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Poacher!

We finished service work with villages, plus supplying food and clothing to older white couples from Zimbabwe who had crossed into South Africa for haven. Our last hunting client had gone home happy as a clam--I wonder how happy a clam is? There was a week left before our flight back to the USA. Time began to weigh heavy on our hands as we sat around the lodge. My wife solved her ennui by taking on another feed-the-hungry project. And then an offer came my way. "How would you like to tag along with an anti-poaching manager?" I said I would and I met Ronald, a Dutchman with professional soldier background in the French Foreign Legion and other world organizations. His men, armed with cell phones, not guns, patrolled the bush day and night.

First hour out a call came in. "Hello". It was Fire, one of Ronald's best anti-poaching trackers. After a brief phone conversation, Ronald said, "Let's go. Fire found an impala in a snare. Still alive". Upon arriving at the scene, I did not see the ram at first. Then there he was, entrapped by both hind legs. Impala are first-class leapers. No doubt the animal, attempting to free itself, managed to become more entangled in the stout wire loop, resulting in severe leg damage.

We wanted to set the ram free. But no use. Snare wires cut, and the impala was badly crippled. When it was over, Fire removed the snare, offering to shoulder the ram to our truck, after which we would take it to our on-site processing plant to donate the meat to the nearest village. Footprints were easier to read than a newspaper, indicating a single poacher.

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Being naive, a euphemism for stupid, I said I felt sorry for him. "The poor bastard probably hasn't had a square meal in a fortnight". I said. Ronald looked at me as if I had desecrated the good name of his mother. "Sam," he said, "wake up. These poachers don't eat the meat. They sell it for beer, fast food, and a good time in town. They aren't hungry". A conversation with a SAPS (South African Police Service) officer confirmed Ronald's words to the syllable.

Following my lapse of mental elasticity, I began investigating poaching, Africa style. I found it to be a threat so serious that it could elicit death--if not of the offender, then of the anti-poacher trying to catch him. National Geographic reported perhaps the most bizarre anti-poaching operation of recent times. A group of conservationists led by Dr. Bruce Hayse, a family practice medico from Jackson, Wyoming, received permission from the president of the CAR (Central African Republic) to form an anti-poaching militia to patrol game territory. "Each year, columns of up to 200 well-armed Sudanese poachers cross the border along the old slave-trading routes, in pursuit of game animals long since hunted out in Sudan", NG reported. The poachers set blazes to panic animals into shooting lanes. Resulting meat is smoke-dried. Local food source? Not exactly. As Dr. Hayse pointed out, "A whole ecosystem was going to be lost, just so a few hundred outsiders could make money". The saleable product is called bushmeat when it isn't elephant ivory or rhino horn.

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"Militia OK'd to Shoot Poachers in Africa" came as an order directly from the CAR president. "Unfortunately," Dr. Hayse remarked, "the poachers weren't going to leave just because we told them to. If we were going to save the place, people would have to be killed". It's all about money. A lot of money. Bushmeat is a billion dollar a year industry. Ivory and rhino horn up that tally. Poaching is so intense in Africa that it is now rated number one over deforestation and ranked as the first immediate threat to endangered species. From the Congo Basin alone, more than a million metric tons of bushmeat is removed from the shrinking forest--every year. The figure seems inflated. It is probably low. The habitat is immense. It is unlikely that evidence of every poached animal is found.

So why not inspect the marketplace for contraband meat? Because proving its origin, where wild meat is sold legally, requires catching the seller and/or buyer red-handed. Remember, it is lawful even for hunters to peddle wild meat in Africa. And, of course, illicit sales carry on behind closed doors. Once the sale is consummated, the show is on die road. Biltong (dried meat) is sold everywhere, even in the heart of Kruger National Park in packages marked eland, kudu, springbok, impala--it's all legal.

Furthermore, the shoot-on-sight mandate in CAR is not in place in South Africa, or Mozambique--in fact, not many countries on the continent. Punishment? If caught in the act, the poacher is handcuffed. If he's nabbed at night he might spend the dark hours attached to a tree or post until morning. Then he's carted off to jail, generally for a short stay. Fine him? How would he pay? Lock him up for a long time? No funds for that. A poacher might end up with a headache or swollen jaw as impetus not to do it again. But chances are he will set another snare, and soon.

