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Celebrating the death of a poacher

When the news broke that a poacher had been trampled to death by an elephant, social media had something to say about it. But the issue isn't so black and white.

Wildlife photographer George Turner has spent much of his time in different parts of Africa, working closely with poachers-turned-safari-guides. When the news broke that a poacher had been killed in the field, he wanted to respond to the celebratory outcry that followed on social media.

In April of this year, five men illegally snuck into South Africa’s Kruger National Park with a single, sole intent: kill a rhinoceros. Their plan failed and only four returned home. The fifth was charged and trampled by an elephant, his body eaten by a pride of lions. Only his skull and torn trousers were found.

Two sub-species of rhino are now extinct in the wild in Africa due to poaching; the western black and rhino and northern white rhino. © George Turner
Two sub-species of rhino are now extinct in the wild in Africa due to poaching; the western black and rhino and northern white rhino. © George Turner

While poachers are often killed, maimed, or go missing, this particular case put the magnifying glass over poaching and our understanding of an extremely complex issue.

In an unprecedented move, the managing executive of Kruger National Park (KNP) Glen Phillips, extended his condolences to the family of the man, saying, “It’s very sad to see the daughters of the deceased mourning the loss of their father, and worse still, only being able to recover very little of his remains.”

Phillips’ statement was an unusual one. Historically, KNP - and indeed, all other park and reserve authorities - report facts and facts only. The perpetrators would be referred to as ‘individuals’ or by gender, with no attempt to humanise their actions or indeed, cause reason to reflect on why they’ve committed such terrible crimes.

Some rhino conversancies shave down the rhino's horn to deter poachers.
Some rhino conversancies shave down the rhino's horn to deter poachers.

Such a simple statement of condolences was made with purpose: to drive conversation and question motives. Yet, social media was devoid of such sympathy.

“Karma is a btch”; “There must be a God”; “It’s a shame all five didn’t die”; “The animals are fighting back!”; “Great job Dumbo and Simba”; “I hope they [the lions] had seconds!”; “Get recked!”; “They deserved it”; “Best news ever, I’m rejoicing”. All real comments, made by real people.

At a surface level, the negative and at times violent comments are understandable; the demand for ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, lion and tiger bones, and so much more is causing the widespread decline of hundreds of species. Moreover, poaching has driven two sub-species to extinction in the wild: the western black rhino and the northern white rhino.

The key here is that poaching cannot be taken at face-value.

Individuals like the man killed in Kruger are not the instigators. They’re not the smuggling syndicate leaders whose greed results in them commissioning horrific crimes against wildlife. They’re not reveling in the profits of the demand coming from East Asia. These poachers are generally poor individuals, living in impoverished conditions and indeed, who gain little-to-nothing from the burgeoning eco-tourism businesses that operate near their homes.

Aside from the occasional low-paid jobs in national parks or lodges, many of those living near protected areas continue to live off the land. They live in a reality where their livestock - cows, sheep, goats - are killed by big cats and hyenas, where crops are trampled or eaten by elephants and other grazers, and where their children are at risk from death or injury by simply walking to school.

It isn't just rhinos that are targeted by poachers. Elephants in the area are also killed for ivory or in human-wildlife conflict. © George Turner
It isn't just rhinos that are targeted by poachers. Elephants in the area are also killed for ivory or in human-wildlife conflict. © George Turner

The man who was trampled was no different. He, like many in South Africa’s Eastern Cape (the country’s poorest province) are surviving on an income of less than $3,700USD per year. One rhino horn could have paid for his entire family’s medical fees, sent his daughters to school, and greatly increased living stands for an entire year. One horn. One. With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that he, like so many others, are being drawn into the poaching business.

It never ends well. They risk being shot, killed by animals and best case scenario, face lengthy prison sentences. This will not deter other poachers. The middlemen simply increase the bounty and once again, more young men will appear to either kill wildlife, or die trying.

Local communities are being exploited to feed the East Asia market and in turn, enabling illegal crime syndicates to profit massively. In some extreme circumstances, these syndicates have even been known to kidnap or financially disable families to coerce them into following their orders.

These syndicates aren’t led by locals, they are fuelled by the East Asian market that’s worth up to $23 billion annually (according to TRAFFIC). The layers and layers of middlemen between the source - criminal networks primarily in China and Vietnam - mean that the original instigators, the kingpins, rarely face justice. On the rare occasions that they do, their financial resources and connections within the police and judiciary, mean that their cases rarely even make it to court. Instead, it’s those at the lowest rung of a very long funnel who see violent ends. They’re disposable objects. Where’s the “karma” here?

Poaching is abhorrent, there’s no other way to view it. Therein lies the key: it’s how you view it and the intricacies within an incredibly complex weave of threads. The poorest communities deserve help. Instead of being shamed, they need to be incentivised. Educated, not threatened.

The Naboisho Conservancy - part of the Greater Maasai Mara in Kenya - is an amazing example of humans and wildlife living in harmony. Maasai people, working with the Kenya Wildlife Service, pooled together their land and ‘rent’ it out to various eco-tourism businesses. The deal allows them to continue grazing their cattle - integral to the Maasai culture - in certain sections of Naboisho, as well as every tourist visiting paying a “conservancy fee” that goes directly to the Maasai.

This community conservancy model has essentially eradicated poaching in Naboisho, putting a stop to revenge killings against predators (instead, they receive monetary compensation), and dramatically changed the way wildlife is viewed by locals.

Anti-poaching authorities work tirelessly to prevent animals being killed. © George Turner
Anti-poaching authorities work tirelessly to prevent animals being killed. © George Turner

Young adults aspire to study at the Koiyaki Guiding School situated within the conservancy, with their fees covered by eco-tourism companies in Naboisho. Every lodge operates charitable programmes, fuelling and funding initiatives led by locals - from bead and jewellery businesses through to cultural visits - where they receive all income. This model has been so successful that it’s now being deployed across countless other projects in Africa and Asia.

By empowering and enabling local communities, the poaching kingpins’ power is completely severed. The true value of wildlife is enabling it to flourish, not grinding it into fake medicines, carvings, and clothing.

Humans and wildlife can work together in a perfect symbiosis, each benefitting from the presence of the other. It’s how it once was… and how it should be.

By George Turner

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