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On the release of his new book, Poachers Moon, Author and renowned conservationist Richard Pierce led a panel of experts discussing the rhino poaching issues. The panel consisted of Wendy Annecke of SANParks, Nigel Morgan of Focus Africa/Peace Parks Foundation, Christy Bragg of Engangered Wildlife Trust and Jana Pretorius of SAVA_SA Vet Association. Two major points stood out for me. Firstly, the question of a ‘shoot poachers on sight’ policy for rangers, and secondly, a military solution.

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Judging by a show of hands from the audience, about 50% were in favour of shooting poachers on sight. At present an online petition is doing the rounds calling for a change in government policy enabling rangers to shoot poachers on sight, and it’s accumulating many signatures. There has also been debate about appointing South African National Defence Force troops to tackle the problem. People clearly think there is war on, or that there should be one.

Many cite Kenya Wildlife Service’s adoption of a shoot to kill policy in 1989 as a success. The fact is poaching in the region did decline for a while, but if you look at the long term, it escalated and reached even greater heights as more sophisticated, better armed poachers employed smarter methods to kill animals and evade capture. Lately, poaching in east and central Africa has been conducted by para-military organisations such el Shebaab and the Lords Resistance Army who use the proceeds from illegal trade to finance their terror campaigns. This has led to more militant anti-poaching operations while the price of ivory and horn has escalated due to the difficulty in obtaining it. It’s become a vicious circle that drives the value up and inspires not only para-military organisations to tap this resource, but poorer people living in or near the wilderness. Now rangers are trying to protect animals threatened on many fronts by perpetrators using many different forms of engagement, from poisoned arrows to assault rifles.

Annecke pointed out that a military approach is fundamentally flawed “because the military ethos is a different ethos to conservation.” Involving the military in any a significant way would be inviting a large number of people with little appreciation of wildlife into conservation areas. This would undoubtably have a negative impact on the environment.

Rhinos are just one of hundreds of endangered species. A military organisation operating in the field might very well preserve rhinos for a time, but they might do so at the expense of other endangered species which could be turned into bush meat or profit.

Army food is terrible at the best of times. Men on patrol carrying all their provisions rely on small ration packs containing preserved and dehydrated food. They are one of the worst punishments you can inflict on a military man. Send hundreds of poorly fed men armed with high power assault rifles out on field operations in conservation areas and you are asking for trouble. Then there is the additional attraction for poorly paid military men to make money from poaching.

And once the price of rhino horn escalates, and poachers reorganise and re-arm themselves to exploit this even more lucrative resource, then what? More military men of course.

People already talk of a poaching war, but Peirce stressed that we need to change the way we perceive it, that “the word to use is ‘crisis’”. He also stressed that the solution is obvious: kill demand. But he and the panel accepted that it’s a complicated process that would need to be backed up by tackling poaching on the ground as well as distribution, corruption, and a particularly crucial issue in South Africa: political will.

There is so much focus on tackling the poachers that the public neglects to put the pressure on government to address Asian demand. It is not a question of changing the rules of engagement against poachers, it is about changing the diplomatic rules of engagement.

Pretorius pointed out that it is difficult to educate people in a communist country like China, because one has to go through the government. But Peirce looks at this as a positive: communism means it is easier to sway an entire population if you go to the very top.

Peirce has been actively involved with the conservation of sharks for decades and has been instrumental in changing world attitude towards the species, not to mention Asian demand for shark fins, by going to the top. He knows perceptions can be changed, and he is also encouraged by the actions of stars such as of Chinese basketball player Yao Ming to change Asian perceptions.

It is just as crucial to change South African perceptions. We should not be calling on our government for a war against poachers. This will make matters worse. And we should definitely not be entertaining a call for trade in rhino horn. This shows an abuse of our wildlife for financial gain. We should demand that the South African government prove that they truly mean to preserve our wildlife heritage by addressing demand in Asia at the very highest levels, because it really is the only solution.


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Former editor at Africa Geographic.