Photo courtesy Internation Rhino Foundation

Rich or poor, why rhino poaching is everyone’s problem

What does the killing of a rhino for its horn in the Kruger National Park have to do with me, sitting as I am in squalor in one of the myriad squatter camps that exist in Cape Town and throughout the country? The connection may seem tenuous, but in fact it is anything but.

The deterioration of law enforcement in one area is merely a microcosm of a greater ill. The illegal wildlife trade persists not only because of cartels, the gravy train and the powers that be. It festers, eating away at our peace and lives like gangrene, because people do not see how it affects them.

“They aren’t my animals, nor is it my land. Why should I report it?” This is a common excuse used to justify not reporting the people who are profiting by stealing our animals in front of our eyes. And that is exactly what it is: Every animal killed, shipped or maimed is one more stolen from us.

The law is a Jenga construct based on a collective belief that no one will start taking away bricks. Every small act against the law of the land is the wiggling of those bricks. It doesn’t matter if you are giving cooldrink money to an official to have your documents seen early, or getting a cop to lose your court docket, or… not reporting seeing someone being cruel to animals. Each act weakens the whole. As South Africans we lament crime, yet fail to see how our actions contribute to it.

People are quick to say that crime is a product of poverty. But Lara Rall, who helped set up WWF-SA’s latest Khetha reporting project on illegal wildlife trade, disagrees.

Countries where you have high overall levels of poverty do not necessarily have higher levels of crime, says Rall. She believes that corruption, high levels of income inequality, a breakdown of social norms, and a lack of jobs and economic opportunities, all play a major role.

That, combined with people feeling unheard is a recipe for… well South Africa.

People are stories being written in real time. And every story begs to be read. It is such a shame we spend most of our time telling our tales instead of listening to each other, I write while gesturing in the general direction of the Middle East.

The world would be a better place if we did. This is why it is so difficult for people sitting in Cape Town to be empathetic to the trials and tribulations of people and animals up in the Kruger area. They are too busy writing their own stories.

An issue as complex and intermeshed as poaching and the illegal wildlife trade cannot be resolved through law enforcement alone. Education, awareness and empathy are needed. People need to share their stories and experiences so that the whole country and the world can understand their plight and their choices.

Khetha means choose in the Nguni languages, so it is fitting that a writing project centred on the illegal wildlife trade should bear its name. Poverty and difficult circumstances may strip us of our choices, but it’s on us to wrestle back those choices and return other people’s choices too.

The Khetha 2024 story project brings together journalists, conservationists, scientists and people living near Kruger in discussions around these thorny subjects. This is done through a series of webinars to spread the word on conservation efforts in the greater Kruger area. And reports on the webinars, such as this one by Maxcine Kater, have been published in national and international media.

The project is overseen by Jive Media Africa and Roving Reporters. I have had the opportunity to take part in their online writing course leading to my first by-line in a South African publication. But that is neither here nor there.

The first and most important lesson I learnt in this programme is the illegal wildlife trade is not a Kruger problem, but a South African problem. And like the recipe for most of South Africa’s problems it includes a dash of corruption, a spoonful of latent racism, three handfuls of inequality and exploitation. More importantly, like all of South Africa’s problems, it is one we can only address together – with ubuntu both to man, flora and fauna.

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Supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Khetha 2024 Story Project is managed by Jive Media Africa and Roving Reporters.

Nyameko Ishmael Bottoman is a South African author and teacher. After graduating from the University of the Western Cape, he moved to South Korea and subsequently other parts of Asia. This was where he reignited his love for the written word. He helped develop the first South African online magazine in the role of editor.  He has published two books, a children's book and book on South African Folklore

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