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Developing Story
Saving Rhino

Ensuring the participation of communities

Author: Frank Odenthal

The system of protected wildlife areas and national parks in Africa has a birth defect: it is built on the colonial idea of the local population—in Africa, especially the black population—being forced off and kept out of the protected areas. This phenomenon can still be observed today in many protected areas all over the continent.

As a result, even if they live in close proximity to national parks, the black population doesn't feel attached anymore to their animal neighbours and no longer see wildlife as a part of their patrimony.

Instead, marginalised communities drive animals from protected lands, seeing the animals' protected status as a threat to their own existence. These populations have little sympathy for wild animals, no matter how endangered. This development provides a fertile breeding ground for criminal organisations that see lucrative business or a way out of poverty in poaching and wildlife trafficking. 

That's why it is important to involve local communities in the protection of wildlife. The local people should no longer get the impression that their interests are less important than those of the animals.

Sustainable wildlife tourism can be a way out of the poverty trap

Only when they benefit from national parks and the preservation of biodiversity will they stop seeing protected animals as a threat to their own daily struggles for survival, but a possible way out of the poverty trap towards a better life for their families.

Local communities can be an effective buffer zone around protected areas, which would be difficult for poaching syndicates to overcome: if they are involved in the welfare created by sustainable wildlife tourism.

Such participation of local communities can occur in various forms. The obvious, but by no means self-evident form is land ownership. The communities could be legitimate owners of the land they have been living on for generations. This goal is yet to be achieved in many countries. The practice of colonial expropriation in South Africa, for example, ranges from the arrival of Jan von Riebeeck and the 'Dutch East India Company' in 1652 to the mid-1980s, when the racist apartheid regime finally collapsed.

In her dissertation  "A Game of Horn: Transnational Flows of Rhino Horn", published by IMPRS-SPCE, Annette Michaela Hübschle asks why the illegal market in rhinoceros horn is so resilient in spite of the myriad measures employed to disrupt it.

The question of returning land to the black majority population, which is always accompanied by the question of possible expropriation of white landowners and possible compensation payments, is still an explosive political issue for the cohesion of South African society as a whole.

From the perspective of many wildlife conservationists, the ownership of animals is considered a promising option to better protect endangered species such as rhinos. The famous conservationist Dr. Ian Player chose this option for his "Operation Rhino" - with success. Buyers of rhinos saw their animals as a valuable investment that they took special care to protect.

Ensuring participation in sustainable tourism

But is it possible and meaningful to give local communities property rights of the animals on their grounds with both rights and duties? It certainly helps to re-connect local people to their animal neighbours when it is in the interest of the community to care for the welfare of the animals: their animals. But is the transfer of property rights sufficient? Are the communities able to play a role in the protection of animals that goes beyond a purely recipient role of tourism generated income? Or, conversely, doesn't it even consolidate the old colonial-style role models, if the communities are not at the same time offered opportunities for further education in other areas that allow deeper participation in sustainable tourism—such as veterinarians, security experts, tourism managers, lawyers and bookkeepers—to reach higher rungs of the career ladder? The danger is that the transfer of property rights of animals, without further education and knowledge, rather helps to reinforce than to overcome the role of black communities as mere scenery. Or, as Ralph Koczwara, founder of Hemmersbach Rhino-Force, an anti-poaching special unit currently operating in South Africa and Zimbabwe, puts it:

“If you transfer property rights of animals to local communities, you have to enable them to generate sources of income with them, and without further assistance from outside.”

Ralph Koczwara

For the participation and strengthening of excluded or marginalised groups, the term "empowerment" has prevailed. Empowerment can come in various forms, mostly in favor of minorities and disadvantaged individuals or groups: women, children, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, migrants, slaves, entire communities, entire ethnic groups, and yes, a whole society. They can all be empowered, theoretically. Education and the transfer of responsibility are its two central components.

Women as the backbone of African society

In the African context, the empowerment of women seems to be particularly promising. Many experts in the field of development theories see women as the backbone of African societies. They care for the children as well as for the elderly and sick of the family, they carry drinking water all the way from the nearest sources back home every single day and they even do the hard work out in the fields to grow food, while the men's part of the education of their children and housekeeping is not worth mentioning. For they are mostly men who move to the bigger cities or all the way to Europe hoping for a better life, leaving the women and children behind.

Deliberately only accepting women: The Marara Recycling Project engaged a local group of underprivileged women to start their own recycling business. 

Excessive use of alcohol is a major problem in many African communities—a problem that almost exclusively affects men. Therefore, the empowerment of women seems particularly meaningful, because it would strengthen the part of society that carries the biggest burden and the biggest responsibility anyway.

There are remarkable examples of the effects of women's empowerment in protecting wildlife and fighting poaching. The South African "Black Mambas" already have achieved international reputation. They were founded in 2013 by Craig Spencer—a distant relative of Winston Churchill—and today consists of 36 women patrolling mainly along the border fences of the Greater Kruger. They are unarmed, except for pepper spray and handcuffs, and at any evidence of illegal intrusions, such as broken border fences, they immediately report to the local police anti-poaching units, or SANParks, the South African authority managing the country's national parks.

For a few months now, another purely female anti-poaching special unit called "Akashinga" (which means "the brave ones"), has been patrolling the Lower Zambezi Valley in neighboring Zimbabwe on the border with Zambia. It was founded by the Australian Damien Mander and its "International Anti-Poaching Foundation” (IAPF).

BBC World Service Radio on Zimbabwe's all-female, vegan, anti-poaching team and the former Australian sniper who's leading them.

Unlike the Black Mambas in South Africa, the Akashinga are armed with heavy semi-automatic weapons, just like their male counterparts, and female candidates also undergo tough military training just like the men.

IAPF states on its homepage: "Selection was opened exclusively to unemployed single mothers, abandoned wives, sex workers, victims of sexual and physical abuse, wives of poachers in prison, widows and orphans. By doing so, opportunity was created for the most vulnerable women in rural society. Having never received a secure form of income, they dealt with adversity and poverty within the marginalised areas of rural Zimbabwe every day of their life. Challenging ridicule and stereotype, they would seize the opportunity and return home as rangers.

Trained by experts in conservation and law enforcement, their future is now interwoven with the wilderness they protect – just as the fate of humanity is inseparable from our willingness to conserve biodiversity."


Of course, the approach of empowering women to engage communities is promising. However, it is questionable whether a militarised approach, which corresponds to the classical method of protecting national parks, is also promising in the long-run. The approach of "inclusive anti-poaching" could provide a balance between them. It sees local communities as partners rather than enemies and includes two crucial elements:

IWT meeting report of the International Symposium 26-28 February 2015 in South Africa on communities, governance, incentives and sustainable use in
combating wildlife crime.

Communities must benefit from the wildlife they are helping to protect. And community scouts must be accountable to their communities, not to an external organisation.

Of course, intelligence derived from the community, as delivered by the Black Mambas, the Akashinga, or any other given community-based initiative, can provide important information to fight poaching. But they can not provide a basis for a long-term "inclusive" strategy. Instead, the community should be seen as a partner, not as an opponent to spy on. And partners are best met in dialogue and at eye level.
Therefore, rural black communities in Africa might still have a long way to go.