Hoedspruit, South Africa: Vince Barkas, a grizzled high-school dropout with a sharp tongue and piercing blue eyes, is at war in the grasslands and savannas here in northeast South Africa.
The war is fought at multiple levels with elements that define this complex nation: iconic wildlife being poached, loss of habitat, race, poverty, overpopulation. In essence, it’s humans versus nature. And hope, where it exists, lies in basic education and jobs in tourism.
“Working with communities and the actual poachers,” Barkas tells me amid a cluster of offices and meetings rooms, “have saved more wildlife than any guard with a gun in the bush.”
For now, reality runs ahead of hope. Since 1992, Barkas has put guards with guns in the bush. He runs ProTrack Anti-Poaching Unit, which patrols the sprawling private game reserves that border the western edge of Kruger National Park, one the largest and best-known parks for large animals in the world. ProTrack has 300 employees, 140 of whom wear camouflage uniforms with bulletproof vests. They carry automatic weapons.
Rhinos are the poachers’ target of choice. Their keratin horns sell for more than $4,000 per ounce, making the value of gold seem paltry by comparison, at $1,200 per ounce. The ivory tusks of African elephants are still in demand, and the bones from lions, hyenas and vultures have a black market value all their own.
“The poachers are winning; they never take a day off,” said Glenn Thompson, ProTrack’s commanding officer of enforcement in Hoedspruit. Wearing military garb and a beret, he checked his smartphone to see that more than a dozen suspected poachers entered Kruger the morning I spoke to him.
‘There’s a dilemma’
Death comes daily to each species – despite ProTrack’s efforts, and the efforts of Kruger’s own ample land-and-air anti-poaching patrols. More than 7,500 square miles of habitat (just smaller than Wales) and a porous border with Mozambique tilt the odds toward the poachers.
The product of all this carnage heads mostly to Asia, especially China and Vietnam, where powdered rhino horn is believed to cure disease or promote sexual desire. Ivory still gets carved into beautiful ornaments, with too much still entering the US, even though it’s banned. Lion and vulture bones are believed to possess mystical qualities for ancient rituals.
“Our job is to keep these fuckers out,” Barkas said of the poachers and the syndicates that organize these crimes against nature. “But there’s a dilemma. The majority, not all, of our poachers are black guys from Mozambique and around here. They have nothing to feed their families. They are offered more than they can ever earn to kill a rhino. Yet every time we shoot and kill a poacher, we turn another community against conservation.”
Barkas knows these communities. He visits them. He realises that shooting a starving, or HIV-infected poacher with nothing to lose changes little. Countless others stand ready to take the cash and rifle and make the kill.
“If you go to Massingir, Mozambique, which is the hub of poaching,” Barkas said of this town that borders Kruger, “they tell you straight, ‘You whites fuck off. You love animals more than people.’ ”
Like so much in South Africa, the incendiary charge contains a kernel of truth.
Nearly 80% of the country’s 56 million people are black. Less than 10% are white. While blacks have controlled the national government since Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994 after the fall of apartheid, white South Africans still hold most of the land, good jobs and wealth. Nationwide unemployment is nearly 30 percent, disproportionately affecting blacks. Some 61% of homes have no electricity, and countless villages lack indoor plumbing.
Conversely, whites own the private game reserves that Barkas patrols. And wealthy whites from America and Europe are the primary tourists in South Africa’s 20-some national parks. They pay handsomely to shoot photos or trophy hunt and sleep in luxury lodges.
Big animals in places like Kruger are big business. But if you’re starving, have no electricity or running water, no understanding or appreciation of wildlife, and no idea how to get the limited tourism-related employment, they may appear to be a one-time opportunity.
“Our problem currently lies in that an animal’s value dead is worth more than alive,” Constant Hoogstaad, a program manager with the Endangered Wildlife Trust in Johannesburg, told me. “There might be 20 people benefitting from a reserve bordering Kruger, or in a camp in Kruger itself. But you have 100,000 who don’t benefit, that’s a difficult model.”
Overpopulation and education
Some 2 million people live in impoverished villages on the western edge of Kruger, and millions more are expected in the years to come. The population in sub-Saharan Africa is growing 2.5% annually, double the growth rate in Asia and South America.
“In Africa, the big problem is the exponential growth of humans,” said Jason Fleischer, who runs an upscale lodge on a private reserve bordering Kruger. “I just got back from Malawi. There is no space left for commercial development. People are dirt poor. Hungry. Elephants and lions are being slaughtered. Conservation is the furthest thing from their minds.”
Whether that’s accurate or not, people need land for livestock and crops, crucial habitat also needed for animals that require vast tracts to hunt and forage – lions, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos, hippos, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, antelope of all sorts, and a vast array of birds – and which is lost year by year.
NGOs, US-funded nonprofits, and local organizations are working to change those difficult dynamics, and Vince Barkas is among them. He helped start a group called Green Kids that aims to instill an appreciation in children for the wild animals being poached.
Their message? In the booming tourism trade, rhinos and elephants are worth more alive than dead.
Visiting one village in Mozambique, Barkas learned that elders wanted soccer for their boys. ProTrack raised funds and sponsors eight teams. “They stopped poaching rhino,” he claimed.
On a field trip, Barkas took South African teenagers living next to Kruger out to touch a rhino. When not threatened, these enormous animals with poor eyesight tend to be docile.
