IT was in the company of the late Paul van Schalkwyk, the Namibian filmmaker and businessman, that I first tracked a rhino. It was on a game farm close to Otjiwarongo, about two decades ago.
I stood in awe when I first saw this beast from a 10-metre distance. I realised that I stood in the presence of something ancient and magnificent. The fact that the wind turned at some point and that we eventually had to run for our lives affirmed this lasting impression.
That was my first encounter with an animal in the wild. Thrilling. Startling. Life-changing.
The last photograph Van Schalkwyk ever took – seconds before he left this earth as his plane crashed into it – was of an elephant on the horizon of Etosha. A testimony to the intense focus with which he documented nature, captured in the many images he left behind.
In our lifetime, encounters with wild animals – and taking photographs of animals on the African continent – might become a rare privilege. And memories of such encounters, confined to mere fading photographs.
Africa’s wildlife is under serious threat from poaching.
More than 769 rhinos were killed in South Africa so far this year. Some experts estimate that Tanzania has lost about 80 percent of its elephant population to poachers in the last five years. Up to five lions a day are killed at the hands of poachers.
In a country like Namibia, with a well-established and credible conservation ethic and more than 40% of the country’s area involved in some form of nature conservation, it is easy to think “not our problem”. Yet about 14 rhinos have been found poached this year on our soil. How many next year?
Let alone the growing numbers of elephant begin poached in hot spot areas like the Zambezi.
Namibia has the world’s largest number of free-roaming black rhinos. This is a great tourist drawcard, but in the world conservation context, it makes the country extremely vulnerable right now; decisive leadership on all fronts is urgently required. When the most powerful nation in the world this year created a 17-agency task force, co-chaired by its Departments of State, Justice and the Interior to address the global problem of illegal trade in wildlife products, I would advise people who consider this to be an ’emotional’ knee-jerk reaction to mull over Namibia’s rising poaching statistics.
Global actions such as this might in fact be ‘rational’ – and a necessary step toward dealing with the worldwide survival of wildlife and particularly the emergency that southern Africa faces in this regard.
In February this year, President Barack Obama released the US National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking. This document stated: “Wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise that has expanded from a conservation concern to an acute security threat.”
While documenting an undercover investigation on how the situation in Mozambique feeds into South Africa’s poaching crisis, I crossed over into Mozambique to look into the issue of why so many poachers operating in South Africa hail from that country. While Vietnam remains the main consumer market for rhino horn, the call is for ‘foot soldiers’ from the key recruitment pool on Mozambique’s western border to supply the booty.
I detected a disconcerting resemblance between these remote, poor and thus corruptible communities and what could play out in Namibia.
What does this mean to ordinary Namibians who might not be concerned about the butchering of animals and think that no official money should be spent on the conservation of animals? Something approaching this sentiment was expressed by a newspaper reader online this year.
This person was of the opinion that a stiff sentence handed down to a poacher was ‘harsh’ – because he killed “… a mere animal, not a human being”. Perhaps this reader will think again if another perspective is added: Money generated through crime knows no boundaries. It is very likely that the person corrupting your teenage son or daughter, trying to sell drugs to them, may be linked to the recruiting of poachers with a blood-stained stash of cash.
On 10 January 2014 Kenya’s new Wildlife Act, one of the world’s most severe wildlife crime laws in the world, came into effect with sharply increased punishment for the illegal possession of wildlife products and poaching.
I attended a conference where Kenya’s Paula Kahumbu, the executive director of Wildlife Direct, made a convincing case that the increasingly harsh sentences for poaching is one of the answers to fighting the criminal plunder of nature. Kahumbu’s spirited presentation reminded me of some of the conservationists in Namibia who touched my life.
Conflict between local communities and wildlife often stood at the centre of their daily battles. I looked into the myriad complexities these people face and am well aware that the latest developments in Namibia heighten differences between interest groups perhaps like never before.
My interest in military history (having produced a series on Namibia’s Bush War for MNet) gave me a perspective that I think many of the liberation fighters of that generation – who now hold high positions in government – will be able to appreciate.
