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The University of Cape Town (UCT) is urging communities to join together to fight the illegal wildlife trade.

The university said that wildlife can be protected by the communities living near to or in protected wildlife areas across South Africa.

“Millions of rands have been disbursed by international donor community to fight illegal wildlife trade, but have so far not succeeded in disrupting or ending illicit rhino poaching,” according to the university.

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New research by UCT’s Global Risk Governance Programme found that local communities can be used as “change agents” in tackling the illegal wildlife economy.

The study — entitled Ending Wildlife Trafficking: Local Communities as Change Agents — explores the challenges of the illegal wildlife trafficking, particularly focusing on the impact it's having on rhinos.

Wildlife activist and founder of Southern Africa Fight for Rhino, Alexia Abnett, told Global Citizen that wildlife trafficking “is a terrible scenario.”

Abnett said poachers and those involved in the trade should be prosecuted severely when caught.

“These people should be punished by law,” she said. “If these countries [where illegal wildlife is taking place] do not take action, and are quite willing to allow our African heritage to be decimated.”

“Poaching has increased, and increased to such levels that we have actually reached tipping point in the Kruger National Park,” she said.

Meanwhile, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), "the world is dealing with an unprecedented spike in the illegal wildlife trade, threatening to overturn decades of conservation gains.”

“Ivory estimated to weigh more than 23 metric tons — a figure that represents 2,500 elephants — was seized in the 13 largest seizures of illegal ivory in 2011," it says on its website

Instances of rhino poaching in South Africa, for example, increased from 13 in 2007 to 1,004 in 2013 — and poaching is also threatening the "last of our wild tigers," with around just 3,890 left.

UCT’s study also focused on the cross-border criminal networks engaged in the illegal wildlife trade — but its recommendations for community interventions to tackle the illegal wildlife economy can be applied to all forms of wildlife trafficking.

“These local communities are in the periphery of basic services delivery and only a small number of conservation initiatives partner with or enrol local people in their work,” said the university’s statement.

“Often the only benefits for these communities from wildlife economies are profits they can make from poaching,” it added.

Dr Annette Hübschle, lead author and senior researcher at UCT’s Global Risk Governance Programme, said that during their research the team found local community members felt their lives were outweighed by those of animals.

“They said they felt that government, conservation authorities, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) valued the lives of wild animals more highly than those of rural black people,” Hübschle said in a statement.

Rhinos, which are protected by the South African National Defence Force, get provided with supplementary food and water by wildlife vets and conservation authorities, according to the university. 

But at the same time, some of the communities living near to the rhinos don’t have a permanent police presence, basic healthcare facilities, schools, or shops.

“The rhino has its own doctor, its own policeman, its own helicopter, its own land, and there are rangers to protect it,” a local community member from the greater Kruger National Park told researchers. “We don’t have these things. If the rhino goes extinct tomorrow, maybe we can finally get basic services.”

The research uncovered that many local communities shield poachers and wildlife criminals from law enforcement agencies.

“It further describes the deep rifts and conflicts between actors in the conservation field – most notably between local communities, private, and public conservation management authorities,” said the university.

UCT said by giving local communities a voice in this report, the research hopes to contribute to a deeper understanding of people’s experiences, the illegal wildlife trade, and how important it is to protect wildlife.

“Since the latest escalation of rhino poaching, most conservation funding has been diverted to anti-poaching initiatives and the project administration costs of international NGOs and conservation authorities, while the international community is focusing on a militarisation of anti-poaching initiatives, with calls for more helicopter gunships, drone protection and boots on the ground,” according to the UCT.

The efforts have led to unintended consequences that have impeded community-orientated conservation initiatives and wider economic transformation.

The study highlights that investing solely in military-type approaches does not disrupt the supply chain or demand for illicit wildlife products.

What's more, the current security method used to control movement in parks is aimed at poachers and advancing security, but are reportedly hindering pathways for community empowerment.

Hübschle highlighted the need to “explore other forms of rural employment, resource sharing and income generation beyond hunting, anti-poaching, and tourism.”

She said that needs and services of conservation interventions should be provided through community empowerment projects, and that community members should be taught the skills needed to build, develop, and maintain their own projects.

“Furthermore, women should be involved in mediating positive conservation outcomes,” she said. “Women command considerable power and influence in the communities in question.”

“In light of the patriarchal structure of many rural African communities, this suggestion may appear counter-intuitive,” she continued. “However, there are countless examples that demonstrate that women can exert a strong influence on conservation outcomes.”

The Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 is presented and hosted by The Motsepe Foundation, with major partners House of Mandela, Johnson & Johnson, Cisco, Nedbank, Vodacom, Coca Cola Africa, Big Concerts, BMGF Goalkeepers, Eldridge Industries, and associate partners HP and Microsoft.


Defend the Planet

South African Communities Must Unite to Fight the Illegal Wildlife Trade, Warns University of Cape Town

By Thato Mahlangu