“One kid put his hands on the rhino and said, “Yo Vince, these things breathe!’ He was 14. He could read and write. And it was the first time he had ever seen a rhino. Now that’s an embarrassment for all of us who call ourselves conservationists in South Africa.”
Nature’s balance disrupted
Brett Horley, 32, a private safari guide, lives with his wife and daughter in the bush outside Hoedspruit. There’s little he doesn’t know about the vast ecosystems that make up Kruger and the private reserves that expand the park’s boundaries.
That knowledge, he believes, is the key to tilting the odds against poaching.
Bumping along a dirt road in an olive green Land Rover, the windshield down, we spot two white rhinos grazing in the shade of a bush willow. Red-and-yellow billed oxpeckers sweep in to feast on blood-engorged insects.
“This is one of the few parks in Africa where you see rhinos roaming around freely like this,” Horley said as he cut the engine. “They are being killed off everywhere else. Such a waste. Will the next generation see these creatures in the wild?”
Rhino poaching didn’t start until 2007 in South Africa when 13 were killed. A former park ranger in Kruger named Jack Greeff sounded the alarm. He warned private land owners across the country to get ready for an onslaught; Kenya was already being hit hard. Few listened. By 2013, rhino poaching in South Africa topped 1,000. It’s now estimated above 1,200 annually. That’s more than three per day.
Conservationists estimate that 20,000 white rhino remain on the continent, mostly in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Just 5,000 black rhino remain, and the numbers of both shrink daily.
A cynic might ask: who cares? There are rhinos in zoos around the world. Some are kept in private reserves where their horns, which slowly grow back, are harvested and sold legally. Total extinction seems unlikely, at least in small, protected settings.
Horley takes such apathy as an opportunity to explain ecosystem services.
“The rhino is a flagship species of Africa; it’s been around for millions of years. It is a representation of wild places, of nature. Ecologically, they are a bulk grazer and serve an important purpose in removing that bulk [tall grass] so other herbivores like wildebeest and zebra can get at the greener grass that’s lower. Mostly, I think they are awesome.”
Just around a large pond where we see the eyes, snouts and nostrils of three hippos, we encounter a towering African elephant and stop within 50 feet. It plods through the mud as it grabs trunkfuls of branches and leaves. The bull waves its ears like a fan, cooling its muddy flanks.
“Look at that gorgeous specimen,” Horley tells me. “He isn’t threatened by us. I feel very comfortable here. I love elephants. Look at him! That’s a wild animal! We are just privileged. It’s not so often you get this opportunity to get so close.”
According to the Great Elephant Census of 2016, more than 352,000 African savanna elephants roam 18 countries. Sounds like a lot, but it’s 30 percent less than 2010. Drought killed thousands last year in sub-Saharan Africa, and poaching claims 35,000 elephants a year, mainly for their ivory tusks.
And where man and nature collide, elephants are killed for bush meat and by angry farmers whose crops get trampled when the animals break through fenced areas and onto village land.
Hope on the boundary of the bush
Horley spends much of his time on safari with wealthy white tourists. It’s his living. But his heart is connected to poor blacks who live outside the fenced-in game reserves and national park. The answer to improved conservation, he believes, lies inside the fences where tourism flourishes.
Up ahead, two bull elephants cross the road in front of us. “This is a win,” Horley insisted. “These elephants are living 40-50 years. People are paying to see them. The question is: are the people on the outside getting enough benefit? Or is this still the white man’s luxury?”
He pauses before adding: “It’s hard to love the park and love the animals when you see no benefits. That has to change. There are jobs here. In the lodges. In the gardens. In the kitchens. In maintenance. In the laundry. You can employ a lot of people per guest.”
Horley then drives us to the grounds of a non-profit called Nourish. It lies on the outskirts of the poor, 6,000-person village of Sigagule. Hope thrives on Nourish’s four acres.
There, 20 black pre-school children are readied each afternoon for kindergarten. They are fed two meals. They are taught English. They recycle. They play soccer. They learn about and visit the nearby wildlife.
Nourish, founded by local Sarah Dawn Bergs, has also trained teachers in 11 area schools who preach nature’s value and conservation to 1,400 older students per week.
“Our goal is to create resilient communities,” said volunteer Shana Van Dyck of Belgium, “so the children grow up with the knowledge to say no to poaching.”
Martin Mathabele, 24, lives in the nearby village and works at Nourish. Feeding those 20 kids, who have so little at home, he says, is crucial: “You can’t learn if your stomach is crying.”
Mathabele has very little himself. But he insisted he would never succumb to a rich offer to poach a rhino or elephant: “It’s a lot of money, but I couldn’t do it. People come from around the world to see our animals. That makes me very proud.”
Prince Nkuna, 28, is an environmental monitor and mentor for Nourish. Conservation and love of wild things has seeped into his bones. He is appalled by poaching. He told me that he believes impoverished poachers “are lazy. If you have no money to buy meat, go get a job.”
To him – like Vince Barkas at ProTrack and Brett Horley with his safari business – the solution to the ongoing loss of South Africa’s endangered animals lies in education that will help stem poverty and perhaps even overpopulation. Education that will lead people like Nkuna to jobs on the other side of the fence.
“I am studying to be a tour guide in the park,” he told me, his eyes bright with hope. “But what do I do with my certificate if there are no animals?”
Justin Catanoso is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina in the United States.
This article was originally published on Mongabay.