The human cost of poaching

“We will die. My family and I will die. We cannot live without elephants,” said Godfrey Mashaka, a local safari driver.

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ARUSHA – The safari capital has blown up with controversy since tourism and natural resource minister Khamis Kagasheki warned poachers they could be shot on sight, without trial. Media houses from the East to the West took understandably negative views toward such Draconian measures, and human rights advocates within Tanzania spoke out against the sentiment, citing guarantees of basic human rights, and instances when legitimate hunters have been gunned down by mistake.

Arusha is the safari capital of the world, but is also historically a capital for the progress of social justice and human rights in Africa as the site of the eponymous Accords, Treaty and Declaration – so it should not be surprising that it is now host to such an intense struggle between the right to life for endangered animals, and that of poachers.Environmental and wildlife advocates have maintained that poaching must be stopped at all costs, before elephants and rhinos are lost forever – and some find the law powerless to stop poachers mowing them down for their valuable ivory. Kagasheki made this point to the Arusha times, saying “court cases against poachers take very long and sometimes the culprits get acquitted.” Efforts like the global ‘Walk for Elephants’ and ‘March for Elephants’ have endeavoured to raise awareness, but the problem persists. Others have gone in quite different directions, such as seeking options for removing ivory from elephants without killing them.

There is a striking omission in the discourse.

Safari tourism accounts for the majority of Arusha’s economy, which is poor even among Tanzanian cities, and for hundreds of guides, drivers, porters, cooks and organizers it is the only source of their income. The economic benefits of safari tourism play the biggest role in putting food on plates for tens of thousands more.

It is held as a self-evident truth in the West that all men are entitled to a fair trial, and most in Arusha agree – but it’s another matter for those directly threatened by encroaching poachers and dwindling wildlife populations.

“I agree with what the minister of natural resources said. Poachers, they should shoot,” said Mashaka.

He echoed sentiments shared by many, who see poaching as an affront to more than just wildlife diversity in Tanzania – for those in the business, the illegal ivory hunters of Ngorongoro, the Serengeti and other parks and robbing them of their livelihood.

“Our country depends on tourism sectors. So if they’re going to kill all the elephants, it means we can’t get any tourists in our country,” Mashaka said.

Enough share Mashaka’s position that their own rights to life must also be counted, and considered in the debate. Enough that international spectators should refrain from holding court over those with regrettably violent attitudes, at least in lieu of any alternative.

“It’s a hopeless situation,” said Peter Degera, director for another safari company. “All life is sacred. But poachers can’t be prosecuted.”

In his experience, the Tanzania Elephant Management plan’s estimate of vanishing elephants by 2015 is optimistic.

“As they vanish, those who depend on them will see misery, and more misery.”

There is no excuse or justification for taking anyone’s life. But understanding why it happens may be the first step toward solution.

First published for Speak Magazine.

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