A personal look at poaching

blog_logoScott Ramsey, in his blog www.zimtravel.blogspot.com, writes about his recent meeting with Charles Brightman who heads up the Victoria Falls anti-poaching unit.

Charles is a professional safari and wildlife guide, running his own business called Discover Safaris, a personalised and small-group wildlife enthusiast operation. The 45 year-old Zimbo has been a top licensed wildlife guide in the area for 23 years, and is a passionate wildlife lover and Zimbabwe parks fan. He started the anti-poaching unit in 1999 with the approval and assistance of the national park warden, after he noticed an alarming rise in poaching while taking clients around the park. Poaching, like anywhere in Africa, is an ongoing social and economic problem. During the last 10 years in Zimbabwe the situation has deteriorated dramatically. Charles believes that it is the worst hes ever seen in Vic Falls National Park, a direct result of a dramatic drop in tourism numbers because of the political situation.

Its an understandable, yet tragic, scenario. People have lost their jobs, they have no money to buy food…yet the community of 25 000 people live within the Vic Falls national park and the wild animals and people mingle freely through the unfenced park. If I was hungry, Id also probably set a snare to feed my children.

Indiscriminate snares

So snares are set…but the snares are indiscriminate, and end up maiming or killing any animal thats unlucky enough to get caught…including animals that arent intended for the pot, like lion, elephant and hyena. Charles emphasises that the biggest issue at the moment is actually not the subsistence poacher, but the bush meat traders, who organise large-scale poaching operations to supply meat at a profit to poorer communities. These guys will wipe out five or six buffalo at a time, and process most of the meat on site in the bush. Because theres money involved, the stakes are higher for the Vic Falls Anti-Poaching scouts….death threats and getting beaten up by poachers sometimes happen.

Why does Vic Falls NP need a private anti-poaching unit, when it has its own rangers dedicated to the park? Well, a lack of tourists means lack of funding, and a declining morale. (Besides, before the adoption of the US dollar as official currency, most rangers were earning a few dollars a month, and had little incentive to risk their lives when confronting well-armed, profit-motivated poachers. Things are now better, with entry-level rangers earning a liveable $150 or so a month). Perhaps most shocking, in some cases rangers have been tempted to cash in on poaching as well, and have been caught poaching in their own national parks.

Organised crime

Then theres the organised crime of rhino and elephant poaching which raises the stakes even further. The Chinese market is allegedly the source of funds for rhino horn which is supposed to act as an aphrodisiac…and hundreds of thousands of dollars can change hands for a single rhino horn. Charles points out that Zimbabwe National Park rangers are permitted, by law, to shoot armed rhino and elephant poachers on sight…without being fired upon first or asking questions. So the money changing hands must be enormous for poachers to enter into park areas under this fear of death.

The Vic Falls Anti-Poaching Unit is supported entirely by sponsorship and donations, most of which come from hotels like Vic Falls Safari Lodge and operators like Wild Horizons and Zambezi Horse Safaris. But right now, during this economic downturn in tourism, funds are the lowest theyve been for a long time. Charles and his 18 scouts need your help. They have had huge success in clearing snares, catching serious offenders, educating local communities as to the importance of natural wildlife in tourism, and helping the national park rangers. Its a true collaborative effort one that wouldnt be possible without the energies and efforts of Charles, his scouts, the park rangers and the local community.

How you can help

Charles needs at least US$3 000 a month just to keep the unit afloat, most of which goes to the scouts salaries…without investing in things like radios, cars, uniforms, training…and then theres the EXPENSIVE anaesthetic and antibiotics which are used to treat the horrendous wounds encountered. And perhaps most admirably, Charles contributes his own time and efforts without pay, and uses a lot of his own equipment and vehicles. Its a full-time job, and one that Charles balances with his professional guiding business.

If youre short of cash too, at least drop him a line and lend him some moral support…he and his 18 scouts are patrolling a 50 square kilometre area, seven days and nights a week. Charles had to rush off after our meeting to do a post-mortem of a poached elephant that had just been found. I imagine he has seen some pretty horrific scenes in his ten years running the unit, and one could understand if he had become somewhat desensitized to the emotional impact of continuously trying to save wounded wild animals. But as he said goodbye to me, I could sense that the prospect of seeing another dead ellie was weighing heavily on his dedicated shoulders.

So get in touch with Charles, make a donation, send an e-mail of support…do whatever you can, okay?

Charles can be reached on +263-11-209-144 or +263-13-45821 or email [email protected] or go to http://www.vfapu.org/.

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