Tools of the poacher vary with location. Sudanese poachers have guns. So do poachers of elephants and rhinos in Kruger National Park. Where I saw poaching first-hand, however, the bow and arrow is yet to be embraced and guns in the hands of local poachers are few. The snare is the tool of the poacher trade. Snares are often prepared by stealing existing fence line wire, one end formed into a loop, the other end threaded through the loop to make a noose. The sliding noose is strategically placed along game trails. These pathways become anathema to all animals, domestic as well as wild. Simple as it is, the wire snare is remarkably effective. And at the same time tremendously wasteful. Many snared animals are never recovered by the poacher. These animals bloat in the bush. Apian was installed to reduce snaring when meat for local consumption was the object, rather than greed for money. A professional hunter is invited into the area to shoot one old male animal only.

The village people do wonders with the meat, even though it is tough as a car tyre. Meanwhile, by shooting only one dispensable male animal for the village, snaring is curtailed, reducing the number of lost animals that are doomed to death by infection or tooth and claw. A snare has no conscience. The young are caught just as often as the old. Old male giraffes that are seldom hunted for the trophy provide 4 000 pounds of potential meat. An old bull hippo renders 2 000 pounds more than Mr Long Neck. The program works. Rampant snaring, when meat is the object, is curtailed while game management is enhanced.

Hundreds of snares are picked up by anti-poachers and hunters every year. Some say poachers who do not return to snared animals simply forgot where they set the snare. I don't buy it. The poacher of the impala did not return to claim his prize. We know because a trap was set for him with two anti-poachers waiting in the bush the rest of that day and all night. These are people of the land. They know their way around. I loaned a Cape buffalo leather cartridge holder to a friend. The borrower lost it as he was escorted in the bush. The tracker was Obed, my "main man". Knowing that I prized the ammo holder, Obed volunteered to look for it. He traced his steps back through a mile-plus of thick foliage and found it. I do not believe that poachers lose track of snares. They get cold feet, suspecting a trap, and simply do not return. The result is wide-spread skeletons of snared, but never collected, animals.

Aside from meat sale, all parts of the animal have value. While it's easy to condemn people who think powdered rhino horn (or bear gall bladder) will turn Percy Pusillanimous into Tarzan, we're dealing with different cultures and long standing beliefs, whether or not these beliefs are discredited by science or not. Rhino horn is not like other horn, which is normally a bony-like core covered by a sheath of keratin, the substance that forms nails. An example of horn is the American pronghorn antelope with bony-like core and outer sheath. Rhino horn, on the other hand, is composed entirely of keratin with dense mineral deposits of centralized calcium and melanin. It is therefore easily broken down into a powdered substance with high mineral content that is supposed to enhance general health and romance.

As with ivory, rhino horn is a highly valuable commodity. One horn can bring in revenue unattainable by natives working long hours at honest trades. Ivory can be even more valuable. That is why poaching is both rampant and very difficult to stop. Big-time poachers of rhinos and elephants require firepower. That firepower comes in the form of weapons left behind after the flames of the African wars have cooled to ash. This is poaching going from commercialized to militarized. "It was horrible," one tour guide said as he addressed a film crew. "Poachers used anti-tank weapons to blow the heads off of elephants. Groups of animals were killed en masse. The meat is smoked and shipped to crowded African cities, or to exotic restaurants in Asia and Europe". And of course, ivory and rhino horn are put on the black market.

Poaching will continue on the Dark Continent, but current measures against the practice are stronger than ever. Poach in the CAR and you may die from an anti-poacher's bullet. Poach in Kruger National Park and the same fate may await, as happened recently when a fire fight ended in the death of one poacher. Poach in South Africa proper, Zimbabwe, and other countries, and earn a pair of locking bracelets for getting caught. Meanwhile, anti-poaching forces all over Africa, often paid for by big game outfitters, are enjoying more success than ever. These groups are professional in nature and well-supplied with the means to patrol die region, mainly searching out left-behind snares for removal, sometimes removing the poacher himself from field to jail. How armed resistance to poaching fares in the CAR remains to be seen. Remember TIA from the movie Blood Diamond: This Is Africa. Will death threat deter a poacher? Which will win, fear for life, or desire for monetary gain?.
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Title Annotation:Tales of the Hunt: From the men and women on the ground
Author:Fadala, Sam
Publication:African Hunter Magazine
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jun 1, 2016
Words:1761
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