACO has helped farmers raise alternative sources of protein like goats and chickens, but disease and pests remain challenges.

And some projects aimed at reducing poaching by alleviating poverty have backfired, said Duffy. For example, one program in Ghana was intended to decrease poaching by paying a premium on crops, on the theory that hunter-poachers would focus instead on farming. They did for a period, but then used the money they’d earned to buy more sophisticated weapons that they used to shoot more lucrative species.

Yet many of the former poachers who now work with COMACO said they’ve gained something priceless since handing over their guns: freedom. Frank Kamanga, who quit poaching in 2012, said he used to live with the constant fear of being apprehended. “Our life was never stable. We were living a running life,” he said. “Now at least I have learned through the transformation program how I can live freely.”

Today he’s making enough money to support his family by producing honey and growing crops. Asked whether he’s ever tempted to go back, he was adamant: “I don’t have the desire or the zeal to be a poacher.”

Story was originally produced in partnership with Al Jazeera America. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected].