In Africa, fighting poachers on a shoestring


VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe - Charles Brightman stands in his back yard by a pile of wire loops - simple but lethal snares removed from national parkland before an impala or zebra could become a poacher's prey.

The snares in his yard represent a tiny fraction of the 15,500 disarmed in the past six years by the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit, a shoestring operation Brightman formed to aid rangers in Zimbabwe's understaffed parks.

Despite the impressive tally, his challenge keeps growing as the country's economic situation worsens. The bush surrounding this sleepy town and its famous waterfall is increasingly under siege, as trappers fashion new snares from the metal fencing erected to protect animals and people.

Not only are well-armed black-market poachers and trophy hunters taking advantage of the country's chaos, but more local people are killing game for food and felling trees for carvings they hope to sell to remaining tourists.

"It's getting harder and harder for the people," Brightman says.

Poaching remains a major problem in much of Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the handful of northern white rhinoceroses left in the wild are threatened with extinction by marauding militias. Elephants continue to be killed in West and Central Africa despite a global export ban on ivory.

Here in Zimbabwe, a country once praised for its wildlife management, poaching has worsened amid political tensions created by the heavy-handed government of President Robert G. Mugabe. But statistics are hard to come by because the government limits the flow of information.

"Zimbabwe certainly has its share of problems," said Allard Blom, senior program officer at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. "Especially since the situation has deteriorated, controls are even less than previously due to the economic collapse."

In the Victoria Falls region of western Zimbabwe, 30 white rhinos - cousins to the northern white rhinos in the Congo - were killed last year, according to Brightman. Their horns are prized in Asia as an aphrodisiac and in Yemen as dagger handles. Several elephants have been killed.

His energetic campaign is an attempt to fight poaching in one corner of Zimbabwe. And he is trying to eliminate the root cause for some small-scale poaching, by helping people find alternative sources of income.

There is the case, for example, of some 30 women who had been arrested for hauling dead wood out of the bush to sell as firewood - an illegal act because the decomposing wood plays a key role in regenerating the bush. For the women, it seemed the only possible way to make money.

Brightman has helped train them to use two looms on his porch, to weave cotton placemats, throws and baby blankets, and has set up a business to market the women's woven goods. With few tourists in Victoria Falls these days, he periodically flies to South Africa in search of interested retailers. Heath Dhana, general manager of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, supports his efforts. In addition to helping finance the anti-poaching unit, the hotel buys small potpourri pouches for its guests, meaning the weavers make $1 a room.

Dhana acknowledges that the hotel's support of anti-poaching efforts is motivated by self-interest: "If we just sit back and let it be, there will be nothing for people to come enjoy. It's very close to our hearts."

Brightman is an accidental crusader, having spent much of his life exploring the wilderness, not defending it. Born in the capital city Harare, he calls himself a "mixed-up colonialist" with a Scottish-born father and a South African mother of English descent. A childhood love for the outdoors led to a career as a safari guide.

In 1990, he moved west to Victoria Falls, a jumping-off point for adventure-seekers. By the late 1990s, he was "sick and tired" of the poaching and approached the government park service. Told by the park service it could do no more with its 10 rangers, he resolved to begin a new organization to be funded by hotels and other businesses.

Brightman assured the government his unit would be apolitical. Even so, it got off to an awkward start when scouts called themselves the Scorpions. An official pointed out that was the name of a Malawian group once accused of plotting to kill Mugabe. Thus the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit was born.

It patrols 50 square kilometers ringing the town, freeing rangers to go deeper into the parkland. Scouts earn $70 a month for what can be a dangerous job. Armed with nothing but a radio, they track poachers who are sometimes armed. (Only government rangers are legally allowed to shoot armed poachers on sight.) One scout needed 12 stitches after a poacher hit him with a brick.

The problem is not just that animals and trees are being destroyed but the manner of the destruction. Some experts say Zimbabwe cannot sustain its estimated 100,000 elephants and that a systematic culling program may be necessary - a culling that can't be accomplished through random poaching.

In parts of Zimbabwe, the animals on game farms are being wiped out as owners allow foreign hunters to shoot what they want for a fee, according to ZimConservation, an online community of concerned scientists and conservationists.

Farm owners, many of them beneficiaries of the large-scale seizure of white-owned lands, "have been trying to exploit as much as possible in the shortest term," said Brian Gratwicke, an ecologist who runs ZimConservation from Washington.

Brightman recently showed visitors pictures of his scouts' gruesome discoveries, including snares that often inflict on the animals slow, agonizing deaths. In many cases, he said, poachers do not bother returning for the carcass.

Trees are targeted as well, with tracts of forest being cut down to make carvings. In the past decade, 80 percent of the mukwa trees have disappeared, Brightman says, mostly for giraffe figurines destined for curio shops.

"We don't argue that local people must benefit from the environment," he says. "But the manner and method in which these hardwoods are being hacked down is not sustainable."

The anti-poaching unit is struggling financially because of the dearth of tourists. Private donations are down; the number of scouts has fallen to 11 from 18. A fuel shortage has idled trucks needed to take scouts into the bush.

Brightman remains focused on the successes. The unit's work has led to the arrest of 176 suspected poachers, a halt to work by a team of illegal tree cutters and the discovery of caddies at the Victoria Falls Golf Course poaching impalas.

Using informants posing as buyers in beer halls, the unit uncovered a scheme to sell leopard and lion skins on the black market. "It was dramatic," Brightman says, smiling at the memory. "Big car chase through town."

Some animals found alive in snares have been saved by veterinarians. One of Brightman's slides shows a trapped warthog. Two days after being freed, he said, the warthog gave birth - and mother warthog and babies are still alive.

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