What motivates SA citizens to poach rhino?

Cape Town - Forced removals, poverty and Robin Hood-style "justice" are some of the reasons why South Africans from poor communities willingly work with international rhino poaching syndicates, a researcher at UCT has said.

Dr Annette Hübschle of UCT's Centre of Criminology made a presentation to Parliament's portfolio committee on environmental affairs earlier this month as part of a colloquium on rhino poaching in the country.

She told News24 this week that factors motivating individuals to work with syndicates aren't as simple as mere greed or coercion.

The first type of South African-born poacher has a history with forced removals, Hübschle said.

"A lot of the people living close to parks lost their land to conversion [under Apartheid]," she said.

"They basically had to move off the land where the Kruger National Park now is to make space for the animals.

"So there is a conflictual relationship in terms of the history of the country."

The second type of South African-born poacher is linked to organised crime and poaching networks.

"These are each motivated by different drivers. Some are opportunistic, some are unemployed, some are just poor etc.

"Not everyone is born a criminal so we need to understand the reasons that people engage in these types of behaviour.

'Legal' loopholes

Some of these individuals have been recruited to take part in "legal" trading, essentially taking advantage of a loophole in the law through grey trading areas.

A natural citizen is allowed to hunt one rhino per year according to the law, she said, but they have to comply with certain stipulations.

"You have to show that you're a specialised hunter, a member of a hunting fraternity, you have to have a registered hunting rifle and so on."

Hunting fraternities also have to contribute financially to conservation groups to maintain a balance in the ecosystem.

"The most famous one is of pseudo-hunters. Basically, it is usually a sex worker recruited to stand in as a professional hunter."

In such cases syndicates use the IDs of sex workers to apply for a permit to legally hunt rhino.

Instead of then claiming the rhino head as a "trophy", as specified by law, the head and horn are laundered through the illegal market.

'Self-styled Robin Hoods'

Lastly, "self-styled Robin Hoods" use rhino poaching for their own upward social and economic mobility.

Hübschle said this type of social banditry captures an important aspect of poaching kingpins' identities as seen by village communities.

Hard cash flows into villages, creating the perception that villagers benefit in equal measure from rhino poaching.

Some kingpins even throw parties for communities to "celebrate" a successful poaching expedition, winning them over socially.

"We are using rhino horn to free ourselves," a poaching kingpin arrested in Massingir, Mozambique had said.

What is the solution?

Mammal ecologist for SANParks Dr Sam Ferreira told News24 that finding ways for these communities to flourish economically, through small business for instance, could make them less likely to be coerced into or voluntarily work with illegal poaching networks.

Those driving organised crime were deliberately targeting people around the parks and the communities were bearing the brunt of the status quo.

"Our compulsory and biological interventions are holding the fort inside our national parks. But we need to clean the parks from the outside too," he said.

Hübschle agreed with Ferreira, saying the basic recommendation to Parliament and other lawmakers would be to incentivise these communities financially to protect rhino rather than poach.

"It's really about getting communities' voices heard and then make them appreciate that a live rhino is worth more than a dead one."

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