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Johan Knols
Blogger, safari specialist, professional wildlife guide (Woerden, Netherlands)

Johan Knols is the owner of the planyoursafari blog. He studied tourism in the Netherlands and has been working in the African tourism industry for nearly 15 years. Starting as lodge manager in the Serengeti in Tanzania, he eventually owned his own mobile safari company in Botswana. Johan received his professional wildlife- guides licence in 1998 and was awarded the title of Honorary Wildlife Officer with the Botswana Wildlife and National Parks authority in 2005. During his time in Africa he has managed upmarket safari lodges and has done overland trips in the luxury and semi-luxury sector. At the moment he is a full-time blogger giving tips and advices on everything related to African safaris.


When Poaching Wildlife Is The Only Way

Published 28th April 2010 - 8 comments - 12907 views -

Legally making $1 per day or illegally $10 is an easy choice

They often live on the boundaries of Africa’s national parks, reserves and wildlife areas and they most of the time work for powerful, (inter)national crime syndicates. The poorest of the poor are targeted to commit offences that, when lucky, get them jailed and, when unlucky, get them killed.
They sometimes live for weeks on end in the bush and don’t wash as not to scare the wildlife they are after. They lead a terrible life: Africa’s poachers.

The situation

In recent months the amount of rhinos being killed for their horns has, especially in South Africa, reached a critical level. Another grey fellow, the elephant, is not in a much better position and although preservation efforts since the ‘70’s have yielded success, the biggest of land mammals might soon be into trouble again.

But worst off might be an animal that we all cherish deeply: the African lion. Where Africa still had 200 thousand lions during the ninety fifties, the continent is left with a mere 20 thousand. That is a decline of 90% in just fifty years!

Wildlife is still the number one reason why tourists visit the African continent. Yet, that same wildlife is under serious threat and if nothing gets done we might as well forget tourism in Africa as one of the main income earners. Money that is so desperately needed to lift Africa to a higher level on the world’s ladder of poor continents.

Reasons for poaching

Unfortunately there are many reasons why all these animals are under siege and poaching is rife. Corruption, poverty, hunger, witchcraft, loss of cattle and crops and an international demand for exotic products all have the incentive of ‘money’ embedded in them.

The desperate guy trying to scramble a meal together for his family and thereby snares or shoots an animal can be forgiven in my opinion. The same goes for the wacky witchcraft doctor nabbing an animal to grind its intestines for some dubious potion. More difficult does it get when we look at the Maasai culture where traditionally young men had to kill a lion to become a ‘man’, a practice that was stopped by the Kenyan government some time back.

But it becomes a completely different ball game if the reason for killing wildlife is of a business-like nature and big bucks get involved. The price for rhino horn in the far east has increased to such a level that it gets more and more tempting for poachers to try their luck. Tigers (which don’t appear in Africa) which are being used for medicinal uses are so rare now, that the few remaining ones are heavily guarded and the African lion is being targeted as an alternative.

Another reason for poaching wildlife is the killing of cattle by carnivores and the trampling of crops by elephants. The provision to compensate farmers for damages plays an important role here and if absent might result in wildlife being poisoned.

That the discussion doesn’t stop here is made clear by SADC (Southern African Development Community) that threatens to pull out of CITES, that during its last convention in Doha, refused to downgrade the African elephant , resulting in a ban on the sale of ivory stocks being stacked high in warehouses all over the continent. Again it is money that is of importance and not the wellbeing of the species, although we should ask ourselves who owns this wildlife and who should therefore have a say in it? And should these poor poachers be punished or is it the demand side that should get targeted?

The alternatives

If it wasn’t for the poor in Africa, poaching and the (illegal)wildlife trade would not flourish as it does now, at least it would be on a much smaller scale. That does not mean that a corrupt head of state would not try to get his hands bloody and his pockets filled, but it would be a hell of a lot more difficult to find a guy being willing to risk his life for poaching.

A new approach which has shown results is the employment of notorious poachers into conservation efforts. They are incorporated into anti-poaching units and now make money out of hunting down their old buddies.

Another successful initiative has been made by the Lion Guardians in Kenya. This program aims to employ Maasai warriors to protect lions instead of hunting them down.

The debate

That there is no easy solution to this worldwide problem is clear. A problem that only gets aggravated by differences in thinking between the rich and the poor, the North and the South. African governments saying it is their wildlife, despite all the pressure and comments from non-Africans, doesn’t make the discussion and problem solving easier.

One thing all agree on though. If we can reduce poverty, the fate of the poor African and the fate of a lot of animals and therefore the preservation of biodiversity will benefit tremendously. But that doesn’t make the situation for poachers any better. At least not yet.

What would you do if you were in the shoes of a poor African living next to a national park where rich tourist come to view wildlife being worth a lot of money?




Category: Tourism | Tags: poverty, sadc, furadan, lionguardians,


  • Andrea Arzaba on 28th April 2010:

    This is a very tough question (the last one you open in your article). There are types of poverty, but in a situation that you describe, I guess you just think of hat you and your children are going to eat today and the next day so If guess damaging biodivesity would not be as important as your beloved ones lives. Again…one hard question…

  • Johan Knols on 29th April 2010:

    Hi Andrea,

    It is indeed a tough question. That is why it is not always fair to judge poachers through western eyes. To be honest, I would poach.

