Towards zero poaching: Enlisting the power of traditional leaders

03Jan 2020
The Guardian
Towards zero poaching: Enlisting the power of traditional leaders

THAT morning, six youths from Robanda, a village near Serengeti National Park, sneaked into the park with intent to kill wildlife in order to get game meat that they would later sell to villagers. Poaching is a source of income for some villagers living near Serengeti. There are few other sources-

-of income but many youths believe that they can make quick money, and most of the time safely, instead of toiling in the farms.

The six youths had intended to set snares in order to catch large animals like buffalo. They also carried machetes which would become handy when they wanted a quick catch.  Poaching was a regular activity in the village but that day was different. The previous evening the village traditional leader had ordered that no one you should go to poach the following morning. He did not explain why he had issued the order; rarely do such leaders explain the issues. They give orders and their subjects must follow these orders.

The youths heard the order given by the elder. They decided to be defiant and went ahead with their plans. But once they were a few metres inside the Serengeti, one of them saw a small bird fly directly towards him and land his head. Instead of chasing it away with his bare hands he used the machete to kill it and in due course made a deep cut on his head. A lot of blood gashed from his skull and the group had to rush back to the village for treatment.

“There was no bird that flew and landed on the youth’s head. It all had to do with defying the traditional leader’s orders; if they say people should not kill wild animals in the national park then they shouldn’t do it. That is why I think these leaders are an integral part in fighting poaching,” explained Gutera Magesa a resident of Robanada. He was once a seasoned poacher himself but decided to quit after realising that poaching was no longer viable. “Life was no longer worth living because I was always on the run to avoid law enforcers. I sometimes had to dress like a woman in order to hide my identity. There are cases when I was nearly shot dead and very often I went home in the dead of the night when I was sure no one would be looking for me,” he explains.   

 Magesa was giving testimony on the importance of participation of traditional leaders in the fight against poaching at the Community Based Natural Resources Management Forum heard in Arusha in December last year. Among other things the forum focused on the role and contribution of villagers living adjacent to national parks and other conserved areas in curbing poaching and illegal wildlife trade.

There is need to solicit the support of traditional leaders because of the power they have over members of their communities. Their instructions are still revered except in a few cases when youths tend to ignore these leaders on false arguments of modernity. Generally, however, these leaders command respect from their community members and no guns or prison sentences will sway that loyalty.

But it is also true that community members are both a problem and a solution to poaching. They benefit from tourism through sale of local goods and services. Local retailers also bring basic services and goods to communities with capital that can be traced back to tourism.

“The most important thing about communities is that they know the poachers among themselves and those who come from outside their area. These outsiders don’t know the area well and must get assistance from locals in order to fulfill their missions. That is why community members are an important part of the solution to the problem,” says John Salehe from Serengeti District.

Community members have their own networks which are strong, tricky and too complicated to be dismantled easily. But the traditional leaders know them and have their own way of dealing with them. They only need to be given opportunity to play this role. The leaders know each and everyone who is in the poaching networks   and their specific roles. All they need is recognition and opportunity to participate in implanting measures to deal with poaching.

“That goes with the rest of community members. They want to be recognized that they can contribute towards zero-poaching and not to be told what to do and what not to do,” says Emmanuel Sulle from UNDP.

“These people have their own way of conserving and managing wildlife that they have implemented for decades. Let us acknowledge this fact and stop thinking that they lack education and that is why poaching for game meat and government trophies has been going on. The missing link is recognition; community members want to be valued,” he said, adding that under  current circumstances communities feel that wild animals get more recognition than them and therefore see no point in conserving and protecting  wildlife.

There are also views that the relationship between park and conservation authorities and community members is to a great extent, still sour. Cases have been cited of community members being killed by warders or sustaining fatal injuries when they are caught poaching. “This creates a spirit of “revenge” with poachers from communities killing many animals that they don’t need. The carcasses are left to rot in the park. One of the best ways to arrest this situation is for authorities to work closely with communities and listen to their views and opinions,” says Robert Mande from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism.

“We need these communities to participate in conservation if we are to achieve zero-poaching. After exhausting all strategies and having recorded little success so far, community participation is inevitable. It might not be the silver bullet we are looking for but it is certainly the best option we are left with,” says Sulle.

Perhaps the big question here is what next for community members once they stop poaching, bearing in mind that this is a major source of income for most of the youths. One of the answers lies in enabling youths to form groups that can access soft loans to start various income generating projects poultry farming, horticulture and small retail businesses. Although these might initially not bring in much money for families, they will certainly enable them to live a decent life without having to run around in fear of law enforcers.

 “Such businesses will definitely grow, albeit slowly, because there is ready market for the goods and services produced within the community,” says John Salehe. He also advocates establishment of Community Conservation Banks (COCOBA) which would help those interested to start retail businesses. Salehe who was once a poacher decide to start a retail business four years ago with initial capital of 150,000/-. Today he runs a business worth 3m/- having secured funding from the village COCOBA which he pioneered. He also suggests that conservation authorities and village governments should look for the possibility of employment for the youth who abandon poaching so that they can get alternative sources of livelihoods.

A COCOBA is a mutual savings bank .Each COCOBA group is formed by 15 to 30 community members who meet once a week and contribute their shares to the bank as per the group’s agreement. After six months, members can take small loans from the community’s savings. These loans provide their starting capital for small businesses – on the condition that these are conservation-friendly. And these businesses then help to generate income for their household. The loans also make it possible for the villagers to start businesses and to invest in alternative ways to generate income thus reducing dependence on poaching.

 “Today, we have 36 groups in the Serengeti district alone and almost 1,000 people are participating. Some groups have generated savings of up to 25,000 USD,” says Masengeri Tumbuya Rurai, Project Leader of the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s Serengeti Eco-system Management Project.

 “Many people from these communities were involved in poaching in the past. We approached them and encouraged them to think of alternative ways to generate income. Now they can choose to invest in environmentally-friendly economic activities like beekeeping, small shops and chicken-farming, which provide eggs and meat for the families and the wider community,” he says.

Recently the number of COCOBA groups has grown in the Serengeti ecosystem having been established in Serengeti, Meatu and Loliondo.

The point is people know that poaching is bad and would like to top it, but they have no answers to how they will live if there are no alternative sources of income.