If one argues that the poaching threat is indeed a war, and that criminal syndicates are our enemies, if one accepts the fact that there is proof that illegal wildlife trade feeds terrorist activities, is it not of the utmost importance that we do not allow the enemy to divide conservation fraternities in Namibia? That we stand united? Is this not in essence one of the most effective strategies of war – to make sure your opponent stands divided?
“Make the enemy believe that support is lacking . . . cut off, flank, turn, in a thousand ways make his men believe themselves isolated. Isolate in like manner his squadrons, battalions, brigades and divisions; and victory is yours.” – Colonel Ardant du Picq (1821-1870)
One of the interviews I will always remember was with Namibian conservationist Garth Owen-Smith.
A couple of years later, I reviewed Owen-Smith’s remarkable book ‘An Arid Eden’ for the Pretoria News and Star newspapers. Looking at what drives the poaching phenomenon reaffirmed to me that the perspective reflected in Owen-Smith’s book should remain the ‘true north’ of all anti-poaching initiatives in Namibia.
He wrote: “We have heard from many people over the years that ‘if this wildlife belongs to the government, we don’t want it here … it causes us trouble, particularly the elephants and predators. But if it is ours, then we will manage it with government … if we feel it is ours, then we can live with these animals’.”
This message is startlingly relevant in relation to the escalating poaching threat. One could simply add the words, “… if we feel it is ours we will not sell our animals to strangers who offer us huge amounts of money to satisfy a demand in Asia”.
Justin Gosling, independent expert on wildlife crime law enforcement, has been engaged in law enforcement for over 22 years. He recently presented this anti-poaching solution to an international audience: “We must tackle the Big Fish, the Big Cheese, Charlie Big Potatoes, Kingpins.” I would humbly add here: “… with government support from the highest offices.”
“Intelligence is gold.” I add here: “… if Namibia’s remote communities side with the poachers and are driven by money in any form or corruptible shape, the battle is already lost.”
“Momentum is imperative.” I add here: “… the time is now for Namibia to send a clear and coherent message to the world – not later when the dam wall on our doorstep cracks and breaks.”
“Wildlife crime enforcement must generate a deterrent to prevent harm from occurring at the outset – before an animal is poached.” I add here: “… arresting criminals in possession of horn or ivory should continue, but saving the animal should be all-important and the driving force behind conservation laws.”
It was in Botswana, while doing a profile on wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverley Joubert, that I heard for the first time directly from the people who looked into the deeper mystery of our last wildernesses. Around the fire one night, they shared a story of how they witnessed elephants mourning their dead, much like humans. The passage in Barry Lopez’s memorable essay ‘Landscape and Narrative’ where he refers to “an understanding of why the human heart and the land have been brought together so regularly in human history”, came to mind.
I recently listened to a presentation by Dr Johan Marais, a veterinary surgeon who is currently conducting research which seeks to map the rhino’s anatomy. His presentation was (sadly) accompanied by the most horrific images of maimed rhino that he was trying to save.
Marais said something that resonates with me to this day: “We have the knowledge, technology and funds to put a vehicle on Mars and collect samples there, but we don’t even know the basic anatomy and physiology of a species that we are in the process of losing… ”
While we are ready to gear up and explore other worlds we are still struggling to protect, in spite of the many combined efforts, some of the most magnificent creatures on this planet.
Trying to save and operate on these maimed rhinos is obviously challenging for scientists like Dr Marais. Sometimes I wonder just how far the traumatic ripple effect of criminal syndicates would stretch if you could measure it: past the trembling hands of a vet perhaps, to a quiet prayer by a game guard who earns little, but has to risk his life tracking a ruthless stranger into the dead of the night?
The poaching epidemic is testing strong spirits today. And some are left broken, no doubt. There are so many people in South Africa and Namibia who give the cause their utmost in their respective fields, determined to save wild animals. Salute! On World Rhino Day.
* World Rhino Day is on 22 September. Linda de Jager is a Namibian-born journalist and documentary filmmaker now based in Johannesburg. Her work includes the acclaimed television series ‘Bush War’ (2006), numerous inserts for the MNet television show Carte Blanche, and a recent investigative documentary on how the situation in Mozambique feeds into South Africa’s rhino poaching crisis.