  • Steve on 29th April 2010:

    Until the Governments in Africa start to look after their people and treat them with respect this will go on forever
    In South Africa the new ANC Government has wasted over a billion ZA Rand on new Mercedes and BMW vehicles for its new elite. This money could bring schools, education, electricity water and most of all self respect to its people
    some figures below

    Wasteful expenditure monitor: Total up to R1 003 016 305.44

    The Democratic Alliance has created this table to monitor the ANC government’s excessive expenditure. We have done this to show that, very often, the needs of the ANC elite are put before the needs of ordinary South Africans.

    We will update and supplement this table on an ongoing basis and provide a running total at the bottom.

    CURRENT TOTAL: Approximately: R1 003 016 305.44

    What the money could buy:

    •  An RDP House costs approximately: R54 000
    •  A teacher’s annual salary: R129 000

    Thus, R1 003 016 305.44 MILLION could buy:

    •  18 574 new RDP houses or
    •  Fund 7775 teachers for a year

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 29th April 2010:

    Johan, thanks for this. Tough, tough questions you present.

    And what do we see again in yet another hard situation? That money is everything. Everything.

    I think you are right to make a distinction between survival needs and profiteering. Targeting poachers is not exactly right as they are not the ones creating the demand for these precious animals. But honestly, I don’t believe in goodwill of corporations and big businesses, and they are so powerful that punishing them is super hard, as we can see clearly with the climate change issue.

    I guess the solutions are these ingenious initiatives you mention, and also tackling the main issue, poverty. This of course is a complex issue… But it makes me sick thinking about these hungry people killing a poor rhino when as Steve above says government officials drive around in brand new BMWs. And sometimes I really wish I believed in some god so that I could find peace knowing vicious people would go to hell one day.

  • Pieter Kat on 29th April 2010:

    If you are of European descent, it is likely that a distant ancestor of yours was a poacher. This might surprise you, but it is also important to realize that those of us alive today are only here because we are linked to a long line of people who did what they could to feed their families. For many hundreds of years in England for example, the remaining wildlife was the property of the aristocracy with big estates. Poor, and often starving people lived on the boundaries of such estates, and would occasionally sally forth to take a rabbit, a deer, or maybe a salmon from the river. Not ever a swan, as those all belonged to the King (now to the Queen - thanks to a statute dating from 1186 (reaffirmed by the Act of Swans of 1482 and the Wild Creatures and Forest Law Act of 1971).  The estates would employ gamekeepers to keep your ancestors out, and if they were caught, the local Sheriff would put them in the cells.
    People in Africa have always supplemented their diet with game. Now, in all countries, wildlife (except that on game ranches) belongs to the State, and people adding an impala to their pot are still called poachers.  The gamekeepers have now grown into Wildlife Departments, and the aristocratic estates are now National Parks. The poor have remained the same.

    Kenyans, with their usual sense of humour despite adverse conditions, have long called wildlife “Government cattle”. It is not unusual in Kenya to see cows sharing their grazing with zebras, gazelles, and wildebeest on ranches. The former are owned by individuals, and someone trying to feed a family better not select a cow – laws in place are strict and justice is swift. But a gazelle does not belong to your neighbours, instead to a fuzzy entity that sits somewhere far away in a big city that you have probably never been to and probably would not spend money to go to. So go for the gazelle, and if the government comes to inspect your pot you could say it was a goat.

    We are all meant to believe that poaching is a big problem in Africa. But there is poaching and then there is poaching. On the one hand, there is large-scale commercial poaching for an overseas market. Rhino horns and elephant tusks can be immediately identified as forming a basis for this trade. We have all been informed by now that the gamekeepers and government leaders have been complicit in such activities. Then, there is poaching for the commercial market. We have all been informed by now that the bush meat trade is destroying wildlife populations at a great rate, but that such trade is often assisted by logging companies that provide the rainforest roads and the trucks to bring meat to market.  Then there is poaching to sustain the stomachs of various rebel armies competing for territory. We have all been informed of the Lord’s Resistance Army previously in Uganda and now shifted a bit to the west – you think they rely on manna from heaven to keep their bellies full? And finally, there is poor John, only wanting a rabbit for his pot every now and then, as he and his family are only used to eating meat infrequently.

    So who are the really bad guys in terms of poaching?  It seems clear the biggest poaching problems need to be addressed first in terms of making an impact.  John is way down the line, and does not even own a gun.  Africa is a very big continent but in the still small rural communities, everyone knows what is going on.  Everyone in the local communities in Europe knew that your great, great, great Grandfather was a bit of a poacher, and your family survived because that man was able to outwit the gamekeeper.  Don’t focus on John, but do focus anti-poaching on the fat cats, the companies, the armies.  But John is easier to catch isn’t he?

  • Johan Knols on 29th April 2010:

    Hello Giedre,

    Wow, it seems like a comment straight from the heart and although I am not a believer myself, you can always start trying to believe in (any) god.
    Back to the topic.
    Being involved in TH!NK3 and reading a lot of stuff I never encountered before, I have to agree with you that it seems that EVERYTHING in the world is somehow connected to money -apart from a burping volcano maybe.
    At the same time we just have to live with this knowledge and should not get desperate. That is the task we all have on this platform, write and inform people with the hope of slow, very slow, changes. Let’s hope that those changes will come faster for the poachers in Africa!

  • Luan Galani on 30th April 2010:

    Johan, thanks for this. Tough indeed as everything is interconnected, every single influential factor can change the whole picture. Worrisome stats you presented. Also, I hope and expect for changes to come faster for the poachers in Africa.

  • Johan Knols on 02nd May 2010:


    The problem we are facing has to do with the fact that more and more Johns get access to heavy arms. When scarce commodities get higher and higher prices the temptation just gets too big, as you can read in this National Geographic’s article:

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